EASA’s role in the world - the beginning of a conversation
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As mentioned in the last newsletter, we are living in interesting times. In the past, learned societies such as EASA had two basic roles: to provide a conference in which colleagues could present their work and meet each other, and to provide a journal and a book series in which scholars could publish peer-reviewed work and circulate their ideas and knowledge.
Today, things are somewhat different. In addition to those highly important roles, EASA exists increasingly in a world that has, on the one hand, drawn academics more into political debate than ever before (in this era of the infamous ‘knowledge economy’) while, on the other hand, the institutions and structures that used to support our scholarship and discipline have been radically changing. Not only open access issues and research funding issues, but also administrative restructuring of universities so that disciplines are increasingly disappearing from view; funding regimes that have created chronic precarity and short-term perspectives (see above); a speeding up of the need to react to events due to social media; a deep scepticism of ‘experts’ in many parts of the world; threats to our members’ freedom to speak and even threats to their liberty; questions about conferences, and how we should respond to the climate emergency at the same time as provide platforms for mutual conversation.
All of these issues and more are increasingly pointing to the need for EASA to take a step back and think about its role in the world, and how best to serve its members. It is not sufficient to just react whenever a department closes, a member is arrested, a government attacks academic freedom, or another government cancels the word ‘anthropology’ in its list of disciplines. We need to consider what learned societies such as ours are actually for, and work towards developing carefully considered strategies for responding to these kinds of challenges.
With that in mind, we are initiating a debate that we hope to develop further in Lisboa 2020, and in future AGMs. Below is one list of the topics we might consider in the process of developing a strategy. We will prepare discussion documents for these topics in time for Lisboa 2020.
Actions regarding the climate emergency
EASA should consider ways to promote practices within academic work that assists in reducing the carbon footprint, and consider all our practices and how they could be less energy-consuming (See the Carbon footprint section below, for a longer discussion.)
Political or economic threats to anthropology
EASA should think about some general principles for reacting to direct threats to anthropology as a discipline in different parts of the world, which would include structural changes that generate the kind of precarity discussed above, as well as threats of closure, threats of making the discipline’s name disappear and other types of threat. As reported in the last newsletter, EASA is regularly called upon to react to such threats, and it would be useful to develop a general set of ways to respond to such threats.
Lobbying and support for anthropology
EASA should consider the best ways to proactively support and defend anthropology as a discipline and as a practice in wider policy-making contexts.
Collaboration with other learned societies
There have been several occasions over the last year when working with other learned societies has been an effective way to defend anthropology’s interests. The most recent example was working with other societies to ensure that the word ‘research’ appears in the title of one of the EU’s commissioners, to ensure that research is a visible and explicit responsibility of a named individual in the EU. EASA could develop general principles for such collaborations.
Public anthropology initiatives
Many funding bodies and academic institutions are increasingly demanding that academic research be made more accessible to the public, but the ways in which that has been done has not often been suitable for anthropology. EASA might consider providing initiatives and approaches designed by and for anthropologists in this field.
Ethics and Codes of conduct
Given the combination of increasing structural precarity of employment, the development of ‘institution-free’ anthropological entities (e.g. journals which exist solely on the internet), the increasing numbers of ‘gig economy’ forms of employment, and the continued existence of much older problems in the academy (e.g. harassment, bullying and other workplace and study-place problems), EASA could consider widening its codes of ethics beyond ones related to engagement with research participants.
Open Access initiatives
Given the rapidly changing publication and research materials environment in relation to open access, EASA should become actively involved in joining the debate on these issues, and consider the best options for EASA’s own publications. Too often, these debates are being held by governments, university authorities and publishers, and the views of scholars themselves are surprisingly rarely solicited.
Some argue that no learned society can be effective if it does not have a significant and lively presence online. EASA recognises the importance of social media, though we are also aware that the issue is not entirely clearcut: on the one hand, social media is a crucial tool for communication with members and the wider world; on the other hand, it can also be a destructive and divisive force, and also overwhelm people with too much information. EASA should review its online presence. We are already planning to overhaul our website and have sent out a call for redesigning it, and will be working on an active model of communication with our members- social media, webpages, newsletters, debates during AGMs and conferences. At the same time, we will look carefully at the potentially negative effects of social media engagement and ways to mitigate them.
The challenge of reducing EASA’s carbon footprint
Academic conferences have a significant environmental impact. Air travel is by far the largest contributor to the carbon footprint of an individual academic (Achten et al 2013). Scholarly associations wishing to minimise their environmental impact need to challenge the normativity of ‘academic aeromobility’ and reduce conference-related air travel (Glover et al 2017). There are examples of innovative low-carbon conferencing practice that EASA can draw upon, including decentralised conferences (Casset et al 2018) and the ‘Nearly Carbon-Neutral’ vision. The EASA Exec is keen to explore ways to reduce the EASA conference carbon footprint. One way is to encourage more land-travel, and this is being factored into the travel funds available. Another is facilitating more online participation.
Active conference participation is now increasingly possible using web communication technologies (Skype, Zoom, Webex etc). The 2018 Society for Cultural Anthropology #Displacements conference involved a ‘virtual and distributed’ event linking participants at local conference nodes (Pandian 2018). Casset et al (2018, 66), discussing the success of such approaches within environmental sciences, praises this ‘multiple site-paradigm’. The SCA model was partly inspired by the Nearly Carbon- Neutral (NCN) white paper by the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UCSB.
One option is to trial some of these innovations within EASA’s successful existing biennial conference format. The EASA 2020 committee is exploring the possibility of increasing online participation and attendance. The Call for Panels offered the opportunity to propose virtual panels. This envisaged that convenors and presenters would not be in physical attendance, and instead log-in online for question and answer sessions, having prepared and uploaded their presentations in advance. However, this was only taken up by a very few proposers, and as a result, an alternative mixed model of mixed panels is being trialled, with one (or at the most two) remote/online presentations per panel.
Facilitating virtual participation into conventional events comes with additional hidden costs and resource implications that will need to be built into registration fees in order to ensure that these innovations remain broadly cost-neutral to EASA. Of course, current models of conferencing have significant environmental externalities.
Given the critical importance of transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy, the long-term future of academic conferencing may be one of asynchronous or distributed events. In future participants may view presentations remotely, initiate site-based events and discussions, and offer online feedback over an extended period (eg a few days or even longer). These models could open up conference participation to a global academic audience, and potentially remove some of the financial and logistical barriers that prevent conference attendance. The EASA Exec recognises the popularity and appeal of EASA’s existing biennial conference format, and in the first instance the Exec is seeking to learn from these innovations, and to open up a conversation about future possibilities and opportunities.
Achten, W. M. J., J. Almeida and B. Muys (2013). "Carbon footprint of science: More than flying." Ecological Indicators 34: 352-355.
Caset, F., K. Boussauw and T. Storme (2018). "Meet & fly: Sustainable transport academics and the elephant in the room." Jnl of Transport Geog 70: 64-67.
Glover, A. Strengers, Y & Lewis, T (2017) The unsustainability of academic aeromobility in Australian universities, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 13:1, 1-12, DOI: 10.1080/15487733.2017.1388620
Pandian, Anand (2018) Reflections on #Displace18. Posted November 9th https://culanth.org/about/about-the-society/announcements/reflections-on-displace18