ASA April 2011 AN Column
Paul L. Doughty, Contributing Editor and Secretary
Where’s the Party? Anthropological Tradition Fades Away
By Herb Lewis and Paul Doughty
The theme for this year’s meeting in Montréal, “Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies” reminds us of a longstanding tradition at annual meetings that is vanishing. As seniors who attended our first AAA meetings in the mid-1950s we have a perspective on the longue duree of annual meetings. Many changes are evident but one that stands out is that the strong culture of numerous open parties in hotel rooms has disappeared almost completely, and thus, an institution serving numerous functions for (sociable) anthropologists of all ages. We are sad to say that the loss of this institution is symptomatic of other trends in our field and leaves us poorer.
Until a few years ago one could expect that, by Thursday of the annual meeting, someone would ask, “Where’s the party,” or confide, “Psst—Friday, after 9:00—Room 1524—Columbia.” Upon entering these smoke-filled rooms (in the really bad old days), as the evening wore on and refreshments remained, there might be 20–40 or more anthropologists, from students to some of the biggest names in the field gathered in heady conversation. Individuals constantly came and then went to another party, permitting a small room to host far more people than were evident at any one time.
Such parties were opportunities to meet new people, old friends, those whose works you had read—and perhaps those who had read your own works—and talk anthropology in open if crowded informality.
When the Florida anthropology department was in its second year offering doctoral degrees in 1973, it was Sol Kimball’s idea for UF faculty to invite people our students wanted and needed to meet. The first memorable party was aboard the famous Streetcar Named Desire rolling through New Orleans. Of course, as in any party, especially ones with plentiful alcoholic beverages, any subject might come up, and people wanted to make the most of this anthropological opportunity to participate in the culture of anthropology.
As young anthropologists we were pleased to meet our elders, and believe that, in later years, there were younger folk who rather enjoyed talking to us. We learned a great deal—often about fields other than our own—from such encounters. It was widely thought hoteliers appreciated anthropological parties because unlike other groups, “they drank a lot but didn’t break things,” according to George Peter Murdock in 1955 (as overheard by Lewis).
One could always go to another party and be welcome even if uninvited. Parties were informal; not listed in the official program or held in a section of a ballroom, with a cash bar. They might be paid for by departments or, more likely, by individual donations. A person with curiosity and stamina could go for hours meeting and talking—learning, making contacts and making friends—but no more, as far as we can see.
The institution of the party, its spirit and customs, evidently passed into history. Now there are early evening receptions announced in the program by specialized sections, limited to an hour or two at awkward times, competing with one’s dinner plans, and even the AAA Annual Business Meeting. There are small closed parties, by invitation only, and the easy camaraderie and opportunities of the old parties are lost. The three decades of the Florida party, like others, ceased, but people still ask, “where is the party?” And the social custom of having a live band dance, first introduced by President Francis Hsu in 1978, is gone as well. Remember “Dr Loco and the Rockin Jalapeño Band?”
We don’t know to what degree this development is due to the simple facts of demography–the vastly larger population of the meetings–but since we now have scores more institutions that could be hosting such parties to accommodate the greater masses, we don’t really believe it. We think it is symptomatic of the more specialized, more competitive and less sociable society in which we find ourselves these days. We happily recall the acquaintances, conversations, laughs and the lessons derived from these informal events and are sorry that younger anthropologists do not enjoy the same opportunities this tradition afforded. It faded away, never reaching legacy status, but remaining as just a trace of the past.
Find ASA on the section website or write: President Herb Lewis ([email protected]), President-elect Paula Rubel ([email protected]), past President Tony Paredes ([email protected]), Treasurer Margo Smith ([email protected]) or Secretary/Contributing Editor Paul Doughty ([email protected]).