An overarching theory of meetings?

During one of our sessions @wilbert compared our respective highly-focused studies to the work of biologists working under the umbrella of evolutionary theory even when they’re not directly testing it. The question then is, what is our equivalent of evolutionary theory? At least one of the papers referred to Luhmann, and at times I’ve found inspiration there: there are events, and connections between events (which constitutes structure), and interaction systems that connect psychic systems (minds) that only partly understand one another. That dovetails nicely with CA, in its focus on events and sequential structure.

That Dilbert cartoon I put on the screen also points to a meta-theory. It’s here:


A post was merged into an existing topic: Meetings vs. others types of gatherings

In reaction on the contribution of @dgibson1 I would say that the ‘people sciences’ lack one overarching and powerful theory such as the biological evolution theory. And I am afraid we’ll have to deal with the situation of several, partly competing, grand theories for some time. Therefore, I support Christoph’s suggestion to call our common field ‘meeting research’ rather than ‘meeting science’. The idea to develop a new meeting science seems brassy to me, but the field of meeting research might grow into an important (the most important) branch of (applied) psycho-social science, like medical science is a specialized branch of biology or life science.

Not everyone of us has to work on all levels of research; some might specialize on the macro and the long term, others on the micro and the short term. But most important for us as a scientific community is that we are interested in and informed about each other’s work and taking the results of that work into account in our own research and theories of meetings.

Anyway, speaking about theories that can help us developing our research field in the long run I would like to mention the Civilization Theory of which Norbert Elias is the main founder. It was exactly this theory that inspired and guided my research on meetings from the very beginning, as you can read in my book. This theory takes into account social processes on the micro, the meso and the macro level as well as individual or psychic processes in the short and the long run. The most successful integrative theory of social and psychic processes I know. Furthermore theory and empirical facts are well balanced in this scientific approach, which makes reading books written in this tradition much more pleasant than the overtheorized work of for instance Luhman.

Secondly, I am taken with the more recent theoretical movement of Peter Turchin ( This theory is about long term changes of human collaboration and uses the newest methodological ideas drawn from network and complexity theory. It also works with mathematically verifiable models and computer simulations. I used some basic ideas in my paper about long term changes of meeting behavior I wrote for our symposium.
To be continued…

Did I say that? Anyway, I’m fine with both terms but I take issue when “science” comes to denote “real science” and “research” becomes “wanna be science” or “improper science” just because it does not adhere to some dominant paradigm. I think meeting science can include diverse approaches, just like they were represented at the symposium.

Christoph, I did not mean that you were in favour of the one or the other option but only that you wrote several times: meeting science (or research). So. two options. As long as we are not a close scientific community, I prefer meeting research, because that is what connects us.
Thanks for the text improvements.
Cheers, Wilbert

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From Elias’s perspective what’s striking in meetings is that participants are peaceable and self-restrained and mostly on time – both because those are the characteristics favored by employers and because everyone is attuned to the downstream consequences of erratic, impulsive behavior. My question: are the forces of disorder and violence always at risk of re-erupting, such that some of what happens in meetings is designed to keep the lid on them, or is that a battle that’s been won so decisively by the civilizing process that meetings nowadays can take self-restraint for granted?

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I think that one can be answered by clicking this link. :smiling_imp:

I was thinking on this one, and on the question of Why Meet? recently, and it occurred to me that what we have heard thrown around as a joke may be the most important unifying definition we have for meetings.
Specifically, when you ask a practitioner what a meeting is, they’ll say “Whatever my client says it is.” I swear I heard someone say the same thing about their research - when looking at meetings, they look at whatever their subjects happen to call meetings.

This makes the defining characteristic of a meeting this: it is declared as such.

Which raises all kinds of cool questions!

  • Why do we feel the need to call something a “meeting” as opposed to a party or a get together or a conversation or something else?
  • What does the declaration of meeting create in the group? I’ve already put out the idea of obligation, and perhaps this civilizing force concept is part of that?
  • When your boss says he wants to drop by for a little chat, and you tell your friends you have to go because you have a meeting, what’s going on there?
    • Wilbert’s question: what does the nature and frequency of declared meetings mean about a group or a culture?

@dgibson1 - I think this is why I don’t feel that a side conversation within a meeting counts as a separate meeting. A separate conversation, yes, but not a meeting. Certainly from a facilitator’s perspective, that’s either a break-out (planned) or a dysfunction (unplanned) within a meeting (the declared event).

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That seems like a standard approach, taking as a meeting whatever the people we’re studying call a meeting. For who are we to say, you think that’s a meeting but it’s really not? The declaration that something is going to be a meeting (a) gives people an excuse to get out of other things, as you’ve so insightfully argued, (b) alerts people to the significance of being invited or not being invited, © puts everyone on notice that decisions may be made with which they’ll have to live, and (d) provides a paper trail documenting that work is being done on some project, which might be of interest to higher-ups. Just off the top of my head!

As chair of graduate admissions I had to appease a committee member who was annoyed that the rest of the committee was planning to talk about applications over drinks, following a planned event that she did not intent to attend. Basically I had to say: yes we’re doing meeting work but it’s not really a meeting. She still wasn’t appeased.

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A post was merged into an existing topic: Meetings vs. others types of gatherings