Experiment: What Holds a Meeting Together?
JL - 25 Feb 2005
We take groups for granted. At any time, we are involved in many different organizations and groups in far more ways than we usually notice. But if we indeed are part of many different groups, what makes them group together?
Consider a group of people meeting together in a room. The members all come from different places, sit down together, and talk or draw or do something for a little while, and then all go their own ways again. Simply bringing a group together like that goes against entropy; what is doing the work to pile these people together so non-randomly? Why aren't they diffusing away?
It seems like it should be easy to answer this question: oh, obviously, they are here to hear a paper presented; obviously, they are here to coordinate an event; obviously, they are here to discuss corporate strategy. Well, there's nothing obvious about it. Take a moment to watch how people talk, and then wait for others to talk. How they all look to the speaker or play with their pens. How things that are said seem to make sense, following one after the other. Why don't they all just do something else? Or just not show up? Or leave when they are obviously bored?
My motivation in asking this is that the group, the meeting, does feel like something real, as real as a cell. It seems to have boundaries, but what boundaries? Where are they? Can you see or describe them in action in an actual meeting? The meeting is still ephemeral: it will end and the people will disperse, but then they come back again for another iteration of the "same" group. How is this the same?
Next time you are in a meeting with more than a couple people for more than a couple of minutes (so that you will be able disengage slightly from the discussion), just watch what's going on. Put to the side the ostensible purpose of the meeting (Don't worry, your mind will still monitor whatever is going on, in case you are expected to say something!). Instead, watch people talking, and ask yourself why they stay there. Why don't they all just get up and leave?
Try to avoid settling right in on whatever practical, psychological, economic, or social explanations might come to mind. Notice these explanations, as they are part of the meeting too, but look to see if there is anything else going on. No matter what seemingly satisfying answer there is to "why is this group here," it seems there is always something more to it.
I was in a Work in Progress meeting where another graduate student was presenting a paper on Sino-Japanese nationalist myth making. I found myself drifting, a little annoyed at the mushiness that afflicts this field; in particular, the employment of words like "myth," "narrative," "nationalism," "elite manipulation," etc., that get used so much in so many different ways I'm not sure exactly what's being said, even as others use them very confidently. My attention was drawn to the use of words in the meeting rather than trying to keep up with the discussion, the referent of which was ambiguous anyway. So I thought of this experiment.
There were about 15 people around the table, and the hallways outside were empty. It suddenly felt very strange that they were all there inside the little compartment of the meeting room, as if Maxwell's Demon had trapped us all inside. I wondered, is this like a cell? Is the room the membrane? But that wasn't it, as the wall wasn't holding anyone in: no one was bouncing off of it after all!
What was this group? I imagined the arcs and nodes of a graph, so commonly used to model social networks, to see if that might describe it. But that felt completely artificial. There did seem to be a network of discussion, but not in any way that made sense to draw nodes and arcs. Did the group hold itself together? Each person in the group? I watched their eyes watching the speaker: were they all thinking about the same thing? Some intentional directedness? But that was putting too much into it: where was the intention? Besides, some people were obviously also distracted, so not directed at anything except maybe their schedule or children, and yet they were also in the group, part of it. It started looking stranger and stranger, everyone sitting there so nicely, uttering now and again.
There is something powerful keeping us all together...some reason I didn't just get up, or say something rude. I'm not yet going beyond seeing this as simply strange.
-- JL - 25 Feb 2005
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