Conference World and the Avoidance of Thought

Having just returned from another major international conference, Professor Martin Parker is coming to suspect that they’re rarely worth the fuss

At the beginning of August, what must surely be the largest social science conference on the planet met in the glassy towers of Vancouver, Canada. Over ten thousand delegates occupied a convention centre as well as every downtown hotel room for a full five days, at least. Why such time? Why such space? Because contemporary management theory’s pressing issues needed to be discussed! The Academy of Management was in town, and the city was awash with green lanyards. Very few North America cities have the facilities to host an event of this magnitude. So why go to such complicated lengths? And why are the hotel carpets so hideous?

The young and insecure wore shiny suits and their eyes flitted nervously round the room. The professors donned XXL Hawaiian shirts and laughed both regularly and loudly, as if trying to convince themselves that it is a good thing to have amounted to this. Multiple streams, plenaries, professional development workshops, job interviews and a huge room full of publishers. Add that to breakfasts, brunches, sponsored wine receptions and invitation only dinners. Lots of people. Lots of money. Getting to, staying there and coming back would have cost most delegates around £1,500. Hosting a reception also costs several thousand pounds and at least twenty of these took place each night. Publisher and exhibitor stands also cost money and somebody, presumably, had to pay for the pens, USB sticks, torches, screen wipes and lip balm sticks we all helped ourselves to. Nearby restaurants were also packed, and the bars happily helped the delegates part with their intellectually gotten gains.

So these tens of millions of dollars are among the many reasons the conference happens at all. The professional association will make quite a lot of money, the Marriot, Hilton, Sheraton and Fairmont will do well and the hosting city will see a nice bump in tourist spending. Almost everybody wins, since even the universities that pay for delegates to go and to host the ‘Friends of …’ receptions think of it as a sensible investment in brand value. The only people who lose, it seems, are the students and tax payers who have to pay a little bit extra in order that the teachers and researchers can be here, in the city of glass, reflecting each other. I’m not so sure they’d see this as a sensible use of their money. I’m not so sure I do.

But it’s not just about the money. Conferences are places to be seen, places in which group membership is enacted and performed. The heavy drinking, the loud talking and the occasional sex is very much part of this display. Conferences are also places to share gossip next to the finger buffet, or to cruise the parties in search of free drinks. Conversations should be frothy and fast, and comparisons with last year’s conference, often including stories of heroic drunkenness, are to be encouraged. Name dropping is common, and successes must be displayed, just as insecurities must be hidden.

The irony is that this ‘networking’, the least important part of a conference, is the oil that lubricates the money machine. The ‘official’ justification, that is, getting together to pore over contemporary management theory’s pressing issues, obviously isn’t what brings people from all over the world. For if this was really what it was all about, it wouldn’t have been about ten thousand people invited, it would have been about ten. And it wouldn’t have taken place in the downtown of a North American city, but in a monastery or a country house where conversations could take place without disturbance, quiet walks could be taken and name badges wouldn’t be needed. That’s not what happened.

The various papers and talks that take place during such mega-conferences are often pretences, excuses to engage in professionally licenced gossip. Presenters are only given a short time to talk about their ideas and questions are limited. The best paper is like a buffet snack, presented efficiently in ten PowerPoint™ slides with the logo of your institution prominently displayed. It’s all just a way of saying that you were here. Conference world isn’t for learning or for thinking: it’s for selling yourself and the organization that pays you. That’s why you wear a badge, and a fixed smile, and its why, jet lag and hangovers aside, ten thousand people will be in the Academy of Management in Disneyland in August 2016, avoiding thinking by doing it all again. See you there!

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

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