In this piece, Nathan Palmer uses the concept of reference groups and social contexts to explain why it is easy to feel insignificant when attending an academic conference.
With brave faces (and often glass egos) sociologists have been walking the halls of the Montreal Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this last weekend. It is easy to feel small at “ASA.” You might think being surrounded by sociology students, professors, and scholars would be a joyous occasion; like Comic-Con for soc’ nerds.
In truth, ASA is often a nerve racking experience that can, if you’re not careful, leave you feeling small and insignificant. This is not because sociologists are petty mean spirited scientists. No, what leaves many sociologists feeling small is the social context that you walk into when you attend an academic national conference.
I Usually Feel Like a Sociology Expert
Like most sociologists, I spend most of my time talking about sociology to novices. In the classroom, it is easy to feel like an expert because compared to students, I often am. When sociological topics come up in conversation with my colleagues from other departments or with my friends and family outside of academia, I can be fairly certain that I know at least as much as they do about the topic. I’m not smarter than they are, I’m just more of a sociology expert than they are. After studying sociology for 9 years, teaching it for 11, and doing sociological research for 13, it would be weird if I wasn’t an expert on a few topics in the field.
At ASA I Can Feel Like a Sociology Novice
Conferences like ASA are the best because you get to listen to research presentations from some of the most brilliant sociological minds in the world. You’re surrounded by innovative researchers who are using cutting edge techniques to answer some of sociology’s most pressing questions. Everywhere you turn someone is winning an award, celebrating the publication of their new book, or being introduced as the new leader of this or that.
Conferences like ASA are the worst for the same reason they are the best. Being surrounded by experts can make you feel like a novice. Learning about innovative research can make your work seem outdated or unimportant. When you’re not the one winning the awards, celebrating accomplishments, or ascending into a leadership position, it is easy to feel like you are not doing anything of consequence.
Compared To These Rockstars…
I am the same person at ASA that I am at home. What changes from one location to the other is the reference group I compare myself to. Each of us uses reference groups to evaluate ourselves or to help us decide how we should behave. Reference groups can be either a general category of people (e.g. teachers, parents, adults, etc.) or they can be specific collections of people (e.g. the high achieving sociologists at ASA).
Keeping Things in Perspective
Academic conferences are unlike the rest of the world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hard working, highly educated people with exceptional skills and loads of experience all gather in the same place to talk about one scientific discipline. It is easy to feel small at ASA when you allow the rockstar sociologists that are everywhere you turn serve as your reference group. But you shouldn’t do that to yourself.
If you’ve made it to the point that you are attending a national academic conference either as a student, professor, or scholar, then you are exceptional. Only a select few people ever make it to that point. Comparing yourself to all of the other exceptional people at the conference will only diminish your accomplishment. Instead of feeling small, you could realize that you are a part of a large network of other scientists who are devoting their lives to answering sociological questions and hopefully improving the world as a result. That, if you let it, could make you feel like you are a part of something very large.
- What are some general categories of people that you use as a reference group in your life?
- What are some specific groups of people that you use as a reference group in your life?
- How can reference groups change your individual behavior? Explain your answer.
- Are there something aspects of your life where you feel like you don’t have any reference group to guide your behavior? Explain your answer(s).