At this time of year, as the students migrate during the dry season, our little patch of Liverpudlian savannah is invaded by a tribe I call ‘the name badge people’. If one were drawing up what zoologists call an ethogram, a careful list of every type of action an animal makes, one would immediately note that they all wear name badges on their chests and that their other distinguishing traits are a craning of the neck and puzzled look as they search for the toilets.
They have come for a conference. Across the world, the planning and hosting of conferences has become a lucrative branch of corporate hospitality, and universities have muscled in on this business, with mints, biscuits, notepads and pens laid on like tea-making facilities in hotel rooms. I wonder if the market in easel pads and flip charts is seasonal to accommodate these yearly arrivals.
Interestingly, the name badge people generally gather together in a group size no bigger than that of a traditional tribe. In the mid-1990s, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a much-discussed theory of gossip. Beginning with the observation that monkeys groom each other to consolidate alliances and hierarchies, Dunbar argued that gossip evolved as a sort of ‘vocal grooming,’ suitable for the larger groups, say 150 people, in which humans live. Perhaps the conference as social practice is also a form of vocal grooming.
In Alan Bennett’s 1988 documentary Dinner at Noon, in which he stays at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate, he encounters several of these away days and conferences. ‘Oddly touching I find these middle aged schoolboys,’ he says in the voiceover, ‘still wanting to learn, still convinced they can do it better, wives left at home who they’ll go up and phone later, to tell them how well their group did in the test.’ And in his memoir The Gatekeeper, Terry Eagleton writes, perhaps less generously: ‘Conferences are liturgical celebrations, affirmations of solidarity, symbolic spaces for those who speak a language (whether of socialism or orthodontics) unintelligible to most of their fellow-humans, and who therefore need from time to time to relax with those of their kind, as a cross-dresser might feel the gathering urge to withdraw from the world of the bank or bakery and ease into a pair of corsets.’
Mundane quote for the day: ‘There is an innocence, an unworldliness about most sociological writing which can be its greatest charm. With the possible exception of public relations, I can think of no field of cultural activity in which the expert seems to start off with so much less information than the ordinary citizen. This island is now full of voices announcing with an air of discovery that people do football pools and watch television and go dancing … The result of these gestures torwards objectivity is often that he begins to sound like a Martian – dazed by so much novelty, moving on from one topic to the next just when he seems about to say something that might interest a human being.’ - Kingsley Amis, ‘Martians bearing bursaries’, 1962