Virtual Sessions, Real Connections: Thoughts on the 2021 Annual Meeting

by Martha Zuber (SASE Executive Director Emerita)

As planning begins for SASE 2022, “Fractious Connections: Anarchy, Activism, Coordination, and Control”, it seems a good moment to reflect on the 2021 Annual Meeting, which marked our second year of online exchanges from the homes and offices of SASE members around the world, carrying on our long tradition of lively conferences, albeit virtually. 

Like most learned societies, SASE first brought its annual meeting online in 2020 during the initial wave of the COVID-19 crisis – in the midst of moving its headquarters to Cologne from Paris (where it had been located since 2006) and in anticipation of welcoming a new President and a new Executive Director. Despite these additional challenges, the meeting proceeded, and it succeeded far better than we could have dreamed.

One year later, when it became apparent that travel would remain difficult or even impossible for most members, the SASE team went all out to find an online socializing tool that would make it possible to engage in one of the most important aspects of in-person meetings: networking. After testing many offers, SASE chose SpatialChat, a socializing platform with a centralized system that allows members to move seamlessly from one space to another. The visuals and interface elicited a great deal of amusement and enthusiasm (not needing to constantly remind attendees to mute their microphone was a perk that people particularly appreciated). In the end, it allowed our organization to realize a rich and enjoyable meeting over four time zones and some forty countries – one that ended up being our largest ever, with over 1600 attendees!

Our theme in 2021 was necessarily framed around current events: “After Covid? Critical Conjunctures and Contingent Pathways of Contemporary Capitalism”. This theme and the urgency of our circumstances set the tone for many of the meeting’s sessions, of which there were nearly 400! In addition to many presentations on health-related issues around the world, the stellar list of featured speakers and panelists included Mariana Mazzucato, whose ideas on spurring innovation through mission-oriented projects such as moon landings sparked a spirited discussion with a top notch panel of experts; and Stephanie Kelton, formerly Bernie Sander’s chief economic advisor in the Senate, who presented novel thinking on inflation. One of the year’s most popular panels was titled “The End of Neo-Liberalism” – another topic that sparked a great deal of energetic debate, while David Gergely Karas, speaking from Kazakhstan to featured speaker Alexander Kentikelenis in Milan, discussed the hot-topic question of whether neo-liberalism and the Washington consensus are on their way out – or are already a thing of the past.

In her upbeat presidential address, Sigrid Quack, of the University of Duisberg-Essen, incisively pulled together many of the subjects that were addressed and debated over the three days. She deftly tracked the pandemic from both global health and economic perspectives, tracing its twists and turns, dystopian fears, and fumbled responses from the early days to the summer of 2021. A long-time researcher on transnational boundaries and intellectual property rights, she delivered a compelling overview of the question as to how vaccine-related questions should be framed, and eloquently advocated for a more just and equitable distribution of vaccines.

To end on a personal note, the virtual meeting brought me an unexpected pleasure: for once I was able to attend whole sessions rather than ducking in and out, between helping members and finding solutions for the many problems that inevitably arise over the course of a conference. That stress was replaced by the far more enjoyable difficulty of choosing which sessions I wanted to attend. Lucky for me – and for our members! – nearly all of the SASE 2021 sessions are online and can be watched or re-watched via SASE’s online meeting platform.