Mark Twain was wrong: land is still being made

In 2014 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the first time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

By Tim Braunholtz-Speight

Mark Twain was wrong: land is still being made. As Kristina Svels of Abo Akademi University told us, in western Finland 1km2 a year is emerging from the sea – and becoming the subject of complex local cultural and resource politics. Her presentation was made in a Working Group on “Contested Models of Land and Property Use and Social Relations” – one of 26 working groups running around 100 sessions at this year’s European Society for Rural Sociology Biennial Congress in Aberdeen.

The groups ranged widely, and give some clue as to what specifically rural sociology is. So there were several that discussed sociological aspects of agriculture and food, migration and demography, tourism and “territorial” models of economic development – and various forms of community action and social capital approaches. These cover a good range of economic and social processes characteristic of rural areas – although, especially in Scotland, the absence of forestry and fishing was notable. Then there were those addressing more general social scientific concerns, such as neoliberalism, poverty and welfare, gender, social movements, and the social dimensions of climate change. And there were some more recent areas of interest – from fracking, or the animals in rural societies, to the impact of EU membership on Central and Eastern European rural areas. Healthily too, I thought, amid the definitions of “the rural” and questions of “what future for rural areas?”, several presentations and discussions recognised the connections and similarities, as well as the differences, between rural and urban areas.    

How did these relate to the official theme of ESRS 2015: “Places of possibility? Rural areas in a neoliberal world”? Now, conventional wisdom (as expressed in the “conference bingo” card) suggests that such themes are often only patchily reflected in what is actually discussed. And many paths through the conference were possible – indeed, inevitable, given that many sessions have to be timetabled to run concurrently. So all I can report is that I found the theme evident in several of the sessions I attended. Perhaps this is because it was quite well aligned with my own work: in my PhD I studied Scottish community land ownership, and the phrase “places of possibility” is borrowed from Fiona MacKenzie’s book on this subject. At any rate, I found that the theme enhanced my experience of the conference.

So discussing these issues is something that over 400 academics from across Europe, from Scandinavia to Turkey and Ireland to Russia – and, er, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, North America and more – came to the congress to do. And they could catch up with what work other people are doing, and even what they plan to do – as in one of the opening plenary sessions, where one leading rural sociologist was kind enough to detail for everyone the theoretical approach she was using in a major research proposal. Ending by saying she hoped to be able to report findings at a future congress, a questioner from the floor responded: “don’t be too optimistic – many of us here are going for the same funding!”. Such are the tensions between collegiality and competition for survival “in a neoliberal world”.

Conferences are more than this, though. They are also social events – a chance to catch up with old friends and their news/gossip; and cultural events – a celebration, reassurance even, of the importance and relevance of what delegates do. Sometimes sociological research can be a lonely or thankless task – but at a conference you will be surrounded by others doing similar work, who will politely clap your presentation. And while there was a good mix of delegates of all ages and stages of their careers, the organisers had made an effort to encourage us “early career researchers” to meet up, including a very good value social. The affirmation gained from sharing experiences of finishing off theses, and chasing job opportunities, was one of the highlights of the event for me. As was the glass of Lagavulin at the end of the evening…    

Some 240 delegates also went on field trips into rural Aberdeenshire, escaping the undeniably urban setting of Aberdeen city to remind themselves what their work was all about. Having studied community development, I went to Huntly & District Development Trust and had a great time. We had interesting chats with Trust members, and also helped to dig over a community allotment – nice to do something practical outdoors in a week spent mostly talking indoors. However, I suspect some chose field trip options less for their academic suitability, and more because a trip to the beach (“coastal conservation issues” indeed) or a distillery (“local food and agri-industry” doubtless) was on the agenda. Whatever next.

What have I gained from the congress? I found lots of parallels between issues of land, power and micro-level democracy that I studied in Scotland, and work elsewhere – in Scandinavia, and in other parts of Scotland. I gathered lots more food for thought about community, resources and power too. I renewed acquaintance with a delegate who lives in the area where I did my PhD fieldwork, and learnt more of what is happening there; and I was happy to hear that he didn’t think that my presentation misrepresented or misunderstood everything. I got some interesting ideas, studies and reading suggestions for my forthcoming post studying alternative and democratic finance for community resilience. And, last but not least: I’m not alone!    

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