Monday, 20 June 2011

ICS PhD Conference: Thoughts on the theme

This year's conference theme was "Constructing and Deconstructing Identity:Challenges to Communicating Who We Are." As mentioned in the plenary session at the end of the day, we chose the theme for a number of reasons. Firstly, we felt the theme needed to be broad enough to attract interest from across several academic disciplines, not simply communications studies. Opening the conference up to students in history, political science, psychology, sociology, etc. was important to us (and interdisciplinary studies are also important to research councils, so might as well start thinking across academic borders now!). Secondly, we wanted to choose an original theme, so we avoided the topics that had been used in previous year's conferences (new media, media & politics, etc.). Finally, we liked the way it sounded when it was all put together, especially the "challenges to communicating who we are" part. It sounded like an academic conference theme--broad enough without being overly broad, intellectual but accessible.

Throughout the planning process, I really didn't think my research project had any relation whatsoever to the topic. On the day, though, as I sat listening to the papers and keynotes, I came up with an identity angle for my work. Student exchange participants often report "life changing" experiences, and this could include a reshaping or reconstruction of identity. Some Fulbrighters have talked about how their time abroad made them more patriotic--it enhanced their sense of national identity. Others have talked about how it reshaped their world view--it shifted their identity towards a "citizen of the world" sentiment. One of the most commonly reported changes was the idea of "finding yourself"--a realisation of identity full stop. As an aside, a couple of years ago I had a look at the online profiles for my mom's 40th high school reunion, and noticed that the people who mentioned that they'd taken time off to travel and "find themselves" now looked much older and more haggard than those who didn't "find themselves". My mom was too busy having a life to "find herself", by the way, and she looks great. (For more on finding yourself, see Stuff White People Like #120)

To sum up the findings of the conference in terms of my research project, the Fulbright experience can indeed reshape a participant's identity. A former Fulbrighter will always include their grant on his/her CV, and might name-drop the programme in social or academic situations. But it can also reshape how they identify themselves, as an American or a citizen of the world, as a liberal or a conservative, as a researcher or student, etc.
The big problem I'm running into now, however, is how this shift in identity can be accurately, scientifically measured...


  1. Ms. Sisson: Great piece, which I had the pleasure to cite in the "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review."

    Best, John Brown

  2. Thank you John! I very much enjoy following your blog as well. One minor correction to your post--although I research Fulbright grantees, I'm not one myself. All the best, Molly

  3. Molly, Correction made on blog. Apologies. Best, john