Globalization, Modernity and Urban Change conference

A Knowledge/Culture Conference

30–31 March 2015

The 'Globalization, Modernity and Urban Change' conference was organised by the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University (opens in a new window). It was held at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

'Globalization, Modernity and Urban Change' was part of the Knowledge/Culture series of the Institute for Culture and Society, and marked a new stage of collaboration between the Institute and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. The process of collaboration had been initiated in Hanoi in July 2014 with the signing of a memorandum of co-operation.

Paul James, Ien Ang, Pham Quang Minh and Nguyen Van Suu stand together at the conference in front of a green curtain and a conference sign.

Above: Professor Paul James and Professor Ien Ang from ICS with Professor Pham Quang Minh, Vice-Rector, and Associate Professor Nguyen Van Suu, Department of Anthropology, Vietnam National University for the Social Sciences and Humanities. 

The conference was organised to explore how processes of globalisation, urbanisation, and modernisation have been intertwined in a complex web of cultural, economic and political change. In Vietnam, for example, greater economic flows into and out of the country since the late 1980s have generated rapid growth and development. This is evident in intense urbanisation and consumption, expansion of mass and online media, the emergence of diverse forms of popular and youth culture, increased demand for education, significant expansion in tourism, pressures on the environment, and much more.

This conference brought together an international group of speakers—including from Vietnam, Australia, Germany, France, Korea, Japan, and Malaysia—to discuss the meaning of this massive change and to explore its consequences for collaborative engaged research.

Delegates came from many universities and institutions: Australian National University; Australian Embassy in Vietnam; Daejin University, Korea; Institut de Recherche pour le Développment, Paris; Institute of Political Studies, Vietnam; Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan; Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Vietnam; Tokyo Metropolitan University, Japan; Thu Dau Mot University, Vietnam; Vietnam Academy of the Social Sciences; Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies; Vietnam Museum of Ethography; Universiti Sains Malaysia; University of Bremen, Germany; University of Göttingen, Germany; University of Queensland; and the World Bank.

The conference was opened with a series of official addresses and messages of welcome. Nearly 200 people attended to hear Professor Pham Quang Minh, Vice Rector for Research Affairs, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, discuss the importance of partnership and describe the formation of the collaboration between the two universities, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities and the University of Western Sydney. Professor Nguyễn Văn Khánh, Rector of University of Social Sciences and Humanities, talked of the interdisciplinary basis of good knowledge and the importance of making what he called an 'effective contribution' to urban change. This he linked to the foundational question of understanding everyday practice in the context of urban change. Mr Nguyễn Văn Phong, Deputy Director, Hanoi Party Organization's Propaganda Department, discussed the centrality of the questions of globalisation and urbanisation in the future of Vietnam. Ms Kim Cleary, Australian Education and Science Counsellor, Australian Embassy, came back to the question of partnerships, stressing the partnership of Australia and Vietnam. She addressed the conference theme directly, describing positive potentials but suggesting that change is not always positive, and needs to be managed well. Professor Paul James, Institute for Culture and Society, UWS, took his cue from the previous emphases on the importance of partnerships and the complexity of managing change to suggest that the themes of globalisation, modernity and urban change open up the biggest questions of our time. Echoing Kim Cleary, he ended the opening ceremony by suggesting that carefully managing the complexity of urban change has become imperative.

The Institute for Culture and Society was represented by three academics: Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins and Paul James.

Professor Ien Ang in her keynote address, 'Cultural Research for the 21st Century: Navigating Complexity', suggested that globalisation has, together with technological change, brought about many developments, but it has also comprehensively unsettled social life. Science has brought both new knowledge and new uncertainties, but scientists are almost powerless to solve complex and boundary-crossing problems such as climate change. She argued that there is a pressing need to navigate complexity in relation to what happens on the ground. 'Engaged research', she suggested, provides an appropriate and useful orientation to knowledge by taking complexity seriously, and by recognising the entanglement of the global and the local.

Taking forward Ien Ang's emphasis on 'engaged research', Paul James, in his keynote address, 'Urban Change in Global Perspective', outlined a series of urban challenges. He contended that these challenges have become so complex that it was now important to recognise that social change has brought with it new paradoxes and contradictions. There are no longer any singular answers, if there ever were: certainly not the current confidence that economic growth is the answer. He outlined a way of developing a contingent but global set of principles that remain open to being argued through, contested, negotiated, and enacted at a local level.

Professor Gay Hawkins brought her address to bear upon local practices and meanings, discussing 'Plastic in Hanoi: The Changing Material Textures of Consumption and Waste in Vietnam'. She framed her talk by saying that she was using plastic as a way of 'thinking through materials' — working through how materials such as plastic bear upon how we live. She suggested that the global process that has seen plastic becoming a central material object in the way people organise their lives, has had the effect in urban Hanoi of marking a shift from a culture of careful reuse to one of disposability. At the same time it has also been linked to local ways of managing waste, including through the emergence of recycling craft villages. These periurban villages have become transformation zones that send plastic pellets back into global circulation. The challenge becomes to think of production and consumption and recycling as interconnected relations — not as separate parts of a simple linear process.

The conference concluded with a roundtable discussing the basic challenges to cities. Ien Ang underlined the importance of navigating complexity. When we think about the future we face uncertainties, she said, but it is possible to work our way through this uncertainty and precarity in creative ways. Dr Nguyen Van Suu, convenor of the conference committee, responded that the themes of the conference, urban transformation with the continuing intensification of globalisation and modernisation, had attracted so many delegates because of their centrality to our world. Areas still be explored include the tensions and confrontations between the people and the law and between different groups, including across the urban/rural divide; and the opportunities that emerge from the challenges. Professor Pham Quang Minh summarised the conference by saying the challenges are comprehensive. Our aim is to study the past and present in relation to future possibilities. In this process we can learn from each other as together we explore local and diverse places in global context. The discussion turned to qualify the telling phrase 'people make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing' by a strong recognition of the creativity of even those who seem able to choose the least.