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Society for Social Studies of Science

4S News

Conference Musings


Dear fellow conferences attendees,

I want to start by stressing how much I have enjoyed and benefited from 4S conferences. This year in particular, I did not attended a single boring, obvious or simple per or talk, I did not meet anybody who was not researching something incredibly interesting; I was constantly moved, stimulated, intrigued and even entertained by all the people and things (let us not forget the food) that made this year’s event. In short, it was brilliant. However, (there is always a however) Trevor Pinch’s presidential talk and welcome remarks in the programme made me think.

During his talk he highlighted the uniqueness of our field, of our topics, and of our methods. This led me to question, what about our conferences? Have we not become slightly standardized and conservative in the way we present our work at our conferences? Then, he commented on how complicated the process of choosing which session to go to has become because the number of sessions and attendees had grown drastically since 1976. This made me remember what I had been hearing from fellow conference goers: “I can email them and get the paper” (which by the way will be more difficult this time since emails were not included in the booklet). This again led me to question if we could structure the conference in a different way.

Ruminating this ideas led me to think: While writing academic papers for academic journals in the way we do is important and necessary because we are addressing a wide public, when at the 4S conferences we are ‘at home’ within ‘family’ so we could have spaces and moments in which we could do things slightly less conventional; we could experiment with and among ourselves. Why not come up with alternative ways of interacting, of presenting our work and of commenting on it?

Clearly going to conferences is about much more than only listening to papers. Harry Collins pointed this out very clearly “...conferences are vital. The chat in the bars and corridors is what matters... Face-to-Face communication is extraordinarily efficient - so much can be transmitted with the proper eye contact, body movement, hand contact, and so forth. This is where tokens of trust are exchanged, the trust that holds the whole scientific community together" (Harry Collins, 2004:450).

This made me think that maybe we should be creating more opportunities for interaction, but a different type of interaction, something in between the informal social interaction that takes place at the bar and the formal conference interaction that takes place during the parallel sessions. I want to stress that by no means am I suggesting the elimination or transformation of the parallel sessions, I think they are great as they are, I am simply suggesting to add some new spaces for other types of interaction.These alternative interaction modes could be scheduled either on the first day before the opening keynote speakers, during lunch time or even before or after the ‘official’ conference dates.

With these vague ideas in mind I approached Trevor Pinch and, in conversation with him, some slightly more organised ideas emerged. Here I present these ideas with the intention of provoking and inviting all to think about new ways we can interact at conferences.

1. ‘Speed dating/presentation’ Like speed dating in which you have a few minutes to present yourself and exchange contact details, in this format we could present some brief elements of our work and arrange for future meetings. These sessions could be arranged around specific themes or topics, for example: methods, areas of research, theory, etc.

2. Round tables of work-in-progress. Like the ones that were experimented with at the Washington meeting. In these we present work-in-progress with the purpose of getting feedback. In this format, instead of presenting for 15 minutes and then having 5 for questions. The presentation is intermingled with the questions and with maybe handson work.

3. General presentation and then work in groups. Similar to the current sessions, the speakers present their work but in this case more briefly (max 5 minutes) and then move on to working tables where they assemble with those interested in their work to further develop the topic in a dialogue format.

4. Poster presentations Following on the traditional poster presentations used at medical meeting and other scientific conferences we could also have a poster presentation.

5. Experimental presentations. In several paper presentations I heard either the presenters or the discussants comment on how they would have liked to bringing stuff for us listeners to experience with (for example in the session Affective Ecologies both Kelly Ladd and Heather Paxson commented that they could have included chocolate fondue and cheese). Others did bring stuff but we had no time to play around with them (for example, Cameron Michael Murray & Alasdair McMillan who brought a monochord, I think that is what it was). In this format the idea is to have the opportunity of experimenting with the material the speaker is working with.

6. Workshops. These could be similar to things that take place during summer schools with topics related to the theme of that years conference or the place where it is being held (e.g. This year, we could have organised a workshop with the chefs of the New Nordic Food and the collectors of the wild herbs and fruits or with the COBE architect firm). These workshops could be scheduled before the conference begins.

These are just a few still very unstructured ideas. The main purpose of this letter is to invite all to think about new ways in which we could ake advantage of being all gathered in the same place remembering that some forms of communication can now be left for the digital realm while others still need the physical interaction of humans and non-human actors.

I again want to thank everyone for their interest and passion. Contrary to Groucho Marx, I like being part of this club.

Sandra P. Gonzalez-Santos, PhD.
Postdoctoral Researcher
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México