Sarah Burton, a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, reflects on her first BSA conference

Having spent nearly a decade with English literature as the prevailing academic thrust of my studies I’ve recently been exploring other avenues of research. During my Master’s I got very interested in social history, psychology and various aspects of the social sciences in terms of how they relate to literary studies. In particular I’ve become fascinated by social theory and even more so by the people who write it. I’m intrigued by the notion of sociology as an ‘improving’ discipline, to quote Zygmunt Bauman, especially in terms of the idea that it should be freely and easily accessible to the ‘ordinary man’. My experience of social theory is very much that it is ratherinaccessible, indeed in discussion with other academics this idea seemed to be prevalent.

So it was with this burgeoning interest in social theory that I decided to jump headlong into the sociological community and join the British Sociological Association. I figured (hoped) that it would help me meet similar lost souls suffering from the most dire of imposter syndrome because they had never actually done a degree in sociology but were nevertheless engaging academically with it. Fortuitously I was right, an event remarkable in itself for its sheer rarity. The annual conference held last week was one of the most enlightening experiences of my recent education – personally, politically, socially and academically. To detail the events of the conference in detail would be prosaic and tiresome so in order to be brief and hopefully witty, à la Polonius, I will concentrate on the standout moments.

I’d like to say that these came in the plenaries, roundtables, lectures, keynotes, streams etc but it would be a lie. Many were very good, introducing me to new thinkers, new faces, new thought connections and were absolutely worthwhile. But really, they made very little impact on my thinking aside from: ‘Nice, well done you. Very clever.’

What made a massive difference was talking to everyone that I possibly could – bunking off all of the organised stuff in order to sit in the hall drinking endless cups of coffee and talking about whatever came to mind with whoever crossed my path. The most common question of the conference was surely an enquiry into your area of study and as a literature student I think they found me curious but were always very open to my particular reasons for an interest in sociology. I found it interesting that so many current PhD students or early careers people had come into sociology from such a wide background: art, music, sport science, history, literature to name but a few. I noticed too a certain surprise at anyone wanting to write a purely theoretical PhD and couldn’t help thinking of the apparently arse-over-tit way they must see me approaching my proposal, though coming from literary studies it feels entirely natural to do wholly library based research.

Particular highlights for me academically were the Race and Violence stream plenary which being the last thing on the last day did well to keep our attention and enthusiasm; several papers on feminist activism, access to higher education and Bourdieu were really interesting and done well; the podcasting session on the PG day was possibly the most enlightening and really got me thinking about what I could do with that and how it could be usefully used to engage with sociology. I think, considering the nature of my investigation, that it could be an especially worthwhile format to learn. Zygmunt Bauman’s talk on the PG day was inspiring, there was a definite sense of optimism in his rhetoric. Strangely for something attended by nearly 700 people it didn’t feel enormous and overwhelming. On the other hand the catering was *ahem* questionable which would be fine and expected if the conference fees weren’t so high. But I achieved my objectives – I regaled most current sociologists with my PhD idea and took on their feedback, I met far too many brilliant new people and I learned things about how sociologists do stuff and how it’s different to literature. I even came away wanting to read a book on Italian football….

 Originally posted on Sarah’s blog.

Categories: Higher Education

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