Conceptualizing “Difference”

Stephan Ritscher Announcement
United Kingdom
Subject Fields
Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, Humanities, Philosophy, Political Science, Social Sciences

Conference and PhD summer school

Monday 8th – Tuesday 9th June
PhD summer school, Wednesday 10th – Thursday 11th June 2020

Organized by
Anna Sophie Lauwers and Fredericke Weiner

Hosted by the
Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL), University of Aberdeen

Call for application is now open
Deadline for submission: 7th February 2020


The idea of ‘difference’ governs today’s political thinking. Struggles for equality and justice are generally concerned with recognizing and protecting differences, not least because varieties of difference, including gender, sexuality, race, religion and language are used to justify political oppression, discrimination and exclusion. Difference has become axiomatic to political debate and therefore requires further reflection and analysis.

This conference aims to explore and interrogate ‘difference’ as a political category. First, we aim to map categories of difference structuring political life, in past and present, and across and beyond the global North. How and to what effect have categories of ‘difference’ been fostered historically, debated philosophically and in politics, fought over by social movements, codified in law, transmitted through education and the media, and lived out in everyday life?

Second, we aim to explore more meta-level questions about what ‘difference’ means in the first place. How did our modern thinking about ‘difference’ come about? What roads of political thinking does it facilitate, and which does it close off? And can we think beyond ‘difference’?

In seeking answers to these questions, we intend to facilitate dialogue between a range of approaches, including but not limited to liberalism, republicanism, Marxism, de- and postcolonial, feminist and queer theories. We invite papers on a wide variety of topics, approaches and disciplines.

Indicative topics include:

  • Is it possible to identify a common concept of ‘difference’ across contemporary debates about recognizing and accommodating difference (e.g. identity politics, multiculturalism, tolerance, diversity, post-secularism)?
  • How and when did modern understandings of ‘difference’ come into existence? How have categories of racial, religious, human and other ‘differences’ related to projects of colonialism, state formation, Enlightenment thinking, nationalism, capitalism etc.?
  • How are contemporary accounts of ‘difference’ influenced by religious traditions?
  • How have implicit assumptions about the Orient/Occident, religious/secular, irrational/rational, conservative/progressive, and other binaries shaped the conceptualisation and practice of civil society, democracy and human rights?
  • What role does ‘difference’ play in the constitution of identities and (political) communities?
  • How has the recent surge in populism changed the role that ‘difference’ plays in democratic politics?
  • What ‘difference’ are salient in law and constitutions, and to what effect?
  • What varieties of ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’ are promoted in educational contexts, including universities?
  • How have existing categories of ‘difference’ been problematized and deconstructed, e.g. in debates about transgender or posthumanism?
  • How do concepts like creolization, in-commonness, alterity, queerness, intersectionality or plurality approach ‘difference’ and do they offer ways to go beyond it? Can ‘difference’ be theorised in a way which preserves its alterity or are all such attempts ultimately limited to the vocabulary of the familiar?
  • How do various disciplines presuppose different understandings of ‘difference’ (e.g. theology, anthropology, philosophy, political science, critical race studies, literature, gender studies)?

Format and confirmed speakers

The conference will be held at the beautiful Old Aberdeen campus of the University of Aberdeen on Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th of June. Confirmed speakers include:

  • Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut who has written extensively on race and racism, postcolonial phenomenology, aesthetics, Africana and black existentialism and the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon.
  • Sabine Hark is Professor of Sociology at the Technical University of Berlin and the director of the ZIFG, the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies. Her recent publications include Unterscheiden und Herrschen (2017).
  • Gurpreet Mahajan is Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include hermeneutics, democratic theory and multiculturalism.
  • Anya Topolski is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her work focuses on European identity and exclusion, racism, antisemitism and islamophobia, Jewish thought, and ‘Judeo-Christianity’.

After the conference finishes on Tuesday 9th, most of the speakers will decamp with a select group of PhD students to The Burn, a country house and estate near Aberdeen, where we will hold the PhD summer school. We will begin by reflecting together on the conference discussions and by participating in small-group discussions on a number of related readings, before responding to presentations on the topic by the PhDs. There will also be time to walk around the estate, and to enjoy the company in the house. We will return to Aberdeen after lunch on Thursday 11th  – some visitors will travel out on Thursday evening and others on Friday morning.


1. Instructions for prospective conference speakers

Prospective conference speakers will normally have a PhD in hand, and are invited to register here with an abstract of around 200-400 words by by 7th February.

Speakers will have up to 15 minutes. We are not necessarily looking for polished research papers but for provocative responses to our questions that will help to spark energetic discussion among a very diverse group of participants from across the humanities and social sciences. At least half the conference time will be set aside for discussion.

Accommodation will be provided for speakers, once accepted, but please indicate if you also wish to apply for funds to cover travel costs. We would normally expect you to obtain some funding of your own, but we can often provide the first £250 of travel costs for accepted speakers.

Note that we normally expect funded speakers to stay for the two-day PhD summer school after the conference (see above).

Questions about funding should be directed to
Questions about the programme should be directed to and

2. Instructions for PhDs interested in the summer school

The summer school is intended to give PhD students the opportunity to:

  • relate their research to broader, inter-disciplinary debates on citizenship, civil society and rule of law, with a view to rethinking and developing their arguments
  • present their research in a supportive setting and receive feedback on the content and form of their presentation
  • discuss their research informally with scholars and with other PhD students.

Successful applicants will attend the conference on Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th June, and then participate in the PhD summer school on Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th June.

Successful PhD applicants will also receive board and lodging for the duration of the conference and summer school, as well as the first £200 of their travel expenses. In return we ask that you commit to:

  • preparing a 10-minute presentation, drawing on your PhD research to address the topic
    • after your presentation you will receive questions and comments from the scholars and other PhD students
    • you are also expected to pose questions and comments about the presentations of your fellow PhD students
  • doing the selected readings in advance of the summer school
  • engage where possible during the conference

Summer school applicants should register here by 7th February.

Hosting of conference

The conference and PhD summer school are hosted by the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL), which is part-funded by a Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND grant.

CISRUL studies the application of political ideas globally. The Centre draws on expertise from seven disciplines to examine how political principles function within and beyond the contemporary West. Concepts such as ‘citizenship’, ‘civil society’, and the ‘rule of law’ are used as often by policy makers as by scholars. Core to CISRUL’s mission is informing academic and public debate on how they are used, and to what effect.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 754326.


Contact Information

Questions about funding should be directed to
Questions about the programme should be directed to and

Contact Email