Post-Conference Dispatch

Way back in March of this year, when we first began to understand the seriousness of the pandemic, intense discussions began among the SASE president, officers, program committee, theme track organizers, and staff regarding what to do about the annual meeting. We had three options: cancel, defer, or go virtual. Going virtual represented unknown and uncharted territory for us, and we had no idea whether anybody would even want to participate in such an event. By then, plans for the 2020 annual meeting had already been in place for many months—transitioning and reorganizing over 250 sessions with participants from time zones spanning the globe was a daunting prospect. Paper submitters were surveyed, and the positive response to the option of participation in a virtual meeting was very high. In the end, 1050 participants registered, a turnout very similar to other SASE annual meetings in recent years. This was a positive and encouraging surprise. The in-person event was on pause but SASE was not!

True to the SASE spirit, everyone pulled together. SASE’s president, officers, and staff put in a herculean effort, with communications going on at all hours of the day and night. The SASE community as a whole followed suit and showed extraordinary commitment to keeping the annual meeting alive. Featured speakers and panelists were asked with great trepidation by SASE’s president if they would be willing to uphold their participation despite the change in format. Everyone graciously agreed.

Attending a four-day online event on a small screen from an armchair in one’s home or from one’s office was a new experience for many of us. One thing did not change, however: as usual, it was difficult to choose which panel to attend due to the exciting lineup of sessions. For the organizers, going virtual had one silver-ish lining: instead of popping in and out of sessions, we were able to follow many of the SASE events at length for the first time.  

As usual, the annual meeting was preceded by a day-long Early Career Workshop. This event, in its fourth year, brought together twenty younger scholars—most of them graduate students—from all over the world. At least one senior SASE scholar guided the discussion of each of the workshop’s four sections, where the participants presented their own work, and read and commented on the papers of the others. 

In their evaluations, all four section leaders commented on the high quality of scholarly debate among the early career scholars, as well as the collegial, organic nature of the conversation. As one SASE stalwart quipped after a long day in front of the screen, “I may have Zoom denial but the discussions between the students were really interesting!” Another section leader commented, “I learned a lot—as much they did, in fact!”

The three-day core of the annual meeting featured a number of timely and compelling sessions. The European Union was a key thread this year, and stood out all the more as the EU was grabbing headlines as the meeting took place (when all 27 EU members finally agreed after lengthy debates to issue mutualized debt for a massive recovery fund).

Like in 2019, the Alternatives to Capitalism network incorporated a movie screening and discussion. This year’s film was on Auroville, a fifty-year-old utopian community in India, and was followed by comments from a member of the network who was born, raised, and still resides in Auroville today.

Now in its second year, the Social Sciences for the Real World outreach initiative aimed to bring together SASE members and practitioners from beyond the association. The session topic “Repurposing the Corporation to Save Capitalism from Itself?” attracted a good crowd, and a recording of the event will be posted on the SASE website shortly.

SASE also hosted its first methods workshop this year, titled “What Can AI Offer (and Do) to the Social Sciences?” Interest in the effects of the digital age was also palpable in numerous sessions that examined aspects ranging from the fading boundaries between lawyers and professional data scientists to international perspectives on technology policy.

Featured Speakers
In line with this latter topic, global health specialist and SASE President Nitsan Chorev delivered a stirring presidential address on surveillance, offering the chilling example of tracking techniques imposed on Israeli citizens. “This is a defining moment in public health,” she noted. In a similar vein, Xiao Qiang (UC Berkeley) asked, “Should people be willing to renounce certain rights in the name of public safety?” as he explored the complex history of how China has used digital surveillance technologies in service of an increasingly repressive state. And Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University), author of the recent book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, warned of the ways in which human agency is taking a back seat to technology.

Economist Guy Standing (SOAS University of London), a founding member of The Basic Income Earth Network, chronicled the evolution of what he refers to as the “precariat,” while economist Jayati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University) spoke about the entrenched inequalities that have led to failures of the Indian state, which have culminated in its inability to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The designated featured speaker for this year’s Women and Gender Forum was economist Stephanie Barrientos (University of Manchester), who reflected on over two decades of research and activity in the field of global retail supply chains and demonstrated the ways in which these are gendered. Her talk explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has upset recent trends toward more equitable value chains, reversing gains in gender equality as female workers have been exposed to much greater infection risk. The talk was followed later in the day by a friendly virtual “sit-down” with Stephanie Barrientos and fifteen members of the SASE Women and Gender Forum, which began in Kyoto two years ago. The only thing missing was drinks and hors d’oeuvres!

Finally, many of the presidential panels discussed topics relating to inequality and racial injustice. It was heartening to hear so much lucid and enlightened commentary on these turbulent times. One wonders what the future holds, on these matters and others—and we hold out hope to see you in person next July in Amsterdam.

Martha Zuber
former SASE Executive Director