What is the point of conferences?
Last week I sat dazed through an EU conference on aid, grappling with presentations in Spanish, English and Portuguese and fending off powerpoint poisoning (the acute version produced by academics putting up page after page crammed with tiny text and saying ‘you probably can’t read it, but what the table says is…..’). During brief periods of consciousness, I reflected on the role of conferences. After all, I (and lots of other people) spend several days per month at them, so they probably serve some purpose, but what is it?
First let’s dispose of the obvious one – they are only of limited benefit as places to acquire detailed knowledge – you’d normally learn much more from reading the papers on which the presentations are based and in the international ones, half the people are usually too jetlagged to take in much anyway.
So here’s an alternative. Conferences play a crucial role in the formation and renewal of ‘epistemic communities’ – transnational networks of knowledge-based experts who define for decision-makers what the problems they face are, and what they should do about them (in this case, aid and development).
At these tribal gatherings, two main processes occur. Firstly, evolution of the system of ideas and opinions: think of the conference as an intellectual ecosystem full of competing ideas. A conference brings them together and allows them to interact – some grow stronger, others weaker. Following the ecosystem analogy, the random mutation of ideas is subject to selection, and the winners multiply. This matters because, as James Ferguson wrote in ‘the Anti-Politics Machine’, ‘the thoughts and actions of development bureaucrats are powerfully shaped by the world of acceptable statements and utterances in which they live’.
Hostile ideas (‘aid is bad’) are rapidly surrounded by the conference equivalent of white blood corpuscles and killed off. The assassination
is usually polite (speakers ignored, academic putdowns about opinions being ‘counterintuitive’, that sort of thing), but more vigorous epistemic communities (economists for example), can be quite brutal.
The second process is about individuals and their institutions. Conferences are beauty parades where pecking orders constantly evolve. This happens at all levels – speakers, questioners, and the networking over long coffee breaks and meals. ‘That was a good question’ ‘Loved your presentation, could you send me the powerpoint?’ ‘Didn’t think much of X’. By attending them, you brush up your language and buzzwords, find out what’s in and what’s out. Apart from the strokes/slaps to individual egos, re-positioning in the pecking order affects research funding (for academics), consultancies (for consultants) or your access to decision-makers (for NGOs).
And if you work for an organization like Oxfam, you try and influence that evolution by nudging things in a certain direction – last week, stressing how much political trust Europe would lose if it breaks its aid promises was probably more important than my more evidence-based presentation of our research on the global economic crisis (our final paper on that is now out by the way – see here).
If you think of the epistemic community as an organism, conferences thus help it evolve, develop cohesion and adapt to shifting external threats and opportunities, fending off hostile attacks and improving and renewing ideas and pecking orders. Without them the community would atrophy. Just don’t expect to learn much.