Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The 14th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology

Faculty of Education,
Aristotle University
Two weeks ago, I attended the 14th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology, a pretty small conference with some 160 participants from all over the world, held in Thessaloniki (Θεσσαλονίκη) during the greek financial crisis, with general strikes, protests, riots and police interventions. Although we did not experience much of that on the Aristotle University campus, i intend to comment on the greek situation at the end of this blog post.

This was my first academic conference. An academic conference, or symposium, is a conference where researches present and discuss their work, and this is usually done by presenting a ‘paper’ written for the conference. The first thing that struck me was how these papers were presented. With few exceptions, they were actually read out loud, word by word, with no or very few visual aids. Some presenters accompanied their reading with beamer presentations, sometimes with the actual text of the paper projected in a tiny, unreadable font.

Reciting the paper worked for some presenters, but for the most part, it didn't. As a pretty experienced lecturer, I tend to think that the aim of an oral presentation is to mediate my idéas and theories to the listener, that is, carefully guiding the audience into my world of terms and ways of thinking. Reading a paper out loud is not always the best way to do this. On the contrary, academic writing is often an exercise in complex formulations and precise nuances, something that is easily lost when reciting a text. It is very difficult to do justice to a text, particularly if English is not your native language.

Still, I get the idea that ‘presenting a paper’ at a conference means, litterary, to read the paper out loud. The paper is a work in progress to be discussed. However, since discussions constrain to a few minutes (at best) at the end of the presentation, reading a paper out loud seem like a waste of time. ‘Give me the text and I'll read it myself’, was something I thought more than once. Better consider the presentations a didactic situation, as any other lecture at a university (although that does not mean things necessarily get better).

The second thing that struck me was that the world ‘dialog’ is the current buzz-word in theoretical psychology circles. This was not only reflected in paper titles such as On dialogue in educational contexts, Rethinking dialogicality, The role of rhetoric in a dialogical approach to thinking, and Twelve sensitising questions for examining dialogicality, but also in the seemingly mandatory references to either Lev Vygotsky or Mikhail Bakhtin.

This is an aspect of what is sometimes refered to as ‘the sociocultural turn’ in psychology, or the view that culture, as a ‘web of meanings’, precedes psychology. Culture is not something that is added to the biological constitution of man, but the very foundation of mankind itself. All human understanding is rooted in culture, and thus social and interpersonal. All knowledge is socially constructed, a result of interpersonal processes, and ‘objective’ knowledge is simply a fallacy. I guess this is where the ‘dialogicality’ comes in, as a kind of umbrella term for all those interpersonal processes in which we construct our knowledge of ourselves, others and the world.

Manolis Dafermos (Μανόλης Δαφέρμος), assistant professor at the University of Crete (Πανεπιστήμιο Κρήτης), tried to put this ‘dialogicality’ in a historical context with his paper Greek philosophical dialogue and modern psychology, where he compared the ancient greek dialogue of Plato with its conteporary conception in psychology. I will return to his paper in future posts.

A large number of papers were presented at the conference, of which I could attend only a small fraction. To me, the most worthwile presenter was Stavroula Tsinorema (Σταυρούλα Τσινόρεμα), professor of contemporary philosophy at the University of Crete (Πανεπιστήμιο Κρήτης), who presented a paper titled The body-mind problem on the interface between psychology and epistemology: a philosopher's perspective. The body-mind problem and related questions of consciousness happen to be part of my greatest interest, and professor Tsinorema made a thorough review of the concept, from Aristoteles, over René Descartes, to modern neuroscience.

Though, the most rewarding aspect of the conference was not the presentations, but meeting and chatting with all those like-minded researchers, not to mention the celebrities within the field of theoretical psychology. I must admit that I felt pretty proud and respectful when professor Jeff Sugarman approached me, gave me his card and told me to get in touch if I had any questions (some half an hour before I had mentioned that I was reading his and Jack Martins work on hermeneutic psychology).

Of course, there were also some gossip, like who-has-said-and-done-what and who-sleeps-with-whom. I guess that is a part of all human activities, including academic conferences.

Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, this conference was held in Greece during the protests and riots regarding the austerity measures the greek government is forced to implement. On tuesday, there was a general strike among all government employees, and about one third of the conference participants did not make it to the keynote speaker from their hotels since all public transportations stopped. Athanasios Marvakis (Αθανάσιος Μαρβάκης), the conference general, informed us on the situation. There is a strong feeling among the greeks that the austerity measures are unjust, party because greeks in general can not see their part in the crisis, party because the austerity measures are unequally implemented. As the anonymous economist behind the blog Redesigning the foot writes:
Imagine a place where one person earns 91,000 euros and 9 others earn 1,000 euros. Now try and tell these people that, as their average wage is 10,000 euros, they are earning too much and so they must all accept a cut in their wages. How would you expect them to react?
This economist, who calles himself Albert John on twitter (I have tried to figure out who he, or she, is), claims that the Greek crisis actually is due to the structure of the Euro. In fact, he argues quite convincingly and I really recommend his blog, since even a non-economist like me can understand how things stick together. That said, I am thankful that Sweden chose to remain outside the Euro.