Gyngyver Pataki interviews Geoff Bright, as part of ECER’s 20th Anniversary project

We post below the transcript of an interview of ESRI’s Geoff Bright by Gyongyver Pataki on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European Conference on Education Research (ECER)

How did you become involved with ECER?

One of the most interesting aspects of my own case is the fact that I got involved in research after quite a long professional career. I came into research not as a young graduate or post doc but quite late on as a professional practitioner. I had been involved in teacher education for a long time and also been involved in social sciences within the sector in the UK that is called “further education”. In fact, I only recently completed my doctoral studies.

The reason that I first got involved in ECER was that one of my doctoral supervisors had got strong links with other European researchers. He was involved in another European funded project to bring together early career researchers and doctoral students across Europe. He recommended me to attend ECER. I first attended ECER in Gothenburg in 2009. Since that time I have maintained a strong relationship with the conference for a number of reasons. I have attended every one since except Cadiz. I could not get the funding to get to Cadiz last year. I got the Gothenburg conference, followed by Helsinki, followed by Vienna, followed by Berlin then I missed Cadiz, I went to Istanbul this year and intend to visit Porto next year as well. In my role as a researcher at the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University, I consider ECER probably the most important conference that I attend. I have developed a number of contacts over the years and, after Helsinki, became quite involved in network 19, the ethnography network. At the 2009 Gothenburg conference, the network 19 people – particularly Dennis Beach – were very supportive of my work. I became close to them and quite quickly became a network convenor for network 19. I’ve now got a strong relationship to that particular network and that supports my research objectives at my home institution, Manchester Metropolitan University. We are currently keen to get involved with European funding streams. Indeed, they are now more important to us than ever before. The contact that I have in Europe is considered to be very important in my research institute.

In Gothenburg, I had a paper accepted for the main conference but was fortunate also to attend the early career researchers’ conference before the main conference. So I actually arrived in Gothenburg before the other people from Sheffield Hallam University (my institution at the time). So I had the pleasure of travelling to Gothenburg on my own. Gothenburg is a gorgeous city, in my view. I very quickly made some friendships with some people who were out at the early researchers’ conference and have maintained those friendships ever since. The university itself was attractive, too, and the events that were laid on in Gothenburg were wonderful. There was a really nice party one night. A band was playing and the catering was superb. I had a very memorable time. The fact that I found people who were interested in my work was encouraging and I loved the very open feel of the city. ECER won me over. The research is of a good standard, and the social and networking side is very important. There is always both a personal and a professional aspect to ECER.

What particularly attracts you about ECER?

For me the scale of ECER makes it fascinating. It is a large conference and I enjoy its size. There are colleagues from all over Europe, of course, but there are also participants from Australia, America that I know as well. Basically, although it is a European conference it is linked to global networks. I think that is a point that worth emphasizing. ECER doesn’t only place you at the heart of European networks but can link you into global networks as well. So the scale of it is impressive. I enjoy everybody being around during the conference week. There is always social life around you and one feels that one is part of a European community of researchers. I regard myself as a European. That is quite important to me because sometimes the UK feels like an insular little island. I am interested in the history of Europe and its varied identities. Being at that conference, I feel as if I am part of Europe rather than a ‘Brit’. It is always possible to make new friends at ECER. Though I sometimes give the big organized events a miss, there is always a chance possibility to join people in all the really lovely, informally convivial spaces that the conference seems to cultivate.

If I may discuss a particular case, I’d like to mention how one particularly significant research thread has developed for me in Network 19 and still continues to generate collaboration and partnership. Indeed, it’s the thread that you, Gyongyver, were involved in when you came to the Space, Place and Social Justice in Education seminar that we held in Manchester in 2012. That seminar originated very directly from a conversation after a Network 19 presentation in Helsinki in 2010. Some people came along to a presentation. I cannot remember who gave the presentation any more, but we were debating questions on the nature of ‘field’ and ‘site’ in ethnography. We had some conversations about how space related to ethnography. A couple of geographers came along and said: “ We do not really think that you ethnographers fully understanding the question of space and place”. It was quite a provocative conversation and we really got into it over a coffee. We said: why don’t we try and do something about this? Why don’t we try to organize an event? Basically, from that conversation I organized the Manchester event a year later. In fact, another year further on, I have just guest edited a special issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry. It developed some of the papers that were at the Manchester conference. I am also preparing another research bid related to those topics. So there was one conversation over a coffee in ECER in Helsinki in 2010 and research is still continuing three years later. This is one specific way in which the ECER networks have helped my work. It is also worth mentioning that two ECER networks (19 and 7; Ethnography, and Intercultural Education respectively) provided network funding to support researchers from the low GDP countries of Europe – such as you – to attend the conference in Manchester. This is a really important story of how ECER is much more than just a few days in a foreign city. The impact of ECER travels well beyond the conference itself.

Of course, as a conference ECER primarily offers formal spaces in which to present papers and I have to say that I value very much the feedback and concrete support that I have had in developing my own work through that process. But as I’ve said, the informal spaces at the end of sessions around a cup of coffee can also germinate ideas. The EERA structure, particularly through the networks, helps to respond to those ideas. I am still a network convenor, which allows me to participate in reviewing papers for ECER each year, which extends my knowledge of what is what happening in my own research field.

What does your attendance at ECER mean for your institution?

Well, ECER not only gives access to the European audience for one’s research work but also potentially to European funds. Issue related to economic crisis and migration have sharpened in the last five years and Europe is consequently an important place to bring together a progressive education research community. There are very significant questions of inequality, mobility that are very pertinent at this moment. They are potentially politically dangerous and certainly the changes occurring in Europe require great thought. The way the educational community in Europe responds to current questions seems to me to be of enormous significance. ECER can help to bring about very important and timely discussions. It is no longer possible for us in the UK to pretend that we have nothing to do with those issues. What is happening in Europe economically clearly impacts on UK education and UK educational research. We need to have a voice in Europe. Secondly, participating in ECER is important in terms of gaining access to EU funding streams which will allow us to go on doing research. The European contacts and projects are a bread and butter issue. They allow us to keep doing what we do. If we can maintain our links with colleagues in Europe we can actively apply for European funding. In fact, I would say ECER as a conference is now more important than it ever was because Europe is in crisis. It is undergoing massive changes and what collaboration among educational researchers can provide in that situation is important. ECER is a top priority conference for me in this respect.

What interaction do you have with the various organisational levels of ECER?

I do not have much interaction with other levels of the organization beyond my home network. I know the council is there, I can see what they are doing and I can see its impact on the network structure. Consequently, I can understand the EERA structure though the network lens but I do not really understand or know much about the operation of the structure as a whole. I do not even feel that I need to. On the other hand, the network structure is vital to me. Being part of the European network on ethnography makes a very significant contribution to my professional life as a researcher. As a network convenor, doing the reviewing which I always enjoy has helped me get the feeling of what is happening across Europe. It gives me the feeling for the standards of research and the differences in research cultures. I have got a greater knowledge what is happening in the field, and I have developed a greater knowledge of the themes that preoccupy people. I think there is a sense of collaboration where people are prepared to work with each other. Senior academics across Europe clearly welcome quite junior academics on an equal basis. That is what I have found at ECER all the time. People genuinely seem to wish to support each other and to develop ideas. There isn’t an off-putting  sense of competitiveness as can be the case at some conferences.

In general, I tend to stay around my own network. I feel that my primary practical responsibility during ECER is to support the discussions and processes around the network that I am closest to. I think it is a bit of a double-edged thing. Sometimes I might see a very interesting presentation in another network but feel I have to be loyal to discussions within my own network. There might be a young researcher starting out and I feel that it is really necessary to be in my own network, to be available to support and encourage them. Educational ethnography is my primary professional identity. So I am committed to try to ensure that ethnography as a methodology flourishes in European research. Therefore I feel that the best thing I can do is both to listen to research done by experienced people within my network but also extend our network hospitality to those presenting ethnographic work for the first time. So I stay around my network and I feel comfortable with that. That seems ok with me.

In the broadest sense, what are the benefits of ECER?

For me, the benefits of ECER are many but there is one aspect that I haven’t really developed in our conversation yet. As I said, attending ECER enables me to think of myself as a European. What I mean by that – and this is a deeply personal aspect – relates to the fact that my father fought against Nazism in France in the Second World War and was a prisoner of war for three years. His brother, my namesake, was killed in action in the Netherlands. They both fought for a civilized, democratic Europe in which lives are lived in peace and mutual respect and the scourge of fascism is removed. The fact that I am able to call myself European and think of my research as European research rather than just British research is really important because it links what I do to the sacrifices that my father and his brother (and many millions of others) made. Europe means a great deal to me, and the fact that I am a European researcher working with colleagues from across Europe helps me make sense of those painful losses.

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