What should be the main purpose of a Conference?

by Guillem Palà

What should be the main purpose of a Conference? Perhaps to make our work known, or to discuss it with others? Or even, if lucky, trying to extend the limits of the apprehensible? I think it is essential to keep these questions in mind when we scrutinise how a Conference format makes us relate with one other. 

As a young scholar, the mere fact of receiving an acceptance e-mail from a senior researcher, telling me that my paper proposal made sense, and encouraging me to take part in a specific panel was a gift given before the big event. The possibility of sharing my paper, for the first time just by myself, felt like an achievement. The challenging task of preparing the right slides already gave me the feeling that I could contribute in an on-going discussion. The excitement of every previous step is something you feel in your bones.

Fast-forward into the future: and here I am, in Lancaster, the expected crucial moment of the Conference has finally arrived. After enjoying two sessions of profoundly embodied discussions around Feminist Figures, my time to share the results of many months of work has come. With noticeable anxiety, I start talking about ontology, ethics and ecology, about shared worlds and speculation, about the doors that the closing of a PhD thesis also opens. Applauses ensue and I shyly walk back to my seat. As agreed, questions are going to be asked at the end, after all interventions have been presented, hence allowing a closing discussion of the whole panel. After my presentation, I try to focus on the last paper presented: a fascinating exploration on the spherology of feminisms presented by Amanda Windle. Once done, the time given to weave our arguments with other presentations finally arrives. I take a chair, a pen, a notebook, and I glance into the crowd, nervously. 

The general discussion opens up with a question regarding a paper telling several stories of ecofeminism (Moore, 2015), closely related with Starhawk’s argumentations, presented on the plenary of the previous day. In a beautiful answer the presenter discusses how theory and practice are born in the same soil. The second question is partially related to the first one, but this time addressed to another speaker, Joan Haran, who wonders about the possible world configurations that the Spiral Dance (Starhawk, 1979) can enact. One time and another, through every single question, an exciting conversation unfolds, materializing some of the statements given the day before in the plenary session. The panel discussion presents lovely shades of these arguments, which I enjoy as a spectator, without taking part. 

Once the session closes, I ask myself: why haven’t I taken part in this conversation? I conclude that perhaps it’s just me, but that it is not such an easy task to get involved in the discussion of a particular panel. It might be tough to explore a new field of study where you do not know the exact conversations the convenors are looking for. In addition, I also consider that the format can also be an obstacle for new outside voices wishing to take part in a conversation. 

In the next days, these open questions reverberated throughout the Conference. Progressively, I came to believe that I was not just wondering about possible Conference formats that could enable young scholars to actively take part and enrich conversations. What is at stake, I think, is mainly how we want to relate to one other. What becomes centre-stage are the ways in which we might want to deploy academic or scholarly care, in order to cultivate “a speculative commitment to contribute to liveable worlds” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011: 100).   

During the Conference, I really felt that STS succeeds in practising this kind of commitment in the critical ways in which manifold situations, topics, and events are explored. Other panels I attended, such as “Intimate entanglements in science and technology” (Lopez and Latimer) and “Of other landscapes” (Danyi and Spencer), indeed brought strong examples of it. Nevertheless, even though STS succeeds in attentively caring for our particular objects of study, I think we should also deploy the same care for the ways we relate to each other. 

I believe the speculative commitment Puig de la Bellacasa asks for would make us go beyond asking questions in the end or right after each presentation, rigorous time control or kind answers. This speculative commitment addresses the very soil, the grounding of our meeting formats where new practices may be born. Attending and wondering about those ecological conditions to materialize care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017) would be beneficial not only for those who are already on our first steps, but for our STS community as a whole.   

So, in conclusion, I ask again: What should the main purpose of a Conference be? If I have learnt something in the process of obtaining a PhD, it is that we have to become attentive to the sensibilities embedded in the practices we share, to place the ethical wondering in the foreground. Could a Conference also be an opportunity to experiment with new ways of practising scholarly or academic care? Could we imagine innovative formats allowing more liveable Conference experiences? Then, how can a Conference become the soil, the grounding where new forms of caring for each other may be born?

Fig. 1: Moos in der Nähe von Snæfell in Ostisland CC BY Christian Bickel 13 July 2010



de La Bellacasa, MP (2017). Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. University of Minessota Press.

de la Bellacasa MP (2011). Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things. Social studies of science, 41(1): 85-106.

Moore N (2015) Eco/feminist genealogies: Renewing promises and new possibilities. In Phillips M and Rumens N (eds.) Contemporary perspectives on ecofeminism. Routledge, pp. 35-53.

Starhawk (1979) The Spiral Dance: a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddes. United States: Harper & Row.