A “Conference / workshop / methods school” on Identity


As a graduate student, you regularly go to academic conferences. This is important for a number of reasons: First, and probably most importantly, a usual conference comes with a deadline. Being accepted thus means that you are forced to write and hand in something that you might otherwise contemplate about for another six months. Conferences thus provide structure to the life of the graduate student. Plus, you usually meet nice people who you already know or would like to get to know (see also: “free booze”). So, there’s nothing wrong with the big conferences.

However, they can also be quite disappointing. You may be lucky and end up with a discussant helping to improve your work tremendously. Or you may not. Occasionally, you just don’t find people dealing with similar theoretical and methodological questions. Finally, most conferences last only one to three days so that you don’t have the time for repeated conversations over a few days.

Last week, I had the privilege to participate in a different type of event: the Young Scholars School (YSS) on European Identity, which took place from March 17 – 23 in Jena and was organized by the convenors of the ECPR Standing Group Identity, Viktoria Kaina and Pawel Karolewski.

What made this “conference” quite special was the fact that the event did not fit into one of the regular forms of academic interaction on the graduate student level. Neither could it be labeled a method summer/winter school, nor was it a series of lectures or a mere graduate conference.

One might call it a “Conferenceworkshopmethodschool” (using a familiar linguistic strategy that always works in German), but the organizers were certainly right to name it “Young Scholars School”.

Instead of providing only a particular type of format, it tried to combine the advantages of different events by putting together a series of lectures and interactive sessions, roundtables, and sessions with graduate students presenting their own work or graduate students criticizing papers written by the participating senior scholars.

For me, the so-called “Seniors Meet Critique” format turned out to be a very enriching experience. It made clear that the school wasn’t a one-way-street. Unfortunately, some of the seniors only presented published work, which was less interesting than a rather raw discussion paper. In most cases, however, it worked very well. The senior scholars who came to present their and/or discuss our work were very engaged. It was thus obvious that they had a genuine interest in the topic and our work – another advantage of a school with a specific topic.

Another aspect of the YSS I particularly enjoyed was the fact that the rather small group (about 20 PhD students and a dozen senior scholars) spent almost a whole week together. This made it possible to get to know each other and discuss some issues in more detail. It was also encouraging to see that other people are struggling with similar challenges.

This might be especially important for researchers working on identity. Without doubt, most people agree that identity is hard to measure and using it in social science is a demanding task. However, scholars have made some progress on “measuring identity”. The many difficulties notwithstanding, I’m still convinced that social science must not ignore identities. So, I would rather study identities imperfectly than completely ignore them. Being confronted with a conceptual minefield and many different, often competing perspectives on identity (maybe more on that in another blog post), can also be seen as an opportunity – especially for transdisciplinary research. Quite strikingly, there is a lot of good work on identity in many different fields, but these literatures remain largely unconnected.

This is another main reason why I thought the YSS was a great idea. It brought together people working with similar concepts, but from different disciplines or subfields (political science, social psychology, European studies), using different methods and starting from various theoretical assumptions. Even though I sometimes felt like the odd (IR) man out because most of the participants specialized in European identity, it was a very good experience for me to learn how other people in the field try to come to terms with collective identity.

Even in an area where you have comparatively good data on “identity” (despite its obvious limitations, I would love to have a “Eurobarometer” for the transatlantic security community!), people continue to disagree on how to approach identity and discuss the many pitfalls that come with any method. I particularly enjoyed that both representatives of the qualitative and the quantitative “camps” working on European identity in every single case made clear that their way of studying identity was only one among many others.

I’m sure that this kind of event would be helpful for scholars dealing with different topics as well. It’s certainly a lot of work for the organizers, but I think the long-term impact of such Young Scholars Schools is much higher than that of other types of graduate conferences or methods schools. They have the potential to build academic networks among young scholars working on similar topics, thus fostering the exchange of new ideas and collaboration on cutting-edge issues.

This leads me to a preliminary hypothesis: Participation in the YSS has fostered (at least) a weak collective identity among young identity scholars. Now, if I only knew how to test and measure it…

One thought on “A “Conference / workshop / methods school” on Identity

  1. I just wanted to add that Viktoria and her team did a tremendous job and made life very easy during our time in Jena. Thank you, Paul, Sebastian, Susanna and all others!

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