Some contributors to this roundtable have been asking questions about the unspoken purposes of conferences. I want to bring a related but different set of questions to the table: Why are conferences regulated in the way that they are? What is the significance of their ‘rules of procedure’?
We’re no doubt all familiar with the general format and ‘rules’ of the conferences we’ve attended. For example, you usually need to apply to be able to give a presentation. If you’re granted a space, you need to register (and pay!) in advance, and send in your abstract and credentials. You’ll be part of a panel of related papers. Your contribution will be timed, and the chair of your session will tell you when to stop. Papers are usually followed by discussion, and if you want to ask a question you need to raise your hand and wait your turn. Disagreements with other panellists have to be expressed in certain, generally muted ways, focusing on the technical subject matter, and avoiding personal insult. Perhaps we can think back to more explosive situations at conferences, when controversies threatened to go out of control, but they stood out precisely because the rules were apparently not followed.
Where do these kinds of ideas about procedure come from? The social norms and ideas about civil behaviour in the societies we live obviously play an important role. Some ideas about conduct also arise in the context of the group that is meeting at the conference: different professional fields and disciplines might have different work cultures and ideas about what constitutes appropriate etiquette.
But a genre of manuals or handbooks conferences and their rules of procedure points us to a broader dimension. I’m thinking about books like Edward Eyre Hunt’s Conferences, Committees and Conventions and how to run them (1925), Frederick Sherwood Dunn’s The Practice and Procedure of International Conferences (1929), or Normal Llewellyn Hill’s The Public International Conference, its function, organization and procedure (1929), among other examples. The bulk of these were written in the interwar decades, for the consumption of both conference organisers and conference goers. They talked about things such as the process of appointing officers to the various organising committees, the invitation of participants and the verification of their credentials, the settling of the agenda, the chairing of the discussion, the write-up of the minutes, the release of information to the press, the counting of votes, the assignment of speakers for keynotes and closing speeches, the editing and publication of conference documents. These accounts of procedures were written primarily with diplomatic conferences in mind, but many of the authors declared that the broad rules for successful conferences really applied to all conferences, regardless of their subject matter – commercial, religious, political, and scientific conferences. They might differ in details, the authors declared, but the similarities between them are more important than the differences: the fact that there are rules of procedure, and the way in which they regulate interaction, is what really matters.
Underlying these accounts was a much bigger idea, namely that conferences could help to construct and regulate the international sphere. And this is where the question of rules and procedures far exceeded the microcosm of the conference itself. Conferences did not just serve the overt functions of sharing information or creating professional cohesion, they were also supposedly a means of teaching participants in how to think and behave ‘internationally’ – in how to listen to speeches and absorb facts and different viewpoints, how to debate, compromise and come to some agreements. These agreements could, depending on the type of conference, take on the form of treaties or conventions, or academic papers, editorials or even plans for future meetings. But, regardless of whether it was a conference of diplomats or physicists, ‘following the rules’ could supposedly strengthen internationalism and form a stepping stone towards a world without war. The extent to which this applies today (or ever) is another matter.