Transforming the Doctoral Defence: Remote-Access Technologies and Social Space

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Lockdowns and social distancing measures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have made remote participation a necessity for a wide range of social situations. This article examines one example: the abrupt transformation of the Finnish doctoral defence into a remote-access experience facilitated by video-conferencing technologies. The event is regularly centred on a formal public academic debate, rife with local academic ritual and ceremonial formality and firmly tied to the assumption of physical co-presence in the material space. Following the tradition of spatial conceptualisations of the digital, we draw inspiration from Henri Lefebvre’s theory on the production of space, particularly the analytical framework of the spatial triad, which enables regarding the doctoral defence as a social space made up of relations between things. As remote-access tools are introduced, new actants enter the field; the relations they mediate are affected, as is the social space that the relations constitute. This facilitates the examination of the effects that remote-access technologies have on conceiving, perceiving and living the doctoral defence, and ultimately on the social space as holistically understood. Our analysis is based on observations of remote-access defences and interviews with doctoral candidates who defended their doctoral theses remotely. Our findings highlight how the social space of the defence is both curtailed and broadened by remote-access technologies; some relations that make up space are narrowed while others stretch sufficiently to be included. As a result, the remote-access defence conceptually counts as the real thing in our material, but it remains unsatisfactory as an experience. This finding suggests how to mediate social space without reducing it: focusing on the lived experience and ensuring that it is not inadvertently distorted.
Tuukka Lehtiniemi & Sonja Trifuljesko