It was a casual evening chat between a fellow researcher and me, sometime in December of 2018. I remember this vividly because both of us were returning from a research methods workshop that we had attended together in Guwahati. She asked me what my favourite drink was. I replied that I do not drink, to which she responded by saying that – ‘I also do not like drinking much. I am more of a social drinker. I only drink in parties and conferences as it helps in networking.’ This particular conversation made me think about the role that food and drinks play in academic events like seminars, conferences and workshops in building social networks. My friend believed that drinking together helped in creating ‘networking opportunities’. Since then, I have often wondered if it is indeed true. Does eating and/or drinking together in academic events help in creating and building networks? I explore the answer to this question in this short piece, largely drawing from my own experiences and conversations with fellow researchers and scholars.
The study of social networks is not new in Sociology. Social interactions and relationships that are integral features of social networks have interested sociologists since the inception of the discipline. Emile Durkheim, for instance, has argued that social interactions create social structures which play a crucial role in shaping the behaviour of individuals (Durkheim 1895; Durkheim 1897). Georg Simmel, too, argues that society arises out of individuals, and individuals, in turn, grow out of associations (Simmel 1955). Thus, the role of structures, associations and networks have received a lot of attention from sociologists since the beginning.
The role that networks play within academia in creating academic opportunities has also been emphasised in recent years. The formation of numerous research and academic networks like Academia.edu, H-Net.org and ResearchGate is recognition of the fact that academicians need to interact with each other. There is continuous sharing of information, research papers and articles through these portals between academicians and researchers. Many universities also focus on building research networks nowadays as the importance of ‘staying connected’ is stressed upon. Several google, Facebook and WhatsApp groups bring scholars together. Apart from such research networks, academic conferences also play a crucial role in building networks amongst scholars.
In most academic conferences, there is a clear hierarchy between the keynote speakers, chairpersons, discussants and presenters. The first three groups of people are mostly invited by the organisers, whereas the presenters are selected based on their abstracts. As such, once a conference begins, there is minimal interaction between the invited speakers and the presenters. Therefore, one might wonder what helps in breaking these hierarchies and leads to social interactions. I argue that the answer to this question lies in food.
Food is an essential part of academic proceedings. In most of them, there are at least two tea/coffee breaks, as well as a lunch break. Some well-funded conferences also host a welcome or a farewell dinner and a drinks party. What makes these meals significant is the social meanings they have. Sociologists studying food have argued that it is not just a biological process but has various social implications. Shared meals especially have meanings that are different from individual processes of eating. Sharing meals offer individuals the opportunity to be integrated into groups, communities and networks – as many scholars who have studied the role of food within communities have highlighted.
For instance, Mary Douglas argues that a shared meal amongst family members help in maintaining their affection and bond as the food they eat is closely associated with their identity. Therefore, many shared meals would only include members of a family and not outsiders (Douglas 1999). In her ethnographic work on Florence, Carole Counihan also makes this point. She argues that while friends and relatives are invited for tea and snacks, it is only the close-knit family that shares the main meals like dinners (Counihan 2004). Shared meals, thus, have specific meanings associated with them and symbolise inclusion.
This symbolic meaning of food becomes particularly crucial in academic events like conferences, where participants look forward to the meal breaks to talk to each other. Sharing a meal becomes a way to build one’s social network. In most academic events, meal breaks allow participants the space to approach the main speakers and other participants for conversations. There is an exchange of ideas and information between people. The medium through which information can be acquired is these social networks. Many of these are built over food.
It is felt that the food items that are served in academic events, as well as the seating arrangements, should be prepared, keeping in mind the fact that people are able to interact with each other. Let me recount an experience to illustrate this argument. In one of the conferences organised by a leading sociological association in April 2018, there was an opening dinner in which participants were assigned specific tables. It meant that six people were seated in one table. Many participants were not happy with the seating arrangement as it meant that one could interact with only five people and did not have a chance to talk to the others. So, when asked for feedback at the end of the conference, many of us did mention the fact that from next year, food should be served in a buffet system so that people can speak to each other better.
It is the first tea or coffee break that helps in breaking the ice. They provide an opportunity for people to interact with each other as they queue to get their beverage. Similarly, the hierarchy further breaks down during lunchtime. It is these ‘networking opportunities’ that are currently missing from academic events that are being organised online.
‘Webinars are great, but they can never replace the physical, academic conferences. I attended a webinar recently, but there was no scope to interact with the other participants or speakers. I especially miss the part where we used to have lunch and tea together. Those breaks offered a space to interact more than anything else’Mayura, a PhD student from India.
This particular feeling of missing out on ‘networking opportunities’ has also crossed my mind several times during this pandemic. Let me talk about one specific instance. I had received a research grant from a leading publishing house to write a paper in July. There was an online orientation workshop held in August for the same in which all the research grantees presented their proposals. Not just that, many experts had also been invited to listen to the grantees and give them feedback. Now, every year this workshop happens physically and is seen as a wonderful ‘networking platform’ for young scholars. A grantee from the previous year had told me that she enjoyed the workshop a lot as it helped her in getting in touch with other researchers. When asked about the role of food, she said that the opportunity to drink and eat together helped her in talking to the others.
‘I generally do not approach speakers and high-level people on my own as I am very awkward. But during lunchtime, one of the speakers came to eat lunch at my table and said that she liked my proposal. I was pleasantly surprised, and soon we exchanged email ids,’Priyam, a researcher working on issues of migration in north-east India.
Listening to Priyam once again propelled me to think about the role food plays in connecting people. While webinars are playing a significant role in linking people in these challenging times, they indeed lack in providing the same kind opportunities for interaction and networking that physical, academic events do. Food is a significant missing element from these webinars and thus, are also missing avenues of social interaction and creating networks. Most academic affairs are seen as spaces where one gets a chance to interact with fellow researchers, and a lot of it happens over a cup of coffee and/or a hearty meal. Sharing food and drinks in these academic proceedings bring people together and allow them to connect or ‘network’ with each other. Hence, one can argue that ‘networking is in the menu’ in many academic events.
Rituparna Patgiri has just submitted her PhD from the Centre for Studies in Social Systems (CSSS), School of Social sciences (SSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her research interests centre around issues of food, culture, gender, media and the public sphere. She is also a member of the academic blog called Doing Sociology.
 The names of all respondents have been changed to protect their confidentiality and anonymity. Further, their consent was sought to use their quotes in this blog piece.