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Self-constraining Configurations (Communication Patterns)

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part L of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


To understand how different configurations may emerge, it is useful to look at the variety of communication patterns which may be characteristic of a meeting. At one extreme, for example, participants, viewpoints or conditions interact more or less randomly with no detectable pattern or order. This is characteristic of "idea fairs".

One approach to the possible patterns in a large group is to review the well-studied communication patterns in small groups of 3-6 participants. These are described as the circle, the star, the Y, the line, and the starred circle. Although these patterns have been examined in groups of participants, they may also be characteristic of groups of groups, or groups of themes, or the relationship between meeting sessions. For example, the star pattern emerges when all participant groups (or themes), except one, are related to that one but not to each other. Each pattern has well-recognized advantages under certain conditions.

Another approach is to see the large group as a complex, but reasonably stable, network of relationships between participants, themes or meeting sessions. Social networks are studied by the discipline of social network analysis.

Another approach is to imagine all participants, viewpoints or meeting sessions as being represented as points on the surface of a simple stretched rubber sheet. If they are located, such that lines of communication drawn between them cross to a minimal extent, then the meeting pattern as a whole may be viewed as a particular deformation of a regular grid. For example, if stretched in one way, many of the lines of communication might converge on one point as in the star pattern (above). Or several such points of relative convergence might emerge. Alternatively, by stretching the sheet so that a single space emerged in the centre, all the communication lines between points would be pushed into an approximate circle around it, creating the circle pattern.

The grid deformation approach which has been briefly outlined above may also be associated with a possible application of catastrophe theory to an analysis of meeting events, structural stability and morphogenesis.

But even if a highly ordered communication pattern is achieved, this does not necessarily mean that it can focus usefully in terms of any objectives. It may simply be an efficient way of dissipating energy generated at the central point (see elsewhere).

Supposing however that, in this case, a "counter-grid" or "counter- pattern" is delineated in the same way for the problems with which the elements of the communication pattern are confronted. This problem pattern could simply be the reflection of the other (effectively generated by "reflection" within it on the perceived problems and how they are linked). But if the one pattern "comes to grips" with the other and is "constrained" by it, a balanced configuration could emerge in one of two forms.

Such forms may correspond to those of convex or concave lenses. The resulting optical analogy draws attention to the significance of the fact that, constrained into curvature in this way, the focal point, previously "at infinity", is brought closer to the lens according to the degree to which the configuration is constrained into curvature (being at the centre of a spherical configuration, as the limiting case).

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