16th ESA conference abstract

Tension, Trust and Transformation




What is the value in thousands of social scientists gathering in one location to discuss their work? What value accrues from a large international conference and what is lost without it? Since pandemic restrictions were implemented in the last few years, we have become more familiar with on-line meetings and seminars, with the 15th conference being held online and widely regarded as highly successful.  Indeed, it is probable that many forms of work, especially that of academic research, will henceforth use online facilities to a much greater extent than in previous times when the technological capacity may have existed but the psychological mind-set to fully engage with the world of online work may not have.  However, it may also be fair to say that in-person meetings are also now being re-evaluated for their intrinsic value.  We always suspected that there was equal value in interactions outside the conference seminar room and now, it is widely accepted that the physicality of a conference cannot be substituted by a screen call i.e. while online work may have resulted in greater efficiencies related to less travel and higher frequency of meetings, it has also inhibited the depth of communication that exists when working in-person with others. During face-to-face conferences, the dynamic within the seminar room, walking around book fairs and the continuation of discussions over coffee, lunch and evening meals are human activities which cannot be substituted.  

The COVID-19 pandemic, while acutely felt the world over, was but another driver of inequality, which added to increasing geo-political tensions across the world.  Societal challenges were manifold before the pandemic and are not likely to disappear.  Arguably, the ways in which societies across the world have dealt with Covid and other challenges has been in some ways correlated with regionally specific longer range socio-cultural traditions.  No country has been immune to the tensions of societal limitations on working and family life, not least in the form of travel restrictions. Similarly, there is manifest variability in the trust that people have in scientists and policy makers responsible for dealing with Covid.   Sociological work is fundamental for dealing with societal challenges, and sociological conferences are the engines driving the ideas which can address these challenges.

The title of the theme for the 16th conference: “Tension, Trust and Transformation”, seeks to capture the experiences of recent times, crises and global challenges,  such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change debates and activism, inequalities and violence, persisting levels of populism and the politics of instability. At the same time, it raises sociological concerns about perennial and new problems with a view to asserting the potential for sociological work to have a transformative societal impact in different social spheres.

What do the social sciences have to offer a world going through a persistent pandemic, increasing concern about the acceleration of climate change, a noticeable retreat from democracy and a crisis due to war in Europe?

We know that the heterogeneity of sociology in terms of both theory and methods is at the core of its strength. Given any aspect of society, there are likely to be a wide range of perspectives, each of which have established literatures, case studies, endemic findings, and critiques of other perspectives.  Theoretical frameworks span micro social relations to macro analyses of institutional structures.  Methodologies help us to understand phenomena in terms of the actor’s understandings and their lived context, through to statistical representations and models, making space for subjectivist as well as more objectivist scientific approaches. This multiplicity of possibilities means that sociology has always, well before the push for multidisciplinarity, had the potential to throw light upon causes and consequences of inequalities in a variety of ways unhindered by a narrower approach.  Debate and disagreement, discussion and discourse, hypotheses and evidence are at the heart of the discipline, and the 16th ESA conference will be the prime forum to showcase our work, argue for different positions, hone methodologies and arguments against opposing perspectives, as well as to joint networking.



Societies are riddled with tensions. Forms of nationalism are in the ascendancy where borders are being strengthened, cultural differences are being used to promote political ends and forms of authoritarianism are taking hold.  The consequences of political, cultural, historical and economic tensions are felt in harsh terms when conflict between nations escalates.  There are, nonetheless some familiar tensions in terms of the persistent inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity, intersectionality, as well as political and economic tension between rich and poor countries, and in many cases also between different areas of the same country. To these, we can add more recent tensions related to sexualities, gender, transgender, gender-based violence, climate change and the expansion of digital society such as the ways in which social media is used to leverage anger and negativity.


Trust in institutions and key individuals such as scientists and politicians can be seen as being closely associated with stable and robust systems.  The trajectories of trust in government, media, science, business and criminal justice ebb and flow but the rising tide of populism, the growing presence of movements founded on conspiracy theories, and the increasing difficulty with which democratic societies face the process of governing suggest that there is a crisis of trust.  A paradox for sociology is that it must remain at the critical edge of discourse in order to identify institutional and systemic failures and yet it must also be involved in finding solutions to wicked problems through in-depth analysis of the individual’s practices and understandings and thereby contribute to the building and maintenance of trust.


For those engaged with funded research and evaluations of research and publications the need to demonstrate impact has been a growing requirement over the years. For some this has been a distraction from undertaking pure research but for many it has been a welcome exercise in refocusing research to maximise its transformational potential.  The theoretical and methodological diversity of sociology and its importance to all cognate social science disciplines renders it productive at many levels from campaigning activists to policy makers, from ethnographic to (inter)national studies, incorporating subjective and objective perspectives, and through exploratory and explanatory frameworks.  The desire to make a difference, to have an impact, to transform society for the better is widespread among sociological projects.


The 16th ESA Conference will be a place to tackle tensions and trust and to discuss alternatives for social transformation. Sociologists and social scientists are welcome to submit their proposals and to join this important international scientific event. The ESA looks forward to receiving your submission!