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The First Annual Conference

17 April 2023 | Back to news list

The fellows present their research for the very first time, coupled with panels on the concept of dissensus and Prof. Petra Bárd’s keynote address.

Daunting but thrilling. Those are some of the best words to describe the feelings shared by all sixteen of us fellows as we sailed through our first annual conference. For all the pesky doubts and flashes of angst, we will always cherish it as our great baptême du feu, our gruelling right of passage, into the world of academia.
Truth be told, our adventure began prior to the actual conference, since we had to submit a rather exhaustive self-evaluation report to our respective supervisors a little over a week before the event. Granted, it was quite a challenging exercise at this stage to reflect upon and formulate our general research puzzle, our research questions and hypotheses, our research design and case selection, our theoretical framework and methodological approach, and the social relevance of our topic. However, it also constituted an opportune moment to take stock of our research efforts five months into the doctorate, and if need be rethink or reorientate our current focus. Moreover, it allowed us to give our supervisors a comprehensive "status update" on our research, where we could highlight our progress and improvements but also our doubts and obstacles (spoilers: there were many). Hence, the self-evaluation report really helped to clear up our thoughts as best we could and to put each one of us and our respective supervisors on the same page, which made it all worth it.
The self-evaluation report also gave us the chance to reflect upon the collective aspects of our doctorates. In terms of intellectual collaboration, we were asked to think about the concept of dissensus, namely how we make sense of it and how it might fit it into our individual research projects. We were also encouraged to provide a detailed outlook of our research goals and activities for the next twelve months, along with a more tentative plan for the rest of our doctorate. All of this helped strengthen the cohesion of our overarching project on dissensus in/over/around liberal democracy(ies), and fine-tune our common research agenda based on our rates of progress. From a practical standpoint, finally, we were asked about our current training provisions and prospective training needs (i.e., methodology courses, ethics approval, publication guidelines), along with our working relationship with our two or three supervisors.
Once our self-evaluation reports were submitted, we then had to prepare for the actual conference. The format itself was rather straightforward: a ten-minute presentation, coupled with some optional slides, followed by remarks from members of the project and questions from the wider public. At first sight, this seemed like no big deal since we are all familiar with oral presentations as part of our studies and perhaps our work experiences too. And yet, hardly any of us had presented the state of our doctoral research before, and certainly not in such a formal manner to a crowd of professors and researchers. The idea of a full-fledged academic panel made up of speakers, moderators, discussants, an academic audience, and what is more on our own specific research, was no less terrifying than it was exciting. Once this prospect settled in, the melodrama of last-minute binge reading, slide editing, note printing, oral rehearsing and wardrobe picking unfolded. Sure enough, though, we all came to realise that this was not a do-or-die situation and that our nightmarish scenarios would surely not come to pass. Thanks to the mutual support and encouragement we gave each other beforehand, and Frederik's reliable blend of in extremis guidance and reassurance, we all strode towards the conference with a sense of "not-too-nervous-but-please-make-it-quick-life-is-great-btw-whats-on-the-menu-tonight".
That feeling was all too palpable on the first day of the conference upon arriving at the Institute of European Studies (IEE), but sure enough it dissipated after lunch with the captivating workshop on concept-formation held by Vivien Schmidt and Benjamin Braun. Both made remarkable impressions on us fellows, as they discussed the challenging process of coming up with original and useful theoretical concepts in their own research. Schmidt, of course, was hardly unknown to many of us (especially those in political science) given her path-breaking reflections on 'discursive institutionalism'. The latter has matured into one of the staple constructivist frameworks of analysis for exploring the nature and dynamics of political change in more structured institutionalist contexts. As such, it was a true privilege for her to share with us the background story behind this widely-cited and commonly-used approach to studying institutional politics, and in particular to give us some honest advice about the difficulties we might face when coming up with our own concepts. Braun, for his part, gave us a more practical account of how concept-formation actually works. He recounted his own intellectual pilgrimage towards the concept of 'infrastructural power', as part of his work on the political behaviour and leverage of financial markets from a political economy perspective.
The rest of the afternoon was fittingly spent on the concept of dissensus – as one of the cornerstones that binds all of our research topics together – with two distinct panels on its internal and external dimensions. Although we had already brainstormed this central concept at our opening event in Brussels last October, and given it some more thought during one of our workshops in Cluj late January, these two panels offered the most substantive and comprehensive discussions of the concept to date. Its semantic and theoretical properties were rigorously laid out by Ramona Coman, Nathalie Brack and Akif Özkardes in the first panel through both “negative” conceptual dissociation and “positive” conceptual specification, based on their ‘thinkpiece’ which had been circulated internally prior to the conference, and further developed upon by Luca Tomini, Seda Gürkan, and Marta Matrakova in the second panel from the viewpoints of international relations and comparative politics. However, both panels went further in discussing the analytical implications and empirical manifestations of this concept (or as an inductive mind would put it, the empirical phenomenon(s) that the concept aims to capture). As such, a wide variety of perspectives grounded in law, comparative politics, political theory, political analysis, international relations, political economy, and political sociology coalesced around this seemingly irresistible yet somewhat elusive concept of dissensus. In spite of all the lingering disagreements, nuances, and question marks, fruitful and stimulating exchanges took place which helped refine its core features. Had we to venture into these dangerous waters and give our own consolidated take on dissensus (no liabilities assumed), we would define it somewhere along the lines of: a subtype of conflict over liberal democracy, whether it be its core values, institutional traits, or social, political, and economic consequences, whereby various actors confront each other over how it is conceived, materialised, and threatened or undermined in a range of European and international contexts.
The second day was pretty much D-Day for us, with all sixteen fellows lined up in different thematic panels – modelled on the four working packages (WPs) of the project – to unravel their (very tentative) research topics before the GEM community for the very first time. Anna, Debora, Édouard and Sofie started us off, with Antoine Vauchez, Pola Cebulak, Amandine Crespy, and Geert Van Calster as discussants. Pedro, Vlad, Larissa, and Guillaume came up next, with Nathalie Brack, Özlem Atikcan, Christina Eckes, and Chloé Brière as discussants. The afternoon resumed with Katharina, Samir and Marija's presentations, with Adriano Dirri, George Christou, and Ramona Coman as discussants, before Benedetta and Giulia took over, with Adriano Dirri, Anne Weyembergh, and Chloé Brière as discussants. Luigi, Jing-Syuan, and Serafine were the last (but certainly not the least) to go on stage, with Aude Merlin, Marta Matrakova, Frederik Ponjaert, and Luca Tomini as discussants. Throughout this nerve-racking yet rewarding day, each one of us received all manners of at times direct yet constructive comments, incisive questions, helpful suggestions, and considerate advice from members of the GEM community. Some professors and researchers truly went out of their way to give us feedback, during the panels but also the various breaks in-between. This, above all else perhaps, is what made this day so special and meaningful to us: the fact that our supervisors and so many other academics really cared about and valued our incipient research.
Professor Petra Bárd had the honours of concluding this memorable day, and the conference as a whole, with her long-awaited keynote address on the erosion of democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights within CEE states and her native Hungary, along with the lacklustre response of the EU institutions to date. Needless to say, these are some of the first countries that come to mind when one thinks of dissensus over liberal democracy within the EU, and yet Bárd managed to surprise us with her meticulous account of the politico-legal struggle between these dissenting governments and the EU institutions, most notably the Commission and the Court of Justice. As a Hungarian citizen and an academic affiliated to the Central European University (CEU), moreover, Bárd embodies the dilemmas of a scholar whose research inevitably becomes political. Not only is her work being politicised by her detractors, but the independent, critical perspective it provides on these issues itself ends up constituting an act of political resistance.
To conclude on a lighter note, the final day of our reunion in Brussels was spent at the Press Club Brussels Europe, where we underwent a series of workshops on media training under the guidance of Maria-Isabel Soldevila Brea, a knowledgeable and experienced journalist serving as the GEM's Communication Officer. With a particular focus on the audiovisual press, we were taught some of the basic considerations to keep in mind when reaching out to or being contacted by various types of specialised and general outlets. As it happened, we were all more terrified of an improvised mock interview in front of a live camera than of our formal presentations before a crowd of full-fledged academics. The moral of the lesson, therefore, is that you should always wait to worry – unless Maria-Isabel is waiting for you around the corner with a camera operator.