Theory and Method in Meeting Ethnography

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

Renita Thedvall, Stockholm University (Stockholm Centre for Organizational Research – Score)
Jen Sandler, University of Massachusetts Amherst (Anthropology)

This paper speaks to the importance of a comparative approach to the phenomenon of meetings as a whole. We argue that meetings are an extraordinarily useful category in research, and that they become particularly useful through a broad comparative analytical project. For the most part, meetings have interrogated as if they were provincial phenomena of one or another place or type of human organization. People have asked questions such as: how do meetings work in companies, and how could they be more efficient? How do the ways people speak in a social movement meeting speak to the culture of the movement? These are fine questions within a study. But they would be better informed by a comparative understanding of the meeting as a human endeavor that mobilizes meaning and purpose in particular ways. Comparative ethnography focused on the meeting enables us to say with greater specificity and power what this phenomenon is about, and to learn from that insight more about the human condition: about communication, power, identity, hierarchy, and other abiding themes of everyday life.

This presentation is focused on theory and method in meeting ethnography and is a continuation of our collaborative project on Meeting Ethnography – which is also the title of our edited volume published on Routledge this year. The volume includes ethnographic treatments of meetings in a half-dozen countries, and in settings ranging from social movements to community organizations, public institutions to international development projects, community-level politics to elite transnational capitalist epicenters. We learned from the work of these scholars a great deal about how meetings serve and what they are in diverse field sites. We ultimately began to develop a framework for the ontological question of what in fact is the meeting.

We understand meetings as architectural, practices of circulation, and makers. The notion of architecture speaks to an aesthetic design dimension of structure that resonates with our understanding of the salient structural aspects of meetings. It speaks to the design-laden aspect of the specific contours of the meeting’s exclusive time-space. Practices of circulation include ideas, instruments, discourses, documents, people, hierarchies, and legitimization practices that take place within meetings. Architectures are the containers and structures; practices of circulation are the action, the stuff that takes place within the time-space of the meeting itself. Finally, meetings are also in some ways the architect; meetings make a certain kind of time, language, organizational structure, hierarchy, citizen, activist, and even state, serving an agentic role in countless arenas. Meetings are makers of governance, resistance, discipline, development, re-articulations, as is evident in the chapters our volume. Our concept of “maker” stands in tension with the Latourian “actant,” for we argue that meetings often occupy a privileged agentic role in relation to other actants.

Our theory of meeting ontology speaks to the salience of meetings as a phenomenon presenting methodological challenges, as a method for seeing, and as a productive aspect of the many worlds ethnographers encounter.

Start the discussion about this in the Kunsido forum