As part of my part-time life-mission to figure out how to make better conferences, I pose this question:
*What is the point of large conferences having organizing “themes”?*
As a case to consider, this year’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association has the organizing theme “Social Conflict: Multiple Dimensions and Arenas” (meeting, without a shred of irony, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV). The theme goes like this:
Social conflict is constantly in the headlines, in the breaking news, but also under the surface of social life. Wherever there is change, struggle, or domination, there is conflict. Social conflict involves many dimensions, including not only economic and power struggles, movement dynamics, and violence, but also forms of inequality and domination latent with conflict, and practices which resolve conflict or which divert attention from it. Sociology is the only social science that takes conflict as a major topic, and the only field that throughout its existence has been crucially centered on class, race, and ethnicity. New fields focused on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are also concerned with conflict, but the intellectual driving force in most of these fields is a sociological perspective. There is a reason why sociologists were heavily involved in the rebellious movements of the 1960s and 70s—sociologists are experts at understanding both power and group mobilization. This has continued to be sociology’s special strength.
Apart from the theme being the clear “pet” of whomever happens to organize such a massive conference, and apart from shaping the plenary talk(s), these themes, in my experience,
(1) fail to shape the broader conference, and
(2) tend to be fairly dated (i.e., so mainstream that they fail to generate much innovation).
So, what is the point of large conferences having organizing “themes”?