EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Meetings: the 'infrastructure' of work in local and global settings
Location U6-1D
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University) email
  • Helen Schwartzman (Northwestern University) email

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Short Abstract

Meetings are one of the most prevalent contemporary sites of ethnographic engagement. Yet, not enough anthropological attention has been placed on the ever so ubiquitous meeting. We invite papers to explore meetings as both ethnographic objects and as sites of ethnographic inquiry in various fields.

Long Abstract

Meetings are one of the most prevalent contemporary sites of ethnographic engagement. In policy organizations and community centres, bureaucratic and religious institutions, schools and corporations, working among militant activists and networking professionals alike, contemporary ethnographers often find that formal and associated informal meetings are where a great deal of the action is. Meeting ethnography (Sandler and Thedvall, forthcoming) is, for example, central for the investigation of social movements organising and enacting dissent, protest, participatory democracy, and diverse forms of radical political organisation (cf. Graeber 2009). Furthermore, with state affairs, corporate business and social movements often taking inter- and transnational forms, meetings are also the little-interrogated 'infrastructure' under which the much-discussed transnational flows of knowledge, capital, policy, cultural forms, and protest unfold. Yet, not enough attention has been placed on the meeting as an ethnographic site even though the organisation of work and bureaucratic processes often are understood as including the typical, boring, meeting. Helen Schwartzman's work (1989) being the exception where she points to the taken-for-grantedness of meetings in ethnographic writing.

We invite papers to explore meetings as both ethnographic objects and as sites of ethnographic inquiry in various fields addressing ontological, epistemological, and methodological questions: what are meetings? What sort of knowledge, identities, and power relationships are produced, circulated, performed, communicated, legitimised and contested through meetings? How do—and how might—ethnographers study meetings as objects, and how might we best conduct research in meetings as particular elements of our field sites?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The production of meetings and meeting productions

Author: Helen Schwartzman (Northwestern University)  email

Short Abstract

How do meetings acquire force in social life? Meeting ethnographers concerned with this question should consider: What produces meetings in a setting? How is a specific meeting accomplished? What does the meeting itself produce in terms of social and material artifacts?

Long Abstract

In order to understand the role that meetings play in social life it is necessary to first look at them not through them or behind them. When we do this we discover that meetings do not simply "reflect" the social order that is assumed to exist outside the meeting but in many important ways constitute this social order and create the possibility for challenging and even subverting it. The question that I will consider here is: how do meetings do this? Once we move from viewing meetings as passive forms in social life we need to account for how meetings have/gain agency or force. I believe that this is one of the most important questions that meeting ethnographers need to consider and it relates directly to other assertions about the "agency" of meetings, specifically the idea that meetings produce and reproduce the social order as well as how meetings interconnect or provide the "infrastructure" for the local and the global. In this paper I suggest three questions for meeting ethnographers to ask in their fieldwork: What produces meetings in a setting? How is a specific meeting accomplished? What does the meeting itself produce in terms of social and material artifacts? I am particularly interested in looking at the role of play, mediation and misdirection in the production and performance of meetings. My argument will be illustrated using ethnographic material from a series of studies of American mental health organizations and institutions.

"Back to the future": a meeting of an intergovernmental organisation's council

Author: Sara Arko (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana)  email

Short Abstract

Part of an “insider ethnography”, the paper explores the dynamic entanglement and disentanglement of past and present relationships between member states of an intergovernmental organisation on the verge of failure, as they were played out in a single meeting of its Council.

Long Abstract

Two elements signal the continuing existence of an intergovernmental organisation called ICPE: annual meetings of its Council and documents, produced by its members. Established in 1974 in Ljubljana as the International Center for Public Enterprises in Developing Countries, this once exciting organisation lost much of its past glory and immediate relevance. As Yugoslavia collapsed, ICPE found itself in midst of radically changed policies and priorities of its new host country, Slovenia, while at the same time its membership was rapidly declining. If three decades ago, over 30 member countries and observers attended ICPE's Council meetings, painstaking efforts were needed after 2010 to gather only four.

In the paper, I analyse one particular ICPE Council session as part of my PhD "insider ethnography" (Mosse 2006), where the member countries placed a dusty document - ICPE's Statute - in the centre of attention, challenging the basic premises of the organisation. I explore the entangled power dynamics between the delegates at the meeting, drawing on a number of past relationships, which were brought to the fore and contested with the intention of influencing ICPE's uncertain future. I argue that the Council meeting provided an especially potent entry into the dynamic relationships between member countries of the intergovernmental organisation and their representatives, including those that were absent, as well as the divergent policies, suddenly confronted within a single room. I explain how my dual role of researcher-insider enabled me to "study through" (Wright and Reinhold 2011) while also posing a number of methodological and ethical questions.

Meetings in the context of the United Nations

Author: Linda Martina Mülli (University of Basel)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores meeting situations in the context of the United Nations. In the particular setting of a globally acting bureaucracy international civil servants face various challenges when negotiating internationalized forms of collaboration and decision-making.

Long Abstract

Meetings are an essential part of the daily (project) work in the UN context. Staff members with different (socio-)cultural backgrounds and hierarchical positions have to find new ways of working together that are suitable for the international bureaucratic setting.

Based on ethnographic field research including participant observation as well as qualitative interviews the author will present first findings about how international civil servants employed in the UN headquarters in Vienna negotiate forms of collaboration and processes of decision-making. How much room for negotiations exists and where are its limitations? What does this mean for project outcomes and successful policy making? Are there perhaps ritualized forms of interactions that help to bridge gaps, insecurities and misunderstandings?

Furthermore, the author will share her experiences when investigating daily work situations in a large international bureaucracy during several internships. She will discuss the advantages as well as the specific problem issues of partly investigative ethnography.

Meeting arenas: negotiating values in organizational life

Author: Agnese Cimdina (University of Latvia)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of the paper is to view meetings at multinational organizations as continuous efforts to impose order (based on certain values and anticipations) to achieve strategic ends.

Long Abstract

The aim of the paper is to view meetings at multinational organizations as continuous efforts to impose order (based on certain values and anticipations) to achieve strategic ends. It invites to challenge the notion that organizations - national or multinational - are groups of individuals who share a set of common fundamental values.

Such a view has emerged from my long-time research on the Nordic businesses in the Baltic countries (Cimdina 2012), which shows that, despite the extensive and long-term cooperation, meetings in Nordic-Baltic organizations still display contrasting perceptions and diverse cultural rationalities. Thus, a constant re-negotiation of values and forms of cooperation is required.

Inspired by Moeran (2006), Krause-Jensen (2010), and Schwartzman (1989), the paper studies meetings as targeted communicative events in specific spatial settings through which power relations and ideological complexities are exercised, shaping cultural outlooks and foresights and leading to particular forms of organizational life.

Why meetings matter: enhancing field theory with communication theory

Author: Christoph Haug (University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper proposes a heuristic tool for making sense of “too much data” by conceptualizing meetings as “governance units” of strategic action fields and to use data from meetings to identify these fields and what is at stake in them, and how they interrelate with each other.

Long Abstract

This paper combines the theory of strategic action fields (Fligstein & McAdam 2012) with a constitutive view of communication (Cooren 2012) in order to provide an approach to meetings that honours the importance of meeting talk for the constitution of broader fields of action such as groups, departments, organizations, inter-organizational networks, industries, etc. Building on Schwartzman's (1989) definition of meetings as being about common business of the participants ("meeting frame") and the insight that meetings tend to produce follow-up meetings, I argue that such meetings constitute internal governance units (IGUs) of strategic action fields and, therefore, serve the purpose of ensuring the routine stability and order of the always contested field. For the researcher, this makes several basic question salient during fieldwork and analysis of meeting data: "Which broader field (common business) are meeting participants oriented to?", "What's at stake?", "Who is 'in control' and how?" Likewise, when starting to explore a field, looking for pertinent meetings will provide insights on how the field (and field rules) is communicatively constituted and governed. Most interestingly, studying meeting talk in detail reveals that participants are routinely oriented towards finding out what is possible or what makes sense in a particular situation. The meeting allows them to let the situation "speak for itself", enabling them to act collectively and thereby (re)produce their strategic action field. Accordingly, if the situation is too ambiguous or conflict-ridden, the field becomes unstable until a new settlement is reached (or it disintegrates).

The meaning of meetings: on the infrastructure of corporate sustainability

Author: Matthew Archer (Yale University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the semiotic infrastructure of corporate sustainability through board meetings, staff meetings, conferences and presentations at a Swiss business organization.

Long Abstract

Kockelman (2010, 2012, 2016) has described at least three ways in which infrastructure can be understood: 1) in its conventional usage as roads and bridges and fiber optic cables; 2) in a more general sense as the networks of human and non-human actors that facilitate processes like production, exchange and consumption; and 3) in the most general sense as the "relations between relations" that undergird the creation of meaning. In the context of corporate sustainability, characterized by its reliance on market-based 'solutions' to mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation, meetings (from high level board meetings to brief staff meetings over coffee) become highly contested sites for defining and re-defining what it means to be sustainable. Some scholars have argued that 'sustainability' has become an "empty signifier," rendered meaningless by its liberal application in settings that are too diverse and contradictory (cf. Milne and Gray 2013, Brown 2016). Based on ten months of fieldwork in a Swiss sustainable business organization and a (broadly) Peircean interpretation of semiosis, I argue instead that 'sustainability' not only remains potently significant, but that its meaning can indeed be reclaimed and renegotiated to serve a more equitable future.

In between meetings: reflections on the everyday life of white collar workers in a production company

Author: Marta Songin-Mokrzan (Faculty of Humanities, AGH Kraków)  email

Short Abstract

The goal of the paper is to present the constitutive role of meetings in the work of the white collar staff employed at a multinational corporation located in the Special Economic Zone in southwestern Poland.

Long Abstract

In today's large companies the activity of white collar workers is structured around various meetings that form the framework of their everyday performance. While the time in between is mostly spent by the worker (and the machine) alone and is dedicated to interpreting and analyzing data, preparing reports and doing paper work, meetings give an opportunity to perform and present the outcomes of their daily struggles. The importance of the "institution of meeting" is directly reflected in the architecture of the building. Apart from open space, where individual work takes place, there is a number of closed conference rooms, mostly occupied by debating teams. Meetings are also held in virtual spaces which, in multinational corporations, gather employees from all around the world. And as the headset is one of the most important pieces of equipment used by the white collar staff, the laborers remain in constant readiness to attend such teleconferences. Meetings in large companies play multiple roles: they mobilize workers to increase their productivity and accountability and become spaces for negotiation, where different points of view and interests clash. Based on ethnographic research carried out in one of the production plants in southwestern Poland, the aim of the paper is to present various forms of staff meetings and reflect on their function.

Meetings as the core of trade unions' ethnography

Author: Gadi Nissim (Ruppin Academic Center)  email

Short Abstract

Union activity tends to be bureaucratic, dispersed in different locations and therefore unnoticeable. Against these circumstances, regular meetings operate as node of activity and as events of consolidation, which enable the ethnographic enquiry of unions as a lived social entity.

Long Abstract

Ethnographers of organized labour often focus on "charismatic" events such mass rallies and strikes. Consequently, anthropological enquiry of organized labour tends to neglect the more bureaucratic procedures that are socially constructed in routine meetings. Such meetings are the node of unions' activity; they are important sites where the ethnographer is exposed to social dynamics and intersections that stand at the core of the union, a unique organization that is characterized a distinct political culture.

The centrality of such meetings was evident in fieldworks that I have conducted in 2005-2009 and late 2015. These researches were conducted both in unions' headquarters and labour's committees which represents the workplace level.

I found that union activity tends to be fragmented and unnoticeable, because the stewards were dispersed in different locations. Another reason was the intimidation and restrictions imposed by the employers. Against these circumstances, unions meeting tend to operate as event of consolidation. They are venues that reassemble the stewards, ameliorate their ideas, enable their coordination, and integrate them into their routine activities. Such meetings offer the ethnographer unique opportunity to delve into the actual occasion in which the he or she can experience the union as a lived social entity.

Different meetings require different sort of methodologies. Large-scale meetings force the ethnographer to act as passive observer. More intimate meetings encourage the stewards to disclose information and even to consult with the researcher. In such cases, the ethnographer turns into an object upon whom the stewards project their attitudes towards the general social environment.

Meetings in institutions: reaffirming hierarchy in public women's shelters in Turkey

Author: Berna Ekal (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is an attempt to rethink meetings as occasions of reaffirming hierarchy within institutions, by drawing on data from fieldwork in public women’s shelters in Turkey.

Long Abstract

This paper is an attempt to rethink meetings as occasions of reaffirming hierarchy within institutions. By drawing on data from my fieldwork in public women's shelters in Turkey, I take meetings in these women's shelters (where the staff and residents get together) as occasions where rules are reminded and new rules are enforced, where words of objection are murmured and silenced, and where each side's position in the shelter are endorsed - in an institution which is historically supposed to be devoid of such hierarchies in order to be able to be in solidarity with women who face violence.

Meetings, courses and forums: doing meeting ethnography in Lean meetings

Author: Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines role of meetings in the organisation of work practices through the management model Lean in the Swedish public care sector. The paper reveals the significance of meetings when operating the Lean model, but also what it means to be an ethnographer in Lean meetings.

Long Abstract

In this paper, focus is placed on the role of meetings in ethnographic fieldwork within organisations, in particular the organisation of work practices in the Swedish public care sector. Meeting ethnography (Sandler and Thedvall, forthcoming) is central for the investigation of policy and management of organisations and bureaucratic processes. Meetings are not only containers through which things move but they are also practices of circulation and makers (ibid) where ideas, documents, power, resistance/acceptance and decision-making circulate, perform and transform action. Ethnographically, the paper is placed in a Swedish municipality implementing and operating the management model Lean within the public care sector. Lean traces its origins from the car industry, but has lately spread like wildfire in the public sector in Sweden and abroad. The paper examines what sort of knowledge, identities, and power relationships are produced, circulated and performed through Lean meetings? What may be communicated in Lean "board [whiteboard] meetings"? What kind of knowledge is produced in Lean "improvement group" meetings? How do staff fit their knowledge and work practices into the labels and aesthetics of the Lean management model in Lean meetings? The paper reveals the significance of meetings when operating management models such as Lean, but also what it means to be an ethnographer in Lean meetings.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.