To my mind, one of the nicer features of work in higher education is the opportunity to participate in collaborative seminars and conferences which, at their best, provide convivial social meetings, generate feedback that help improve our own analyses, and allow us to better understand the endeavours of others and our subject area more generally. Not all conferences have all of these qualities, of course (I found some rather pessimistic views at this blogsite!). However in recent years I’ve been happy to participate regularly in a couple of meetings which I think are consistently of a very good standard. Thus as the call for papers for the latest version of the annual Social Stratification Research Seminar is circulated (deadline for paper proposals: 26 June 2013; meeting dates: 11-13 September 2013), it seems worth making a few comments on this long-standing – and I believe very successful – seminar.
First organised in 1968 (we think so – though nobody that I’ve spoken to is 100% sure that’s the right year) in Edinburgh, the Social Stratification Research Seminar has taken place every year since, with just a couple of exceptions. It is normally held in early September in Cambridge, nowadays with a link to the Department of Sociology, what was previously the Department of Applied Economics. The seminar is also sometimes known as the ‘Cambridge Stratification Seminar’ and alternatively the ‘Stratification and Inequality Seminar’. For most of its history the seminar has been organised by Bob Blackburn, nowadays an Emeritus Reader at Cambridge and a Fellow of Clare College (the college within Cambridge where the seminar has often been held). In the last decade or so, the meeting has occasionally been held outside of Cambridge. Bob Blackburn continues to be on the organising committee, whilst I’ve taken the lead on meeting arrangements when we’ve had recent meetings in Cambridge and, on two occasions, in Stirling. We’ve also in the recent past had three meetings in Cardiff that were organised by Ken Prandy, and one at Utrecht that was organised by Richard Zijdeman. Nowadays, I also maintain a webpage that describes the seminar and hosts the call for papers, and on that site we also have a limited archive of selected papers or slides downloadable from some of the previous meetings.
I personally have only been attending the seminar for the last 15 years – far fewer than several of the meeting regulars – but in that time the meetings have had a number of characteristics which distinguish them, and, I believe, contribute to their success. First, the seminar group is always a fairly small one – typically between 15 and 30 participants – and sessions comprise a single continuous plenary, to which everyone attends. Thus, throughout the meeting, everyone is present for all of the papers, and this works very well I think in gradually building up a corpus of mutual understanding and constructive engagement between participants. Of course, we are never quite able to completely enforce the expectation that everybody should attend every session – the large international conferences have a lot to answer for, in my opinion, as many of us learn from those meetings the rather rude habit of dropping in just for the sessions in which we ourselves are presenting or are most involved. At the stratification seminar, we try to deploy reproachful frowns and murmurs of disappointment when colleagues leave early, arrive late, and so forth – that seems to show them.
Another important characteristic of the seminar is that papers are allocated a reasonably long time for their presentation and discussion. Our usual pattern is to schedule two papers per 90 minute session, with four 90 minute sessions per day. Thus each paper is usually given 45 minutes presentation time, a format that usually allows both for the presenter to develop their material at a reasonable length, and for the audience to ask relatively probing questions in an extended discussion period. Often papers presented to the meeting are in a fairly well-developed state, but it’s also the case that the seminar format is well suited to presentations of work that is still very much in progress, and open for discussion.
The stratification seminar has also historically been characterised by its eclecticism of coverage. Participants themselves are drawn from a wide range of institutions, from a mix of more junior and more senior positions, and from various nationalities (in the 2009 meeting for example, every paper on the first day was given by a presenter of a different national background – if you’re willing, that is, to regard Scotland and England as different). The content of papers is also typically fairly wide-ranging on the general theme of stratification and inequality. With an average of 14-16 papers per meeting, the volume of activity in stratification research is such that it would actually be quite easy to organise the seminar in such a way that every paper was on a very similar topic. On the contrary, however, the stratification seminar has a reputation for incorporating some fairly diverse materials from across the gamut of sociology and social policy as related to stratification and inequality. Positive consequences of this approach include that the meeting proves interesting and engaging on a range of topics, and that the membership of the meeting evolves gradually through time, with (hopefully) no great barriers to prevent new faces coming along and presenting something potentially a bit different to what has come before.
Traditionally, many but not all of the papers given at the seminar involve quantitative data analysis, often using medium- and large-scale sample surveys or other large scale data resources. In many of the academic social sciences, such methodologies are a minority specialism, and it is not uncommon to see our ‘non-quants’ colleagues flapping anxiously when presented with quantitative research analysis, disengaging, and running away. One important feature of the stratification seminar is an unspoken premise that papers with statistical content are worthy of consideration – something that may seem an unnecessary courtesy, but in fact is not shared in all social science environments. Not everybody at the meetings has particularly extended knowledge of statistical approaches, and accordingly we don’t necessarily all fully understand every methodology that is used, but there is an acceptance nevertheless that relatively complex statistical methods might be appropriate ways to investigate social systems, whilst there is usually sufficient methodological expertise within the audience to submit most results to often quite robust informed critique.
Finally, another characteristic of the meeting is that the atmosphere of the group strikes – to my mind – a nice balance between supportive and friendly, but also inquisitive and, when relevant, critical. For most of us, the meeting is an enjoyable, collegial activity, but most years it is typically not without a few more demanding criticisms being raised of papers, with the odd blunt question or robust response (I’m told this happened a lot more in the past; to some, the modern modes of academic debate have become a bit too soft and friendly by comparison!).
Are their downsides to our convivial meeting? As a small group running a similar meeting over a long period of time, arguably the seminar is at risk of being a little conservative, both in its membership and its values. Sociologists at the meeting have I think a natural impulse to try to avoid this, but there is probably nevertheless a drift in this direction. We also consistently welcome new participants to the meeting, though from the outside it’s easy to imagine the seminar group might seem a little hard to approach. Sometimes, also, the eclectic coverage of topics means that some papers aren’t really being given to the most informed or critical audience for their topic, and some papers must seem to some participants or little relevance. Additionally, we could note that are some shared views held by a number of the most regular participants to the meeting that are not all that widely held in other areas (I am not necessarily commenting obliquely here on the widespread endorsement of CAMSIS scales by members of the seminar, but to outsiders this is one example that must seem obvious!).
None of these worries keep me awake at night, though organisational issues on the seminar sometimes do! In some regards, the seminar is caught between a rock and a hard place insofar as, in trying to be a small, engaging meeting, it is never likely to generate a great deal of income or attract large scale funding (the seminar arguably has a very successful cousin in the same area, the meetings arranged by the ISA RC28 group, another conference which I personally rate very highly, but one that operates on a much larger scale and is able to generate significant income to support hosting and running costs). One possible threat to the stratification seminar, indeed, is the fairly widespread outlook – often linked to obtaining funding to allow personal participation – that it is only appropriate to attend a meeting if one is presenting one’s own paper to it. This poses a numerical threat to the meeting – if people only attend if they will be presenting a paper, then we will have at most 16 participants, when a slightly higher number would be desirable for better engagement. Usually a few additional people attend papers who might be co-authors on presented papers or who might be local to the venue and thus easily able to attend, but an increasingly common refrain is that a potential participant could only get funding to attend the meeting if their paper is presented. Still, from this perspective, if you’re reading this note and thinking about the seminar, please do consider coming along as a delegate one year even if you don’t particularly have a paper presentation in mind.
Likewise, the small scale of the meeting means that it is usually run on something of a shoestring budget. Usually the seminar is a self-funded activity, with costs kept to a minimum, e.g. with a small conference fee and asking delegates simply to pay the cost-price of any accommodation arranged etc. We should highlight here that at several recent meetings we have been very grateful to part-sponsorship by the institutions hosting the meeting, who have kindly provided us with seminar or lecture rooms for free or at greatly reduced prices (this is true of the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge; the Department of Sociology, University of Utrecht; Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University; and the School of Applied social Science, University of Stirling). Occasionally the seminar organisers have also secured money for catering and/or travel bursaries from research grants, as happens this year when the 2013 meeting is part-sponsored by the ESRC’s funding of the ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart’ project. One outcome this year will be the rare innovation of free sandwiches for participants on, not just one, but both days. Perhaps that might swing the balance to attract you to the 2013 meeting!
Anyway, if you attend in 2013 in Cambridge, or indeed another year in the future of this seminar group, I’ll look forward to seeing you there!