Some Thoughts from the Memory Studies Association Second Annual Conference

University of Copenhagen, December 14-16, 2017

by Amanda Barnier

On Tuesday 12 December I flew from hot and humid Sydney to cold, cold Copenhagen for the Second Annual Conference of the Memory Studies Association (MSA).

The MSA formally came into being just 6 months ago, in June 2017, after a successful first conference in December last year in Amsterdam. That first conference featured about 200 attendees. In just a year, numbers have grown three-fold to over 600 attendees this year. The conference program extends over three full days and includes 80 panels in up to 10 parallel sessions as well as a number of featured talks, workshops, “turbo talks”, posters, movie presentations and other events.

Looking through the program booklet I am impressed by the breadth of topics as well as the sheer size of the program. The best comparison in my field of psychology is the International Conference on Memory, which has been run six times (Lancaster, Padua, Valencia, Sydney, York, and Budapest) over the last 25 years and likewise grew from a relatively small number of presenters and attendees at ICOM-1 in Lancaster to over 1500 talks and attendees at ICOM-6 in Budapest. The trajectory of MSA’s growth, however, looks much faster. What took (mostly) psychologists perhaps 10 or 15 years to achieve, has taken the MSA just 12 months. Does this reflect the range and size of the disciplines and sub-disciplines that identify themselves as scholars of memory studies?

In the program, the organisers argue that the Memory Studies Association is to facilitate a critical forum for dialogue and debate on the theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues central to a collaborative understanding of memory. The MSA hopes to be the central forum for scholars from around the world and across disciplines who are interested in memory studies. Its goal is to further establish and extend the status of memory studies as a field, institutionalizing memory studies in a way that is able to provide fundamental knowledge about the importance and function of memories in the public and private real.

I’m sitting in a large auditorium waiting for the opening session and, unlike most conferences I attend in my field of psychology (broadly) or cognitive psychology (more specifically), I know almost no-one. I recognise just Professor Bill Hirst (who invited me to present in his symposium on psychological approaches to Memory Studies) and Professor Olivier Luminet (who is presenting in the same symposium). Both are psychologists but with rich, cross- and inter-disciplinary perspectives. They seem to know a number of people but I am sitting up the back and thinking that attending this conference is like starting at a new high school.

At most memory conferences I attend I recognise the majority of people and know many quite well. I attend with collaborators, colleagues and students. Importantly, I have a good sense of the lay of the land, of the tribes represented and of their views and approaches. Here I have no idea and it’s like starting my career all over again. When I was a graduate student and attending my first conferences I similarly had to learn the lay of the land, the influential people and the links between these people, their groups and ideas. But who are the most important people here? How do they all relate? Whose talks should I go to?

Sitting in this audience reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me that the study of memory is or can feel quite tribal, both in my discipline and in others. Mapping these tribes seems important to understanding the broad field of memory studies. Indeed, this is exactly what my PhD supervisor helped me do when I was just a student: by laying out the “big labs” in our field of hypnosis, the family trees of research generations, their core theories, methods and data. Who will be my guide here?

Second, it reminds me that the pursuit of cross- and interdisciplinary work – of being a social scientist at a predominantly humanities conference or being a humanities scholar at a predominantly social sciences conference – has a large initial cost of learning concepts and landscapes outside comfortable disciplinary homes. In the competitive academic environment, it’s a cost that few may be prepared to pay to make the connections necessary for genuine interdisciplinarity in memory. But, as our expert conversations are revealing, the cost is worth the payoff. More from Copenhagen soon …