An Orientation to the History of the Meetings of Australian Social Psychologists: 1972- 2008

An Orientation to the  History of the Meetings of Australian Social Psychologists: 1972- 2008
Mike Innes
Murdoch University, Dubai

The Society of Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP) has been in existence as a formal structure since 1994. That relatively short life, however, is preceded by a longer period, from 1972, during which time a group of varying size and membership of social psychologists met every year in venues around the country to discuss social psychology and to keep alive the enthusiasm of a young and active discipline. The meetings in the early days were very informal, with scheduled programs, but often constructed around discussion fora, and sometimes without parallel sessions.  They were also often small in attendance, but growing all the time until it reached such a mass that greater internal organisation was needed. The result was the formation of SASP with a President and accompanying secretariat. The formation of SASP took place at a very historic meeting in Cairns in 1994, organised by the James Cook University team, where at the Annual General Meeting it was agreed to draw up a formal constitution.  This was done by Margaret Foddy and Mike Innes and the first meeting of SASP took place in Tasmania, with Margaret as the first President.

The membership has, of course, changed appreciably over the years and there are now few of the original attendees coming to the Annual Conference. It was not called a conference in the old days, that was forbidden; the term meeting was used to represent the more informal nature of the occasions.  This is an opportunity to give some attention to an account of the development of the original meetings and the lead up to the birth eventually of the Society. This account of the early meetings is made by someone who was not there at the very beginning, but who was there pretty much in continuous attendance for a significant part of the middle history of the meetings. The writer first attended the meetings in 1976 and attempted to attend all of the subsequent meetings. He missed three in the ensuing 30 years. There are others who have been to a very high proportion of the meetings over the years and there should be an opportunity to present other accounts of events to triangulate some sense of a consensual representation of historical events.

This is not an attempt to write a history of the discipline in Australia and New Zealand. That has been done at other times (Feather, 2005; Taft, 1989; Taft & Day, 1988 ).  There is a long history of social psychology in Australia from the time of the Second World War. This is an account of a particular association of social psychologists and how that association grew, although the major players in the discipline in this country have all at some time been involved with the meetings or with SASP.

What is presented here is very simple.  The dates and venues of the meetings of social psychologists have been listed, so that we have a temporal history. Also, on the basis of the programs available, there has been an attempt to show, again temporally, the growth of the discipline in terms of the number of papers contributed to the meetings. A version of this paper was presented at the Cairns meeting in 1994 together with a content analysis of the papers.  This latter part has not been updated in this version.

This paper does not attempt either to give an analysis of the historical development or of the drivers of that development.  Neither does it give any oral history of those developments. Those should come in time. What this paper seeks to do is to render an accurate version of the times and places over the years and to indicate how the discipline grew so markedly over those years

The data presented are based upon an analysis of the programs and the abstracts provided to attendees at the meetings. A complete set of these programs is available. The time is coming when these papers, and associated records, need to be placed in a more secure location and properly archived. Such developments may be one of the outcomes of the publication of this and associated articles.

The Beginning

The meetings started at the Flinders University of South Australia in 1972 when Norm Feather and Leon Mann, both professors there, organised the first meeting. A total of twenty three people are listed on the program. From such a small beginning there has been an annual meeting ever since. It is testament to the strength of the discipline in Australia that such a regular and frequent meeting has been able to be organised, based upon the enthusiasm of often a very small number of people at a particular institution.  The meetings have always had a somewhat informal air, with virtually no selection of papers; everything which is submitted is put on the program in some form or other.  Graduate students have always been welcome and the process has been very democratic, with students treated essentially the same as senior members of academic staff.

This sense of community and equality has been criticised by some academics and some social psychologists have been conspicuously absent from many meetings because of the sense that peer review and selection of excellence has been missing in the construction of the conference content. Balanced against this has been the experience of graduate students and newly appointed or newly arrived staff in Australia that they are welcome and are assimilated, which has helped to create a culture of activity and sharing of social psychology in Australia. What produces the better science? What produces the better conditions for learning and development?

Another contextual comment may be inserted here, reflecting upon the relative size of the social psychology community in Australia and its ability to mount an annual conference without interruption for nearly four decades. The United Kingdom has had a Social Psychology Section for even longer. That section has, however, due to a variety of reasons, seen a catastrophic decline in membership over recent years. The Section was unable to put on an annual conference in 2008 and an earlier conference while solidly attended made a substantial loss (McKee & Houston, 2008). That a Society as large as the British Psychological Society, with over 30000 members, can support a Section with only 425 members, which can in turn see its conferences making a loss and even being cancelled, shows how entrepreneurial has been the spirit of social psychologists in Australia, commencing with a very small group of enthusiasts, operating as they have deliberately outside of the influence of the Australian Psychological Society.

The independence of social psychologists has been reinforced and validated by the success of SASP.  We can attract international speakers, host meetings with large numbers of attendees and presenters and support summer schools and workshops, all without the bureaucracy of a national society and its potentially deadening presence. That independent spirit, akin at times to anarchy, was crucial to the continued success of the meetings. That sense of independence from formal structures continued to play a role in the creation of the Society and, to a degree, continues to contribute to the success of the Society’s meetings.

The Temporal History

 Date  Host Institution
 Date  Host Institution
 1972  Flinders University  1991  Deakin University
 1973  Macquarie University  1992  University of Auckland
 1974  University of Melbourne  1993  University of Newcastle
 1975  University of Adelaide  1994  James Cook University
 1976  University of Sydney  1995  University of Tasmania
 1977  Monash and Latrobe  1996  Australian National University
 1978  Flinders University  1997  University of Wollongong
 1979  University of New South Wales  1998  University of Canterbury
 1980  University of Melbourne  1999  University of Queensland
 1981  Australian National University  2000  Murdoch University
 1982  University of Queensland  2001  Latrobe University / University of Melbourne
 1983  Macquarie University  2002  University of Adelaide / Flinders University
 1984  University of Adelaide  2003  Macquarie University
 1985  La Trobe University  2004  University of Auckland
 1986  James Cook University  2005  James Cook University
 1987  Australian National University  2006  Australian National University
 1988  University of Sydney  2007  University of Queensalnd / QUT / Griffith University
 1989  University of Queensland  2008  Victoria University, Wellington
 1990  Flinders University

As can be seen from this list, virtually every centre of social psychology in Australia has hosted the event, several many times over. Although the meetings were organised by personnel at the host institutions they were not always held at those venues.  There was an early tradition to have meetings held outside of the major cities, so that attendees could be more restrained to the venue. So the 1977 meeting was held in Kallista, the Flinders conference of 1978 was held in Goolwa, the 1980 conference in Marysville and the 1985 La Trobe conference was held in Lorne. The first held by
James Cook was on Magnetic Island. The second James Cook meeting was held in Cairns. The meeting in Adelaide in 1984 was the first to be held in an inner city
hotel/motel.  This tradition has been generally continued to the present day. The 1988 conference was organised as a satellite conference of the Sydney International Congress of Psychology and was held at a resort in Leura in the Blue Mountains. The first conference held in New Zealand, at Auckland in 1992, has been followed by three further meetings. Only one conference to date has been held in Western Australia.

The Growth of the Meetings
The graph presents a cumulative record of the papers which have been presented each year.  This mode of presentation shows the total number of papers presented at each point in time up to the present and also allows an inspection of spurts and slow-downs in growth at particular times.  There was an apparent slowing of growth after the satellite meeting of 1988, because of the perhaps artificially high number of papers offered that year. These included presentations by many visitors including Richard Petty, Bibb Latane, Alice Eagly, Bert Raven, Bob Cialdini and Ken Gergen.   Growth soon resumed, however.   There was another quite substantial slowing at 2000 when for the first time the conference went to Western Australia. Perth is obviously perceived to be much further away for east coast psychologists than are other “peripheral” hosts, such as New Zealand and north Queensland.

But growth has been exponential, at least to the year 2000, as shown by the fitted trend line.  It took sixteen years for the meetings to achieve a cumulative count of 500 papers, another eight years to get to 1000 and another eight years to get to 2000.  It is doubtful, however, that we will see 4000 papers by 2011. The curve has more of an S-shaped appearance now and we may have an asymptote below the 3000 paper mark within the next decade.

This growth, while quite spectacular, has been achieved by the efforts of relatively few people. An analysis in 1996 showed that while a little over 500 authors had been involved in the production of nearly 1200 papers, 40% of those papers had been authored by only 27 people, that is by only 5% of authors.  This figure approximates the ratio in other disciplines, according to the Price Law (Price, 1963: Price & Beaver, 1966; Innes, 1980a, 1980b).  Further work is needed to update the analysis to the present.  Any further growth will depend upon the continued activities of a core of new scholars. Presentations are now characteristically boosted by keynote speakers, many of them international: there seems to be little difficulty in attracting scholars to visit Australia. Among those who have attended include (among many others) Roy Baumeister, David Buss, Anne Maass, Thomas Pettigrew, Steve Reicher, Cecilia Ridgeway, Russell Spears, and Tom Tyler.

A Brief Account of SASP

SASP itself began at the AGM of the meeting in Cairns in 1994. It is difficult to convey to more recent members the heat generated at that meeting. It all seems so long ago. But there was at that time still a desire by many to keep the informal, almost anarchic sense of organisation that was associated with the annual meetings and not to go down the track of setting a structure and ensuring continuity. I remember being accosted by a member of the group in the street in Cairns after the vote had been taken to establish the Association and being accused of having destroyed the group forever!

As the chief Conference Organiser at that meeting, by virtue of being at the time Head of the School of Psychology and Sociology at James Cook University, I had the job of chairing the Annual General Meeting at which the motion to establish a Society was debated. An understanding of group dynamics and organisational structures was certainly an attribute that came in very handy on that Sunday afternoon. But a decision was reached and a consensus emerged and the Society was established.

There was at the meeting considerable disagreement about the title to be adopted, with strong representation that the term “experimental” should be included, along the lines of the societies in the USA and in Europe. The vote was close in choosing the more general title.  It is testament to the great relationships that had been formed over the years in the general meetings that no animosities were bred and I know of no-one who stopped coming to the subsequent meetings of SASP as a result of the vote.

It is perhaps worth noting that the European Association for Experimental Social Psychology, a Society in existence as a formal organisation for a few years longer than our “meetings”, and which very publicly adopted the name “experimental” in its title, has this year finally decided to delete that term and resort to being a society of social psychologists (Spears, 2008). The decision by the meeting at Cairns can in retrospect be seen to have been sensible, inclusive and prescient.  Such a comment should not be taken, however, to reflect upon the considerable strife encountered in the original formation of the European Association (see Moscovici & Markova (2006) for an account of the emergence of that Society) compared with the relatively benign and mono-cultural emergence of the Australian version.

In the time since then there have been seven Presidents.  These have been, in sequence, Margaret Foddy, La Trobe University; Cindy Gallois, University of Queensland; Graham Vaughan, University of Auckland; Mike Innes, Murdoch University/University of Adelaide; Kip Williams, Macquarie University; Debbie Terry, University of Queensland, Michael Platow, ANU, and Lucy Johnston, U. Canterbury (starting 2009). There is a constitution, with a Board which comprises the President, the immediate Past President, the Secretary, and the Treasurer.  There is also a Newsletter, with an editorial board, which is produced twice per year.  The Newsletter is the main means of communicating with the membership, providing details of the movements of members, other conferences that may be of interest, book reviews and obituaries. The present editorial board works out of Flinders University, with Paul Williamson as the senior editor.

Meetings of SASP continue to be organised by a local committee which chooses venues, constructs the program, invites visiting keynote speakers and all the other miscellany of things that comprises a conference.  The Board of SASP does not interfere.  The AGM is chaired by the President and at that meeting the venue for the next meeting, or now with more formal planning the year after and the year after that. So the informal nature of the original meetings still prevails at the level of the conferences and their day-to-day running. The sense that we are all learning together, that there are no persons who are more important than others, that beginning students can have a say as well as those who have been in the discipline for more than forty years, these things still exist.  We have a budget and a bank account which provide a sense of security and a continuity that makes the difference. We do not have much collective memory, however, which is one of the principal reasons for initiating this history. The local membership of conference organising committees, the weak linkage between the groups which seriatim organise the annual conferences and the loose control of the Society Committee on the organisation of the conferences all bear witness to the earlier independence of spirit of the founding members of the meeting s of social psychologists.

To my mind such continued organisation and culture speaks to the inherent fit between the culture of the meetings and their success and not to an imposed structure of conferences which emanate from some “model’ of good organisation. To end by citing a relevant social psychologist, the history of SASP reflects the work of Don Campbell in suggesting that the structures are selective and adaptive and successful and not imported to an essentially incompatible environment (Campbell, 1974, Jacobs & Campbell,1961).


This has been a brief preliminary account of the early history of the meetings of social psychologists and the emergence of SASP.  A more detailed breakdown of the papers that were presented over the years and the identities of those who presented them should follow.  I hope too that there will be other accounts that can be published to round out the picture of what has been a most illuminating and exciting history of the development of a discipline in Australia.

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