As I waited for my fellow academics to reply to my attempt at generating audience participation, I was glad I said no to the offer of whisky at last night’s conference social.
After a nervous second, thankfully, around half the room were brave enough to shout in response to my question. They assumed that RAF bomb disposal experts would find defusing live bombs to be a more stressful task than tending a bar.
Sat in this University of Tours classroom, I was presenting at my first academic conference, and an international one at that.
The conference was the 8th Conférence Internationale d’Histoire et des Cultures de l’Alimentation (IEHCA) – also known as: the ‘8th International Conference of Food and Drink Studies’ – giving a paper titled “Internating the job: Surveillance and identity in the hospitality industry”. I made it there thanks to two helping hands – a £500 travel grant from Manchester Met’s Doctoral Services and the enduring encouragement of the Drinking Studies Network; an interdisciplinary network connecting drink and drinking cultures researchers.
My paper was part of a three-person session on “surveillance in the alehouse”, with myself presenting from a Social Identity Theory psychological framework; alongside fellow Drinking Studies Network colleagues Amy Smith (a historian and PhD candidate at The University of Bristol) and Pam Lock (Literary scholar and Lecturer at The University of Bristol). The former presenting, in the slot just before me, on “The early modern ale seller: a figure of surveillance” and the latter playing the role of chair and chief conversation starter.
So how do bartenders and bomb disposal experts come into this? My PhD research investigates group memberships structured around alcohol and the beliefs, behaviours and health and well-being outcomes we can predict based on them.
Although on the surface, this study investigating perceptions of stress may appear tangential to my PhD research, it’s a paper which comes up time and time again in my literature review: “Taking the strain: Social identity, social support, and the experience of stress” (Haslam et al., 2011). As well as being thoroughly entertaining to present, this study illustrates that group memberships (and the social identities which facilitate this membership) have a very real and acute influence not only on our experiences of the world but also our individual well-being.
As well as discussing the stress paper, I talked the room through another social psychological study. One where the inmates in an elaborately simulated prison setting used their social identities to overthrow their guards after only 6 days, forcing the researchers to end the study and cut the experiment short. I picked out a takeaway from this which was particularly salient to the subject of our session—surveillance can transcend traditional means such as cameras and guards. It can also be enacted through groups and gossip as highlighted by the quote from the researchers which I added to my presentation: “we can rarely ignore surveillance when we are alone and almost never when with others” (Reicher & Haslam, 2006).
Writing, rehearsing, presenting and then taking questions on this paper helped me to delve further into the wider theory behind my thesis. Forcing me, in a new way, to get my head around an increasing chunk of the literature review which is waiting for me on the other side of the University’s ethics board.
Interdisciplinary knowledge transfer is inherent to attending conferences like the IEHCA, and presenting inevitably builds academic robustness. But these benefits aren’t constrained to the conference floor or lecture theatres; they are, if anything, at least as plentiful in less formal, conversational settings.
We’d been asked by the conference organisers to attend a cocktail reception opened by speeches and sparkling wine. The evening was structured around the feast we’d built on the grand wooden table sitting in the even grander Loire Valley villa we were standing in. As well as our attendance, they’d requested we bring examples of food and drink from our homelands and share them with our fellow attendees.
Although I’m an alcohol researcher, I didn’t bring any drinks to the party. As I’m once again a student I’ve got to keep costs down, even with a grant from Doctoral Services, so it was hand luggage items only for me.
I drank original Irn-Bru with Ian, the Scottish Psychiatrist who brought the whisky which threatened to derail my presentation the following morning. I spoke French and ate riz au lait (a French rice pudding dish), offered to us by a local academic, with Dorota, a cultural historian from Nicolas Copernicus University, Poland. And I explained my contribution—Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, a traditional, Lancastrian boiled sweet flavoured with peppermint oil—to a group of curious Spanish academics.
We, of course, all had countless conversations about the conference papers and our research, but we went beyond that, building shared memories and discussing the unknown tastes we’d discovered that evening. That’s the real reason why I’m going to continue applying for grants and travelling to interdisciplinary conferences.