Your average workshop dinner sees 20 adults or so taken out for free food and drinks, paid for by a hosting university. They get drunk, are rowdy, eat too much, say things they normally wouldn’t, and have to carry on the next day with hangovers and smelly clothes. From a standard economic point of view, what on earth is going on here?

From your mainstream 1980 economic textbook, such as those still used in some Australian first year courses, the workshop and seminar dinner makes no sense at all. The dinner in no way creates the most utility for the dollar invested, nor is it remotely an efficient way to achieve cooperation amongst diverse scholars.

Just think about how the same money could buy more utility: instead of hosting the dinner, the university should just give all the ones attending a cheque for the amount they would otherwise eat and drink, which would allow them their own choices, including joining up for dinner anyway. Forcing people into a particular consumption choice is reducing their utility.

Also, from old-style mainstream economics it is unclear what is actually being produced. What production factors are being increased at such dinners? Certainly not capital, health, scientific knowledge or natural resources. Quite the opposite since all those factors are being used. Rather, what is produced is gossip, sweat, rumours, complaints, and discussions of world or regional politics. From your standard economics you would never believe 20 pontificating academics getting drunk quite loudly would help achieve cooperation.

Yet, nearly all universities gladly sponsor these things. Schools sponsor them. The whole profession is very keen on them. I participate in them nearly weekly and so do most of my colleagues. Wtf is going on?

To understand seminar dinners you basically have to embrace the value of rituals and embrace deviations from the rational economic man story.

What is the seminar then? A recognised social ritual in which the normal rules of information exchange get altered by mind-affecting substances (alcohol) such that information gets exchanged and emotional bonds are formed that would not get formed during the daytime activities. As such, there is no difference between the cavemen huddling together to snuff magic mushrooms, and then sing and dance, and the modern seminar dinner. Same human tendencies, similar inputs and similar outputs.

The emotional bonding that becomes easier when intoxicated and being bombarded by sounds and social stimuli present during these dinners (many people talking, music, visual entertainment, etc.) should not surprise anyone, particularly not within Anglo-Saxon culture where binge drinking is the accepted way for teenagers to lower their inhibitions in order to procreate the species.

Yet universities and schools are not really subsidising these rituals so the academics can get laid. It is the information exchange during social events that is probably much more valuable from the point of view of the university and the schools: with the greater emotional bonding also comes a greater degree of trust and a willingness to reveal sensitive information. What kind of sensitive information? Well, you get to hear what can be published, which trends are hot, which academics are in bad books, where grant agencies want to pour money into, what the real reasons were for changes in the academic landscape, etc. Such information is absolutely essential for the good running of any department or university, but precisely because it is strategic and in fact would be deemed impossible to share formally, one needs informal occasions to aid their exchange.

So, the seminar and workshop dinners we all enjoy on a weekly basis are ancient rituals during which many things happen. The things worth paying for from the point of view of schools and universities are strategic and sensitive information against which there are social norms for exchanging during more formal occasions. Dinners are then essentially a secondary market for the exchange of information, thus solving a classic missing-market problem.

Thus having assuaged my conscience that I will be producing something valuable, I am looking forward to another subsidized event tomorrow night!

6 Responses to The workshop and seminar dinners

  1. Tom says:

    “To understand seminar dinners you basically have to embrace the value of rituals and embrace deviations from the rational economic man story.”

    Good post, just wondering – given your post facto rationalisation of the conference dinner ritual, do you think that many or most cases where one appears to “embrace a deviation” from a theory of rational action, there’s a similar underlying argument to be made?

    Not being an academic, the closest I get to this ritual is the “trade show or industry association dinner”, where in addition to the possibility of sensitive information exchange, there’s the extraordinarily valuable guaranteed social contact between vendors and their current or prospective clients.

    • Paul frijters says:

      Sure, emotional bonding and rituals matter for more than just the workshop dinner. Weddings, funerals, inaugurations, etc. also come to mind. Topics for another day.
      Agreed that contacts matter. And the fact that for-profit firms are also happy to fork out for such occasions tells you something of value is being produced!

  2. Ben says:

    Correct 3 misconceptions from fellow academics and gather and write down three pieces of information that you gain that shade or alter your own understanding, and you probably have done something productive in aggregate, especially if you jump outside your comfort zone and talk to somebody in an unrelated field.

  3. Andreas Ortmann says:

    I’m confused, Paul. It seems to me you are telling very much a homo-economicus story. It might look like a ritual to outsiders (and possibly not a pretty one) but I would argue that, since there is an outside option (not going to the workshop dinner), the fact that many do attend these dinners suggest — by revealed preference — that these thingys do, on average, produce value.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Homo economicus and producing value are not the same. Would Homo Economicus need to get drunk or fail to exchange the information without the dinner?

  4. Roger says:

    …or it is just a classic agency problem. Anyway, who has 20 people attending a seminar dinners? Clearly you have bigger seminar budgets than we do!

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