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.
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 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.
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.
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 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’.
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.