With another successful SAANZ conference behind us (thank you Otago!), I thought it an appropriate time to reflect on the wonders of these sociology events, along the way making some personal and potentially libellous observations on my fellow attendees (let’s hope so anyway).

Like the academic equivalent of a Spinal Tap movie, it’s easy to become a little jaded and cynical about the point of sociologists getting together to show off their runaway egos, eccentric presentation techniques, and impressive drinking habits while they grumble about the hotel accommodation (no hair dryer, view of another carpark) and lack of facilities on offer in the city they find themselves in for a few days (anyone for public transport? Probably not). However, there are reasons to see all these things as part of the odd beauty which makes our conferences much more fun than others, despite the dark abyss that stares back at you from the bottom of the conference bag on your arrival at registration.

I still carry the faith that there will be a keynote, plenary session, or general presentation at these conferences which will blow me away with the sheer force of their argumentation, wit, theoretical interrogation, and intensity –that I will be inspired all over again, and leave the lecture theatre with the same enlightened glow that I had many years ago when I first picked up a sociology book and thought “wow, sociology is just incredible!” I think I have witnessed some of these talks, but can’t recall any right now (including my own). But I’ve come to realise that these things don’t make or break sociology conferences, there are more pressing issues to dwell on…

It’s a truism that the point of such get-togethers goes well beyond the formal programme. For example, we underestimate the socialising component of sociologists coming together as a group, including those from our very own institutions and departments. Recently I bumped into a colleague at the airport, on the way to the same conference; we were the first of our party to fly in so we met up for a meal that the evening. I learnt a lot. Those few hours were probably the most extensive conversations about our research, teaching, supervisions, and future plans we’d ever had. Away from the demands of the office, our colleagues (and our postgraduate students) appear to be more relaxed and on their best behaviour (well, sort of), and there is –finally– time to meet for drinks. Grudges, if there are any, are temporarily dropped. We find out what our students are researching (who would have guessed?), and occasionally, yes, we even sow the seeds of future collaborations. Nevertheless, let us not forget the potential for sheer enjoyment of sociologists coming together to intensely debate ideas and intensively socialise at the same time –in the wise words of the late Jock Young on the early years of the National Deviancy Conference at the University of York, it was “hectic, irreverent, transgressive”, but “above all, fun.”

There are, of course, the possibilities to meet with (or at least accidentally bump into) new sociology people, discuss ideas and research, and quite possibly console each other on a disappointing publisher we both have in common (don’t get us started). This often ad hoc ‘networking’ component of the sociology conference cannot be underestimated, nor the results precisely quantified, but over the years of attendance it has certainly made a sizeable difference to my own work –book contracts, book reviews, contributions to edited collections, and my most extensive research collaboration to date have all come from those chats over coffee which have taken place between conference sessions.                   

And, when all else fails, there’s still conference bingo to play! What follows is a list complied in collaboration with some fellow sociologists at such a recent break in proceedings (read: while at the bar). See how many you can spot:

At the conference

  • Complaints from your colleagues about the conference programme, reception drinks, the conference dinner, the conference bag, the size of the conference bag (is it large and sturdy enough to hold my shopping in?), the conference fee (hello TASA, where did all that money go?! Not on the lunch buffet by the looks of it), the women’s conference breakfast held before dawn, and so on;
  • Complaints about being scheduled to speak during the “grave yard shift” (e.g. the last day when everyone heads home/to the beach);
  • Academic throws wobbly because publisher table does not have their recently published opus for sale (extra points when said academic has near breakdown at spying competing academic’s book proudly on display at the same stall);   
  • Academic X desperately trying to avoid academic Y (the one they are destined to bump into at every conference);
  • The invisible attendee (you hear rumours throughout the conference that they have been sighted, but they never appear);
  • Inspirational, celebrity keynote speaker whose presentation is far from inspirational (a recent example from the European Sociological Association conference might rhyme with ‘Cowman’);   
  • At the end of the conference, attendees complain that it just wasn’t as good as last year, while also sagely predicting (without any evidence) that next year will be much better.

In the concurrent sessions

  • Chair of session begins by announcing “let’s take all questions for the presenters at the end of the talks”–count how many times the first presenter gets a question from the audience (extra points if you can still remember anything about this talk)’
  • Talk begins with failure to find PowerPoint slideshow button, presenter announces that “I’m not from here, how do I work this?”;
  • Count the number of times acronyms are used, and not-so-witty wordplay is employed in presentation titles;
  • Count the number of times presenters mention Foucault.
  • Presenter includes the following in their talk:
    • “This is a work in progress” [read: I’ve not had the time or inclination to prepare this talk, what follows might well be chaos];
    • “I haven’t done any interviews/transcribing/research/work yet, so these results are tentative, and I’m happy to have comments” [read: help!];
    • “I won’t go into detail on scholar X, because I think we’re all aware of his/her ideas” [read: I haven’t read up on this stuff yet, but you really should have];
    • “This is what I like to call… [add dynamic new phrase, which means the same thing as a sociological concept that’s been around since the 1960s];
    • “Further research is required” [read: I’ve yet to do a proper literature review on this topic, hope there’s not much else out there].
  • Count the small number of times the presenters stick to the time-limit, and the equally small number of times that the Chair holds them to the time-limit;
  • Questions from the audience are proceeded by “that was a very interesting talk” [read: that was not a very interesting talk];
  • Count the number of mansplainer comments offered to female presenters (for example, “that was a very interesting talk. However, this theory [detailing of which then proceeds to eat up all available question time] would seem to better explain your findings”).

Overall, what I believe SAANZ conferences in particular offer us is a friendly, unpretentious community of sociologists and friends, who have a well attuned mix of the serious and the absurd, the joyful and, yes, the occasionally inspirational. I’m proud to be part of this community, and that is why I will keep coming back to join in with the complaints and the celebrations of those conference bags. See you in Wellington in 2018!

Dr Bruce Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland – Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau