On the bus
Haskell Wexler’s film The Bus (1965) shows a mixed group travelling from San Francisco to Washington to join the March for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963. It builds the sense of a journey, one which is social and spiritual as well as political, of joining the country through its successive stops along the way. Its action is talk, through all the awkwardness of turning round and leaning over seats, necks craned and twisted, about whether African countries offer a political model, about the limits of non-violence. At one stop, a young man leaves the bus to buy cigarettes but gets involved in an argument about racial prejudice, and a woman protests that ‘the thing to do would have been to call a meeting’. At another, those on the bus meet others from Chicago and Alabama, tell stories and exchange information about routes and plans, as well as news of other demonstrations.
On a different bus, in a different time and place – on the way back from a student protest in London in 2010 – conversations serve not only to develop shared understandings of what has gone on and what might happen next, but also, because they gather people from a local area, they form and consolidate an identity, too. On a five or six-hour trip, ‘There was a real sense that you were going ‘as Manchester’. That sense of a ‘we’ became strong’. For the activist, this collective sense-making is arguably ‘as politically formative as the actual protests themselves’.
Close to home
Nina Eliasoph studied citizens’ groups in a suburban community on the US west coast, which meant going to ‘meetings, hearings, demonstrations, raffles, track meets, fairs, parades, fashion shows, rodeos, theme parks, and parties’. She was interested in the way people talk to each other, in ‘the process of conversation that cultivates or impairs citizens’ abilities to talk, think and imagine together‘, and she found three kinds of political talk among three kinds of group.
Those she called activists were engaged in organising and lobbying, and talked explicitly about the political – institutional and structural – aspects of the problems with which they were concerned. For them, this talk was itself the purpose of their meeting: ”Doing something’ meant, above all, talking, writing letters, complaining, making a scene, trying to learn more about the national and international roots that they assumed were under many local problems. Being a good citizen meant voicing criticism’. Cynics, who got together principally for recreation, such as a dance club, talked politics too, but essentially in order to dismiss it. In conversation, it mattered to demonstrate an awareness of politics, if only in order to castigate individuals and organisations as self-interested, untrustworthy or irrelevant.
Those who took part in other kinds of community group, meanwhile, tended to avoid talking about politics, preferring to address issues ‘closer to home’. For Sherry, a schools volunteer, the world of politics seemed distant and remote, something over which she had no influence. And even when politics did come up in meetings it tended to be removed – skirted or avoided – in favour of more immediate and practical things. People used what seemed to be a self-interested way of talking, ‘to preserve a sense that what they are doing together matters, that citizens’ solidarity matters. In doing so, they often assume they have to push the wider world of politics away’.
People in groups talk in different ways, Eliasoph argues, not just because they’re pursuing different topics, but because they hold different assumptions about the value of political talk. These values and assumptions about talk are themselves generated, tested and maintained in talk, in interaction in groups. That is to say that both engagement and apparent disengagement are socially produced, in interaction. Interestingly, too, people seemed prepared to be more political in private and casual encounters ‘behind the scenes’, before or after or outside a meeting, than in the more public context of a meeting itself: ‘the wider the audience, the narrower were the ideas citizens could express’.
Talk as the work
The work of the public official is done in talk as well as on paper. The civil servant tasked with assembling evidence on a specific issue may read the research, for example, but she will also talk to colleagues and to relevant experts. These are usually contacts-of-contacts, making for a provisional degree of trust in a conversation. The reason for talking to experts is because they already have assembled and assimilated a body of research, and because they will offer an assessment of it. But there is also good reason for talk, why their interaction should take place in talk rather than in writing. For talking provides access to the embodied knowledge of the expert – of the potential application of the research to the problem at hand which would otherwise remain inaccessible, perhaps even to the expert herself.
Leaders and managers, spend much of their time in talk, such that we should think of their talk as their work, as the way they come to understand the world around them and to establish and exercise control over it.
Something comes up, for example, when the Head is stopped in the corridor by his Deputy. There’s an issue about which teacher should be assigned to which class next year, and the Deputy wants the Head to avoid addressing it just yet. The corridor is a channel of movement and communication, and makes encounters of this kind not just possible but likely; conversation there is not private, but nor will it be overheard. What is at issue, of course, is the definition of the situation, including both the validity of the problem and the authority of the Deputy to raise it.
They meet later in the Head’s office, where the dynamics are different. There is time for more questioning and probing by the Head, which he does on his own territory, his own terms. He listens, and the Deputy’s claims begin to unravel. In the subsequent staff meeting, the Head sets out his plans as he originally intended. What he’s done is ‘standard, unspectacular and mundane, and replicated in hundreds of staff rooms across the state school system. An administrator has directed his staff to see part of the organizational world in his terms. He has defined the situation and they are expected to fall into line with that view’.
‘Words do the work because each participant has a subjective understanding of school life that is made manifest in speech’, Gronn says. Control is exerted in talk not by any single statement, but in the relationship between an utterance and the one which precedes it. Interlocutors engage by talking to, at, with, for and over each other as they negotiate not only what is at issue but also their relationship to each other. Some, and sometimes all, of their talk is substantive, to do with the matter at hand, and some may explicitly refer to their relative status and authority. When and how the first person plural (‘we’ and ‘us’) is used is significant, as is what a speaker is doing in listening, since speech which seeks to control the listener tends to provoke resistance.