3 Meeting 3 Meeting

In committee

In egalitarian societies, the sense-making function of meetings dominates as each event becomes the place for individuals to constitute and create their social system. In hierarchical societies, the social validating function of meetings is stressed as meetings become one of several carriers of the social structure and culture for participants.

Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, 1989

In anthropology, the meeting is important as an occasion for speech, for the use of political language; in the sociology of organization, specifically in its constructionist form, it is that moment in which an organization is ‘enacted’ or brought into being. From her review of the literature, Helen Schwartzman takes two images: one is that of meeting as sense-making; the other is that of meeting as validation. It is firstly a means of figuring out what is going on and what should be done, who we are and what we can do, and secondly a marking and endorsing, testing and reinforcing of the roles and functions of its immediate participants and other members of the political community to which it refers. It is a validation of social relations, or at least tends to the reproduction of a particular version of those relations. We might explore them in respect of the work of the council or committee.

The work the meeting does

Think how meetings unfold. Participants enter a room, sometimes singly, sometimes in twos or threes. They sit around a table, perhaps expressing different kinds of relation to others present by choosing where to sit. Multiple exchanges of small-talk break off as the meeting begins: from now, whatever any individual participant says is addressed to all the others. The formal and informal conventions of turn-taking ensure that only one participant speaks at a time.

A quarter of an hour had been allocated for ‘introductions’. The meeting was concerned with the relationship between research and policy, and most participants had worked in the worlds of both research and politics or public administration. They introduced themselves. They took cues from each other, connected what a previous speaker had said with some aspect of their own experience, realising how much they had done was relevant to the topic in hand (realising, in fact, who they were). In the event, this item took more than an hour, ending only because later speakers understood that in order to rescue the timetable they had to abbreviate what they now thought they had to say.

Richard Freeman, fieldnote, 24 April 2003

The meeting is defined by who is there and what’s at stake. It begins with introductions: both the identity of the participants and the topic of the meeting must be established, though much of this may be clear or can be assumed from previous meetings.

Sometimes participants are introduced to others by a third party, such as the chair, and sometimes they introduce themselves. Either way, they hear a version of who they are, constructed in such a way as to make their presence intelligible to whomever they are being introduced to. The introduction establishes a connection between participants and between them individually and collectively and the topic of the meeting; properly, it formalises and specifies the connection they have by virtue of being at the same meeting.

At the same time, it serves also to establish or reproduce power relations: office-holders are named, and sometimes formal rules and requirements of the meeting are invoked, whether as the meeting begins or in the course of discussion. The meeting has some of the characteristics of an institution, predicated on and reproducing regular patterns of behavior. Principal among these are that its relations should be managed in talk, rather than by physical contact or force (touch of any kind is rare in meetings).

The meeting may deal with one or multiple topics in sequence. Each must be introduced, often by a paper, invariably accompanied by some oral statement by its author, sometimes by a brief oral report or even an extended presentation. It raises questions and at the same time – implicitly or explicitly – closes off others. It represents an attempt at a preliminary definition of the parameters of the discussion: it ‘frames’ the meeting, aiming to contain the discussion it provokes. The idea of the ‘present-ation’, meanwhile, carries an idea of gift-giving, a pattern of reciprocal obligations. It begins an exchange, often a process of question-and-answer, inviting or even demanding some response.

The committees can be a lot of fun, you know? The work is very serious, but in terms of the personal relationships and the banter, it can be quite fun. And it’s the characters. You get to know people in greater depth. This place can be a very lonely place. And the people you’re on committee with, because you’ve gone away together, you’ve done things together

UK Parliamentary Committee member, in Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

The topic of the meeting was never self-evident, but has to be formulated and articulated, perhaps even researched, and agreed. The preliminary account of the problem or situation the meeting confronts must be constructed as such, through some process of cognition and interpretation. To introduce it is to make the situation newly available for reflection even by those already very familiar with it: description is already discovery.

Articulations of this kind are multiple, successive. Even in the most straightforward instance, a report is drafted or a paper written, then adapted as it is made into a presentation, then translated again as it is spoken or delivered, then again as it is summarised and commented on, perhaps by a designated respondent and then in more fragmented ways by meeting participants. Each instance or utterance, each shift in form or mode of communication is a translation, an occasion for reflection on and interrogation of the story its author or presenter is trying to tell.

Any meeting, like many of the participants at any given meeting, might have its Babel moment: a brief or extended period of confusion and contestation, of not making sense. Meetings suddenly become embroiled in conflicts over the definition and meaning of what were formerly for most participants the most routine, mundane, habitual terms – often up to and including whatever is the nominal topic of discussion.

It’s quite difficult to make that work when you have a whole lot of people who are already quite busy, who are coming from very different perspectives and very different approaches to something and you’re to sit down in a committee room and get them all to agree on something and, so, I think it’s quite a difficult thing to pull off.

UK Parliamentary Committee member, in Marc Geddes, Interpreting Parliamentary Scrutiny, 2016

This is because meeting is made in difference, and that difference is uncovered in the course of it. The meeting is an organized and sustained encounter between discrete human beings, with necessarily different perceptions, opinions, interests and affiliations. For all the connecting and relating they might do in meeting, this difference is why they are there, why the meeting itself is necessary. It (the meeting) is driven by an insistent problematisation of its proper object, a wondering about and questioning of the situation and how it might be defined.

A seeming breakdown in communication may be functional, to the extent that it requires some effort of reflection and repair by and among participants to overcome. The concept of ‘moment’ (‘Babel moment’, above), derived from physics, is meant as a dynamic, a relationship of forces as well as a point in time. Sometimes, of course, communication just breaks down.

To begin with, participants in many kinds of conversation (such as those which take place within a friendship or other relationship) talk about each other, about the things they have brought separately to that situation. Over time, however, they come to talk increasingly about things they have thought of through their talking; the dialogue becomes self-generating. What has been said earlier in the meeting or at previous meetings becomes a resource for present and future exchanges. Meetings are conducted in reference to shared concepts and sometimes a peculiar and specific vocabulary, as one participant picks up a turn of phrase used in a previous turn by someone else; it becomes self-referential. It is in this way that the meeting is generative, constitutive not merely constative. Something is being made in the process of meeting which is more than what was brought to it.

Formal and informal

The venue and timing of the formal meeting will have been set long in advance, perhaps in accordance with an annual or other extended cycle, and sometimes even before its specific business has been agreed. That business will, in due course, be set in an agenda, and informed by a succession of papers; items will be introduced by one or more participants, to be discussed and decided upon by the meeting as a collective entity.

The meeting is presided over by a chairperson, who may or may not hold an interest in the matter at hand, and may or may not have power of decision-making (such as a casting vote), but will have the authority to ensure due process. The chair determines who should speak when and how long discussion should last, and identifies for the record whatever conclusion it seems to have reached; he or she will likely be supported by a secretary. The role has something in common both with the football referee and the theatre director.

Talk in the meeting is addressed to the chair, and only indirectly to other participants. The chair embodies the authority of the collective, and holds that authority as long as he or she is recognised by meeting participants: the chair is the chair to the extent that participants behave as though she is, and they do that because of the sanctions they would otherwise face from the collective. The chair is an individual with authority by virtue of where she sits, somehow both person and thing, a position in relation to others; the meeting, as Simone Abram puts it is ‘the embodiment of the imagined state’.

Abram uses Austin’s term ‘felicity conditions’ to think about what it takes for a meeting to be effective, about what must happen for its work to ‘count’, and notes that sometimes it doesn’t.

In order to achieve its status, a plan must be presented to the council as a formal document, and its acceptance must be noted with the appropriate, documented words, from the correct official persons… Infelicities may include a failure to conform to the rules of assembly, including the absence of key actors; failure to note decisions; failure to consult the requisite documents, regulations, or persons; or any other failure of due process related to the issue in question. All of the procedures often insulted as ‘just ritual’, or ‘tedious bureaucracy’, are those which remind the actors that they are not divinely empowered to govern others, but derive their power from a democratic process with checks and balances that allow for public accountability.

Simone Abram, ‘Meeting bureaucracy in Norwegian municipal government’, 2017

An issue addressed in a formal meeting of this kind will have been considered previously and less formally by working groups and sub-committees, and may have reached them only as a result of preliminary discussions and wholly informal consultations and encounters. These different kinds of meeting do different kinds of work, as Nicolas Lamp shows in his study of the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organization.

The WTO’s ‘concentric circles’ is ‘a system of small and large, informal and formal meetings handled by the chairperson, who is at the centre. The outer ‘circle’ is the formal meeting of the full membership, where decisions are taken and statements are recorded in official minutes or notes. Inside, the circles represent informal meetings of the full membership or smaller groups of members, down to bilateral consultations with the chair. Members accept the process so long as they all have input and information is shared.’

World Trade Organization, glossary

The full meetings of the DSB are full in the sense that all members are present but also in that they are fully documented, and it is this documented aspect that gives them a public, legal status. They are formal, not least because they speak to an audience of member states beyond the meeting itself. The actions of the DSB must be seen to be authoritative, consensual and effective, and full meetings are where those qualities are demonstrated; they are where its authority is performed, and there must be no risk of its performance (and therefore authority) breaking down.

In this way, full meetings carry a ceremonial function: they are where decisions are announced and promulgated, not where they are formulated and made. It is in informal meetings backstage that members engage in the uncertain process of negotiation with each other: it is there that ideas might be put forward and discussed without risk of public embarrassment should they be rejected. It is where papers may be worked on and revised, before they acquire the inviolate status accorded by approval and acceptance at a formal meeting.

As members of different delegations observed, ‘substantive discussion in small groups’ gave them ‘the opportunity to stand back from our position for a moment, to listen to the problems of the others involved, to measure the magnitude of our differences, and to exchange ideas on possible approaches to a solution’… this ‘informal process’ held the promise of ‘real engagement’ and ‘creative discussions’.

I spent hours in G-7 meetings and then hours in a G-30, followed by more hours in a G-153 [the entire WTO membership] in order to explain to the G-30 what the G-7 had done, and to the G-153 what the G-30 had done.

Pascal Lamy, Director-General, WTO, 2005-2013
Nicolas Lamp, ‘The receding horizon of informality in WTO meetings’, 2017

Bargaining generally occurs backstage where the actors are free to vary from their public role or the explicit demands of their constituencies. To arrive at a working consensus will require flexibility that audience awareness, involvement, or reaction would inhibit because the parties need to feel one another out, make offers and counter-offers, and be friendly when perhaps they are supposed to be hostile. While many of these arrangements are eventually to be made public, and require ratification, many also are to remain private as they involve illegal acts, role conflicts, or contingent activities.

Peter Hall, ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, 1972

Some of the work of the meeting is done in its margins, in the corridor before or after a more formal meeting, or in the queue for coffee. In Marc Geddes’s study of parliamentary committees, ‘before an evidence-session begins, MPs will chat and gossip; afterwards, it is possible to overhear Members (and staff) say things like, ‘Can I grab you for a moment?’, which will lead to impromptu discussions and decision-making’.

The occasional encounter of this kind gives an opportunity to share information, to prepare the ground for talk to come, to test and develop a definition of the situation. It takes place in public space where other similar encounters may be going on, and so unobtrusively: its content and indeed the fact of its taking place are likely to be known only to its participants.

We’re both buying a coffee and I’ll say, you know, ‘What do you think of that? I think we ought to be doing more or less’, or ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’. And we’ll spend 15 minutes with a coffee at Portcullis just nattering about it. You know, that kind of thing.

If we bump into each [other] we’ll say, ‘What did you think about what so-and-so said?’ and ‘Could you believe this?’

UK Parliamentary Committee members, in Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

‘In egalitarian societies…’: Schwartzman 1989 op cit, p 307; that part of the literature she reviews and I refer to here appears pp 38-45

The work the meeting does: these passages are abstracted and revised from Freeman, R (2008) ‘Learning by meeting’, Critical Policy Analysis 2 (1) 1-24. I have the idea of the meeting becoming self-referential from Zenon Bankowski’s account of the seminar: Bankowski, Z (1996) ‘How does it feel to be on your own? The person in the sight of autopoiesis (I)’, in Nelken, D (ed) Law as Communication, Aldershot: Dartmouth, pp 66-67.

‘The committees can be a lot of fun…’: Geddes, M, Dramas at Westminster: Select Committees and the quest for accountability, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2020, p 55; ‘It’s quite difficult to make that work…’: Geddes, M, Interpreting Parliamentary Scrutiny, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2016, p 190

‘the embodiment of the imagined state’: Simone Abram (2017) ‘Contradiction in contemporary political life’: meeting bureaucracy in Norwegian municipal government, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27-44, p 42; ‘In order to achieve its status…’: ibid, p 29

Material on the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO is from Lamp, N (2017) ‘The receding horizon of informality in WTO meetings’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 63-79; ‘The WTO’s ‘concentric circles’…’ is from the WTO’s online glossary, and is cited by Lamp p 66; ‘I spent hours…’: Pascal Lamy, in Minutes of Meeting, WTO General Council, 26 February 2009, likewise cit Lamp p 71; ‘substantive discussion in small groups…’ in Lamp, pp 70-71

‘Bargaining generally occurs backstage…’: Hall, P (1972) ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, Sociological Inquiry 42 (3-4) 35-75; p 50

‘Before an evidence session begins…’: Geddes 2020 op cit, p 131; ‘We’re both buying a coffee…’ and ‘If we bump into…’ likewise p 131