Convention Conventions. Rituals of Participation in Regular Chemistry Conferences, 1910-1960
This case study follows a set of run-of-the-mill conferences to study their rituals: speeches, dinners, excursions, opening ceremonies, as well as the roles of spouses, students and dress-codes. We will focus on chemistry as a ‘typical’, yet war-torn, discipline.
Although preceded by one-off meetings such as the famous 1860 Karlsruhe Congress on atomic weights, international conferences in chemistry only gradually became regular occurrences after 1900. Experimenting with different forms, a standard conference format emerged after 1919, under the auspices of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), with the customary openings, keynote speeches, parallel sessions, receptions, excursions that are still in use today. Especially after 1945, alternative meetings were developed, such as the Gordon Conferences – smaller, more informal, or exclusively for work-in-progress.
This case study examines the forms and functions of the conference culture that emerged in the course of the century. If, as Emile Durkheim held, religious rites are expressions of a society celebrating itself, then conference rituals can be studied as expert communities celebrating and articulating their own existence and coherence. Such practices have to be understood against continuous threats of disintegration. In addition to the usual sources of conflict, including theoretical disputes and priority claims, chemistry was plagued by rifts over the balance of industrial and academic interests, and the passionately experienced national antagonisms. Especially after the First World War and the large-scale involvement of chemists in the arms industry, tensions grew to the point of mutual exclusion, and were repeated with the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s and the Cold War after 1947. Celebrating community at international conferences was in part a response to these developments.
Conference culture involved rites but also roles. In a male-dominated world, special roles were particularly set apart for professors’ wives, who often accompanied their spouses and were vital in establishing networks, not only amongst themselves (e.g. in “lady programs”), but also between their families and husbands. Recent work has shown the importance of domesticity in shaping professorial relations; this can be extended to private interactions at conferences.