On mobility, academic freedom and advocating for the social sciences – Letter from the President of TASA

Greetings TASA members and TASA friends,

After the political and social upheavals of 2016, we live in a world that needs sociology more than ever. Yet sociological perspectives are often missing from where they are needed most. The early part of 2017 has highlighted for me some of the barriers sociology faces, and that they are very different around the world.

I spent late January through to early March on the road. Primarily, I was travelling to spend a month working with Professor Andy Furlong, Dean of Research at the University of Glasgow. I have been collaborating with him on various projects for almost ten years and my trip was funded through an ARC project in which he is involved. Unfortunately I landed in Glasgow to a missed call from Andy’s partner telling me that he had suffered a heart attack, and three days after I arrived in town Andy passed away. For those working in the sociology of youth and young adulthood, Andy Furlong needs no introduction and you will know how profoundly his loss is being felt. Those unfamiliar with his work and the way he has shaped this field of study can learn more about him here.

While death is always with us, the past 12 months seem to have brought a particular wave of famous names leaving us, not just in the realm of music celebrity but renowned sociologists also. Some of us will mourn Bauman as much as Bowie. A new generation is starting to make their mark, and have new avenues to do so (which luckily/unluckily we are now measuring as ‘alt-metrics’). Yet, it seems few are having the global influence within and beyond the academy that names like Beck, Bauman, Urry and, in the sociology of youth, Furlong, established during the 1990s. These scholars have certain things in common – they are all from the one part of the world and they are all men. As feminist scholars and scholars from the Global South remind us, our present is still shaped profoundly by our history and some of the best sociological thinkers of the next generation are not yet receiving the attention they deserve. Scholars such as Gurminder K Bhambra and our own Raewyn Connell are pushing us to ask whether it is possible for us to hold on to a global sensibility, in a more inclusive way.

Academics in some places are silenced in very concrete and visceral ways – their work is censored, they are fired, beaten up and arrested. The widespread dismissal and arrest of academics in Turkey, including sociologists, is a case in point. Yasin Durak, one of the academics who was dismissed – and a sociologist I am happy to say – has responded by setting up ‘street academies’ in the parks of Ankara.

I was twice reminded of these more serious threats to academic work during my travels. Firstly, an International Sociological Association conference I am due to attend in the middle of the year has been moved due to interference in the program. The ISA Conference of the Council of National Associations is a conference for representatives (mostly Presidents) from national sociological associations to meet and discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline. It was moved with three months’ notice from Kazakhstan to Taiwan. The ISA Executive Committee moved the conference because of interference from the local organisers, who were making unauthorised changes to the program because the local authorities deemed the content or the speaker unacceptable.

Secondly, on the way to Glasgow, I stopped for a week in the Persian Gulf region to take up some standing invitations to visit a few of the universities in the area. I landed to an email from a third party telling me that my first host, the head of a major social science association, would no longer be able to meet me and would not be contacting me. I put this down to a family emergency, or a cultural faux pas on my part. However, just after leaving I received an email to let me know that my would-be host had just been released after being disappeared for 10 days by the local security apparatus, it appears primarily due to comments on Twitter!

My trip seemed to bring particularly bad luck for my hosts. If you are the superstitious type, I would recommend thinking twice before ever inviting me for a visit. Another of my hosts during my time in the region was barred, for a few days at least, from travelling to the USA. He is a Canadian citizen but was born in Sudan and was caught up in President Trump’s travel ban. While it now appears that Canadian (and Australian) passport holders are exempt from the ban, and it is currently held up in the court system, his trepidation about travelling to the USA remains. The American Sociological Association has taken a cautious approach towards opposing Trump’s Presidency more broadly, but has taken a firm position against the travel ban, recognising that ‘scientific progress depends fundamentally on an open exchange of ideas and recognizes that the Executive Order will have the effect of limiting interaction among scholars’. The ISA President, Margaret Abraham, in her letter to members, denounced the ban in stronger terms, calling it ‘discriminatory, stigmatizing communities and people, and exacerbating forms of social exclusion of specific groups’.

It appears that TASA members are unlikely to be directly affected by the ban, even if it is reinstated, particularly if they hold an Australian passport. It does appear, however, that at least one Australian sociologist has been caught up in the mix of bureaucratic paralyse and opaque decision making in the entry process that seems to have been heightened by the ban.

Apart from reiterating the general concern about the ban, and the particular importance of open exchange of ideas and the freedom to attend scholarly meetings, there is little TASA can do about the entry policies of the USA. One response has been to call for a boycott of conferences in the USA. The petition is still open if you wish to support the call. One challenge for Australian-based sociologists is that it is difficult to support a boycott of the USA based on their border policies, without asking whether others should be boycotting our conferences. Another approach is to make our conferences more accessible. The World Congress of Sociology 2022 is a long way off, but we have already made contact with immigration employees who will support us with visa applications, and we have found sponsorship for a number of travel scholarships for ISA members from ‘Category C’ countries, including those caught up in the travel ban.

While my time travelling, particularly my time in Glasgow, did not go as planned, I did take the opportunity to accept invitations to give seminars at other universities in the area, including at Queen’s University Belfast. The core Sociology Programme at Queens was slated for closure last year, but a concerted push by the British Sociological Association and other supporters led to the decision being reversed. However, the faculty at Queens have now been given research funding targets that are beyond all plausibility, with jobs again on the line. This reminded me more concretely of the challenges faced by social science academics in Australia. While we are unlikely to be threatened with detention, or barred from travel, our institutions are increasingly managerial, our relationship with students transactional, and job security is eroding. TASA’s Working Group on Contingent Employment – led by Kristin Natalia and including Erika Altman, Mark Bahnisch, Tom Barnes, Suzanne Egan, Christine Malatzky and Christian Mauri –recently released a working document on this erosion of security.

Opposing the creeping precarity of employment for sociologists is one part of a broader TASA aim of advocating for the social sciences. While we are rarely actively oppressed in Australia in the ways some of our international colleagues face, we are still too often ignored. In most cases, our government often does not particularly care what we say. On my second last day in Scotland before beginning my trip back to Australia, I made the short trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh to give a seminar at the invitation of Lynn Jamieson, the incumbent President of the BSA. Over lunch, Lynn and I discussed the complexities of advocating for the social sciences in the UK and Australia. The BSA faces similar challenges to TASA, grappling with how and when to engage in public debate with concrete positions, how to engage with a conservative government focused on austerity, and how to highlight the essential role of social sciences in a flourishing society. One wonderful initiative I would love to bring to Australia, if the right supporters with deep enough pockets can be engaged, is the UK’s Festival of Social Science

In finishing, I want to acknowledge the people who facilitated my recent travels. Thank you for the invitations and for your hospitality to Rima Sabban and Aalia Al Falasi (Zayed University); Awad Ibrahim (UAEU); Linda McDowell (Oxford); Lynn Jamieson (Edinburgh); and Madeleine Leonard (Queen’s). Finally, a heartfelt acknowledgement of Andy Furlong for inviting me for the visit and for a decade of collaboration and friendship. Much of my trip abroad was spent stuck in a small apartment with my two children during a rainy February in Glasgow, working on things that could have more easily been done from (relatively) sunny Melbourne. However, I deeply appreciated being around for Professor Furlong’s Memorial and to be able to reminisce in person with others who had known and worked with him. Such events help me, at least for a time, put things in perspective and recognise the great privileges I have been given as a sociologist who is free, in a way that very few are, to develop ideas alongside a global community of like-minded scholars.

Best

Associate Professor Dan Woodman
President – The Australian Sociological Association

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