The Scientific Conference: a Social, Cultural, and Political History
SciConf began as a collaborative research project funded by HERA’s fourth joint research programme, “Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe” (2019-2022). The research group also received funding from the Wellcome Trust. Now that the grants are completed the group is finding new ways to continue the research.
International conferences are standard features of scientific life today. Since their emergence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, some 170 000 of them are estimated to have taken place. Still the reasons for this rise, and the functions that conferences have fulfilled in scientific practice, have rarely been studied.
In the joint research project, “The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History” (SciConf), a European team of scholars studied conferences, not as a background for other, ‘real’ action, but as a phenomenon to be grasped in itself. What happened at scientific conferences? How have they exchanged knowledge and shaped expertise? What forms of sociability have developed in these meetings, what rituals have been performed? How have scientific conferences embodied social hierarchies and international relations? How have they informed policies on relevant subjects? The project looked at conferences as “public spaces” and addressed these questions through that lens.
Some of our findings
1. International science conferences are major nodes of scientific communication. Not only of new or emerging knowledge, but of tacit knowledge concerning science-specific social norms, hierarchies, and identities. For young researchers they may function as a kind of finishing school that prepares them to become part become members of an international academic community. To others – depending on all intersectional categories of exclusion – they convey the message that they do not belong. Conferences are hence indicative of how scientific cultures have varied over time and (despite being “international”) place.
2. Conferences serve many purposes. Beside the communication of knowledge and norms, they promote broader agendas relating to the internal affairs of scientific communities and to their constituencies: commercial, political, diplomatic, or public. Because of their multiple and multi-layered functions, there is hence no single measure of the success of a conference. It may fail in some respects and succeed in others. A recurring theme in our sources is for example complaints about having to listen to boring papers. Though the communication of new knowledge is an important aspect of conferences it has clearly sometimes been secondary to other functions.
3. Conferences are not what they seem on paper, in conference publications. The conference experience is often curated by organizers who consider aspects such as the optimal site and size, the mix between different kinds of expertise or personality, geographic representation, even food and entertainment – all to achieve goals that vary widely depending on the character and objectives of the meeting (varying from small and goal oriented to huge and wide-ranging). Spontaneous networking is often seen as a valuable aspect of conferencing. We have noticed that this is also often curated.
4. Conferences are shaped by material infrastructure. Their functions, even their existence, depend on communication technologies: from train or steamship services via jet flight to the world wide web. Changing communication infrastructure accounts for important changes in conferencing, for example regarding geographic spread, the number of international meetings (both increasing with the speed and diminishing cost of travel), and accessibility on site (loudspeaker systems, tape recording and so on).
5. Conferences are not isolated events even though they are sometimes promoted as such. They often exist as nodes in a longer history of collaborative activities, including their preparation and afterlives. This timeline, which sometimes go far beyond the events themselves, is foregrounded when conferences are understood as part of the history of international organisations and associations. Organisations and conferences constitute each other. Often, they engender one another, with organisations arranging meetings and meetings giving birth to organisations.
The final report of the SciConf project can be downloaded here.
- Uppsala Universitet, Uppsala, Sweden
- Birkbeck, London, UK
- Centre Alexandre Koyré (CNRS-EHESS-MNHN), Aubervilliers, France
- Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands
- Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands