Consensus Decision-Making in Meetings As an Interactive Accomplishment: Silence without Silencing?

Friday, July 18, 2014: 8:55 AM
Room: 418
Oral Presentation
Christoph HAUG , Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
This paper starts from the observation that most of the literature on decision-making is ensnared in methodological individualism: at least in the western world, it seems that a decision can only be understood as the outcome of an individual act or an aggregate thereof (voting). Nevertheless, genuinely collective practices of decision-making (consensus) are widespread across institutional and cultural settings, but the collective dimension of these is inadequately understood, leading to confusion between unanimity (everyone agrees) and consensus (no one disagrees). Both researchers and practitioners of decision-making have largely avoided this issue, so that empirical studies often remain unclear about how exactly a decision was made, and decision-making groups sometimes find themselves in the paradoxical situation of disagreeing whether they have reached consensus or not.

Based on participant observation of numerous meetings among global justice activists using the consensus principle, this study seeks to untangle some of the conceptual confusion through a detailed interactional analysis of meetings as communicative events. Focusing on the final stage of the decision-making process, the paper identifies four types of consensus: imposed, acclaimed, hasty, and considerate. Drawing on previous findings from conversation analysis, it is argued that although they all observe the absence of voiced disagreement, they differ significantly in how this absence is constructed interactionally. Therefore, what appears to be the same mode of decision-making – consensus – should be treated as different modes, both by researchers and practitioners.

The paper concludes by discussing the consequences of this analysis for radical democracy and anti-hegemonic practice, wondering whether it is possible to produce silence without silencing.