Letter from Organizational Secretary

Howard Williamson
Organisational Secretary

Observations on RC34 and the World Congress of Sociology, Brisbane, Australia, July 2002

[and a not-so-subtle recruitment drive!]

I thought I would share a few thoughts and notes with you about the ISA World Congress of Sociology, the place of Research Committee 34 (Youth) within it, and the wider aspirations and activities of RC34.

I have been ‘associated’ with RC34 for quite a number of years, though it took some time for me to become a fully paid up member (what the ISA would call a member ‘in good standing’!). I was aware of its existence many years ago, but was never quite sure what it did. I have to admit to having neither sufficient curiosity nor energy to find out. At the World Congress, as many of you will know and as more of you should know, I was elected as the Organisational Secretary for RC34, a position that is about ensuring smooth administration and supporting the newly elected President of RC34 (Helena Helve) in pursuing the objectives and activities of the research committee. This is a four-year tenure, until the next World Congress in 2006, which is to be held in Durban, South Africa.

The sterling and strenuous efforts of the previous President (Lynne Chisholm) to put shape and form around the RC34 programme at the World Congress were repaid in full. I am not automatically gushing about academic conferences, however prestigious and prominent they may be. However, the intensive pre-planning of the sessions for RC34 produced a sequence of papers that were, often strikingly, of a good quality and commanded interest and attention. Because there were so many papers in most sessions, presenters had to display an iron self-discipline in keeping to the time made available by session chairs. [By and large, they concealed any sense of frustration about this, accepting its necessity.] The diversity of papers cemented the intellectual benefits of the Congress, as people grappled with the divergent conditions of young people in different parts of the world and the theoretical and empirical traditions invoked to describe and explain them.

Critics might argue that there were too many papers and insufficient time for discussion, but there are always dilemmas about how sessions should be organized. There are choices to be made. Some reflection on this front will no doubt be made by the immediate past President in her World Congress Report. My reflection is rather different: academics from across the world, of very different ‘seniority’ and experience, shared the floor in each session and presented to what was always a reasonably full room. Attendance generally varied between 40 and 60 people, even at the ‘graveyard’ late evening sessions. There were never fewer than 30 participants and more than 80 on a couple of occasions.

Sessions were consistently attended throughout, not subject to the kind of ‘session-hopping’ where the room is virtually evacuated following a presentation by a ‘name’, leaving the nervous PhD graduate facing an almost empty room. Nothing can be more dis-spiriting than presenting to a handful of people, and this is what RC34 had sought to avoid. RC34 secured a regular base of participants at every session, supplemented by the inevitable ‘session-hoppers’ from other research committees.

That success reflected the aspiration of RC34 over the past few years: to secure and ensure global participation in its work, to promote inter-cultural understanding and the cross-fertilisation of theoretical, substantive and methodological perspectives, and to build a collegiate atmosphere within the committee. Indeed, the latter was cemented by the careful attention paid to the social dimension at the Congress – an identified lunchtime eating place where people could meet up, and a conveniently situated bar where we could congregate for a late night drink. For me, this combination of effort to promote both scholarship and solidarity within youth research and amongst youth researchers communicated a fundamental message: RC34 is not only an academic platform, but it is also a social and political project.

Of course, I have been aware of this for some time, having contributed to training programmes for young youth researchers in Budapest and to a seminar on research, policy and practice in South Africa. But in Brisbane, I witnessed it in action on a global scale. Young researchers from, for example, the Philippines and Singapore commented to me that they were impressed with the level of welcome and inclusion they had experienced. Researchers from South America and from China were eager to forge new contacts for the purposes of teaching, research and policy development in other parts of the world.

And this takes me, of course, to the nub of things: money. Any involvement or connection with RC34 makes one acutely aware of two critical issues. First, there are the striking inequalities which prevail between professional colleagues within the youth research community, not simply in terms of their personal resources but in terms of their working contexts, conditions and capacity to pursue many exciting areas of inquiry (about which they talked with such commitment at the Congress). Secondly, there is the (linked) question of engagement, not just with RC34 but in other trans-national and trans-continental dialogue. Different nations were clearly not equitably represented at the Congress. And though RC34 can be proud that it did attract participation from all five continents, some colleagues from some places were conspicuous by their absence. This was not always to do with travel costs, but such factors do play a significant part in whether or not participation is possible.

RC34 will stand or fall on its capacity to recruit and involve an authentically international membership. Its structure allows for the appointment of regional vice-presidents whose task is not only to act as a conduit for the committee’s work programme, but to feed back prominent issues and concerns in relation to youth research in and around their region of responsibility.

Inevitably, the question of membership is critical. RC34 needs a strong membership base for both internal and external reasons. Internally, a strong membership provides for productive intellectual dialogue and development as well as conferring more technical advantages within the ISA. Externally, it assists the credibility of RC34 when it comes to seeking funding and securing partnerships for the variety of activities that it promotes in its annual programme.

There is a sliding scale in the cost of membership, both for the ISA itself and for RC34. For a four-year subscription, the most expensive rate is not over-burdensome for the majority of youth researchers in the wealthy world. In contrast, the cheapest rate can sometimes be beyond the reach of youth researchers in poorer parts of our world.

But why join? The usual thought that passes through our minds is ‘what do I get out of it?’. My thoughts exactly when I was asked to join. I was told quite bluntly that someone like me, from the affluent west, was likely to end up putting in more than I got out. Of course there are benefits: the journal of the ISA, the RC34 website, some kind of ‘privileged’ access to our community of youth research. That is an academic rationale. But, as I said, there should also be a social and political rationale, and a corresponding motivation. Like many other themes in sociology, we spend our lives researching and writing about inequality, exclusion, non-participation, disadvantage and disengagement. Ironically, we could advance so many of exactly the same arguments if we paused for a moment and glanced at our own professional back yard. RC34 cannot promise any particular ‘goodies’ to those who are current members or who may decide to join. But it can promise a commitment, as far as its resources allow, to bringing the global youth research community together in order to foster the exchange of knowledge and ideas, to offer support and solidarity, and to facilitate new personal and institutional networks for learning and research. That it has, to some manifest degree, achieved this was evident in Brisbane. I think most of those who attended RC34’s sessions would testify to that.

In my view, there is a moral, as well as professional, need to make this happen. Signing up to RC34 at minimum makes a symbolic commitment to those aspirations. Some amongst those who do sign up – as I did a few years ago – will make a more active commitment to that cause. They are likely to see the benefits of that effort in a myriad of (usually non-pecuniary and often intangible!) ways. This I can promise, though I cannot specify what they are likely to be.

Send me an e-mail to talk things through further: williamsonhj@Cardiff.ac.uk

But don’t just do nothing – youth research needs an international platform and youth researchers need an international community.

Thanks for reading.