Physical distancing and the PhD researcher’s ‘invisible college’: What are the implications?

Lisa Howard

Like many of us during this pandemic, I feel somewhat anxious about the future. Among other things, I think about what the post-Covid19 world means for my current PhD and my career post doctorate, considering the implications of a prolonged period of remote and physically distanced interactions. In this piece I want to talk specifically about my concerns for lost opportunities for face to face contact, and how this might impair my and other PhD students’ stake in the ‘invisible college’.

The invisible college is a term originating in the 17th century to describe the informal interactions of a small group of like-minded scholars, with the aim of exchanging academic knowledge. Beginning as an exchange of written letters, the need to further ferment ideas for intellectual flourishing led to regular in-person, small group meetings at Gresham College, London. This locally-based exchange of ideas would later challenge the religious and academic orthodoxy of the time. The invisible college continues to operate today as a global, self-organised community of collaborating scholars, and is understood as one of the essential structures by which knowledge is created. While modern life affords us the technology to substitute in-person collaboration with video calling and other media, sociologist John Urry reminds us of the limitations of our networked sociality for building the connections that depend on being co-present. Personalised trust is formed when we can personally know people, and I would argue is harder when we’ve only ‘met’ them online or on a videocall. Co-presence involves rich, dense and multi-layered conversations using body language and eye contact to create intimacy and reciprocity which are difficult to re-create through technological communication.

Even when we’re eventually allowed to meet in person at a ‘safe’ distance, will there be places to meet? The early meetings of the invisible college were held within a supportive institutional setting of Gresham College. The academy is already demonstrating its risk aversion to aiding Covid-19 transmission by its recent 18-month moratorium on in-person fieldwork. In addition, the politics of space and place are significant for capitalist processes, requiring a spatial fix for continued accumulation. Universities will be facing financial black holes with the loss of international students, and are likely to exploit the opportunity to recoup lost revenue by saving costs in building and office spaces. We are already seeing the development of virtual teaching and learning for the new academic year. With this in mind, I am not optimistic that on-site sociality will resume even after the government begins to loosen lockdown measures. 

I miss the buzz and atmosphere of being co-located with peers and colleagues. I feel sadness for the lost chances for corporeal mobility and proximity, for the situated social practices that build rapport, trust and social capital, and foster collaboration. The networking at conferences, conversations with peers in social spaces, catch-ups over coffee, forging new contacts at seminars and other small on campus events are very difficult to recreate in a virtual space. I fear this will impede not only the discussions and exchange of ideas that shape my research field, but also the connections that could contribute to future job opportunities. The disembodiment of our current social life may be profound for academic life as we once knew it. We will adapt, out of necessity. But it’s clear that the invisible college, perhaps taken for granted before now, will in future not be as well supported by conducive institutional places and spaces. The responsibility will fall more on the individual to find ways to build their invisible college.

Lisa Howard is a first year PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

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Sophia W.

I teach in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and am interested in the politics of everyday life, in China and elsewhere.

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