Large international scientific conferences of the early and mid-20th century often had extensive and luxurious social programs. Ceremonies, banquets, excursions, and touristic visits were some of the main activities, in many cases of significant financial cost. They spread across longer periods of time, even weeks after the end of the conferences and were oriented towards consumption and leisure. From today’s perspective, the touristic dimensions of conferences can be seen as environmentally destructive, unnecessary, and easily replaceable by digital, potentially more inclusive, and less time-consuming alternatives. These criticisms are not new. As indicated in my study of chemical conferences in the 1950s, like the congresses organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) conference organizers and participants saw conferences as excuses for travelling and celebration, and their vacation atmosphere as a danger for the future and purpose of conferences.
Despite their criticisms, the social components of scientific gatherings are still prevalent today and often framed as networking activities in large conferences. Conference networking maintains some of the formats of earlier social programs, like dinners and drinks, but it is also performed in digital environments such as zoom break-out rooms, discord servers and Twitter threads. During the coffee breaks and parallel public discussions on Twitter, participants get the opportunity to exchange thoughts on the presentations and to display their individual contributions and achievements in their field. Connecting to fellow scholars with similar research interests, fostering collaborations and getting their work ‘out there’ are the desired outcomes of networking sessions, accepted and pursued by both the organizers and the attendees. Networking is marked by conventions and tricks structuring the self-presentation of the participants. Some examples, easily found by googling “How to network at an academic conference”, are: : “Identify in advance whom you want to meet”, “Pay attention to your body language”, and “Be bold and send out an email or direct message (DM) via Twitter to whomever you want to network/work with”. The clear and practical aims, conventions and structures of networking raise questions as to why festivities, excursions, and leisure activities were and still are a central part of scientific gatherings. How was their existence justified? In my case study, the answer appears in several speeches and toasts given in some of these large gatherings: the proclaimed aim was to build an international scientific community, to bring scientists together and create pleasant memories.
And how was this community-building achieved? Was it different from today’s networking? Getting to large international conferences often meant that scientists had to travel alone or in groups for long periods of time. They left their daily lives behind, including their rhythms, habits and routinized practices, interactions and relationships of their working places. In this new state, they consumed alcohol and food, and experienced leisure – exposure to art, nature, dance, and spectacles organized for their entertainment. The standardized nature of this leisure was a factor in the construction of a shared identity for the participants, focusing on bourgeois consumption and an enjoyment of the arts. In my case study, the conference organizers were not scientists themselves, and perceived the scientists as a homogenous entity. They curated activities that enabled the manifestation and reproduction of this entity; when the press covered the conferences, they cemented its public image. Family was often a central part of this process, as indicated by the existence of separate social programs for the spouses of the attendees, called the ladies’ programs. Integrating the family life of the scientists in conferences functioned as an additional way of facilitating interactions between the participants and ultimately of highlighting the commonalities between their lives. Shared memories and friendships were built and maintained even long after the end of the conferences, through correspondence and visits during which the extended community of scientific families was reunited.
It becomes clear that today’s networking and the mid-20th century luxurious social programs of chemical conferences have some things in common: both rely on the cultivation of collective ideas and standards of what makes someone part of the scientific community. But in the case of networking, the value of the interactions between the participants is reduced to career building, and their goal becomes the communication of the scientists’ individual professional achievements through the management of their self-presentation. Particularly in today’s virtual conferences, interactions has become more focused. The time spent on them is condensed, and they take place in parallel with scientists fulfilling other duties, like replying to emails or cooking for their children. This temporal dimension differed in the social programs of the large gatherings in my case study. Since their end goal was socialization, memory-making and community-building in a broader sense than the individual professional development of the participants, time, leisure and consumer goods were used to immerse the scientists in the conference experience. Conferences were a distinct period of their professional lives, detaching them from their other obligations, but at the same time maintaining a connection to their personal lives, cementing more long-term bonds reliant on family and friendship connections.
The contrast between these two modes of conference socialization generates several questions about the present and future of conferences: Does the shift towards the time-condensed and career-oriented networking between individual scientists mean that these other forms of socialization have become obsolete? Which of them serves better a profession and community built so centrally on collaborations over long periods of time, creativity and inspiration? How can we measure the success of each respective way of interacting? These are questions for both scientists and conference organizers, two often overlapping positions, stirring the priorities and directions of sociability in the scientific world through the technique of conferences. We’ll just have to wait and see.