Visiting conferences abroad: cherries on top of an academic cake or an absolute necessity?

Yazililtasby Demet Yazilitas / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

Early June 2014 I attended the International Science and Mathematics Education Congress organized by the Educational Research and Publications Associations (ERPA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The visit was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) to which I am very grateful. Though the main purpose of my visit was to present my own work and to meet and learn from other researchers working in similar fields, the visit turned out to be much more than that. During my visit I got acquainted with the city of Istanbul, also known as the City of Cities by Turks, in ways I did not before. This blog is essentially about the extras of doing a PhD –of which going abroad to attend conferences is an important one – and the additional learning experiences that come with those extra’s.

City of intersections – Istanbul

The last visit I made to Istanbul was 9 years ago and I was surprised to find the city even more magnificent and energetic than during my last visit. To some extent this probably relates to the combination of splendid summer weather and the neighbourhood in which the congress took place, namely Beyazit Square in the district of Fatih on the European part of Istanbul. Besides being close to the city’s main tourist attractions, the square is also adjacent to Istanbul University’s main campus where the congress took place. Established in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – immediately after Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople – it’s Turkey’s oldest university.

Main entrance of Istanbul University

The history and grandeur of Beyazit Square was one of many marvels the city had to offer after my arrival. The district of Fatih is generally considered to be the heart of Old Istanbul. Some of Istanbul’s most important architectural buildings are situated here, including Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and Basilica Cistern. Although I had visited this particular neighbourhood before, it had changed in many important ways, of which the introduction of Marmaray was only one. In 2013, Marmaray was opened for public after years of delay. It is best described as a high-speed metro-line that partially runs under the Sea of Marmara that connects Europe to Asia in only a few minutes.

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An impression of Marmaray – connecting two continents

On the day of my arrival I called an old friend who lives in Istanbul to meet up and have a coffee. He had migrated 8 years ago from Paris to Istanbul for work and I was eager to hear his stories about life in Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. He told me to take the Marmaray and get off at the last stop at the Asian side after which he would pick me up in order for me to meet his wife and have dinner at his home. I did as he said, thinking that he probably lived near this last stop since this last stop was already quite far off from the city centre – at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise we had to drive for an hour or so before we reached his house. The city kept on going as we drove further and further away. Skyscrapers and construction sites as far as the eyes could see. At that moment I started to realize how big the city actually is. With a population of 14.1 million this is perhaps not surprising. When we arrived at this home, he and his wife, assured me that this still wasn’t the edge of the city. It was still within reasonable distance. They lived in East Ataşehir, at Eastern part of Asian side, of which you can find an impression below.

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Ataşehir – cities within the super-city

The supersized city as a magnifying glass

Besides the distance and all the skyscrapers, there was one other thing that caught my attention. When I entered my friend’s home I was introduced to someone who I thought was a family friend. Later this person turned out to be the housekeeper from Georgia who lived with my friend and his wife. This was, I have to admit, a bit of a surprise to me. In the Netherlands I personally don’t know anybody with an in-living housekeeper although outsourcing of household tasks such as cleaning has become rather normal, even among single households. Having an in-living housekeeper is therefore something I still associate with old movies and Victorian costume drama’s in particular. My surprise is also related to my upbringing in a welfare state in which social inequalities between “the haves” and “have nots” are much less visible to the ordinary eye. This is of course not to say that there are no similar manifestations between these groups in welfare states as ours. It’s that they are less visible. The scale of a super city like Istanbul in this sense probably acts like a magnifying glass for social processes of all sorts, both the positive and negative, and all at the same time.

City of intersections – history and present

Over the next days, as the congress and my stay in Istanbul progressed, I would slowly start to understand some of these processes along with the vastness of the city. In 2009, research conducted by the London School of Economics referred to Istanbul as the “City of Intersections”, which I think is a very good description of the state of the city, both in the literal meaning as in a more symbolic. Examples of the literal meaning immediately come to mind when we speak of a city stretching out over two continents. An example of the more symbolic meaning includes the sight of two women, sitting next to each other at a restaurant, and one of which is dressed in a niqab and the other in a short and bare dress. Never, at any congress, or in any other part of the world I have visited, did I witness something similar. This is I think the strength of places like Istanbul, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. And that in itself creates a kind of flexibility in attitude that we in the West, I am inclined to argue, are not used to nor completely understand.

The rootedness of diversity and the importance of the Ottoman era in today’s Turkish culture

The importance of diversity in Istanbul is probably rooted in the city’s specific historical context  as one of the most diverse and tolerant empires of all times – the Ottoman empire – and the city’s specific geo-political importance as a city connecting two continents. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 16th and 17th with control over many of the countries around the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North-Africa. The city’s importance as the capital and home of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multinational and multilingual power is still very much engrained in the collective memory of most Turks and Istanbulites. The recent revival of the Ottoman era and it’s artistry and craftsmanship, e.g. in architecture, jewellery, fashion and interior design, are only few examples of this. Popular use of the ‘tughra’–  the Ottoman calligraphic monogram or seal – ranges from tattoo’s, t-shirts, home wall and car stickers. Other examples include multiple TV shows that are inspired on the Ottoman history and/or take place during that particular period, including the hit-show ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’. Translated as The Magnificent Century it is currently one of the most popular shows in Turkey. The show mainly deals with the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan of all the Ottoman Sultans, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, who used to be a slave girl from what we now know as the Ukraine. Moreover, since the shows first broadcast in 2011, it has reportedly gained an international audience of 200 million viewers with broadcast in 59 different countries, including USA, France, China, Russia and China. One last interesting example concerns the construction of mosques around the world based on the Ottoman style, e.g. the Nazimiye Turkish Masjid in Midrand, South-Africa that was built in 2012. The renewed interest in the Ottoman era and culture is thus not limited to Turkey but well exceeds the country borders.

To understand today’s Istanbul, and for that matter Turkey, is to understand its history as a multiethnic power. This history is of course not only limited to the Ottoman era, but starts well before that with the history of the Anatolian peninsula as one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world that saw many different rulers throughout its long history. However, one cannot understand this history without understanding the country’s specific geographical location on the brink of two continents. This specific location is of course deeply imbedded in the region’s history and that of its neighbors. Taking into account how history and place are interconnected over time is of course not an easy task to venture on, nor something that one can do within a few days, weeks or perhaps even years. Nonetheless, this visit has inspired me to do just that. I think that places like Istanbul, where all of these things come together, are very important to visit especially for sociologists, since time, place and history are key factors that we always need to take into account in our work when we try to understand how groups of people interact in any given society.

Visits like these might be considered by many as the perks of doing a PhD – the figurative cherries on top of an academic cake –, the extras that come with hard and lonesome work of an academic but that’s not how I see it anymore, at least not for sociologists. I think that when you claim to investigate social behaviour and are interested in finding out why certain groups of people act in certain ways you cannot disengage from getting acquainted with different cultures and places. Here I thus argue that going abroad and taking time to understand differences is therefore an essential necessity for all sociologists and we should not think otherwise.

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Demet Yazilitas is a PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of social, institutional and psychological factors on gender and ethnic differences in natural science choices of high school students in the Netherlands and Sweden.

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