Making Sense of Conferences

— Jessamy Perriam —

At first glance, a conference panel about researchers working with conferences sounds rather meta but the rationale was earnest. Panel organisers Alison Cool, Baki Cakici, and Nick Seaver remarked that many STS researchers spend time at conferences as part of their fieldwork or by way of investigating how knowledge or networks become stabilised over time. This panel explored the performativity of conferences in communities of practice.

Christina Holmes, Mavis Jones, and Fiona McDonald spoke about their fieldwork at a conference for proteomics (HUPO) that spanned five years. During this time, they attended this conference to understand how lab standards for proteomic research were discussed, developed, and enforced. By attending this moving fieldsite each year the team was able to observe the level of interest vested in research standards, in comparison to other areas being discussed such as research findings. They found that there was little appetite amongst scientists to discuss standards (which were affecting the viability of their research findings) in this conference setting.

In my paper, I described attending a conference workshop afternoon centred around demonstrating how customer service representatives could use social media analysis and customer service tools. I argued that these workshop sessions are similar in nature to the ‘theatre of use’ described by Smith (2009) and Coopmans (2014) in that they exist to sell a product to a customer. And yet the sessions also exist to ‘configure the user’ (Woolgar, 1990) because there are hands-on elements where participants used the software based on the company’s instructions.

Victoria Neumann, Angela Prendl, and Nikolaus Pöchhacker spoke from the standpoint of conference organisers, creating an event that could be inclusive to all attendees. Neumann described the importance of organising the seemingly mundane aspects of a conference that could be vital in ensuring inclusion. This involved making decisions about gender neutral restrooms, allowing participants to specify preferred pronouns and, providing vegan refreshments. Their paper challenges conference organisers to configure events in such a way that all participants are able to contribute equally.

The final paper from Maikos Rafael Speiss and Marcos Antonio Mattedi analysed the 4S conference to argue that ’scientific meetings are a sociological paradox – they are frequently attended but seldom discussed’. They analysed available data from previous 4S meetings to examine whether the conference has a Matthew effect (i.e., accumulated advantage) regarding the gender and geographic location of researchers presenting papers. While gender is happily split 50/50, they discovered that there is not as much geographic diversity in participants. Hopefully 4S 2018 in Sydney, Australia will go some of the way as a remedy.