Do Academic Conferences Exclude the Global South?

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.

3029315-inline-i-world-airline-routemap-2009

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!

*Picture taken from: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3029315/terminal-velocity/how-a-supervolcano-would-affect-international-flight

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8 thoughts on “Do Academic Conferences Exclude the Global South?

  1. I agree with you in promoting more regional and virtual conferences as one approach to stimulate global exchange. I also agree with you that the conferences should diversify the languages allowing other academic communities to join in. I believe with the technology that we have today there is no justification as to why it would not be possible to communicate with the Southern countries even though there might be a slight disadvantage for them because of the language barrier. Even with a language barrier translators can be provided. Maybe a global academic fund raising can be created if there isn’t one like an association fee where members can contribute annually and funds can be distributed to those that need assistance. Prior to these annual conferences, virtual meetings should take place discussing ways to improve these conventions and how they can be improved through innovation. Example, If there are problems and/or issues that prevent these conferences from happening then I think forming sub-organizations that provide assistance to these disadvantage groups would be another way to encourage or motivate these countries. In addition, I believe that shedding light onto these problems and getting other countries to provide attention and individual assistance would not only be a great idea but it would implement a sense of global unity within the academic communities.

  2. I totally agree with the idea to promote more regional and virtual conferences, especially the regional conferences since you mentioned the geographic distance that may discourage Southern scholars to join the conferences. So if we can hold more conferences in Southern area, or at least make those conferences close and more easily accessible to them, there will be more Southern scholars I guess.
    On the other side, I also believe it is very important for those Southern counties to enhance their English education. I could relate this to my personal experience. As a Chinese, I found that most schools are making English course as their one of the requirements instead of elective course. Moreover, some schools are hiring English teachers directly from U.S and other native English speaking countries in order to improve student’s grammars, spoken skills, etc. As you mentioned English language is spoken very little in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, so it is really important for them to aware of the tool of English.

  3. Inclusion of countries like Brazil and encouraging the participation of the experts in international academic conferences of different disciplines of science, technology, engineering and economics which could help them to become aware of the latest developments in all these fields to rebuild their economy and infrastructure on par with the developed countries. Excluding them will have the exact opposite effect. For example the decisions to undertake deforestation (a loss of 770,000 sq. kilometers by 2015) in Brazil would have been prevented long before it had started had its decision makers been aware of the fact that it could contribute to global warming. Repeated interactions with the international communities through participating in conferences could have helped them to make responsible decisions. Therefore, any possible means should be found to facilitate the scientists from the relatively poorer countries to participate in select international academic conferences and get enlightened.

  4. Pingback: Africa Research: Role Model for Engaged Scholarship? – Organizations and Social Change

  5. Integrating the Global South is a broad challenge, not just in academia but in terms of trade, culture, innovation, and so on. With fewer research universities, and a preponderance of English as the ‘lingua franca’ of our field, these challenges are somewhat self-amplifying. I like Hugh’s response re: simultaneous translation as one option, and Stephan’s appreciation of dual-organized conferences. In addition, we can focus on insights (issues) that the Global South provides, that go beyond the current conversation in the North and West. In this sense, multipliers (see SRM’s comment) also catalyze new research streams for all of us.
    {:=>)

  6. One example is LAEMOS – an initiative of the European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) to work with scholars in Latin/South America. Two years ago, there was a conference in Cuba and this year there is one in Chile – where I am writing from. The conference is held in English but there is simultaneous translation (into Spanish in Chile) for a number of the sessions. There is more information about this activity at laemos.com

  7. The issues Stephan raises are just as relevant for academic conferences held in Europe. In the field of educational studies, for instance, you can ‘count’ the few researchers coming from the Southern countries, while those from the Northern/Western parts clearly dominate the scene. The prominent factor here seems to be language. European academic conferences are typically run in English, without resources being available for simultaneous interpreting. This puts the francophone academics from the South at a disadvantage. Most striking, the example of France (actually a ‘Western’ country!): In the chapter of vocational studies, for instance, French academics account for less than 2 percent (on average) of all conference participants, their number being as small as those from Italy or Portugal, despite the high research standards of France in this field. Obviously, the francophone countries have their own regional conferences and networks. However, much effort is still needed to bridge the North-South and anglo-francophone divide. EU-supported programmes and projects play an important part in this. An interesting feature: the most active academics from the less represented countries have adopted the role of multipliers, transmitting ideas and information across the divide.

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