Fieldnotes from the AAS/ASA/ASAANZ Conference 2017

Two of your familiar strangers are currently participating in the 2017 Australian Anthropological Society’s Annual General Meeting in Adelaide, this year held in collaboration with our UK and NZ anthropology colleagues. As such, we thought we’d do some “studying sideways” and take a look at some of the cultures of anthropologists in a conference setting. Of course, none of these should be taken as universals – merely general observations. 

Conference Themes

Conferences seem to fall into two categories. First, there are small conferences where the theme brings in only those who are already mulling over a specified topic or concept (e.g. another conference we were at last week, the Mundane Governance Conference, consisting entirely of papers using Steve Woolgar and Daniel Neyland’s book ‘Mundane Governance’). Second, there are larger conferences with broader themes that bring a range of different ideas to the table. The AAS conference is definitely the latter, with the highly malleable theme this year being ‘Shifting States’. Here, you can expect plenty of gold nuggets, and to spend a significant amount of time marvelling at how presenters bend over backwards and stretch semantics to the limits, trying to make the theme fit their pre-existing work[1].

Conference Dress

We are not the first to blog about this awkward anthropology fashion matter (e.g., see ‘how to dress like an anthropologist’), but the question of dress code is still contingent on climate and weather. Here in Adelaide for instance, summer has already arrived, bringing 38-degree heat and hot winds. A wide range of clothing is acceptable. What you can be sure of is that the classic “suit and tie” combination that might be common elsewhere has no place here. Rather, for men, loud shirts, sometimes t-shirts, cargo-pants, and thongs or sandals are requisite wear. Even shorts are within the realm of plausibility. A wide brimmed “bushman’s hat” is an optional but approved-of addition. For women, cotton dresses, cotton skirts, cotton pants and cotton tops, ideally with at least one item that is patterned, and of course, ‘statement jewellery’ (the statement depends on the person, naturally). A light scarf is useful for when the air conditioning gets too much. Wearing an ‘artefact from the field’, or something gifted to you by your interlocutors is also a possibility… unless you’re a forensic anthropologist, or a primatologist, in which case, gross. In any case, if you’re too stylishly dressed you may risk being mistaken for a sociologist (as Simone Dennis bantered on The Wholesome Show recently).

Conference Presentation Style

For a lot of young, up-and-coming academics, going to conferences is very much a baptism-by-fire. First papers are presented, and often ideas from a thesis or other major work are presented in their first public outing, or as what ultimately becomes an early iteration of work. Hoping to offset anxiety and obvious critique, most young presenters come over prepared – pre-written speeches, immaculately prepared powerpoint presentations, suits, or fancy dresses. For older academics however, the conference may simply be one of twenty, thirty, fifty or so that they’ve presented over their career. While always an opportunity to present new research, it’s also a time to catch up with old friends, meet new people, and enjoy the atmosphere. With an already-established reputation, though, long familiarity with content, and none of the same stress, the presentations of senior academics seem far more relaxed. Speaking off the cuff, a handful of slides, sometimes none, and a… shall we say, peripheral relationship to traditional timekeeping.

Conference Panel Etiquette

At a massive conference like Shifting States, there are many panels running concurrently, in many different buildings all over the university. A panel (for the uninitiated) is a combination of papers/presenters, usually 3 or 4 in any given 90-minute period, grouped around a particular theme such as ‘religion’ or ‘the intimate anxieties of peoples of X regional area regarding Y social issue under Z circumstances’ (it can get pretty specific). At some conferences, it is expected that you will attend ALL the sessions of the panel in which you present (solidarity y’all!). At others, such as this one, it’s understood that you will probably skip around panels depending on your interests. However, if you try to play the system by moving between panels while they are on you SHOULD expect to receive death stares and potentially even death threats – especially if you try to climb over people to get to a chair!

Asking Questions at Conferences

Why, you may ask, would you need advice on how to ask a question? Surely this is something you’ve been doing since you first asked your parents to pass the Bourdieu at age 2? Nay, friends, for conference questioning has a specific structure:

  1.     Even though the presenter will be the one to answer the questions, it is the convenor’s job to decide who will get to ask the questions. Make sure you are making eye contact with the convenor, not the presenter, when trying to get your question on the agenda.
  2.     Questions for all presenters may (or may not, at the convenor’s discretion) get grouped together at the end of the panel, rather than each presenter being questioned individually. At the end of a presentation, when the convenor says, “we’ll move on to the next presentation and save questions to the end, unless anyone has a burning question or needs a very quick point of clarification?” What this really means is, “if you raise your hand right now, you’re dead to me”.
  3.     When asking a question, it’s important to always begin with, “thanks so much for a fascinating presentation. I just had one (or two, three or four) question/s…” then give a substantial premise, usually based on your own research whether it is directly related or not, THEN ask your question. Anything else will be considered overly abrupt.

The Conference Dinner

Although we haven’t had this yet, there’s been plenty of chat about it in anticipation. In the lead up to the conference, many of the ANU PhD students agonised over whether to shell out the $90AUD – a good 9 times more than your average PhD dinner out – for the privilege of eating at the grownups’ table.  Even the established academics seemed hesitant though. The consensus seems to be, as far as we can tell, that if a group of you want to get dolled up and go together, do it. If you don’t have a group to attend with, however, it’s highly likely you’ll end up sitting at a table of people you don’t know, who all know each other really well. Painful.

Homo Academicis en Colloquium…

Do we have a point? We’re glad you asked. Only that any in-group population, discipline, profession, has idiosyncrasies that are just as opaque to outsiders as any other. It can’t hurt to turn our anthropological gaze on ourselves every now and again, right? Anthropologists are an especially funny old bunch. Take it all with a grain of salt, if you will (here’s to commensality!), and enjoy the final days of Shifting States!

[1] See feature photo of our own Jodie-Lee Trembath retrofitting her work on foreign academic identities to fit the theme… nice.


[Image by Simon Theobald, of Jodie Trembath presenting at Shifting States 2017] 

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