Reflection on ISA 2018, Toronto

Rosemary Hancock, University of Notre Dame, Sydney:

Six thousand sociologists in one place is an awfully large conference and the fear of being lost amongst the fray was all too real. Sifting through the tome-like program book to find the highlights could easily take all week – and the sheer number of people shuttling between rooms in the cavernous convention centre made the prospect of meeting new people overwhelming (let alone finding known friends. Pro-tip: Don’t use the registration desks as a meeting point unless you enjoy playing real-life Where’s Wally). Truth be told, it would have all been a bit intimidating if not for the sociable and well-organised members of RC-22 (Sociology of Religion). With 21 sessions across the six conference days including their own social event, the Sociology of Religion was a conference-within-a-conference – and a good one, too. Rather than bounce around between different research committees and conference rooms, I instead elected to spend most of the conference attending the RC-22 sessions.

These included two excellent sessions on religion in the public square, with a third session dedicated to religion in the Asian public square. The Q&A time in most sessions was lively and critical. A highlight of the program came on the final day – a Saturday. As the conference venue was being emptied of conference delegates and packed down, Professor Lori Beaman and her collaborators presented the findings of their eight-year project on Religion and Diversity. One of the most fascinating findings presented was the sheer complexity of religious belief and non-belief uncovered by the study, and the complete inadequacy of current tools for capturing the many variations in belief of those who identify as non-religious.

The up-side of attending as many RC-22 sessions as jet-lag would allow was the momentary formation of a cohesive sociology of religion crew for those six days: the consistent attendance at each other’s sessions meant conversations extended well beyond twenty-minute Q&A’s. Happily, there were always a few people eager to hunt down a good spot for dinner too. The down-side was missing some excellent sessions happening in other Research Committees. Given the aforementioned tome of a program and my apparent inability to properly figure out the app, I heard of many a fascinating panel second-hand and after the fact.

One of the delights of ISA conferences is they are genuinely international. With 155 countries represented amongst the delegates the conference was refreshingly diverse, and a real attempt to move beyond Anglo-European understandings of religion was evident amongst the RC-22 sessions, including in Professor Jim Spickard’s final Presidential Address. It was important that the conference explicitly acknowledged the very real barriers to participation – whether financial or political –for colleagues in the global South in the welcome speeches (one panellist in the session I organised on Religion and Non-Violent Social Movements was unable to attend because of the political situation in their home country). A challenge for future ISA conferences, including Melbourne in 2022, will be working with delegates in precarious financial and political situations (particularly around visas) to find pathways to the conference to ensure the global nature of the conference is maintained.

On the first day of the conference, I was handed a Melbourne 2022 badge to attach to my lanyard and was instructed “don’t mention the flight”. I thought this instruction was wise given a colleague in RC22 who was based in Europe was marvelling at the length of his eight-hour flight to Toronto. I’m excited at the prospect of attending an ISA conference without having to travel twenty-plus hours, and look forward to

 

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