Reflections on the XIX International Congress of Sociology

Patrick Brownlee, University of Sydney: 

The Nineteenth International Congress of Sociology held in Toronto in July brought together more than 5,000 scholars, activists, bureaucrats and practitioners from various professions. A quadrennial event, the 2018 ISA Congress (ISA–XIX) on this occasion convened around the theme of Power, Violence and Justice: Reflections, Responses and Responsibilities (the alliteration works in both French and Spanish, the additional official languages found in the ISA–XIX Program). The theme could not be more relevant today as populist-oriented intolerance is on the rise globally and counter-movements for (long-overdue) justice such as MeToo and BlackLivesMatter capture many people’s imaginations especially in the Global North.

Power as Violence has never been far from humanity’s individual and collective experience and evidently ISA–XIX was concerned much more with the here and now rather than the crimes and victims of atrocities past. A search of the vast, five-day program of events and speakers revealed, for instance, only one presentation concerned with the seemingly indelible Rwandan genocidal conflict of the 1990s. Syria, on the other hand, was the subject of more than 20 presentations, largely concerning the refugee crisis emanating from that country’s ongoing war. There was also one presentation by a member of the Syrian Association for the Social Sciences, weighing up Arab social scientists’ explanations for the causes of the war.

ISA congresses are big! ISA–XIX was no exception with the thousands of knowledge workers gaining plenty of exercise walking between the vast corridors of the Toronto Convention Centre. ‘Centre’ is perhaps a misnomer in this case because presentations occupied multiple levels and far-flung wings of the building. Large-scale events such as these are impersonal but important for the discipline and for fields of study and practice that intersect with sociology. It’s also an opportunity for mega-networking by whole research Institutes and national research Councils that host or sponsor specific events. There is, however, a tension between the disciplinary landmark that was ISA–XIX and which every sociologist should have an affinity with, and the inevitable lone presenter among an impressive array of similarly solo colleagues possibly unknown outside the metropole and likely unknown to each other.

It is difficult to know if there was one audience for the more than 5,000 delegates and presenters, other than ourselves. But if one rationale of the ISA is global knowledge mobilisation, the Nineteenth Congress delivered on this with participants from approximately 115 countries. All presentations nevertheless were in English, and of the various sessions I attended the one embarrassing refrain was the obligatory apology by those presenters whose first language was not English. There is a subtle ironic disconnect with the ISA–XIX theme of power, violence and justice in the unspoken coercion that all presentations be in English. Short of providing interpreters a la the UN General Assembly, the ISA Council could do more to ensure that language diversity is not a cause for an apology by so many scholars presenting their work.

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