It was a day of meetings, after a draft agreement between the employers (UUK) and the union (UCU) had been published the night before.
I saw a local organiser as I walked into the square. ‘I was looking for you. What do you think?’ ‘It’s bad. It’s very bad. I was at the union office, nobody likes it.’ ‘Now we have two really bad options: to accept or reject. If we accept, we’re screwed. If we reject, what happens next?’ ‘Don’t know.’
A picket had gathered outside our building. We stood around, commiserating, trying to work out what was going on and why. How had the talks turned last week’s position, where the employers seemed clearly uncertain and divided, into one which put us between a rock and a hard place? What was the status of the deal in front of us? What had been agreed, in fact, if anything, and by whom? What was the union leadership trying to do? A decision would be taken by a union committee in London later in the day, but who was on it? A separate meeting of branch representatives was being convened beforehand, to communicate the feeling of local members. Messages were coming in from union reps at other universities, all seeming likely to reject the agreement. A student passed by with a strike magazine he and others had made, half a dozen small sheets the size of a passport, folded into a red paper cover.
Someone had suggested meeting at 10.30 outside the main lecture theatre, which students had occupied sometime earlier. We gather in a circle: on one side, against the building, those with the most prominent banners; on the other colleagues, students, supporters, spilling down the steps. The organiser steps forward, asking what we think. Does anybody want this? A collective moan becomes a roar. Comments back and forth, some attracting spontaneous applause. There’s to be a photograph, which involves rearranging the group against the building, looking into the square. Students lean out of windows above, taking shots on their phones, looking down at us now looking up. The crowd breaks up into small groups, talking. A young woman chalks NO CAPITULATION in big, blocky letters on the paving. The circle re-forms a while later for a teach-out, political theorists talking about the ethics of striking.
There had been another message about a branch meeting in the students’ union later, at 1.30. We walk into the debating hall, a dark, cavernous room with no windows, a blacked-out stage at one end, rows of chairs in what would be the stalls already full, those without seats lined one or two deep along the walls, a balcony above them also filling up. Union organisers at the front are concerned to clarify the status of the meeting as ‘unofficial’. One is in direct communication by text with our local convenor, who’s now in London at the meeting of branch reps. She’s asking us to comment on different parts of the proposed agreement and for responses to be relayed to her. It looks and feels messy, the meeting is edgy, the questions not always clear, almost all answers loudly negative. We hear the reps’ meeting in London has ended, and that the committee which will decide on the proposal is beginning. Discussion turns to what will happen next, to how the action will continue if the proposal is rejected; how further days of striking, which have already been agreed, will be spent. Ideas are put forward, each raising complications.
Groups form in twos and threes as we leave the building, exchanging the anxieties and frustrations, the ups and downs of the last twenty-four hours, wondering about the dynamics of the organisations – the university and the union – that we’re part of and which suddenly seem set against each other. We hear that the committee meeting in London has rejected the proposal. It seems clear that things will get increasingly difficult, and that it ought to be possible to do things differently.
So what happened that Tuesday, 13 March? Overnight it wasn’t clear who had done what or why, or what it meant; our first need was to establish some shared definition of the situation and what might follow from it. A sense of the situation emerged, was refined and reinforced in chance encounters, gatherings and more formal meetings. It was constructed in speech, in specific spaces in which we worked out what had happened, as well as who and where we were and what we wanted, both individually and collectively. We talked incessantly about action, about what was going on and what to do, in that way doing politics.
The work of each encounter, gathering or meeting was to make sense of what we knew of other meetings, as articulated in statements, mails, postings and tweets, and to record a shared response to them, to serve in turn as another impulse in a moving, changing complex of communications. The most important thing seemed to be to come back tomorrow, to do it again and to keep on doing it, and to be sure to be seen to be doing so.
Encounter, gathering, meeting
Consistent with our reading of Arendt and Goffman, it seems important to rescue the idea of meeting from its associations with formal institutional process: we encounter neighbours in the street and gather with like minds in public spaces, and in doing so we do politics. We need to think equally of the encounter, the gathering and the meeting, to the extent they are each political, as fulfilling similar functions in different ways, as variations on the same, essential social process.
It is the encounter which is the core term of interactionist sociology. It tends to refer to the often unplanned, occasional interaction which takes place between individuals, the exchange that happens in the corridor, in the street, or at some social occasion. It may also take place in an office, and by appointment, and often in the margins of other, more planned and formal meetings. For the encounter is an opportunity to define or redefine ‘the situation’, and therefore a moment in which politics gets done. Not only that, but following Goffman the encounter itself requires politics, necessarily entails that the situation is defined and redefined, that politics gets done.
The gathering refers to greater numbers of people coming together, and this being together and the expression of plurality it represents may be its principal purpose. The group, the mass and the crowd are politically significant by virtue of their very existence. The demonstration, the strike, the occupation, the march and the riot are essential forms of collective interaction undertaken in order to do politics.
The meeting is purposively constructed as an occasion for talk, its time and place predefined, its ostensible purpose and its modus operandi known in advance to its prospective participants. Meetings are common to accounts of very different political domains: to the everyday activity of the elected representative – whose very function, arguably, is to go to meetings – as well as to that of the minister and the public official, and whether in the constituency or the committee, in the debating chamber, in local and national government, in public services and agencies and in international organizations. But the meeting is the staple activity, likewise, of the volunteer, the engaged citizen, the activist and the NGO worker. ‘Freedom’, announces Francesca Polletta’s study of social movements in the US, ‘is an endless meeting’.
The proliferation and elaboration of the meeting is coterminous with the development of the modern polity. This ‘meetingization’ entails an increased use of organized and formalized talk as a means of containing and managing conflict, as well as an increased capacity of individuals to engage in such talk and to use the rules and norms it follows.
Meetings aren’t easy. They are one of the ways in which groups form and discover an agency and purpose, and they’re also a way in which they continue to exist, reproducing the order and idea in why they are based even as these become empty and routine. Meetings create and guarantee the continued existence of groups: whether that process is exciting, progressive, antagonistic or exclusive, it will be done in meeting.
Meetings are as varied as participants and their purposes, and may be defined in terms of who’s there (participants), what’s at issue (purpose) and how their work is conducted (process). Meetings may be exclusive, specific and formal, or open, general and informal, or almost anything in-between. Of course, participants, purposes and processes may change and evolve in the course of a meeting, while some meetings may be hybrid: we might think of a party conference, for example, as a gathering in order that encounters and meetings might take place. By extension, we might think of some of the principal institutions of politics, such as local councils and national parliaments, as systems or architectures of meeting.