Methodological reflections from studying the agency of meetings collectively

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 1 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

Martin Duffy, Dublin Institute of Technology (College of Business)
Brendan O’Rourke

An ethnographic approach was used to record the live proceedings of 63 meetings, and informed theory development on the agency of meetings collectively in an organizational setting (Duffy, 2016). Engagement as a participant observer (Pacanowsky, 1988) in a single organization, over an eighteen month period, enabled collection of discourse data from the meetings of distinct organizational groups. While meetings were originally intended as a research resource, reflection while recording the data occasioned a change in focus, moving from the meetings’ content to the meetings themselves as the research topic. This paper reflects on the methodological considerations and challenges that arose from the change in research topic. Abductive, inductive and deductive approaches to theory development were cycled through iteratively, to develop a new perspective on organizational meetings as systemic process.
Initially informed by systems and process thinking, an abductive approach envisaged how meetings might be considered as an integrated phenomenon, exercising agency collectively within the organization. This level of analysis, taking place while data were being collected, highlighted inter-meeting connections, contextual influences between meetings and their surrounding organisation, temporal considerations associated with meetings collectively and the role of meetings collectively in longitudenal organizational outcomes.
A more detailed bifocal approach to the data analysis initially adopted a ‘zoomed-out’ perspective (Nicolini, 2009), using sensemaking (Weick, 1995) to focus the analysis from a combined systemic and process perspective. Patterns of interaction and connectivity between meetings were then examined in more detail through a ‘zoomed-in’ analysis (Nicolini, 2009), to explore the nature, significance and contribution of the connectivity between meetings.
The Communicative Constitution of Organization (CCO) (Schoeneborn et al., 2014) provided a detailed theoretical lens through which the zoomed-in analysis was conducted. McPhee and Zaug’s (2000) four flows model was augmented with immutable mobiles (Cooren, Matte, Taylor, & Vasquez, 2007) and ventriloquism (Cooren, 2012) as concepts from the Montreal school of CCO, and autopoiesis (Luhmann, 2006a) and decision paradox (Luhmann, 2006b) concepts drawn from the Luhmannian school of CCO.
Discourse Analysis (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000; Phillips & Hardy, 2002; Potter & Wetherell, 1987) provided a consistent approach for data analysis at both the ‘zoomed-out’ and ‘zoomed-in’ levels. Cycling between these two levels reflected a “kind of iterative/dialectical process” (Conrad, 2004, p. 435) that made both perspectives mutually informative, leading to the development of the Meetings as Systemic Process framework (Duffy, 2016). MaSP is a conceptual tool for considering meetings collectively as an organizational resource displaying features of collective agency. A deductive approach was finally used in the research to consider the implications of adopting the MaSP framework in the practice of organizational meetings.

Martin Duffy and Brendan O’Rourke

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