A considerable portion of scholarly life is bound up with meetings of various kinds. For those located within academic institutions, office hours, departmental meetings, and university committees play a range of roles in the ebb and flow of day-to-day activities and the career trajectories of Homo Academicus (Bourdieu 1988; Wacquant 1989). Of particular significance for academic disciplines are conferences that bring scholars from multiple institutions together for the purpose of sharing knowledge and exploring new directions in methodologies and the interpretation of salient ideas.

In this essay, we query the role that conference procedures play in shaping the vitality and trajectory of ideas within the discipline of anthropology through an examination of the history of the annual meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO). The particularities of this meeting, we argue, coalesced over time as a curiously successful model of governance, organization, and ethos for nurturing new ideas and approaches. By “ideas,” we refer to the conceptualization of issues, the kinds of data that are considered appropriate for addressing them, the language in which they are couched, their theoretical implications, and the methodological interventions necessary to pursue them. Our concern is with how different organizational contexts affect the processing of ideas among members of a discipline in conference settings, what we call the “ecology of ideas” within a particular epistemic culture.

In the opening lines of her influential work Epistemic Cultures, Karin Knorr Cetina offers a working definition of epistemic cultures: “those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms—bonded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence—which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures that create and warrant knowledge” (1999:1). The epistemic communities constituted by anthropology can be identified as maintaining a “richly textured internal environment and culture” (Knorr Cetina 1991, 120). We are particularly interested in the long-term dynamics of scholarly conferences as they are material institutions that reproduce themselves over time and exert some degree of agency over the social and intellectual lives of participants (Hughes 1936; Parsons 1990). We also recognize that conferences often have the quality of obligatory celebrations of a discipline’s raison d’ȇtre, while implicitly or explicitly reaffirming the particular forms of their governance. As such, we offer this study of the work of the ASAO as a model for the potential of academic conferences to nurture epistemic communities.

The Role of Conferences in the Production of Knowledge

Just about every professional organization and academic discipline holds conferences at regular intervals for the avowed purpose of sharing information and ideas in face-to-face venues. Finding out what’s new in one’s field of interest, socializing and networking, enhancing possibilities for publication, and establishing evidence of national or international reach may be significant for tenure and promotion, and other benefits are readily identified (Morse 2008).

Other scholars, meanwhile, are more critical. For instance, Canadian anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman opines that

“the vast multitude of anthropological conferences, congresses, articles, monographs, and collections, while adding up to mountains of paper . . . do not seem to add up to a substantial, integrated, coherent body of knowledge that could provide a base for the further advancement of the discipline.”

(Salzman quoted in Borofsky 2019:45; cf. Borofsky 1994)

In contrast to Salzman, we are less dismissive of conferences and suggest that constructive disciplinary work plays out through the longue durée of conference participation. Annual conferences of professional organizations clearly perform important work for their disciplines, including (1) establishing specific epistemic communities; (2) maintaining and reproducing those communities over time; (3) establishing normative epistemic, methodological, ontological, and ethical commitments and practices within those communities, which develop over time; and (4) acting as an ecological setting in which specific disciplinary/epistemic community-producing ideas emerge, persist, are transformed, or perish.

Strikingly, for all the professional attention given to conferences, there is relatively little research regarding the nature of conferences as social and cultural institutions for sharing knowledge, including the ways they are structured, their cultural environments, and how these characteristics affect the social and historical lives of ideas within scholarly communities. Thinking of Judith Mair’s 2013 challenge to move toward issues of knowledge production and circulation, we are concerned here with what we are calling “the ecology of ideas” constituted by annual meetings of specific professional organizations.

We write in the wake of a multiyear project on the history of one association with which we have been intimately involved, the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO).[1]  We have identified a number of significant points that affected, and continue to affect, the meetings’ distinctive cultural environment for the processing of information and ideas.[2]  These include the organization’s founding charter, which favored a comparative framework that prioritized the processing of ethnographic data rather than abstract theorization. The resultant framework encouraged collegial engagement in pursuit of common goals and governance. Our work on ASAO’s history has convinced us that the degree of governance hierarchy is highly significant for either facilitating or inhibiting the agency of a discipline’s members to shape its intellectual agenda, and that the degree of organizational hierarchy is a primary driver for the social and historical life of an ecology of ideas as cultivated within an association through its meetings over time.

A Brief History of the Birth and Constitutional Development of ASAO

The idea for an anthropological organization that would take advantage of opportunities presented by the Pacific Islands for comparative research was the brainchild of Vern Carroll, a student of David Schneider’s at the University of Chicago. Carroll had done extensive fieldwork on Nukuoro Atoll, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia, and was enamored with the possibilities for controlled comparison within Polynesia and Micronesia. The idea for such research, and publications based on it, had precedents in British social anthropology and Marshall Sahlins’s publication of Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958).

To initiate his vision, Carroll, in conjunction with Roger Keesing, organized a “symposium” in 1967 at Keesing’s home institution, the University of California–Santa Cruz. The sole topic of the meeting was adoption in Eastern Pacific societies (Island Melanesia was included as a concession to Keesing, who contributed a paper on adoption among the Kwaio in Malaita, Solomon Islands).[3] 

Discussions at the Santa Cruz symposium led Carroll to propose the formation of an Association for Social Anthropology in Eastern Oceania (ASAEO). In its initial newsletter (May 15, 1967), he provided the rationale for the organization.[4] “One major conclusion reached at the symposium,” he noted,

“was that the intensification of modern social anthropology research in the Pacific has not so far been sufficiently systematic: we have gone out as individuals or in small team projects, largely out of touch with our colleagues, and have pursued diverse research interests and published the results in scattered bits and pieces. Organized comparative studies like those on politics and kinship that brought African social anthropology into focus have so far been lacking.”

In response, this association was formed “as a means of organizing research, disseminating information, and arranging recurring symposia on topics in Oceanic social anthropology” (ASAEO Newsletter 1:1).

A few years later, in a newsletter published just prior to the first annual meeting of the organization, which had by then assumed its current name (ASAO),[5] the organizers commented on the implications of the word “social” in the association’s title, specifying that “We are an organization of ethnographers with regional comparative interests.” Further, in the same newsletter, when considering,

“What sort of ‘Annual Meeting’ does ASAO hold?” the response indicated, “There will be a limited number of symposia…. Discussions at these symposia will center around previously circulated position papers and will represent one stage of monograph preparation”

(ASAO Newsletter 9:6, 8 [Winter 1972]).

The first official annual meeting of ASAO was held from March 29 to April 1, 1972, at Rosario’s Resort-Hotel on Orcas Island in the San Juan Group in Washington State, and attended by some fifty anthropologists.[6] In addition to the three symposia, informal discussions were held in the evenings on four additional topics (ASAO Newsletter 10:10 [Spring 1972]). The following year’s meeting included two symposia, two “working sessions,” and an informal evening “discussion session” concerning indigenous reactions to anthropological research (ASAO Newsletter 12:1–5 [Spring 1973]). A stocktaking of those first two ASAO meetings resulted in a restructuring of the conference format for the 1974 meeting in order to reduce scheduling conflicts and build in time for symposium contributors “to work out formatting of their symposium volumes.” The solution was to propose the three classes of sessions: symposia, working sessions, and informal sessions (ASAO Newsletter 12:11–12 [Spring 1973]).

The emergence of the three types of session co-occurred with the start of what became ASAO’s iconic “three-year cycle” of developmental sessions. This development of topical sessions and ideas was very much about “learning to talk to one another” over multiyear conversations according to early and longtime ASAO member Michael Lieber (personal communication, March 2015). Although Carroll later expressed misgivings about the new structure (ASAO Newsletter 50:2–3 [Spring 1984]), the evolution of session formats can be seen as the result of his initial organizational scheme, which placed power in the hands of session organizers. Topics were not selected by the ASAO Board of Directors or officers; rather, it was very much a grassroots matter of someone with a keen interest in a topic proposing a session and taking responsibility for guiding the development of the “long conversation,” as another early and longtime member, David Counts, called the three-year cycle (personal communication, December 2015).

It is useful to contrast ASAO’s conference format with more traditional conference cultural environments and governance structures such as that of the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). While the governing structures of both the ASAO and AAA are clearly efficacious in producing meetings that have attracted participants and audiences over decades, their governance has important implications for the epistemic communities that they produce, reproduce, and maintain, and how they organize and nurture particular ecologies of ideas.

The Ecology of Ideas

We suggest that examining ASAO meetings in terms of constructivist and second-order cybernetic perspectives helps underscore the most successful aspects of the meetings in terms of cultivating a diversified and vibrant ecology of ideas.[7] Both of these perspectives adhere to an epistemological premise that scientific knowledge is constructed by communities of scientists as a result of discussion, negotiation, and contestation in the production of knowledge and in its circulation via peer reviewed literature (Latour 1987). In the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges researchers to reflect on the paradigms underpinning their research and to be open to considering multiple ways of interpreting research results. The focus should be on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to represent social realities more or less accurately (Rouse 1993; Galison and Stump 1996).

Ben Sweeting and Michael Hohl (2015) have critiqued the format of conferences such as AAA’s from a constructivist perspective in some detail. They observe that although the traditional format for conferences, established by the Royal Society of London in the 1600s, involved the reading of papers accompanied by active participation and an exchange of knowledge, contemporary conferences have become much more passive. As they point out, the traditional paper presentation model offers some benefits, such as predictability, which facilitates advanced planning, and the possibility for young scholars to introduce themselves by presenting research relatively quickly. However, drawing on the criticisms of second-order cyberneticians and constructivists such as Ranulph Glanville (2011) and Gordon Pask (1979), they summarize the many practical shortcomings of traditional conference design, including the minimization and formalization of conversation, the impossibility for sustained cross-conference discussion due to parallel sessions, and structures that make conferences and proceedings spaces to present finalized research and results rather than true works in progress (Sweeting and Hohl 2015:2).

They go on to consider how a constructivist approach highlights the role of conferences as “an active part of research” and ask the following:

“How might, for instance, we compose a conference in such a way that, in turn, it helps us in composing new ideas and research questions rather than in passively reporting on and listening to the results of research already conducted?”

(Sweeting and Hohl 2015:3)

What can we make of the implications of constructivism and second-order cybernetics for understanding the dynamic outcomes of particular conference cultures like ASAO? To begin with, one might question whether the ASAO format, as a result of its more egalitarian structure, allows for greater flexibility in the processing of ideas. Indeed, some have questioned whether its normative three-year cycle may actually be too rigid for productive discussions to take place. But our work on the history of ASAO sessions in fact makes it clear that the “ideal” three-year cycle is far from a realized outcome, accounting for only 19 percent of the outcomes of initial informal sessions between 1973 and 2015. The actual sequencing of sessions is much more fluid and suggestive of an intellectual dynamic resulting in multiple outcomes, depending on where participants take discussions.

ASAO meetings thus do seem to distinctly resonate with Sweeting and Hohl’s constructivist suggestions towards improving conference environments with respect to the processing of ideas. In other words, by eschewing a top-down prescriptive formula, allowing the process to be driven by session participants themselves as they pursue common interests, ASAO meetings may work to front significant moments of exchange, multiply opportunities for feedback loops to recur within and across meeting years, focalize and amplify individual entanglement in collective scholarly work, and promote learning and exploring in contrast to scholarly reportage.

The different session levels facilitate different types of discourse, with informal sessions providing a venue for a wide variety of theoretical viewpoints and forms of field data, while working sessions require sufficient field data to prepare draft papers, and symposia require a greater degree of cohesive ethnographic comparisons if they are to result in publishable outcomes. ASAO session participants regularly decide it is necessary to repeat session levels to gain the degree of consensus or focus required to move up a level—hence our finding that informal and working sessions often are repeated before going on to the next level (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).

Another dynamic of the ASAO conferences as a particular ecology of ideas can be identified in the way that many of our own publications would never have occurred had not someone suggested a topic we had not thought about, but realizing that we had excellent ethnographic data on the topic in our fieldnotes, we joined the conversation and proceeded to develop an article or book chapter.

It is also noteworthy that many topics are abandoned following informal or working sessions, and that many symposia do not result in publications. This should not be regarded in any sense as symptomatic of failure, but rather as ASAO providing a venue that allows for ideas to be explored without restriction, and to sort out those that lend themselves to fruitful comparison from those that do not, thus serving ASAO’s foundational principle of facilitating controlled comparison, while motivating a continuity of particularly fruitful discourses that often takes issues of concern in new directions.


In conclusion, while we find the constructivist and cybernetic critiques of standard academic conferences such as those of the AAA quite compelling insofar as they point up the problematic nature of their formats vis-à-vis the production and evolution of new knowledge, it would be far from our intention to denigrate the value of such annual meetings. Rather, our analysis aims at drawing attention to the significance of hierarchy, among other dynamics in the constitution, governance, and norms of an association, for setting the environmental grounds in which particular ecologies of ideas flourish. Whereas large associations such as AAA may require hierarchy to maintain a semblance of order at conferences, smaller associations such as ASAO are able to thrive by reinforcing an egalitarian collegiality conducive to unfettered discussion.

Nevertheless, we do not think expressions of dissatisfaction with AAA conferences among a limited number of alienated or disaffected participants should be dismissed as inconsequential. Rather, they can be viewed as symptoms of a more significant dynamic—that the particular ecology of ideas fostered by that format is indicative of specific forms of knowledge production, the ways in which contests over knowledge are conducted, and the ways in which it is shared and circulated. The governance and organizational hierarchy of the AAA results in the ideas of certain key players being given currency. They are fronted, often pushed hard by their colleagues, and rendered especially impactful.[8] 

Although alternative ideas may be circulating, they are more easily relegated to the periphery, or given serious attention only among smaller segments of a discipline’s communities. This, we believe, has the result of reinforcing current paradigms at the expense of developing ideas that may be challenging to the status quo. The contrast is with small groups of scholars working in an egalitarian milieu on a topic of common interest on an ongoing basis, which we believe is a more productive way to make significant progress in developing worthwhile ideas. Rather than rewarding displays of one-upmanship or competitive confrontations, the ASAO format provides an intellectual environment that fosters ongoing relationships. Perhaps most important of all, it encourages people, especially younger scholars, to take risks by presenting lines of research and ideas in their formative stages in a supportive atmosphere.

This is not to say that conferences like AAA are not worthwhile; there are still many valid reasons to attend them, such as those noted above. But we believe there is room for a greater degree of flexibility at large conferences, including granting small groups of scholars concerned with specific topics more autonomy in the ways in which they organize their sessions. In other words, we are suggesting that the organizers of conferences, whatever their scope, think through the implications of their formats for the nurturance of ideas and their implications for furthering the goals of their particular discipline.[9] 

Acknowledgments: We would like to express our warm appreciation for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this paper, which we received from Mike Lieber, Mike Rynkiewich, Rick Feinberg, Rich Scaglion, Jan Rensel, and other participants in the 2015–2018 ASAO sessions that focused on multiple aspects of the association’s history.

Works Cited

Borofsky, Robert, ed. 1994. Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Borofsky, Robert. 2019. “An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms?” Center for a Public Anthropology. DOI: 10.31761/pa-oas1.19aaoa

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Carroll, Vern, ed. 1970. Adoption in Eastern Oceania. ASAO Monograph 1. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai‘i.

Galison, Peter, and Stump, David J., eds. 1996. The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Glanville, Ranulph. 2011. “Introduction: A Conference Doing the Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Kybernetes 40(7–8):952–963.

Hughes, Everett Cherrington. 1936. “The Ecological Aspect of Institutions.” American Sociological Review 1(2):180–189.

Kawa, Nicholas C, José A Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty. 2019. “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities.” American Anthropologist 121(1):14–29.

Knorr Cetina, Karin D. 1991. “Epistemic Cultures: Forms of Reason in Science.” History of Political Economy 23(1):105–122.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mair, Judith. 2013. Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective. London: Routledge.

Mawyer, Alexander, and Alan Howard. Forthcoming. “A History of ASAO Sessions: Formats and Topics.” In ASAO Histories: Perspectives, edited by Jan Rensel. ASAO Occasional Paper 1.

Mead, Margaret. 1968. “Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Pp. 1–11 in Purposive Systems, edited by Heinz von Foerster, John D White, Larry J Peterson, and John K Russell. New York: Spartan Books.

Morse, Janice M. 2008. “The Side Effects of Conferences.” Qualitative Health Research 18(9):1159–1160.

Parsons, Talcott. 1990. “Prolegomena to a Theory of Social Institutions.” American Sociological Review 55(3):319–333.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sweeting, Ben, and Michael Hohl. 2015. “Exploring Alternatives to the Traditional Conference Format: Introduction to the Special Issue on Composing Conferences.” Constructivist Foundations 11(1):1–7.

Von Foerster, Heinz, 2003. “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics.” Pp. 287–304 in Understanding Understanding. New York: Springer.

Von Foerster, Heinz, et al., eds. 1974. Cybernetics of Cybernetics. BCL Report 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.

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[1] With Vern Carroll and others, Howard played a role in the development of the association in the mid 1960s, and in the decades since he served in myriad roles including board member, program coordinator, membership coordinator, web master, and multiple times as session organizer. More recently, Mawyer served for several years as the ASAO program coordinator, and also on the association’s Distinguished Lecturer Committee, the Pacific Islands Scholars Award committee, as well as a three-year term on the Board.

[2] As our contribution to a working group concerned with the association’s history, we developed a database of sessions, presentations, and subsequent publications from fifty-plus years of ASAO’s annual conference meetings (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).  

[3] The focus on adoption was the product of the cynosure of kinship studies in social and cultural anthropology at the time. Within kinship studies, anthropologists were interested in adoption in relation to the transmission of rights in land and other forms of property. A selection of the papers was published in a volume entitled Adoption in Eastern Oceania edited by Carroll (1970).

[4] ASAO Newsletters are archived online here.

[5] When developing its constitution in 1969, the association decided to allow its geographical focus to expand beyond Eastern Oceania in order to include Papua New Guinea (ASAEO Newsletter 5:1 [March 1970]).

[6] Photos from ASAO annual meetings are posted on the ASAO website.

[7] Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, was developed by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster, and Gordon Pask, among others, in the late 1960s and mid 1970s (Mead 1968; von Foerster et al. 1974; von Foerster 2003). In her 1967 keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), Mead proposed that the practice of cybernetics by the ASC should be subject to cybernetic critique.

[8] While not our focus here, we imagine such dynamics at keystone conferences may not be entirely innocent of a role in the formation and maintenance of inequalities in the social networks of anthropology as profession (Kawa et al. 2019).

[9] Robert A. Scott, Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, who read a draft of this paper and gave us valuable feedback, raised the question of how the ASAO format fits the call for increased interdisciplinary work. In our opinion, an egalitarian environment such as that offered by ASAO would be vital for any kind of interdisciplinary development because it will inevitably require considerable negotiation and the ability of participants to set aside the prevailing paradigms of their disciplines in favor of other possibilities. This kind of collaborative development is only likely to take place over an extended period of collegial discussions.