The Wisdom of Conferences?

During a rousing visit to Penn State, Fabio Rojas and I were discussing the organization of conferences and he suggested that I take some of my insights and hunches and put them to the test. In particular, we were discussing the idea that a group of attendees might better organize a conference as compared to one organizer or a set of expert organizers; of course, I am not talking about the logistical issues of organizing the venue, dates, etc., but the papers themselves.

In effect, we wondered if you could harness the wisdom of crowds (a la Surowiecki) for the purposes of conference improvement — whether or not you can crowd-source conference sessions/panels?

In an imperfect way, sessions/panels are already crowd-sourced, for example, at 4S, where members of the professional community do the work of organizing sessions for other members of the community. Still, this is not really what Surowiecki was describing, and I am imagining a much more radical Surowieckiian model of paper selection.

Surowiecki’s three major criteria are that the wisdom of crowds can be unlocked, but only if:

(1) a definitive answer exists or will exist such as the eventual winner of the next World Cup or, in one of the famous examples from the book, the unknown position of a sunken subermine (i.e., the Scorpion),

(2) matters of coordination are necessary, for example, where individuals create suitable trading arrangements or determine how to drive safely in heavy traffic, or

(3) matters of cooperation are necessary wherein otherwise self-interested, potentially distrusting individuals must find a way to establish, for example, what suitable compensation might be even with competing interests at play.

Likewise, circumstances must be “right” meaning that the wisdom of crowds operates most effectively under conditions of independence among decision-makers who are also, in some meaningful way, diverse and decentralized (so that they can connect and share information, but not too much as to homogenize decision-making).

Is there a wisdom of conference attendees worth harnessing?

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “The Wisdom of Conferences?

  1. Scott,.You are no doubt correct that conferences fail on the idea that there is more than one "right" answer (i.e., it is NOT like guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar). However, certainly, if the question where slightly shifted, we might understand which papers are the most popular among attendees so that they might be positioned according to average interest (rather than the guiding had of sometimes self-appointed organizers). .Moreover, as Surowiecki states (and I faithfully detail) that is only one of the possible situations where the wisdom of crowds works; the others being matters of cooperation and those of coordination, which do seem more applicable to conference organizing..So, the notion of the unconference is similar to what I was envisioning, except that it would be used by professional academic societies to organize their annual conference meeting schedule.


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