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Part M 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).
It is normally assumed that meetings are either concerned with issues in wider society (the external world) or constitute an environment or vehicle for interaction between persons or viewpoints (or possibly a mixture of both). Both perspectives fail, in an important respect, to focus on the meeting itself. They treat the meeting as a vehicle or device but fail to consider the significance of the structures and processes constituting the vehicle, whether as a result of forces emerging within the meeting or during its planning stages.
Meetings may usefully be viewed as models of the reality of the forces and perspectives in the wider external society as comprehended within the meeting. This is only partly acknowledged in concern for the representativity of the meeting. This concern only reflects an awareness, from a particular perspective, of who or what should be represented at the meeting. The meeting structures and processes reflect more than the simple list of participants or themes, they reflect their possible relationship in the light of the constraints imposed on the meeting. As such they constitute a map of the external reality, significant in its own right and especially because of any detectable limitations.
In a different sense a meeting also provides a convenient "surface" onto which concerns may be projected. As such, some meetings may be treated as new opportunities to redefine and concretize "the good, the true, and the beautiful", following the failures of previous attempts.
The problems of the external world are also reflected in the decisions and compromises required to organize the meeting. Clear examples arise from policies (or their absence) on: handicapped participants, interpretation budgets, travel budgets, privileges, space and time constraints, use of recycled paper, etc.
Aside from such technical problems, the more fundamental societal problems can also emerge to some degree in embryonic form in the meeting environment, if only as analogues. Examples are: limitations on the human rights of participants; alienation, structural violence; problems arising from the multitude of participants each concerned
o populate society with their particular perspectives; intellectual or emotional undernourishment of participants in the meeting process; problems associated with the different levels of education/experience of participants, and the constraints imposed by ever present ignorance; overconsumption and privileged use of resources. In each case the forces contributing to the problem may be observed.
Given the central role of meetings in society, they may also be seen as the focal point from which arise programmes, organizations, information systems (including periodicals, bibliographies, etc), and recognized problems. Such societal artifacts emerge, "peel off" and acquire separate identity, partly because of insensitivity to the significance of the meeting and avoidance of the issues it raises. In this sense such artifacts are an escape from the immediacy of the issues raised by the meeting and a delegation of action to others beyond the here-and-now. A loss of vitality and information content goes with this loss of immediacy.
Meetings also usefully model the capacity of those assembled to interweave their perspectives and skills within a viable whole - a whole capable of encompassing creatively the problems to which those same perspectives give rise. In this sense failure to bring about a new level of significance within the meeting is a strong indication of the limited relevance of the assembly to wider society.
Following from the previous point, meetings can be used by participants as a social micrococosm within which the significance of emergent insights can be tested. As such they are extremely valuable laboratories which have the immense advantage of being immediately accessible to those participating.
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