ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Meetings: procedure and artifacts of modern knowledge

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 3
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Adam Reed (St. Andrews University) email
Thomas Yarrow (Durham University) email
Hannah Brown (Durham University) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel ethnographically explores the actions and procedures intrinsic to all kinds of formal and institutional meetings. In so doing, it intends to provide a contribution to broader anthropological theory, especially in relation to work on modern and bureaucratic knowledge.

Long Abstract

Formal meetings, understood as socially and institutionally prescribed spaces for coming together, are central to social organization in various political, religious and economic contexts. They feature prominently in classic accounts, as well as in more contemporary ethnography, particularly in relation to studies of documents, organizations, policy, development, politics, and science and technology. Here they have generally been approached as contexts for other substantive and theoretical concerns and rarely as subjects of interest in their own right. Moreover, attention to meetings within largely distinct theoretical literatures has precluded understanding of the interconnections between these contexts. Consequently, forms and procedures of action intrinsic to formal meetings have not drawn the sustained or comparative attention of anthropologists. While formal meetings can be important sites for the performance of power, identity and knowledge, this panel proposes that there has been a lack of attention to the relationships, ideologies and material practices through which these emerge as specific 'social' forms. Consequently there has also been a lack of comparative attention to the ontological basis of coming together in contexts as diverse as committees, working groups, annual general meetings, and ad hoc meetings. Through ethnographic exploration of these forms & procedures, this panel aims to develop novel conceptual tools for understanding and enacting meetings. In so doing, it intends to provide a contribution to broader anthropological theory, particularly in relation to work on modern and bureaucratic knowledge.

Discussant: Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Meetings to change the world: declamatory politics and the knowledge society in environmentalist knowledge practices

Author: Eeva Berglund (Independent Scholar, Helsinki)  email


Environmentalists have always produced and used knowledge. The paper considers activist knowledge practices over time. Meetings used to be concerned with accessing, assessing and putting information to instrumental use but now less so, as knowledge is increasingly provisional and an unreliable ally.

Long Abstract

I draw on over 20 years of experience of activist meetings, in Germany, the UK and in Finland, to explore environmentalist knowledge practices. My observation, echoing the literature, has been that activist knowledge production often operates as a vanguard: from the natural sciences and engineering to the social sciences, the mainstream often follows the activist.

In this exploratory paper I will juxtapose this narrative with shifts I have identified in the way environmental activists produce, manipulate or use knowledge, or more precisely, the information that they stabilise through internal meetings. I suggest that whereas previously activists were largely concerned with getting access to and assessing information that they could then put to instrumental uses, recently activist meetings are becoming events where knowledge is treated as an inherently unstable and unreliable ally.

Meetings become not so much times and places to exchange information as opportunities to share inspirational thoughts. Planning activities and pursuing shared goals are still important reasons for coming together, but the role of knowledge seems to have shifted. The paper explores the possibility that activist practices have been subtly but significantly influenced by recent technical, institutional and socioeconomic novelties that have weakened the political force of information. What might activist knowledge production be, given the last twenty years of government enthusiasm for public engagement and for innovations like design thinking, which treats knowledge as more provisional than certain and the world as more constructed than given?

Meetings, meetings: paradox and contradiction in contemporary political life

Author: Simone Abram (Durham University)  email


Political bureaucracy is ordered through state and civic meetings. This paper considers dominant ritual models and their specific elaboration, through a focus on the relation between meeting-as-event and ongoing developments through original ethnography.

Long Abstract

Meetings are the apotheosis of contemporary bureaucratic life, containing paradoxes and contradictions that are at the heart of modernity. In particular, political meetings (both state and civic) are ritual performances in which explicit rules are enacted through tacit knowledge, where ritual correctness is met with manipulative political game-playing, and formal transparency is intertwined with relational and informational secrecy.

This paper brings together the linguistic philosophy of the Speech Act and performative ontologies, with reflections on anthropological concepts of ritual. It explores how Brunsson's tripartite division between speech, decision and action is reproduced through complaints about meetings (e.g. as decoy activity), while meetings are deployed to achieve sometimes subversive outcomes. Situating meetings in a political and social timeline, it is possible to highlight the integration of relations among actors present and not present at particular meetings, and the simultaneous separation of meetings from ongoing political processes. Through a focus on learning about meetings, the paper shows how meetings order political and bureaucratic life, and vice versa, and explores the materiality and embodiment of meeting practices .

Considering political meetings (state and civic) from anthropological accounts (such as Richards and Kuper 1971) and original ethnographic records from England and Norway, the paper will explore how dominant a global model of bureaucratic meeting forms is elaborated locally.

The receding horizon of informality in WTO negotiations

Author: Nicolas Lamp (World Trade Organization)  email


Attempts to formalize WTO negotiations have given rise to ever new forms of informality. The paper argues that the relationship between form and power is diffuse. Gradations of formality/informality offer WTO members different avenues of expression and intervention.

Long Abstract

The paper starts from the observation that attempts to formalize negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) - through the adoption of agendas for meetings, the opening up of meetings to all interested WTO Members, and the systematisation of the WTO's unofficial "job" document series - have consistently spawned new forms of informality, such as the holding of meetings as "chairperson's consultations" or "informal informals" which do not require the adoption of an agenda, or the emergence of new types of "non-documents", such as "room documents" and "non-papers". The paper sketches the resulting layers of formality/informality and attempts to account for the survival of informality in WTO negotiations. The paper argues that commentators who criticise this survival as undermining attempts to increase the transparency and inclusiveness of WTO negotiations presume a "hierarchy of forms", whereby the more informal settings allow the most powerful WTO members to shape negotiating outcomes and to pre-determine what happens in the more formal meetings. The paper suggests that the relationship between formality/informality and power is much more diffuse. Gradations of informality need to be taken seriously as offering avenues for WTO members to talk to each other in different ways, and informality can provide avenues for interventions, alliances, and performances that are precluded in more formal settings.

Making parliament work: meetings at the National Assembly of Quebec

Author: Samuel Shapiro (Université Laval)  email


Based on ethnographic fieldwork at the National Assembly of Quebec, I examine the many public and backstage meetings that are part and parcel of everyday parliamentary life. I bring out larger themes in Quebec society and contribute to broader anthropological knowledge about institutions.

Long Abstract

Even a cursory glance reveals that formal institutional meetings, such as sittings and committees, are at the heart of parliamentary activity. Despite a growing anthropological interest in institutions, including parliaments, we have little systematic ethnographic work on the wide variety of political and administrative meetings (involving MPs, civil servants and others) that occur on a regular basis in parliaments, as well as the contexts, preconditions and preparative work which are necessary for these meetings - public and backstage, formal and informal - to take place. Based on fieldwork conducted at the National Assembly of Quebec during one of its few hung parliaments, I will describe in detail the setup and forms of these various meetings, their role in the larger parliamentary apparatus and the relationship between these meetings as well as the individuals within them. I will show how a detailed examination of the forms and procedures of action of these meetings can shed light on broader aspects of Quebec's parliament and larger society. I will particularly emphasise the ways that Quebec has adapted the Westminster parliamentary system to an institution that operates almost entirely in French and the inner workings of Quebec's first - and, furthermore, single-party - minority government formed by a party (the Parti Québécois) that advocates Quebec's becoming an independent country from Canada. However, I also use meetings to shed light on more universal parliamentary themes that I suspect are far from unique to Quebec, notably the place of humour and the coexistence of old and new technologies.

Messy meetings: procedure and pragmatics in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee sessions

Author: Christoph Brumann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)  email


For a prominent global event, the sessions of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee often take surprisingly confused or even chaotic turns, straying widely from expected procedure. The paper tries to explore the reasons for the mess.

Long Abstract

In parallel with the rise of the UNESCO World Heritage title to a coveted distinction, the annual 10-day sessions of the intergovernmental committee in charge of the 1972 World Heritage Convention have developed into a major global event, attracting more than 1000 participants. Correspondingly, the procedures around the sessions for evaluating, monitoring, and reporting on World Heritage sites and candidates have been elaborated and systematised considerably in the 2000s, and audit culture is in full swing. Yet in relation to the 20,000 pages of documents on which the sessions are based, the actual conduct of the meetings often appears improvised or even downright chaotic to the observer.

Partly, the messiness of the sessions can be explained with the overloaded agenda and the huge political pressure on many of the delegates who try to protect their vested interests by all available means. But there also structural reasons, such as the large number of equal-ranked players and the selection of major functionaries (chairpersons, heads of Committee member-state delegations etc.) by other criteria than their World Heritage meeting experience. For negotiations that often look distinctly legal, there is a surprising lack of procedural knowledge among key participants. Many of these know, however, that in a general climate of live and let live, they can reach their objectives by other means.

'The SRF is dead in the water": an ethnographic analysis of bureaucratic techniques for the regeneration of urban reality in London

Author: Gillian Evans (University of Manchester)  email


This paper explores the inevitable ‘coming together’ - in the study of modern bureaucratic practice - of anthropology and actor network theory. The shared preoccupation with ethnographies of the modern Western world begs the question of what is distinctive about the anthropological contribution.

Long Abstract

Inspired by Born's (2004) ethnography of the transformation of the BBC, which investigates the tension between a commitment to public service and neoliberal market-based reform, and drawing on Latour's (2010) recent ethnography of the making of law in France, which focuses on the material practices at the heart of bureaucratic procedure and action, this paper gives an ethnographic analysis of meetings held, in 2009/10 by the Communications Team of the Olympic Park Legacy Company. This is the organisation tasked with planning and delivering an Olympic legacy for London from the 2012 Games and responsible, in part, for the regeneration of post-industrial East London. Taking the bureaucratic meeting as the space par excellence for the management of the processes through which particular kinds of possibilities of action come together, or die away, the paper investigates 'the meeting' as a highly specific kind of stabilisation technique - a tool for the government of reality in an inherently unstable environment.

The paper is timely, because post-2008, the repercussions of the financial crisis are still being felt, not least in debates about the relationship between economy and society (Carrier 2012; Graeber 2013; Hart 2008), which are reminiscent of discussions of earlier decades (Mauss 1925; Polanyi 1944; Weber 1922) and that remind us to be vigilant about what it is, in our modern liberal democracies, that we require of government vis-a-vis the regulation of international capital. The time is ripe, therefore, for ethnographic interrogation of the bureaucratic practices constituting statecraft in a post-financial crisis world.

Another culture: yoghurt, ethnography, and the anthropological imagination at the 2011 Asia NGO Social Innovation Summit

Author: Amy Levine (Pusan National University)  email


This paper will describe one session of the 2011 Asia Social Innovation Summit in South Korea and explore how that session obviates meeting forms. Finally, it will consider the possibilities and limitations of yoghurt as another form of culture for the anthropological imagination.

Long Abstract

This paper will describe the 2011 Asia NGO Social Innovation Summit (ANIS), co-sponsored by Intel Asia and the "think-and-do-tank" that I had been researching called the Hope Institute in Seoul, South Korea. Summit participants were an eclectic mix of NGO, GO, and academic types who were often on their second or third careers. There were about 70 participants and all were there to give and/or receive social innovation best practices. Given the summit title and the reputations of the organizers, many participants, myself included, expected innovations in the forms of the meeting itself. Yet most of the meeting forms were conventional: hosted at a large hotel ballroom, Powerpoint lectures, poster sessions, small group breakout discussions with reports to the large group, coffee breaks, and formal meals. There were, however, some innovations on meeting form. In this paper I will focus on one innovative session, which invited participants to do ethnography by eating or observing someone eating yoghurt. This session constituted a break from meeting conventions by obviating form. At the same time, this yoghurt activity obviated me as an ethnographer. Ultimately, the paper will explore the possibilities and limitations of yoghurt as another form of culture (pun intended) considering its material practices, ideologies, and relationships as well as its potential to engage what Ilana Gershon, following C. Wright Mills and others, called the "anthropological imagination."

Meeting as infrastructure in Western Kenya

Author: Hannah Brown (Durham University)  email


This paper draws upon fieldwork with Kenyan government health managers to explore the ways in which meetings enacted an organisational infrastructure shaped by intersections between the promotion of individual interests and an attachment to certain kinds of organisation form.

Long Abstract

Mid-level government health bureaucrats in Kenya with whom I carried out extended ethnographic fieldwork in 2011 spent the majority of their time in meetings of different kinds. In Kenya, meetings are associated with financial allowances and the prestige of formal employment. As occasions when it was possible to perform individual status, meetings were used by these health managers as opportunities to promote personal interests and concerns, whilst gaining access to valued material resources. At the same time, meetings were sites for the enactment of organisational identity and became expressions of managerial commitment to certain kinds of organisational form. The outcomes of meetings were sometimes important to participants, but the successful ordering of meetings as events which took place in relation to individual goals and organisational visions was often more important.

Taking inspiration from Simone's (2004) concept of 'people as infrastructure', and his insights into the ways that people's interdependent activities can form infrastructures of opportunity in contexts of limited resources, this paper develops an analysis of meetings as practices of organisational infrastructure. The paper focuses on three common forms of meetings that these health managers engaged in; team meetings, project meetings, and stakeholder meetings. The paper describes the ways in which these different kinds of meetings were marked by processes of interdependency and opposition, attachment to particular kinds of organisational form, and the deployment of specialist skills that these civil servants had developed in order to negotiate the precarious and temporary possibilities that become available through their work.

Reasoning forms: the materiality of meetings

Author: Catherine Alexander (Durham University)  email


This paper explores first, the role of materiality via documents such as contracts in formal and informal meetings and second, how different norms and forms of social hierarchy play out in meetings.

Long Abstract

This paper explores first, the role of materiality via documents such as contracts in formal and informal meetings and second, how different norms and forms of social hierarchy play out in meetings. Two case studies form the ethnography through which these elements are investigated. The first is the formation and implementation of a complex contract between a public sector institution and private sector company in Britain where the contract by turn takes second place to the ongoing negotiation of informal relationships - and also stands for an ideal relation. The second follows a series of encounters between an international lending agency, a Turkish ministry and international consultants as incommensurate practices, rationalities, values and hierarchies are brought to bear on an apparently singular topic.

Case conferences: on the social technique of meetings

Authors: Alain Pottage (LSE)  email
Bernard Keenan (LSE)  email


In this paper, we draw on participant observation of meetings in lawyers’ offices to develop a case study in the cultural idiom of the ‘meeting’.

Long Abstract

In this paper, we draw on participant observation of meetings in lawyers' offices to explore a particular idiom of the 'meeting'. Our focus is on the 'conferences' in which clients meet with their solicitor and barrister prior to a court hearing. One of the objects of these meetings is to prepare the client for their appearance in court; to advise of them of what to expect and to introduce them to their advocate, hopefully so as to foster a relationship of trust. We are interested in the interaction of two dimensions of this kind of meeting. First, what one might call the 'frame' or 'script' of the encounter - the specific template or configuration is reproduced whatever the actual spatial context, and which elicits a particular bodily hexis and discursive style from each of the participants. Although these conferences are supposed to be informal and preparatory, the actors very readily take on the personae they expect to perform 'for real' in the courtroom setting. Second, we focus in on the gestures, media, and routinized verbal formulae in which the idiom of the meeting is actualized. Throughout, we engage with what we take to be the essential challenge of the theme: given what we know about documents and texts as exemplary artifacts of knowledge, what happens when we shift attention to the interactive frame of the 'meeting'?

Formalized reductions: the politics of saying less in Maputo, Mozambique

Author: Morten Nielsen (Aarhus University)  email


This paper explores public meetings in Maputo, Mozambique, where conformity with a shared socialist legacy serves as backdrop for the participants to manifest radical differences and thereby experiment with ways of reducing the conceptual space of correspondence between different subject positions.

Long Abstract

Despite Mozambique's purported 'turn toward the west' in the mid-1980s, its socialist legacy still constitutes the ideological basis for the ruling Frelimo party. Although its collapse is widely acknowledged, the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of the Independence era continues to be resuscitated at public meetings in Maputo and elsewhere in Mozambique. No longer outlining a desired ideological path towards a utopian future, the repeated and compressed imageries of a socialist African nation-state paradoxically conjure a political collective that large sections of the Mozambican population are de facto dissociating themselves from. This paper consequently charts the contours of a peculiar political cosmology activated only at public meetings where participants engage in collective debates in order to reduce the conceptual space of correspondence between different subject positions. By actively confirming the socialist legacy - but in an ever more compressed and reduced form, a political collective has arisen where the traces of a shared ideological past serve as canvas for experimenting with ways of manifesting radical differences in a formalized setting. As such, this paper ultimately suggests considering meetings as a heuristic for exploring radical ideological unity as medium for the production of intensive differentiation.

Meeting disciplinarity: the case of the ASA

Author: David Mills (University of Oxford)  email


This paper explores the productive blurring of epistemological and bureaucratic purpose facilitated by the meetings, conferences and gatherings of scholarly associations, using the example of early meetings of the Association of Social Anthropology.

Long Abstract

Meetings of scholarly societies are key moments for the expression of disciplinary belonging. Their efficacy, and that of disciplinary associations more broadly, lies in the blurring of epistemological and bureaucratic purposes. Away from the funding conflicts and resource politics of the university, their promotion of a disciplinary framing of knowledge also legitimates academic identity politics.

The foundation of the ASA in 1946 was driven by just such strategic double vision: an intellectual commitment to social anthropology and an institutional concern for disciplinary autonomy and academic exclusivity. Using a range of archival and primary sources, I describe the form and content of early ASA meetings, and the conflicting rationales that lay behind the first 'Anglo-American' decennial conference in 1963.

The story of the ASA could be replicated across the social sciences. Since the founding of the first societies in the 1850s, and there are now many such professional associations. Yet what happens when institutional logics dominate? Do academic associations connect scholars whilst dividing knowledge? This paper reflects on the contradictions of the epistemological-bureaucratic nexus.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.