Meeting in brackets

This paper belongs to of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Sophie Thunus, University of Liège (Sociology of organisations and institutional systems)

Meetings are brackets in ongoing social processes and traditional contexts of action as organisations and institutions. Meetings oblige people to stop performing activities they feel to be the core of their work and leaving the organisations they work in, to move elsewhere and engage in interactions with different kinds of people. Meetings thus induce movements, displacements and some kind of separations between what happen into the meeting frame (into brackets) and the outside environment.
Does it mean that meeting actions and interactions are independent from the meeting’s environment? Does the meeting environment impact on what is going on through the meeting and, conversely, do the meeting actions and interactions impact on the outside environment? Which kinds of empirical data can be used to analyse what is happening inside and outside the brackets? And how observations, interviews and documents can complement one another in exploring the relationship between meetings and their environment (including more or less related meetings occurring in that environment)?
In this paper, I propose using the metaphor of “brackets” to explore the relationship between meetings and their environment. Based on qualitative studies of different Belgian health policies I first use the two images of “bracketing out” and “removing brackets” to explore, respectively, how the meeting environment is represented and reflected on through the meeting (into brackets), and how meeting actions and interactions trigger changes in external processes and contexts of action. I argue that direct or participant observation is essential for understanding what is happening into brackets and, particularly, how successive inter-individual alignments support the expression and representation of the meeting environment.
Observations of meetings are complemented by semi-structured interviews and document analyses. Meetings produce situated and contingent images of their environment. These images draw from the meeting participants’ individual experience and perception of the environment. In the meantime, they provide them with different and collectively relevant representations of that environment. Following the meeting, collective representations and the related decisions are most of time written down, i.e. inscribed in documents intended to circulate the meeting production outside the brackets. But inscriptions are very partial representations of meeting interactions. Comparing meeting documents with the observed interactions enables to know what the meeting participants refuse or accept circulating in their environment and how and why they express the meeting production.
Next to document analyses, semi-structured interviews provide researchers with means to explore the meeting participants’ individual representations and how they change through the meeting. Interviews are conducted both before and after the observed meeting and enable to grasp the transformative capacity of meeting, i.e. how the participants’ ideas, opinions, fears and strategies were changed by passing through the brackets. Following the meeting, semi-structured interviews are particularly helpful to go deeper in the social logic of inscription, by exploring the reasons why the meeting participants struggled to hide or to mention particular aspect of the meeting interactions.
Finally, observation, interviews and document analyses are means to access to the formal and informal realities of meetings. The combination of these three methods allows to question the relative closeness and openness of meetings and to explore the relationship between what happens within and outside the brackets.

Notable Replies

  1. I appreciated the long, informative abstract here.

    And this initial phrase “Meetings are brackets in ongoing social processes” reminds me of something I heard from some of the earliest participatory meeting pioneers I know - the folks at the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Though I’ve not got their wording down, it’s something like “change is always associated with events” … and meetings are events, I’d say.
    I’m thinking that it’s the same kind of “freeing dynamics” … which is to say stepping outside of one context into a “time out” where change is expected and encouraged. Or something …

  2. “Does it mean that meeting actions and interactions are independent from the meeting’s environment?”

    I wonder how this all plays out in the context of meetings held in OST (open space technology). Would this be an example of what the authors call “removing the brackets”? OST is the format I return to over and over again as it’s the only method I know that fully invites passion and responsibility of any and all participants. The big work is done in the invitation phase, but after that it’s open to whatever anyone is wanting to express, and the structure is provided for when, where, and how the discussion can be hosted and documented and then openly shared. It’s like an open-weave meta-meeting. (my unacademic wording)

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