Gillian Tett on banking conferences and marriage rituals

By | November 5, 2009

At the Association of Social Anthropologists Blog: Most notably, banking conferences – like marriages – provide a chance for a social group to assemble iin one place, in a way that reaffirms their common identity and enabled them to forge new alliances, often in opposition to others. It also provides a forum for the group to restate their core assumptions and ideas in a manner that allows the group to reproduce and disseminate a cognitive map, over time. Some of this is done overtly, and self-consciously, with power-point presentations on a podium, or deliberate, carefully chosen branding and marketing campaigns. However, the most powerful forms of intellectual ‘reproduction’ occur through more informal means: the gossip around the bar about bonuses (that reinforces the dominant assumption that bigger pay is tantamount to success); the use of complex mathematical language to discuss credit (which makes it acceptable to talk about money for hours on end, without ever mentioning a human being); the sartorial conformity, as bankers all wear chinos and expensive watches/ear-rings (which underlines the idea that wealth is unifying source of identity, but only when it is not overtly displayed); the widespread use of speaker ‘biographies’ (which also stress the common educational, quasi-kinship bonds that link the group), or the use of ‘on-the-record’, or ‘off-the-record’ conventions for journalists, (which reinforce the assumption that bankers have a right to control information flow to the outside world.)

However, the other feature which makes investment banking conferences oddly similar to marriage rituals is that they are also one of the few occasions when ‘outsiders’ have a chance to slip into the banking world, and properly observe the interactions of the group, and the way that they discuss and display themselves. This is not always possible: just as some weddings might be limited to a tiny group of invited guests, some conferences will tightly control the members, and ban outsiders, such as the media. Yet, the bar to entry can often be overcome, since investment banking conferences are so big, and bankers are meeting away from their own, private space in the office or trading floor. So I, for one, plan to keep attending as many of these events as possible – only this year, in a symbolic nod too the new mood of austerity, the conferences are no longer being staged in holiday resorts such as Barcelona, Cannes, Boca Raton or Las Vegas (which used to be hot destinations of choice), but instead in the more humdrum, ’serious’ locations of Washington, or Edgware Road, London.

The full post is here.

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