«University of Colorado, Boulder CU Scholar Communication Graduate Theses & Dissertations Communication Spring 5-28-2014 Form, Function, and Figure: ...»
Openings and closings. One feature of meetings that the chair is typically responsible for is opening and closing the meeting. In Schwartzman’s (1989) framework for studying meetings, she refers to this as the meeting frame. Boden (1994) points out that meetings are bounded events, and the opening and closing of meetings signifies the temporal boundaries of the meeting interaction. Opening and closing a meeting can happen in more or less formal ways.
Asmuß and Svennevig (2009) found in their review of meeting research that a chair typically initiates the shift between pre-meeting and meeting talk with a proposal to start, a greeting, a comment on the attendance, or a simple topic transition such as “okay”. Depperman, Mondada, & Schmitt (2010) pose that the meeting frame is an emergent, collective accomplishment rather than a meeting chair’s sole accomplishment. A typical meeting closing involves a reopening of the conversational floor to discussion and then a thanking, greeting, or formal adjourning of the participants.
Topic progression. Once a meeting is opened, the topic progression is typically guided by a meeting agenda, created before the meeting occurs. The meeting chair is usually responsible for guiding discussion and focusing the talk on a particular topic. When meeting participants digress from the topic at hand, it is the chair’s job to refocus the talk on the agenda topic (Holmes & Stubbe, 2003b). Participants may tie their contributions to the particular topic on the table (Asmuß & Svennevig, 2009). This is a feature of meetings that is unique from
than a previous speaker’s turn (Sacks, 1992; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). Ford (2008) found that some participants use prefaces to tie a contribution to a particular topic of concern, rather than just giving their contribution. This move might be a way of signaling the relevance of a contribution to a chair, even if it is perhaps only tangentially related.
Turn-taking. The talk in meetings is organized differently from the organization of turntaking in ordinary conversation (Sacks et al., 1974). The meeting chair has the formal responsibility to manage interaction within a meeting (Asmuß & Svennevig, 2009). A group constitutes the actual turn-taking rules of a meeting, explicitly or implicitly, and these rules may be more or less formal. On the informal end of the scale, turn-taking can reflect that of ordinary conversation. More formal turn-taking rules in meetings will typically be guided by the meeting chair, who might serve as a hub of conversation. Ford (2008) notes that bids for turns can be nonverbally made to the meeting chair. She also points out that participants may “co-author” certain utterances, by repeating a phrase that another participant said to show support for an idea or perspective. The use of questions is also prevalent in turn-taking (Ford, 2013). Using questions may serve to critique a current direction of conversation, and in some forms also set up the questioner as an expert over the person the question is directed toward. The varieties of turntaking systems used by groups and organizations to conduct meetings are just one way that meetings can reflect the identity or culture of a particular group. In the next section, I examine how the form and function of meetings varies across cultural groups.
Communities and identities. Several scholars have studied the variety of forms and functions of meetings across communities and cultures. Tracy and Dimock (2004) state that an important function of meetings is that they are “the arena in which organizational and
scholarly heritage on which Schwartzman (1989) based her study, typically research the forms and functions of communicative events and practices, such as meetings. Meetings, thus, take on various forms and functions in order to help an organization or community group to constitute itself in a particular way. Meetings also serve as a site where culture, on local, organizational, and nation-state levels, affects how participants talk and position themselves.
Organizations and groups may constitute a particular organizational culture or identity in meetings. Schwartzman’s (1989) study of Midwest Community MHC found that the organization sought to establish itself as an “alternative organization”, with particular ideals that accorded with that vision. Meetings provided a unique site for the organization to practice and embody these ideals. Mirivel and Tracy (2005) studied another organization, Nutrition Corporation, whose members established an institutional identity of a “young” and “health conscious” organization. This occurred particularly in pre-meeting talk and through several objects serving the rhetorical purpose of reinforcing that identity, such as water bottles and nutrition bars. Another example, from anthropology, is the Xavante tribe of Brazil (Graham, 1993). Graham found that the tribe’s political meetings used polyvocal speech performances to promote cohesion and egalitarian relationships among the elders.
Gender is a prevalent identity that is enacted through meetings. Holmes and her associates (Holmes, 2000, 2008; Holmes, Marra, & Burns, 2001; Holmes & Stubbe, 2003a, 2003b) have focused on how gender identities are constituted through meetings, and how these identities affect meetings. They have found that in meetings with a majority of female participants, small talk and humor are likely to occur more often. The small talk included in meetings, as well as before and after meetings, tends to be more personal than if the meeting
meetings, noting that women tend to have different strategies for turn-taking and questioning than men. The gender identities of participants, and especially where the balance lies, may therefore affect the talk, form, and function of a meeting.
Meetings also vary across cultures. Linguists have been concerned with the differences between nation-state cultures in meetings and interactional moves (see Bargiella-Chiappini & Harris, 1997a, 1997b; Poncini, 2002). Yamada (1990, 1992, 1997) has detailed a number of ways that American and Japanese businesses conduct meetings differently. For example, Americans tend to value hearing everyone’s input on an issue during a meeting, whereas the Japanese tend to see such a free exchange as chaotic, and thus favor the talk of business leaders over other participants. Similarly, Pan, Scollon, and Scollon (2002) examined Chinese meetings and they pose that in China and other Asian cultures, meetings are typically used as a ratification of a leader’s position, rather than a site of decision-making and argumentation. Instead those functions are attributed more to pre- and post-meeting talk. These are only a few of the findings that these linguistic scholars interested in international meetings have found. The form and function of meetings, therefore, varies between nations-state cultures, which imbue their citizens with particular expectations of meetings.
Just as communities of people affect the form and function of meetings, meetings in turn can affect communities of people. US American employees reported that meetings affected their job attitudes and well-being (JAWB) (Rogelberg, Leach, Warr, & Burnfield, 2006). Rogelberg et al. found that when particular communities and organizations shape their meetings to be more productive and purpose-filled, then employees report higher satisfaction with their jobs and wellbeing. The same was true for the reverse, when meetings lack purpose and seem monotonous,
attending meetings week after week could become collectively less satisfied, which would be reflected in their JAWB. Rogelberg et al.’s survey findings reflect Schwartzman’s (1989) statement that organizational members use and are used by meetings, thus showing how meetings affect and perhaps “use” organizational members. This supports a reciprocal relationship between meetings, cultures, and identities.
Future Meeting Directions From this review of meeting literature, a few themes have emerged. Meetings still tend to be used to study other topics, more or less related to the meeting itself. Issues of power are studied through how a meeting chair positions him- or herself in relation to the rest of the meeting participants. Conversation analysts have studied talk and the unique turn-taking structures of meetings. Identity work, community, and cultural aspects of meetings have all been studied by several researchers in meetings as well. These studies focus on the kinds of talk and structure of talk that occurs within meetings, and what such talk might constitute for an organization or group. However, these studies do not attend to metacommunication about meetings that participants may use and what purpose metacommunication about meetings might serve. As a potentially unique aspect of SPC’s communication in meetings, or at least a unique aspect of my focus, I attended to the metacommunicative moments of meetings in particular to understand what such metacommunication about meetings might accomplish in meetings.
I approach this study from two perspectives, one of which is the ethnography of communication. This research perspective informed Schwartzman’s (1989) study of meetings, and she drew heavily on Hymes’s (1972) SPEAKING framework to develop her own framework
theoretical and methodological perspective. Then I will examine a few ethnographies of communication that have been conducted in organizations, many of which use meetings as research tools rather than research objects.
Background The ethnography of communication was originally developed by Hymes (1962, 1964,
1972) as the ethnography of speaking, and has been expanded on and developed by a group of communication scholars. Hymes (1964) developed this perspective to fill “the need for fresh kinds of data, the need to investigate directly the use of language in contexts of situation so as to discern patterns proper to speech activities” (p. 3). Thus, this perspective focuses on the cultural underpinnings of speech situations, speech events, and speech acts, as well as how these situations, events, and acts reify and construct sociocultural realities (Hymes, 1972). More specifically, Hymes wrote that “the interaction of language with social life is viewed as first of all a matter of human action, based on a knowledge, sometimes conscious, often unconscious, that enables persons to use language” (p. 53). Using this theoretical assumption, ethnographies of communication have been conducted in order to discover and interpret such knowledge that allows a person to use language that is considered comprehensible by interactional others in particular contexts. Although the link between communication and culture is central to ethnographers of communication, they are not the only group of scholars who cast this link. As Carey (1992) wrote, “there is no such thing as communication to be revealed in nature through some objective method free from the corruption of culture. We understand communication insofar as we are able to build models or representations of this process” (p. 31). Based on this characterization, communication can only be understood through discovering and describing the
large-scale construction, I and other ethnographers of communication focus on the cultures constituted by smaller social groups, such as organizations, and use this basic theoretical and methodological orientation in order to do so.
Informed by this theoretical orientation, I looked at an organization’s meetings as a communicative practice that is subject to cultural interpretation. By viewing meetings as a communicative practice, I turn my attention to a “pattern of situated, message endowed action, that is used in a scene” (Carbaugh, Gibson, & Milburn, 1997, p. 6). These communication practices are imbued with culture, which Carbaugh (1991) defined as “a socially interacted, and individually applied, system of symbols…, symbolic forms…, and their meanings” (p. 338). If communication practices, such as meetings, are imbued with cultural meaning, then it is necessary to consider the particular culture that social groups draw on and apply in these practices. To investigate such cultural meanings, Carbaugh (1991) posited that the ethnography of communication could engage in cultural interpretation. Carbaugh defined cultural interpretation as “an investigative mode the main objective of which is to render participants’ communication practices coherent and intelligible, through an explication of a system of symbols, symbolic forms, and meanings which is creatively evoked in those practices” (p. 336).
Such an investigation would focus on one or more of the communication practices of a group and attempt to uncover the underlying system of symbols and meanings attributed to and constitutive of such practice. For this project, I viewed meetings as a communicative practice in order to attend to the ways in which this practice is patterned and imbued with cultural meanings.
Although the pattern of meetings could be considered to be static across time, I posit here instead that perhaps the pattern, like communication, is not static based on Sigman’s (1998) critique of
could also change with each iteration of the practice, or each meeting.