Meeting Ethnography: Kicked Out, Shut Down, and Studying Up

Jen Sandler and Renita Thedvall introduce the panel

Meetings are one of the most mundane facts of social and organizational life and a ubiquitous site of ethnographic research. “On any given day,” field pioneer Helen Schwartzman (Northwestern) remarked, “you can count on there being about 25 million meetings in the United States.” And yet, as scholars at the October 9 seminar “Meeting Ethnography” made clear, making meetings themselves the object of study raises new kinds of questions, novel insights, and unique research challenges. Building on a two-day workshop sponsored by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences and organized by Jen Sandler (UMass-Anthropology) and Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University), the five panelists at this joint ISSR/Anthropology seminar joined some 35 members of the university community to discuss some of the puzzles and pathways of doing meeting ethnography.

Framed by Professor Schwartzman’s reflections on her work to denaturalize the meeting as a generative form, Christina Garsten and Adrienne Sorböm (Stockholm U) offered a vivid account of failing to crash the World Social Form’s Davos meeting, which set the WSF’s mission of transparent and participatory policymaking in stark relief. Challenges of accessing meeting spaces can be ripe with information about power and identity. Nancy Kendall (University of Wisconsin) showed how program alignment meetings in the international development arena–positioned as “the remedy” to power imbalances between recipient states and donors–play out instead to reinforce the marginality of recipient states. Kendall’s reflection on the “non-participation” of Malawian officials in an education sector meeting as a potential marker of both exclusion and resistance points to the difficulty of understanding the underlying power relations through any but ethnographic means. At the same time, Don Brennis (UC-Santa Cruz) reflected from meeting ethnographies both in Fijian villages and at the National Science Foundation on the difficult rhythm of participant ethnography, wherein participation in the action gains meaning after the fact, and where the interpretations thus drawn alter both thought and actions in the next round of engagement. Brennis cautioned against losing sight of the meeting as a concentrated moment that connects and expresses ongoing social spaces and processes.

Stay tuned for more from this research collaborative on "exploring the boring," including papers and reflections from the October meeting.