Research findings, impact enhanced: let's face the conference and dance

August 12, 2010

Shy, retiring types look away now: presentations at a forthcoming academic conference will be delivered through song, dance and theatrics in an attempt to overcome the "deadening" effects of PowerPoint presentations and fulfil funders' injunctions to maximise the impact of research.

The Biennial Qualitative Research Conference, to be held at Bournemouth University from 6 to 8 September, will showcase "performative social science" as a way to convey research in disciplines such as health studies and business.

Sessions on songwriting, open-mike poetry and improvisation will also feature, and some delegates have contributed "permanent displays", such as a "quilt that encourages dialogue and reflexivity" and "a kinetic art installation in various materials focusing on the skin as the medium for social interaction".

Kip Jones, the conference's organiser and member of Bournemouth's Centre for Qualitative Research, said the idea of performance had sprung from the boredom he often felt when attending academic conferences.

"When you watch a different PowerPoint presentation every 30 minutes for three days, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn't the best way to communicate," he said.

He added he had heard that academic journal articles are read by an average of only five people - "a very depressing and challenging statistic after all the blood, sweat and tears of getting articles published".

Dr Jones, an American who has lived in the UK for 11 years, uses film to convey his own research into the sociology of relationships. He admitted that, like many academics, he is not a natural performer.

"There's a type of person attracted to the academic profession as a way of removing themselves from the hustle of life," he said. "But I'm often surprised by the people who do come forward. Some are even too keen and can be annoying."

He said he had also learned from the 2008 Qualitative Research Conference, where some delegates had been "unsettled" by performances being sprung upon them. "This year it will be more confined to performance areas that people can scurry through if they want to," he said.

A Danish academic and former circus performer's intention of doing a trapeze act had been ruled out on health and safety grounds, he added.

Sixty per cent of the conference sessions will be non-performative and Dr Jones admitted that performance was unlikely to replace traditional academic output.

"You can't get the same detail in a performance as in a paper, but you can provide links to more information," he said. "The days when you could produce three papers and speak at two conferences are gone. The research councils want to know how your research is going to get out there, and there's something to be said for getting there first."

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