National Sociology and Boundaries: at the 17th annual conference of the Brazilian Sociological Association

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 Francisco Calafate-Faria

National identity

I had never thought of a conference of a national sociological association as an opportunity to reinforce national identity. Until I went to the annual Brazilian Sociological Association’s (SBS) conference in Porto Alegre. I presented a paper in the working group on Cities, based on my ethnographic research in Curitiba, the capital city of another Southern Brazilian State. This year’s theme – “sociology in transnational dialogues” – appealed to me, since my research included fieldwork in London and a dimension of international comparison. Moreover, as a foreign ethnographer who writes in English, the opportunity to discuss my work in Portuguese (the language in which I did my fieldwork) appeared as a vantage point from which to engage in transnational dialogues with Brazilian researchers. Throughout the conference I realized how much transnational dialogues can bring to the fore the constructed character of national identity and cohesiveness. Maybe the spirit of functionalism descended on me in Brazil, for I started seeing these conferences as means to reaffirm boundaries, be they national, regional, and disciplinary.

It all started in the opening session. The evening session included speeches from the organisers, tributes for career achievements and a concert of national musical genre chorinho. When the conference was declared open, the presenter turned to the audience and asked: “Now please stand up for the Brazilian national anthem!” Unsurprisingly, some delegates remained seated, and others stood up but in silence, as this was a conference of sociologists, in a time of strong political cleavages, and in a State whose proximity to Argentinian and Uruguayan culture competes with its national allegiance. But the majority of the delegates stood up and many articulated the words: especially that part that goes, “…but if you raised the spikes of justice/you’ll see that your children will join the fight/ those who love you don’t fear death/ Loved land/it’s you, Brazil…”  In various conversations with colleagues throughout the conference I realized that the national anthem doesn’t happen at every conference. However, it is sung at certain academic events such as tributes and graduation ceremonies. I guess that, a country as large as a continent, with such diverse geography, climate and population, can only remain whole if it takes all opportunities to congregate around national symbols.

Disciplinary borders

The immense dimensions of the country became evident during the presentations in the paper stream on Cities, which I attended throughout the 3 days. Themes of these papers included: the temporary neighbourhoods of the constructor workers who built the planned capital city of Brasilia; urban change and resistance in cities as diverse as Manus (capital of the state of Amazon), Fortaleza, and Belém (more than 6-hour flight away from where we were); a whole session on Rio (2-hour flight away) with several papers on the impact of the coming Olympics and the recent world cup; and the history of informal settlements in a city I know well, Curitiba. Curiously, there wasn’t a single paper on Porto Alegre, but we counted on a local attendant who intervened repeatedly throughout the three days to bring local examples into discussion with the presenters. As he pointed out of the closed windows, his interventions showed the relevance of the local in sociological debates, especially on urban issues, and I was reminded of the importance of having some sort of local engagement like walking tours written into conference programmes. In that room, the working group’s convenors kept making remarkable efforts to connect all papers to common disciplinary and national debates.

The 37 paper streams were organised into thematic groupings, such as: science technology and innovation, the agrarian question in Brazil, inequality and stratification, gender and feminism, solidarity economy, culture, sociology teaching, 2 panels on work, 3 panels on social movements, etc. The panels (or ‘working groups’) extended through the 3 days of the conference and the presenters were supposed to attend all of each panel’s sessions – this is common practice in big conferences in Brazil. I tried to balance out between going to other panels and following my own, which created awkward situations when I intervened in sessions where everybody else was referring back to previous days. This model limits mobility and choice; on the other hand, it creates a more solid relationship between the participants of each group, allowing continuity in the discussions. It also reinforces sub-disciplinary boundaries.

The morning roundtables and plenaries presented opportunities to participate in discussions outside the working group. During the conference there were a few open sessions about the June 2013 protests in Brazil. Various angles were taken to reflect on the events that started as a protest against a bus fare increase and spread out to most Brazilian cities mobilizing millions of people with a vast array of demands. I participated in a roundtable that took a wider historical and aesthetic perspective on the protests. The first speaker talked about his research on a famous Brazilian pop group (Los Hermanos) to reflect on how aesthetic changes may explain political movements. The second speaker focused on the aftermath of the protests, namely on the movement for urban rights in Recife that started in 2014, and in the importance of youtube videos in accounting and spreading the movement. In a city known for its cultural life, the resistance to this high-rise residential development in a port area of the city was an opportunity to bring together the city’s cultural and political critical mass. Amongst land occupation, creative and artistic synergies, forms of free sociability in the space, active academic engagement, the movement opened various connections between spatialized and global politics. The production of protest films, the use of social media, and the cultural products emerging from the struggle for “urban rights’ in Recife were, according to Eduarda Rocha, both a vehicle to channel the dissatisfaction generated in June 2013 and a laboratory for what she calls a “new politics”.

Beyond the conference

Before the conference I had been in contact with Maria Eduarda Rocha, a professor, in the context of setting up an international network on processes of contested urban change. The conference was a great opportunity to develop previous contacts like this one and to establish new ones. I also to took the opportunity offered by this trip to Brazil, so generously supported by the Sociological Review, to develop other research contacts as well as to revisit participants and the field of my PhD research in Curitiba. After the conference I met with researchers, participated in a symposium and gave a talk in Universities of Curitiba, Rio and João Pessoa. Without the support of the Sociological Review I wouldn’t have had opportunity to present my work in Portuguese, to discuss my research with local academics and with people from other areas of expertise, and to develop fruitful connections that led to ongoing work collaborations and will certainly lead to other developments in the future. This was also a great opportunity to get an international comparative view on the discipline, enhancing my understanding of the strength of sociology’s tool to understand the world but also the difficulty and urgent need to engage in the effort of trans-national and trans-disciplinary dialogues. Therefore, I am deeply grateful to the Sociological Review and encourage colleagues to take future opportunities like this one.

Originally posted 3rd November 2015.

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