The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History

International conferences are standard features of scientific life today. Since their emergence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, some 170 000 of them are estimated to have taken place (UIA International Congress Calendar 2017). But the reasons for their rise and the functions that conferences have fulfilled in scientific practice remain badly understood and have rarely been studied.

In this joint research project, funded by the HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), a European team of scholars explores the history of “The Scientific Conference”. Conferences are here not taken as background stages for “actually” relevant activities, but as a phenomens to be grasped in themselves. What happened at scientific conferences? How have they exchanged knowledge and shaped expertise? What forms of sociability have developed in these meetings, what rituals have been performed? How have scientific conferences embodied social hierarchies and international relations? How have they informed policies on relevant subjects? The project looks at conferences as “public spaces” and address these questions through that lens. It runs from May 2019 to May 2022.

The partners are Uppsala University, the Centre Alexandre Koyré (CNRS) in Paris, and Birkbeck University, London. Each focuses on one aspect of conferences: social stratificatio, location, and geopolitics, respectively. The Maastricht focus is ritual. The project also engages five Associate Partners: the Science Museum London, the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the Stockholm Academy of Sciences, the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, and the Lorentz Centre, Leiden.

Research in Maastricht is done by Geert Somsen (PI) and a PhD student (to be appointed).