So another PSA conference has been and gone. This was my second PSA conference, my second conference presenting, and my second appearance in the graveyeard shift. All in all, it was a good experience. I got some free copies of journals (free stuff is always good), got to see Cardiff, got an amazing (although mis-spelled) Nye Bevan mug.
Considering I am close to finishing my PhD, I wasn’t going to go to the conference this year so I could concentrate on my write-up, but after getting in touch with the convenor for PSA’s latest (and greatest, obviously) specialist group – The Politics of Work and Welfare ( if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, you should definitely join!) – I decided I wanted to give a paper. So I did.
This is a quick post, designed to act as a debrief to the conference as a whole. Generally speaking, I don’t think I heard one bad or uninteresting paper – usually you’d expect one or two (uninteresting at least), but every paper I listened to gave something to me – you can’t ask for much more than that. My time at conference was divided up in to three broad categories – empirical, theoretical/historical and teaching/professional.
There were a number of papers that I’d consider broadly empirical (or on their way). One such example was the Cohesion and Inclusion panel (session 2). All the papers were fascinating, although I admit to not understanding 95% of the equations in one of the papers! The paper that particularly stuck with me concerned ‘European Integration, Labour and Social rights’ in the EU. A very interesting discussion ensued around the problems of differentiated rights and entitlements across EU member states, and their potential and real effects on social mobility, spatial politics and indeed personal wellbeing. What struck me was that the EU seemed to be operating as a macrocosm of many member states’ positions on migration and assistance – a begrudging acceptance of new migrants did not translate in to easy access to support (just look at the appalling position of the UK regarding Romanian and Bulgarian migrants). I wonder if the problems the EU has regarding universalising support for all member state citizens is, alongside evident problems of sovereignty, the entrenched positions of individual states on migration and support. Harald Bauder’s piece on Capital(s) and Migrant Labour encapsulates my position on this pretty well (for those that have heard me prattle on, you know how much I love this piece!)
This was one of my favourite ‘categories’ for two reasons: firstly, because at least one of the papers dealt with a theorist I use in my own work (Gramsci) and secondly, because whilst I have been finishing my PhD I have not been able to devote hardly any time to a particular academic (and depending on my mood, practical) interest of mine – the Labour Party/Social Democracy/Socialism. So when I get a chance to discuss these things, I usually jump on it.
The first panel in this category concerned ‘Uses of the Past in Labour Party Politics’ (session 4). Interestingly, Maurice Glasman was supposed to be the discussant for this panel, but he declined to show up. Not sure why. I really enjoyed the papers (again) in this session – all of which showed great continuity with one another, really propelling the panel. Two papers I particularly enjoyed were one dealing with history, nostalgia and the rewriting of Clause IV, and one dealing with History, Memory and the Social Democratic Project. The former is a perpetually interesting discussion for me (I’m one of these incredibly old-fashioned lefties who thinks Clause IV shouldn’t have been rewritten), and engendered thought around the symbolism of the clause as compared with its practical deployment. As suspected the area of contention was around New/old Labour and the perceived break, although the continuity throughout Labour’s history was emphasised. The latter paper dealt with some of the key social democratic issues running through Labour’s imaginary.
Both were fascinating and both served to remind me (an ex-LP member who admittedly romanticises the party’s past) of Labour’s continually contested history – though at the same time served to remind me of the power of history (nostalgia) and the power one can wield if one can control the dissemination of that history. I was constantly reminded of Tony Benn’s point of the Labour Party being a lot like the church (‘[The Labour Party]’s never been a socialist party, but it’s always had socialists in it, just as there are some Christians in the Church, it’s an exact parallel’). Alongside this, perhaps more conspiratorially, I also had a famous line from 1984 in my head:
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
Next was a panel on ‘Re-Thinking Social Democracy’ (session 10). Two fascinating papers – one on Gramsci’s thought, history and relation to Social Democracy vs. the Comintern/Soviets, and one on the Australian Third Way. With the Gramsci paper I had so many simlutaneous thoughts I found it hard to ask a decent/coherent question, but it certainly served to reinforce my belief that Gramsci is a complex, contested and misunderstood/misrepresented character – even (or perhaps particularly?) by his strongest adherents (this thought links to another panel on the radical left, which inevitably dealt with the issue of the ‘One True Marx/Trotsky/Dave/Whoever’). With the paper on Australian Social Democracy, I was relieved to hear that it is not just Europe that has to put up with this Third Way guff. The Premier of South Australia apparently said ‘it’s not the Third Way, it’s the Only Way’. Very reminiscent of Blair’s ‘I have no reverse gear’ ‘progressive’ fatalism.
A very interesting panel on teaching, entitled ‘not another lecture’ but perhaps without any suggestions of what could replace the lecture (indeed we had a debate on whether the lecture could even be replaced). A member of DIT in Dublin showcased a fascinating, useful and (in terms of the output) hilarious use of getting 1st year students to draw what they thought Irish politics was. Unsurprisingly, there were many instances of politicians and bankers being demonised (we think we have it bad in the UK…), along with a handful of more… unsavoury pictures. It really seemed to engage the students however, and I’m strongly considering employing a variant of this technique in some of my seminars.
I only went to one plenary session this conference, but I’m glad I did. This one was on the relevance and ‘impact’ of social science. There was an incredibly engaging discussion on the role of the researcher/academic in social and political life, and reaffirmed my desire to explore activist research further when I get the chance and have had a chance to consider the methodological and epistemological considerations/ramifications of having such a position. There was also a reassuring conversation about how senior staff need to look out for, defend and help PhDs and Early Career Researchers/Lecturers as they are beginning their academic lives. One thing I would certainly agree with is that it would be useful to have significant courses on how to write, both academically and for media sources for example. It was also said that students should be encouraged to write for different outlets. I agree, but there does need to be a balance weighted toward the PhD. That being said, I always wish I had published more, quicker – but of course before you can publish, you need stuff to talk about, and you need the time to put it together. This would hinder your PhD progress. A question I’m left asking, then, is does there need to be this trade-off? Can the PhD process be reformatted?
I was happy to hear senior lecturers and professors taking such a positive stance toward ECRs/PhDs, but I have to wonder how much was either wishful thinking or rhetoric. After all, even though we are entering the job market for the first time, we are expected to have multiple high quality publications, prestigious grants awarded, ‘dead poets society teaching’ as one panelist put it, and so on. Is this even realistic for someone at our stage? University HR/strategists either need to make their expectations more realistic (although in this job market they don’t need to, considering the REF and the assumed abundance of experienced people looking for new jobs), or the PhD process needs to change to allow us to gain the gold-plated CV we seem to need to get noticed.
To finish, if anyone who came to the Work and Welfare panel happens to come across this, thank you for staying until the end of the conference and coming along! I found it really useful, the other papers were really fascinating, and hopefully the group can now go from strength to strength!