During the past week I’ve been attending and presenting at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in magnificent New York, and wanted to use this blog post to follow up and share some reflections from an excellent conference.
ASN is a large conference with two overarching sets of themes. Firstly, topic-based, covering nationalities, nationalism, ethnicity and migration. The second area is regional, with almost all events focussed on the Balkans, Eurasia, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. The three day conference has over 600 panellists organized into around 150 panels/events, and there is also a film festival although I didn’t manage to get to any showings this time.
As you might appreciate, I focussed on panels with a Central Asia remit. I managed to get to nine panel sessions (plus my own!) and fit in some one-on-one meetings as well over a jam packed few days. The presentations were wide ranging, covering everything from an historical comparison of 19th century imperial education strategies used in the US on the Sioux and the Russians on the Kazakhs to being gay and religious in contemporary Kazakhstan.
What follows are some personal reflections on three individual presentations and two panels, as well as my top ten conference tips for presenters – all based on my observations from ASN (though naming no names where I’m suggesting improvements!).
Three notable presentations
Hélène Thibault: Impact of labour migration on matrimonial arrangements in Tajikistan
In an interesting and somewhat controversial presentation, Hélène Thibault of the Université de Montréal in Canada suggested that second marriages can be “emancipating” for Tajik women, particularly if their first experience of matrimony was unsuccessful. Marrying for a second time can be seen as a way to ensure economic security and ensure moral respectability. However, Thibault also argued that the growth in polygyny (her preferred term for Tajikistan as it refers to a man with multiple wives rather than polygamy in which either the man or the woman could have multiple spouses) could be described as “adultery reframed” – legitimising men undertaking multiple relationships rather than carrying out affairs in private.
Adrienne Edgar: Names and Naming in Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Central Asia
Well-known Soviet historian Adrienne Edgar spoke with great expression as part of a packed out panel on language, cultural production and national identity. To begin with, I thought her topic was going to be quite simplistic: how did families of mixed Russian and Central Asian heritage (the most common ethnic mixing) choose their babies’ names? But as she explained the results of this oral history project it became apparent that there was much more to a name: in Edgar’s words, naming was a “low cost but clear way to express identity and preferences”. How you named your child spoke volumes about how you imagined them fitting into the society around them (and indeed, how you as parents imagined that society to be).
Rico Isaacs: Exit, Voice, Loyalty…and Sanctions: Options and Strategies for Opposition Movements in Kazakhstan
In this presentation, Rico Isaacs outlined how he has applied Hirschman’s 1970 frame of Exit/Voice/Loyalty to understand the situation for the opposition in Kazakhstan. Here, exit means leaving the regime, system or country; voice means making your complaints known publicly or privately, and loyalty (to which Isaacs added sanctions) was noted as being a particularly valued concept in Central Asia. These stages aren’t linear and none, some or all may happen in varying degrees at different times. But the bottom line is that in 2016 Kazakhstan, the opposition is “moribund”, according to Isaacs, so the focus needs to shift to understanding where the spaces for dissent (if not outright opposition) can be found.
Two fascinating panels
Panel: Normative Orders and Kazakhstani Practices: Outcomes of Contestation in a Post-Soviet Field
Zhaniya Turlubekova: Political Institutions in the Fight against Drug-Trafficking: How Kazakhstani Law Enforcement Fights Transnational Crime
Aslan Sataibekov: Gay and Religious: The Contexts of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan
Raikhan Satymbekova: Female Political Representation and Barriers that Women Face in Politics
Ainur Jyekyei: Why Kazakhstan Increased Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, While Poland Decreased under the Kyoto Protocol from 2005-2012
This was one of the best panels I attended, made up of Master’s students from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Each of the presenters discussed the findings from their Master’s thesis and you can see from the titles above that they did not shy away from hard-hitting and important topics. All four presenters were incredibly well prepared, had good slides, kept to time, and gave thoughtful answers to the audience questions. Stand-out findings were from Zhaniya Turlubekova, who argued that modern Central Asian states are “too weak” to prosecute relatively new types of transnational crime such as drug trafficking, and from Aslan Sataibekov who managed to secure interviews with gay and religious Kazakhstanis even though the gay community aspires to remain secretive in order to minimise attention paid to them by government and society at large.
Panel: Teaching, Branding, Remembering
Leah Haus: Ideas, Institutions, and School Curricula: A Comparative Perspective
Hannah Moscovitz: Nation-Branding Through International Education: Exploring the Sub-National Context
Anna Kyriazi: The Education of National Minorities: A Thematic Analysis of Claims, Arguments, and Justifications
Sabrina Sotiriu: Online/Offline Scottishness: Strategies, Values, Norms and Procedures
My other contender for favourite panel, this session used education as a way of exploring identities in comparative settings. None of the presenters were using the former Soviet states as case studies and this made it even more fascinating for me, a chance to rest my Central Asia hat and put on my comparative and education hats instead! I enjoyed the range of approaches to comparison, which covered historical approaches, discourse analysis, interviews and quantitative data. I also found the way each presenter interacted with the others – even though they didn’t know each other – and the quality of discussion after the talks to add a great deal of value to the session.
Top ten conference tips for presenters
- Do be clear about what’s new and/or important in your study. You care a lot about your topic so you need to tell your audience why they should care too.
- At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
- Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
- If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
- Similarly, do limit how much information goes onto each slide and try to break up text with visuals or at the very least bullet points – you don’t want your audience trying desperately to read a large chunk of text and not listening to you.
- If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
- Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
- Do stick to the topic that got you accepted to the conference – if it’s really not possible then communicate with the conference organizers and fellow panel members about the alternative options. [Don’t announce a change of topic as you begin your presentation!]
- Do submit your paper by the deadline to give your panel discussant (assuming you have one) and co-presenters as much time as possible to read and think about what you have written.
- If the conference has a Twitter feed (ours was #nationalities2016) and you are OK with using Twitter, then upload a few tweets as the conference progresses. It’s a nice way to show your engagement and support fellow presenters.