Reflections on ISA World Congress of Sociology 2023

By Julianne Viola and Luke McCrone, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

Julianne Viola and Luke McCrone remotely attended the International Sociological Association (ISA) World Congress of Sociology held on 25th June – 1st July 2023. The conference theme centred on ‘Resurgent Authoritarianism: The Sociology of New Entanglements of Religions, Politics, and Economies’.

The conference focussed on how sociologists worldwide contribute to the understanding of resurgent authoritarianism (a shift away from democratic principles, such as individual rights and freedom of expression, toward centralised power) and engage (physically and critically) in the formidable social movements we are witnessing today in different parts of the world. We presented on our work on the Belonging, Engagement, and Community (BEC) and Imperial Bursary projects.

Julianne’s reflections

I presented to the Sociology of Youth group’s session on “Young People’s Experiences and Relationships in the Global Pandemic.” My presentation, “Social connection and belonging at university during the COVID-19 era: Challenges and opportunities for young people,” shared findings from the BEC project to demonstrate how the abrupt transition to online interactions in 2020 impacted young people’s peer networks, and their relationships with members of teaching staff. The data show that this change left some young people with a sense of disconnection from their university and from each other, while simultaneously challenging and enabling young people to create new peer networks informed by, and for, their new reality.

In addition to our own presentations and asynchronous interaction with other conference attendees, we each engaged with the live and recorded presentations of the conference and wanted to share some key takeaways with CHERS blog readers. The most interesting session I attended was titled “Challenges and Affordances of Longitudinal Youth Research.” Each of the five speakers presented on a topic relevant to our own longitudinal research projects, and provided some insight into other methods we can investigate for future projects with Imperial students.

510.1 Combining Prospective and Retrospective Qualitative Interviews to Understand Lower Casted Indian Girls’ Educational Trajectories

Joan DEJAEGHERE, University of Minnesota, United States and Aditi ARUR, Christ University, India

This presentation included a discussion of how data analysis approach changed as the researchers changed over time. This made me consider that most of the time when we think about longitudinal data, we think about what has changed for our participants – and less about ourselves as researchers. This prompted me to consider reflexivity in our own research. What has changed for myself and Luke since we started the projects? How are our insights changing, from both personal and research standpoints?

510.2 Grammars of Youth: Studying Youth Transitions from Latin America.

Ana MIRANDA, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Argentina

This presentation served as a good reminder of the different contexts that shape young people’s experience in personal and educational growth, they are affected by political uncertainty, turmoil, etc. While watching this presentation, I considered the key crises that we, and importantly, our participants, have faced since 2019, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

510.3 The Unfulfilled Promise of Education: A Longitudinal Analysis of Young Australians’ Education and Work Experiences across Two Generations

Quentin MAIRE, The University of Melbourne, Australia, Johanna WYN, Youth Research Centre, Australia and Julia COOK, University of Newcastle, Australia

I found the gender differences presented in this study very interesting. Like the researchers, I was surprised that despite greater investment in their higher education, women still have lower employability and report a lower life satisfaction than men in recent cohort within this study. This finding prompted me to consider the gendered experience at Imperial. What would a similar study look like with Imperial alumni? Would women who pursued HE (at and beyond Imperial) feel a higher or lower sense of life satisfaction? Today, young people of all genders experience contradictions between work/career aspirations and other goals (like caring, family, social life), and this might be interesting to explore as we look ahead to the future of our work at CHERS.

510.4 Combining Life Stories and Life Course Data in Search for Structural Changes of Transition to Adulthood: The Case of Longitudinal Youth Research in Lithuania

Sigita KRANIAUSKIENE, Klaipeda university, Lithuania

This presentation focused on a longitudinal study that began in 1995, which captures social, political ,and economic transformation of Lithuania. One of the methods used in this study is life history interviews – something I have always been interested in! I find individuals’ lived experiences incredibly interesting and valuable. Participant interviews are among my favourite thing about the research we are doing at CHERS, and I really appreciate learning from the experiences that each participant brings with them into the interviews. Some discuss their childhoods, and others speak only about their time at Imperial. I would be interested to learn more about the participants’ pasts and how that shapes their views and experiences of belonging and connection at Imperial and beyond.

510.5 The Challenge of Longitudinal Research in the “Suspended Transition”

Carmen LECCARDI, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy

I found this presentation especially interesting because the timeline of the study is aligned with ours! Similar to us, the researchers have been conducting this project since 2019, and the data captured highlights participants’ experiences before, during, and ‘after’ COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, young people between ages 23 – 29 were interviewed. The researchers wanted to draw comparisons between young people’s academic disciplines, specifically those who studied ‘hard sciences’ and those who study social sciences and humanities. The findings presented were positioned in 3 waves, one for each year of data collection. I found the parallels with our own research very interesting! In the first year, charaterised by COVID-19 lockdowns, young people were ‘stuck’ living with their parents. They found it difficult to manage conflict between them and their parents (generational conflict). Some of our BEC and Bursary participants echoed this struggle, particularly related to having space to themselves for personal and study reasons. The second year, ‘peak pandemic,’ was marked by the sense that time was suspended, and young people considered their life satisfaction. When pandemic death rates decreased in year 3, ‘normal’ life resumed and people paid greater attention to their personal values and wellbeing. The researchers shared that young people had the sense that they have changed as people, and feel the need to control their own time. This sense of independence and autonomy over one’s time has come up in conversations throughout our BEC and Bursary research too, especially as participants consider how hybrid learning influences their experiences of learning, belonging, and connection at Imperial.

Luke’s reflections

My talk was titled ‘The Hybrid Learning Dilemma: Exploring the Learning Choices of Disadvantaged Students during the COVID-19 Era’. With the ‘digital divide’ accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and transition to online learning in higher education, the talk sought to address the following question:

How are disadvantaged young people engaging with an increasingly hybridised approach to learning and interaction in higher education?

To address this question, we reported on in-depth interview data since 2019 from the Imperial Bursary research project. The paper explored the tension between students having greater flexibility and choice to attend remote lectures in personal home spaces – thereby saving money and time on their commute to campus – with the challenges associated with study motivation and development of social connections with peers. We highlighted the factors that empowered undergraduate students in receipt of the bursary to manage this tension to get the best out of their social and academic experience, especially amid the shift to online and hybrid learning during the pandemic.

Beyond presenting our own talks, we made the most of a diversity of live and recorded presentations delivered by people from all over the world. I have selected three talks below that were particularly resonant and have summarised key takeaways from each.

Reconceptualising Open Pedagogy in the Post-Pandemic classroom to Meet Transformative Goals

Oral Robinson, University of British Columbia, Canada and Alexander Wilson, University of Toronto, Canada

This talk sought to transition open pedagogy (a concept based on principles such as reuse, retain, redistribute, revise and remix) toward a more standard classroom practice. Reconceptualising open pedagogy as a framework for redesigning courses fosters:

  1. Connections in the classroom rather than isolation
  2. Creative expression rather than limited or narrowly defined tasks, readings and assignments
  3. The use of a wider spectrum of (formal and informal) resources and ways of knowing
  4. Students as sources of knowledge and decentring the ‘teacher’
  5. The development of strategies to tackle social injustice

The most interesting shift attempted here for me is one in student and teacher role. Freire’s transformative pedagogy requires a move away from treating students as receptacles of information to a more engaged process in which students cooperate with peers to articulate problems outside of the classroom. This presents challenges and opportunities for HE pedagogy and assessment.

The authors presented survey results from three sociology courses at a higher education institution (n=290) to explore the effectiveness of ‘Open Book Open Web (OBOW)’ exams. Not only did students learn a similar amount in the OBOW assessment to the closed book approach, but also felt less pressure and engaged in greater cooperation with peers.

With the advent of the internet and ChatGPT, the authors rightly argued that students increasingly have access to resources in the real world, like in OBOW format. It is more about active engagement with, understanding and application of theory that matters.

The Family We Choose: Co-Living 4.0 and Community Building in the Digital Era

Phuong Nguyen, University of Zurich, Switzerland

This talk was personally interesting to me because of my interests in belonging, community and student living spaces. Claimed as the end of urban loneliness, ‘co-living facilities’ are a modern shared housing model facilitated with the help of technology which seek to build a network of like-minded members who share interests and values. Co-living facilities are particularly popular in Southeast Asia as part of a sharing economy that seeks to reduce waste through the sharing of resources.

This talk presented findings from 14 weeks of ethnographic fieldwork in a co-living facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This model interestingly appeals more to single people and young professionals, as well as migrants who favour flexibility and connection in a community. The following principles underpin the co-living model:

  • Intentionally built community
  • Activities which provide residents with opportunities for skill training, networking and development to contribute to general mental wellbeing
  • A move away from the rental model where there is more sense of ownership to a ‘shared space-as-a-service’ model

Considering students in halls of residence participating in remote learning communities among like-minded people has some relevance here.

Managing Everyday Life as a Research-Focused Academic

Sandra Torres, Uppsala University, Sweden

This talk targeted doctoral students and recently graduated PhD students who are trying to figure out how to establish efficient and productive everyday routines to manage a sustainable research career. The wisdom shared in this talk applies equally to any research-focussed academic and encouraged me personally to reflect on what I do, how I do it and why I do it. Traditionally academics have been required to undertake the following pillars of activity:

  1. Research
  2. Teaching
  3. Engagement

First thinking about which of these pillars is appealing to us can be helpful. Priority setting is about identifying areas of neglect and ensuring that we avoid handing over the reins of our career to others. Then thinking about the type of impact we wish our research to have can also be helpful:

  • Contribution to academic debate
  • Contribution to policy or practice
  • Development of one’s own research programme

I then found it useful to think about the mind in the same way an elite athlete thinks about the body. We need emotional arousal to thrive, which is governed by dopamine, noradrenaline and acetylcholine neurotransmitters. Our peak performance comes from having fun and not multi-tasking (otherwise called task switching), which links to the following tips:

  1. Handling emails in chunks (e.g., morning and afternoon) rather than being distracted by them throughout the day
  2. Managing time by blocking out calendar with focus time, fitness time, down time, play time, connection time and sleep time
  3. Differentiating between the journey (which can be planned) and the destination (which cannot)

We should constantly be striving to transition from a research consumer to a research producer. In so doing, we should think carefully about the objective of each publication, seeking to leave ‘breadcrumbs’ for subsequent publications. We should also adjust our mindset to acknowledge that scholarship is not achieved in isolation, hence the importance of networking to expand our intellectual development.