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The conference as a research procedure

Initiating social change


A conference is a meeting of individuals called together to engage in discussion with the aim of accomplishing a limited task within a restricted period of time. Conferences are of special interest to the social sciences as a productive method of organizing research, including interdisciplinary research and research results; as a setting for transnational and international cooperation; as a formal means of validating social programs; as a method of inducing change in individuals; and as limited, observable group situations that are suitable for the study of group processes. The conference is also an area of action within which the interplay of theory, data gathering, and practice has been very productive. The increasingly widespread adoption of the conference form is creating a demand for a new set of professionals who are skilled in conference management.


The conference form may be modified in various ways. A conference may bring together three specialists for consultation. It may bring together all the personnel who have a permanent working relationship to one another in an ongoing organization, such as a psychiatric clinic, a government bureau, or an industry. It may bring together, periodically, individuals whose diverse professional interests overlap through their concern with a common problem. In its most expanded version, it may bring together thousands of delegates and observers, as, for example, in a White House conference or an international gathering of experts, to consider a wide range of problems in a very large field of interest. In its core form, however, a conference is a gathering that is small enough so that its members, meeting in one room, can take part in open-ended discussion.

Interchange at a conference is intended to be less formally structured than are the deliberations of a parliamentary body. At a very large conference that discharges such multiple functions as the discussion of substantive matters, the establishment of a new climate of opinion, the orientation of its members to a new viewpoint, the validation of a proposed program, of the preparation of a set of resolutions and recommendations, several types of sessions are held. There are plenary sessions, in which the entire body participates and formal parliamentary procedures are followed. There are also smaller sessions, designated as discussion groups, working groups, panels, “buzz” sessions, and so on, the organization of which is intended to encourage a more informal and active interchange among the participants. Ideally, the arrangement of a small conference is such that all its members sit facing one another around a table, and their interchange is mediated but not dominated by a chairman.

Conferences in their many different forms draw on the pattern that is characteristic of group deliberations for special or periodic purposes at all levels of social complexity. In its more familiar modern versions, however, the conference is a Euro—American invention, the development of which has been vastly accelerated both by the need for and by the possibilities of rapid communication in the twentieth century. Although large conferences, governmental and nongovernmental, rely particularly heavily on traditional western European parliamentary procedures, the format and style of the modern conference have other derivations as well. One important source is the format of the scientific meeting, as exemplified by the meetings of the Royal Society of London, at which substantive matters are presented to a group of peers; another is the format of the ecclesiastical councils, called together to issue validating pronouncements on matters of moment. Modern conference form and style also have been influenced by the long tradition of intellectual controversy within eastern European Judaism; by the procedures through which humble people, meeting together, have attempted to arrive at consensus; and by the procedures of the Quaker business meeting, with its emphasis on a search for “the sense of the meeting.” Residues of these and other historical forms still may be discerned in contemporary conference organization.

A conference is formal in certain well-defined respects. It must have a scheduled beginning and end, identifiable sessions, and a designated membership. Its subject matter is specified. The conference plan must include, as a final step, a projected outcome, whether this takes the form of a report, a set of recommendations or resolutions, a pronouncement about some program, or the formulation of new insights.

Modern conference methods have developed in response to the need for forms that will permit a group to transcend, through face-to-face discussion, various barriers to good communication. Today, communication may be greatly hindered by the divisions that result from bureaucratic arrangements or the compartmentalization of specialized subject matter. It may be reduced to insignificance by difficulties arising from differences in nationality, status, race, caste, class, or ideology. Especially in new fields, where the quantity of information and the lag in publication make it difficult for research workers and practitioners to keep abreast of developments, the conference provides means for the rapid dissemination of new knowledge. But the conference group atmosphere also may be used to thaw stereotyped antagonisms, an aim that may conflict with other conference goals.

The small substantive conference, specifically, has made one unique contribution to intradisciplinary, interdisciplinary, domestic, and transnational communication. It is simultaneity of participation. In place of the older linear system of publication, written rejoinder, and written rebuttal, there is immediacy of challenge, correction, and redefinition in the actual presence of all the participants to a discussion. Moreover, everyone present, whether or not he speaks, takes part in the conference process. Intrinsic to this type of conference is a form of communication that is not one-to-one but many-to-many, visible, audible, and sensible to all those sitting around a table. Each member, not only as he speaks but also as he remains silent or moves restlessly, is part of what is happening. And in their subsequent work, individual members draw on the whole, not merely on the conclusions or even the transcribed proceedings. Participation in a small substantive conference resembles the apprenticeship learning experience gained by work in a laboratory under a great experimentalist or in the atelier of a great painter. In its purest form, such a conference is self-contained; its members are not required, for example, to meet the demands made on committees with definite purposes to serve. At its best, it is the source of new ideas that otherwise would have developed only much later or, sometimes, not at all.

The conference as a research procedure

In the 1930s, the interdisciplinary conference became part of the newer paraphernalia of research procedures in the social sciences and the life sciences. Its precursor, the interdisciplinary team in the child development clinic, was designed to coordinate action among cooperating disciplines, i.e., medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and social work. Similarly, the interdisciplinary conference was deliberately designed to introduce cross-disciplinary correctives into the thinking of compartmentalized and isolated disciplines. The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation conferences, beginning in 1936 (Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation 1955), are an outstanding example of this development.

More recently, since the mid-1940s, a related type of conference, more focused and more immediately utilitarian in its aims, has become an integral part of research procedures. Conferences of this kind may be convened to generate research plans, elaborate upon earlier plans, evaluate progress, introduce new ideas into an ongoing research program, or present and evaluate research results. With various modifications, they are modeled on the “Macy conference” style. That is, they are characterized by free, informal interchange and by rapid cross communication from many to many; eliminating the transitions and explanatory steps essential to written communication, they can make use of shortcuts possible only in face-to-face situations. Conferences so organized will inevitably occupy an increasingly large segment of the time of applied social scientists as they deal with problems that require a multidisciplinary approach.

In an academic seminar in which the primary emphasis is on intellectual interchange or teaching, the material is to a certain extent incidental (Tannenbaum 1965). In contrast, the research conference is substantively concerned with the data of a research project. Shared data may be used, much as psychiatrists use case materials, as the medium of communication to carry preliminary and as yet unclarified and sometimes ambiguous formulations. Today, a large and complex research program may include within a common framework a cluster of small research groups whose membership is interlocking. Here the research conference, drawing on the work of all the groups, speeds up the development of fruitful hypotheses (Mead & Metraux 1953). The research conference also has been used to prepare materials for final publication through a series of preliminary conference sessions with various groups of specialists (Hoagland & Burhoe 1961; Luszki 1958; Mandelbaum et al. 1963; Roe & Simpson 1958). This format combines the symposium and the conference method. In still another format, prepared papers, distributed in advance to the participants, are designed primarily as a stimulant to informal interchange within a multidisciplinary group. The published symposia of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, which pioneered in the development of this conference style, only formally reflect the interchange of the discussions (Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion … 1941–1943; subsequent volumes in this series).

Initiating social change

Conferences have become a recognized method of launching a new program, validating a new approach, or establishing a climate of opinion within which action, often a new type of action, can be taken. Most new programs undertaken in the United States, the United Kingdom, or internationally are inaugurated by conferences of representative and significant people who set the stamp of approval on a program's aims and procedures. A conference of this kind is essentially a sanctioning device. Subsequently, other conferences may be convened to reaffirm a program's aims or to redirect it toward new goals. The White House conferences on children, held decennially, and conferences on world mental health (International Preparatory Commission … 1948; World Federation for Mental Health 1961) are examples of the validating and renewal types of conference. The sanctioning and stimulating roles of the conference may be amplified by setting topics several years in advance and, by this means, focusing research attention on a coordinated set of problems. Conferences of this general type may also be specifically designed to prevent the premature organization of an action program.

Methods derived from group dynamics and group psychotherapy have been used in conference settings; here individuals may undergo a personality transformation somewhat analogous to a personal conversion. This method may be very effective in reorienting members of an ongoing organization when, for example, a bureaucratic institution is being transformed from an authoritarian to a democratic, or from a centralized to a decentralized, structure (Lewin 1935–1946; Lippitt 1949; Bradford et al. 1964).

The conference as the focus of research

Since the 1920s there has been a steady growth of interest in the scientific study of small groups, group processes, the management of group situations, and the design of experimental groups for research purposes. This field, as it has developed, represents a fusion, on the one hand, of the procedures of social work, psychotherapy, progressive education, and industrial relations, and, on the other hand, of allied interests within social psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Under the leadership of Elton Mayo, important work originated at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. In the same period, Moreno developed methods for the sociometric analysis of group structure and for the simulation of group situations through sociodrama. Under the leadership of Kurt Lewin research was carried out on group dynamics and group decision, and techniques were developed for experimental studies of group structure and innovation (Bavelas 1951; U.S. Office of Naval Research 1951; Gyr 1951). Others concentrated on problems of group structure and interaction. One outcome of this research has been the expansion of interest in group processes in the policy sciences and among those concerned with public opinion formation.

Parallel work on small groups, carried out in England, has been strongly influenced by an interest in the therapeutic situation. Research there has centered particularly in the group associated with the Tavistock Clinic and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

The conference as a social unit has provided a ready-made focus of attention for research workers concerned with problems of group process. The fact that investigations, whether intradisciplinary or interdisciplinary, have tended to be carried on by groups of research workers has had important consequences for the development of conference procedures. Social scientists interested in the study of groups formed a number of small societies, among them the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the American Sociometric Association. As meetings of these societies made extensive use of the conference form, the special sophistication of those actively engaged in research on groups was fed back into ongoing thinking about conferences. Modern recording techniques, such as stenotyping and tape recording, which facilitated the study of conferences, gradually became standard equipment, and verbatim transcripts became available not only for conference analysis but also for future conference planning. A further step was taken when the conferences that were convened to plan, coordinate, or evaluate the research on small groups also were subjected to the scrutiny of those whose observational and experimental work was concentrated on problems of group interaction.

Throughout its development, the scientific study of group processes has been characterized by the most intense, continuous interplay of theory, data gathering, and practice. The methodology of this interplay is intrinsic to theories of the relevance of research to social action that developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Equally important, however, has been the double position of those involved in investigations, both as research workers studying group processes and as participants in situations on which such research was being carried out. [SeeGroups; Interaction.]

In the 1950s, a further development took place as new disciplines concerned with the analysis of nonverbal behavior entered the field. Although the published output of those engaged in research in kinesics, proxemics, paralinguistics, and metalinguistics is not as yet large (Indiana University … 1964), these several new approaches hold great promise for a further clarification of the communication process as it evolves in the setting of a conference. [See Kinesics.] In the same period, a growing interest in ethology among students of human social behavior also has stimulated attention to nonverbal elements in communication. In addition, the development of photographic techniques for the visual recording of interaction promises to add still another dimension to the analysis of the communication process.

In the late 1940s several large-scale studies of the conference form were inaugurated. Some of these failed in their purpose, as no adequate solution had then been found for the problem of the relationship between the detached observer of a conference and its deeply involved, committed membership. Since the conference form had become part of the regular procedures of organizations having a professional interest in the conference process, it seemed reasonable to build research plans around their meetings. However, when these conferences have been used for purposes of impartial objective research, the professional participants sometimes have rebelled against serving, simultaneously, as the subjects of observation. Their objections, which have seriously impeded research that might otherwise have been productive, have stemmed from the failure—perhaps on both sides—to grasp one essential characteristic of every successful conference, namely, the complete temporary commitment of every participant to the shared purposes of the group as a whole. In a situation in which the observer can share in this commitment to content and can channel his observations in such a way that they facilitate the work of the conference, his insights are welcomed. In contrast, where his role is so defined that he must stand aside, taking notes that will be useful only in some context external to the purposes of the conference, his very presence is resented. This requirement of involvement has a corollary. A natural history method of recording and the use of artifacts intrinsic to the conference procedure, such as preconference letters, drafts of formulations prepared within the conference, and the conference transcript, are appropriate for conference research, but instruments developed for other purposes, for example, the questionnaires and self-evaluation forms used in measuring changes of attitude, are often completely inappropriate. One example of a conference that successfully combined the application of research with self-observation was the Eastbourne conference, which had the assigned task of organizing international conference procedures (Capes 1960).

Conference management as a profession

Conference management is developing as a profession whose major focus may be problems of organization, the guidance of the group process, transcription, editing and publication, or some combination of these. Today, large organizations and institutions are likely to employ specialists in all these branches of conference management.

The demand for specialists is related to, and has expanded with, the development of conference technology, particularly that aspect of it concerned with interpretation (Glen 1954). While conference management skills must still be acquired through informal apprenticeship learning, a more identifiable career specialization is likely to emerge as the number of international conferences, for which very special skills are required, continues to increase. Concurrently, it may be expected that high-level skills in conference communication, earlier the subject of intense research, will be more widely diffused among social scientists and the scientific community as a whole.

Margaret Mead

[Other relevant material may be found inCommunication; Diffusion, article onINTERPERSONAL INFLUENCE; Groups; Interaction; Kinesics; Science, article onSCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION.]


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