How to survive an ISA World Congress

I’m back from the International Sociology Association (ISA) conference, this year held in Goteborg, Sweden. The ISA has its big scientific gathering, called the “World Congress”, every 4 years. This is my second one, and man! I’m still recovering from it – this ISA had sessions from 8h45 to 22h00…every single day! They even had 20-22h sessions during the Congress Party! Seriously! Personally, I completely disagree with this model, as a matter of fact, I think it is extremely disrespectful for participants – speakers, chairs, and audience. The obsession for inclusion, cuts down quality, meaningful engagement, and overall satisfaction. Specially when sessions are overcrowded with 10 minute presentations, with no quality time for discussion – that is, after all, one of the main goals of these events. It also cuts down time for networking – another major goal.

The annual meetings/interim conferences of each research group seem to work better, both scientifically and socially. Nevertheless, not all is bad in the “World Congress” realm: it is very useful to grasp international trends in research; the plenary sessions have renowned sociologists (this year, Manuel Castells, Saskia Sassen, among others); and it is a great opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world. This congress had 5007 participants from 103 countries – and I don’t say sociologists, as it is a multidisciplinary event that attracts people from a plethora of fields.

I’m writing this post, because I heard a lot of new attendees saying how they were a little bit disappointed with the conference. I understand them; I felt exactly the same back in 2006 in South Africa. Why did I go again? No, I’m not masochistic. Simply putting it, I still believe these conferences have some value, and I work hard to get positive outcomes from them. But we learn from mistakes, so I developed my golden rules for the World Congress. I’m sure this can be applied to any big conference, and I hope this is useful for students and/or first time attendees.

As in any big conference there are lots of parallel sessions, full of interesting themes. But we are not omnipresent, so how to choose? The first thing I do is to get the program booklet and go through it, selecting the ones I’m really interested in and those I would like to attend, if there’s time. I use colored post-its to differentiate them, dividing by day and hour. Sessions normally last two hours, but it really depends on the conference. Some people stick with one research committee/working group for the whole conference – and that is a good option to not get lost – but I gain more from attending sessions by different groups.

I. Concerning the selection, my rules are:

1. Don’t select a session if there is only one paper/presentation you are interested in – This for three reasons: first, the speaker might not even show up; second, it might be actually disappointing; and third, even if he/she shows up, then you’re stuck in that session for the rest of the time. Yes, you might discover other interesting things, and you might even have a serendipitous moment, but trust me, normally you just sit there waiting to be over with it. Of course that if you are really interested in that paper/presentation and you think it is worth it, go for it! Otherwise, you can always send an email to the author asking for that paper/presentation.

2. Always select an alternative session – Because of last minute arrangements a session might be changed (hour or location), so it’s good to have a second option. This is also useful if the session is too boring or not really what you expected – you can sneak out and go to another session ;p

3. If possible, read the paper before the conference – I say if possible, because a lot of participants don’t send them on time, or just don’t send them at all – papers are not mandatory for the ISA World Congress. This will give you a handful of advantages: firstly, you know beforehand if a presentation interests you or not; secondly, you have time to go deep into the paper and define better your questions/feedback; lastly, it gives you time to look up something – a reference, a technique, etc. – you were not familiar with.

4. If in doubt, search for the authors online – No, it’s not voyeurism. It is actually very useful, if you can find them. You can check their previous and current work and see if it really interests you. You might end up finding a lot of great information and get a more complete overview of the author’s work.

II. During the sessions,

5. Ask/Participate – Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions or give feedback. The authors are there for it, and that’s part of the scientific spirit. Everybody gains a lot with discussion, and remember there are no bad questions.

III. Outside the sessions,

6. Network, network, network – Take advantage of the time at the conference to network: interact with as many people as possible. Don’t skip the coffee-breaks, lunches, or dinners. Also make sure to reserve some time for specific interaction, if there is anyone at the conference you really want to meet and/or talk to. In this case, it is better (and I think more appropriate) to send she/he an email previously asking for an informal talk. This way, you know that that person is ‘really’ attending the conference (a lot of people register but then can’t attend) and that you “booked’ a specific time slot to that talk. The majority of participants make a lot of informal arrangements before these conferences – lunches, dinners, and so on – so sometimes it’s hard to find the people you are looking for, or they aren’t available at all. Oh, and don’t forget your business cards (I always do and it is always embarrassing when people ask for it).

7. Keep your eyes open – There is more out there – ISA also has other interesting events, as the “Meet Authors”, “Author Meets Critics” and “National Associations” sessions. They also have a book exhibition, with book launches and other social events.

8. Have fun – Most of all, have fun – that is also part of science. Relax and enjoy! Work and fun are not incompatible. As David Lodge humorously puts it:

“(…) folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences. The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that allows the participants to indulge themselves in all pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences; eat, drink, and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.”
(Lodge, David; “Small World”, Penguin Books, 1984, Prologue).

Göteborg, Sweden, 2010