By Stephan Manning.
Many scholars around the world are getting ready for the 2016 conference season. In our digital age, where email, texting and video chat have become the primary means of communication, conferences remain an important nexus for face-to-face scholarly exchange, networking, career-making and innovation. Being located in Boston, but having important networks in Europe (and being a passionate traveler), I typically attend at least three conferences in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere every year. Whereas I take frequent conferencing for granted, I know that many of my colleagues, especially from the Southern Hemisphere, for example Brazil and South Africa, barely make it to one conference per year and often skip the conference season entirely. By comparison, Indian and Chinese scholars for example increasingly participate in the global conference circuit. What explains this divide? And what can be done to counter it?
Let me first give an example of the disparity between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere in terms of conference participation. One conference I attend regularly is the Academy of International Business (AIB) Annual Meeting. Typically around 1,000 junior and senior scholars participate every year. AIB started as a U.S.-based organization in 1959 with an annual conference held in North America for the first thirty years. Since 1989 the conference has rotated between North America and locations around the world. For example, AIB meetings have taken place in Singapore, Sydney, San Diego, Beijing, Milan, Nagoya, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, Bengaluru, and – this year – New Orleans. Also, AIB has opened regional chapter organizations and facilitated regional conferences across the world. In other words, AIB – more than many other academic associations – has tried to encourage global participation and scholarly exchange and do justice to the international scope of its research agenda.
Yet, despite these efforts, the vast majority of attendants still come from the Northern Hemisphere. For example, only 7% of the currently 3,300 AIB members worldwide, most of whom either attend the AIB meeting or regional chapter conferences, work in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, both territories combine over 20% (1.5 Billion) of the world population (7 Billion). Certainly, since AIB started in the U.S., it is not surprising that one third of all members are U.S.-based. However, both Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Japan and Southeast Asia are rather well-represented, either through AIB or their regional sister organizations (e.g. EIBA, JAIBS). The number of Indian and Chinese participants is also rising year by year – from my perception, at least one quarter of attendants are of Chinese or Indian descent. So why are Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa still underrepresented?
English language. One key factor is the dominance of English not only as a conference language, but as the lingua franca for academic journal publications. Yet, whereas barriers to entering English-speaking journals can be lowered through knowledgeable co-authors, copy editors and/or highly formalized write-ups, the ability to actually present something in English to an expert audience as a non-native speaker is another matter. During my recent visit to Brazil, it became clear to me how little English is spoken even among university scholars in non-English speaking countries. Especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, Spanish, Portuguese and French are much more common, which presents a big challenge for scholars from these regions in an English-dominated academic community.
Research infrastructure. Another factor is the relatively low number of research universities in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the BRICS economies Brazil and South Africa there are perhaps only a dozen universities combined that encourage faculty to regularly publish in academic journals and become part of the larger academic community. Most schools primarily teach and/or support regionally bounded research. This, of course, is not a bad thing necessarily. Local research can be innovative and highly relevant for businesses and communities. Yet, having research-active schools and faculty that are connected with the Global North may promote knowledge exchange. Aside from English language proficiency, this might explain why for example Australia & New Zealand – a territory of 30 Million people – count almost as many AIB members as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa combined.
Geographic distance. A third, rather mundane yet critical factor preventing many scholars from the South, including Australia, to regularly participate in conferences is geographic distance to global cities around the world. It is very tedious, financially and time-wise, for a scholar from Chile, South Africa or Australia to arrange a flight to any major city outside their home region. Historically, according to Jared Diamond, climatic barriers and remoteness from other continents have always been comparative disadvantages for Australia, Africa and the Americas in their economic development. By contrast, Eurasia soon became the most interconnected territory – from early migration to the Silk Road, which promoted trade, exchange of knowledge and innovation. The major reason why the U.S., despite its own remoteness, is now part of this exchange network is its economic and political standing and contemporary importance as a research hub. Yet, the mere fact that even today the majority of flight connections concentrate in the Northern Hemisphere (see picture) remains a major obstacle for scholars from the South.
What can be done to counteract these challenges? Promoting more regional and virtual conferences may be one approach to stimulate global exchange. Allowing for diversity in conference languages might be another – facilitated by rapidly improving real-time translation technologies. Another way could be to organize conferences through the Latin American and African diaspora in the U.S. or Western Europe. The workshop ‘Africa in the 21st century’, which will be held on April 8 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a good example: it is co-organized by African PhD students of the UMass Boston Global Governance and Human Security Program, in collaboration with the AIB US-Northeast Chapter and Educational Divide Reform. In a similar way, international academic exchange programs, such as the Brazilian program CAPES, can lessen the financial burden of travel between Northern and Southern schools, and facilitate scholarly exchange across the equator.
What other solutions are out there to better include the South in global academic communities? In what way do research fields differ in facilitating participation of scholars from the Southern Hemisphere? And to what extent is inclusion in the ‘global mainstream’ actually desirable? Comments welcome!