A public meeting is a gathering in which there are limited, if any, restrictions on who may participate. Public meetings, as an ideal, are a form of democracy, but in fact are often viewed as frustrating and futile. Researchers have studied issues and topics related to public meetings (e.g., leadership, public participation); there is now increased attention on studying public meetings themselves as structured communication events. Labeling an event as a meeting calls attention to the communicative dimensions of this activity. Communication scholars have examined public meetings as situations in which identity, social action, and culture, among other practices, are enacted.
Scholars have specified two or, more commonly, three participants as a minimum for constituting a meeting. While people may gather in a variety of situations, not all gatherings are labeled as meetings; e.g., it would be unusual to call a gathering of friends a meeting. A meeting is explicitly framed as such by participants, but not all meetings are public. For those that are, the public may be involved as observers or participants. Public meetings usually have a specific structure and rules for participation (e.g., parliamentary procedures or Robert’s Rules of Order). One characteristic of public meetings that distinguishes them from organizational meetings is that the latter form is more open in terms of participation. Also, the latter will have several audiences, some of which may not even be physically present at the time of a meeting but may know of the discussion through mediated forms of communication, such as print or television broadcast. Several types of meetings fall within the domain of public meetings, including public hearings, public inquiries, town meetings, and some board meetings (this last area intersects the domains of the public and organizational study).
Tracy and Dimock (2004) outline two major research traditions that provide an understanding of public meetings: public deliberation and public participation. The former area focuses on a normative ideal for the type of communication that should occur during public meetings: talk is rational and assumes equality among participants. Public participation research examines views of participants regarding public meetings. Tracy and Dimock fault both areas for failing to pay attention to the actual communication practices associated with public meetings.
Language and social interaction scholars have used various perspectives to study the actual communication practices associated with public meetings; these perspectives include ethnography of communication, discourse analysis, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, speech act theory, and critical/narrative approaches. While meetings have been a part of the background context for many studies, Schwartzman (1989) was among the first to call attention to the need to study meetings in and of themselves as communication events. Applying an ethnography of communication framework, Schwartzman identified the varying structures, purposes, participants, settings, and norms for meetings. Several studies have highlighted the role of culture in meeting discourse (e.g., Brison 1992). Because talk and culture are interconnected, participants may have varying assumptions regarding the purpose of talk during a meeting (e.g., to convey information, to express emotions, to present arguments, etc.). Discourse analysts have shown how differences in participant background can contribute to different meanings for words that are used during meetings, possibly leading to sustained disagreement (e.g., Gephart 1992). More recently, the action-implicative discourse analytic approach has been applied specifically to examining school board meetings and how participants, through their language use, construct identity and negotiate their interactional dilemmas (e.g., Tracy & Ashcraft 2001).
One challenge in the study of public meetings deals with definition. As described earlier, public meetings have been included in many studies as part of a context, but not necessarily as the main focus per se. One reason for this relates to how the unit of analysis is defined for a given study. For example, the topic of focus may be the group (e.g., a governing board) or the purpose (e.g., decision-making, problem-solving, deliberation). Focusing on the group as the unit of study, however, highlights participants rather than communication. Orientation to purpose brings the focus back to communication, but identifying type of talk ahead of time forecloses consideration of the multiple forms of talk that may occur during a public meeting and what those forms may contribute to the various outcomes of a meeting. The most promising future direction for research on public meetings is the development of a practical theory approach (Craig 1989). Practical theory examines communication as naturally occurring practices and seeks to understand the situated ideals of participants for their communication practices. Within the frame of public meetings, a key issue is how participants manage multiple, and possibly competing, goals such as how to develop a consensus or community while voicing individual preferences.
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- Tracy, K., & Ashcraft, C. (2001). Crafting policies about controversial values: How wording disputes manage a group dilemma. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29, 294–316.
- Tracy, K., & Dimock, A. (2004). Meetings: Discursive sites for building and fragmenting community. In P. J. Kabfleisch (ed.), Communication yearbook, vol. 28. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 127–165.
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