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“The Magic of the Meeting Necessitates Having Multiple Voices Heard.” An Interview with François Cooren about Ventriloquism, Interaction, and the Montreal School

Christoph Haug et François Cooren
p. 111-119
Traduction(s) :
« La magie de la réunion nécessite de faire entendre plusieurs voix. » Un entretien avec François Cooren sur la ventriloquie, l’interaction et l’École de Montréal

Résumé

This interview with François Cooren, professor in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal, discusses his best-known contribution to communication theory, his metaphor of communication as ventriloquism. According to this perspective, we all have a “capacity to make other beings say or do things while we speak, write, or, more generally, conduct ourselves” (Cooren, 2012, p. 4). More specifically, the notion of “meetings” and the contribution of ventriloquism to their studies are at the core of this interview. Initially, this interview was conducted by email in the fall of 2019 for a community of meeting researchers and meeting professionals, and then slightly edited for the present publication.

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Texte intégral

1François Cooren has been a professor in the Department of Communication at Université de Montréal since 2003. He was the chair of this department from 2006 to 2015, a position he holds again since June 2019. He was the editor-in-chief of the journal Communication Theory from 2005 to 2008, and president of the International Communication Association (ICA) from 2010 to 2011. François’s reputation is well established in the academic environment: in 2013, he was appointed Fellow of the ICA and, in 2017, he was nominated Distinguished Scholar by the National Communication Association (NCA).

2Over the past decades, François has developed his expertise under the banner of the Montreal School, a school of thought in the field of organizational communication – initiated by James R. Taylor, François’s former thesis advisor. As a scholar, François is interested in the process of “organizing” (Weick, 1979), as well as the organization’s ways of being and acting. According to him (and other representatives of the Montreal School), an organization exists in and through communication. This is also referred to as the communicative constitution of organization (CCO), a perspective on organizational communication that is becoming increasingly accepted among organizational scholars (Boivin, Brummans & Barker, 2017). The Montreal School is often described as one of three distinct CCO approaches, next to Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems and Robert McPhee’s Four-Flows Model, which is based on Giddens’ structuration theory (Schoeneborn, Blaschke, Cooren, McPhee, Seidl & Taylor, 2014).

  • 1 The Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium was first held in 2017, at the University of Gothenburg (S (...)

3One of the characteristics of the Montreal School is its distinction between two modalities of communication: text and conversation (Taylor, Cooren, Giroux & Robichaud, 1996). François and his colleagues study organizational communication by observing how it oscillates between text (such as a strategy document or the logo of the organization) and conversation (such as a strategy meeting or an Adbuster activist manipulating a corporate logo to reveal some problematic side of the organization) and describing how the organization is produced and transformed in this process of translation from text to conversation and back to text. This combination of a sophisticated theoretical approach with empirical research that is firmly rooted in the analysis of observable acts of communication has certainly contributed to the popularity of the Montreal School. This is also the reason why François is interested in organizational meetings (e.g. Cooren, 2004, 2007, 2015a), which are at the center of this interview and also brought him to the Advisory Committee for the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium1.

4More recently, his work has focused on the development of a relational ontology of organizational communication (Cooren, 2015b). His most well-known contribution to communication theory is his metaphor of communication as ventriloquism (Cooren, 2012) according to which we all have a “capacity to make other beings say or do things while we speak, write, or, more generally, conduct ourselves” (Cooren, 2012, p. 4).

  • 2 See https://forum.kunsido.net

5Are you curious to know what the art of ventriloquism has to do with the art of leading good meetings? Thus, we invite you to take advantage of the following exchange. This interview was conducted by email for a community of meeting researchers and meeting professionals2, and then slightly edited for the present publication.

Interview by Christoph Haug,
his interventions are in bold type.

6François, the department where you are a professor and which you are now heading for the second time has gained a global reputation in the field of management and organization theory as the center of the so-called “Montreal School of Organizational Communication.” Could you briefly describe what distinguishes the Montreal School from other approaches and what this means for our understanding of meetings, which we wish to address in this discussion?

7Our school, as we began to be called from the beginning of the 2000s, builds on a quotation by John Dewey, nicely summarized in Democracy and Education (1916): “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.” This quote – which James R. Taylor, the founder of our school, kept reminding us – invites us to investigate the organizing properties of communication. This key distinction between the prepositions by and in (or through) – but also their complementarity –, operated by Dewey, underlines the need to find in communication the building blocks of organization. If you take a look at the writings of the Montreal School, you will implicitly and inevitably find this teaching from Dewey.

8Regarding the question of meetings, this approach leads us to analyze how organizational elements are not only staged and reproduced in this type of discussion (mission statements, principles, rules, procedures, objectives, strategic plan, numbers, reports, etc.), but also created, articulated or transformed. For the Montreal School, everything happens on the terra firma of interaction and nowhere else. This means that participants should not only be seen as actors who make a difference in this kind of setting, but also as passers, mediators or intermediaries through which specific realities express themselves.

9This decentered vision of communication has important consequences to analyze how authority and power are functioning. We manage to increase our authority when we are seen as embodying other authors that appear to speak through us. Let me illustrate this with the case of an accountant: we can legitimately argue the accountant has power because she is the voice of numbers, which themselves are supposed to express a certain financial reality of the organization. Authors or figures thus begin to speak through an entity, in this case numbers speak through the accountant.

10Even if meetings are always situated and located, communication is a way to dislocate the “here and now” and allows people to access the “there and then.” Any participant in a meeting can therefore be seen as a medium through which certain aspects of a situation express themselves.

11You mentioned a number of things that I think would be interesting to clarify some more. Let me start with the quote from Dewey, which brings to mind two questions: first, could you explain the difference between existing “by communication” and existing “in communication”? Secondly, since Dewey speaks about society whereas the Montreal School is about organizational communication, how do you get from society to organization? Aren’t these two very different objects of study?

12While we are used to thinking of communication as something that happens in organization, Dewey’s quote leads us to think that, reversely, organization might also be something that happens in communication. Of course, in my opinion, this logic is applicable not only to organizations, but also to anything or anyone. For instance, we exist in communication whenever people talk about us in their conversations, which means, for example, that something like a reputation is a form by which we come to exist for others. A society exists in communication because talking about what a society needs to do or to be is a way to make it exist, in a certain way, in our discussions (and, of course, I acknowledge that some discussions matter more than others depending on who is involved [a prime minister vs. mere citizens] and where this is taking place (in a café vs. in a parliament]). This is what Latour would call a performative view of society, a view according to which we are the ones who can actually define or negotiate what it is made of or what counts in it.

13Now, if we reflect on the distinction Dewey makes between “existing by” and “existing in,” we see that the preposition “by” appears to insist on the mediative existence of society. Instead of “by,” he could then have said “through,” which is a preposition I tend to use a lot. When a law is enacted, for instance, it is an act of communication, but it is also a performance by which society gives itself, by proxy, an element – here, a law – that will constrain or enable the conduct of its citizens. This is just one illustration, I could have taken many others.

14With the preposition “in,” I believe Dewey insists on the fact that society has to be found not only through these communicative acts, but also in them and nowhere else. With the preposition “through,” it still seems that society exists elsewhere and is expressed/embodied/materialized through communication, but by saying that it exists in communication, it means that there is no outside, as far as the communicative dimension of society is concerned. As James R. Taylor constantly reminds us, without communication, there is no society and no organization. This ultimately leads us to a relational ontology, which constitutes the latest development of this constitutive approach (see Kuhn, Ashcraft & Cooren, 2017).

15And yes, society and organization are two different objects of study, even if they have some common features. A society is not an organization to the extent that it is not created for a specific function (a society is, to some extent, its own finality. It just “is”), while an organization is always conceived with a specific objective or function in mind (making profits, helping others, providing services, etc.). The idea of a communicative constitution, however, applies to anything (an organization, a society, a group, ourselves, etc.) or anyone and this is why I spoke elsewhere of the communicative constitution of reality (CCR; Cooren, 2012). Reality is communicatively constituted because it is literally made of relations.

16So perhaps the first thing we can note about the Montreal School is that it sees communication as constitutive of reality in general and of organization in particular. If we stop communicating, the organization ceases to exist.

17To some extent, this strikes me as a common sense idea: if we destroy all the legal documents that define the organization, and all its policies and strategic plans, as well as its logo, it seems quite plausible that the organization would disappear. But the idea that communication constitutes organization (often abbreviated as CCO) seems to be more provocative than that. When you said earlier:

For the Montreal School, everything happens on the terra firma of interaction and nowhere else

18you’re not mentioning documents at all. You are talking about interaction. Everything happens in interaction. Could you explain what you mean by that? Isn’t interaction something rather fleeting, ephemeral and nothing like “solid ground”? And surely things happen when we don’t interact?

19It depends on what we mean by interaction. In a way, when I am reading a book, I am interacting with it. My reading is a two-way street phenomenon because this action, reading, allows the book to tell me a story. I am using the term “interaction” in a very broad sense, as any experience is, to some extent, an interaction. I will support my point with a completely different example: when we contemplate a landscape, we can argue that, in return, this landscape gives itself to be seen through my contemplation. We can therefore say that we are in a situation of interaction between a contemplator and a contemplated (this is the reason why we can speak of data in science, even if data [what is given] implies its mirror action [what is obtained]).

20This is the essence of a relational ontology (Cooren, 2015b): it shows that any action can always be seen from the perspective of what I am interacting with. If I am following arrows that lead me to the bathroom, it also means that these arrows are leading me to my destination. If I acquire new knowledge from reading a book, it is because this book is teaching me something (and, of course, by proxy, the author of the book, as well as the publisher, etc.). Any action has a mirror action, which explains why studying interaction is so interesting!

21Now, to go back to your question. Documents are crucial in organizations as they are a source of stabilization. We could say that they embody what traditional sociology would call their structures (a term that I am using in practice, but that does not explain anything in theory, as it is a form of shortcut and a hodgepodge term). Yet these stabilizing elements will only make a difference if they are invoked or if they, somehow, lead people in their actions (to do what they do). For me, documents must be part, directly or indirectly, of interactions in order to make a difference. Otherwise, they are just things that we forget about on shelves where dust accumulates. A mission statement, in order to make a difference, has to be invoked or known by members in order to make a difference in their daily life. If it is invoked or ventriloquized, it is part of the interaction. If it is known by a member and animates his or her action, then it is part of his/her interactions.

22Instead of talking of interaction, Barad (2003, 2007) prefers to talk of intra-action, according to her, this term implies the prior existence of connected entities. For example, we might tend to consider an observer and the observed as two independent entities of a phenomenon. Barad rather suggests that the observer and the observed are, to a certain extent, inseparable (there is no observation and observed if there is no observer, and vice versa, there is no observation and observer if there is no observed), and that it is the relation that creates, in a way, the relata (Barad, 2003).

23I understand what she means and I agree with her up to a point. When I drive my car and I notice a yellow vest on the side of the road, I slow down because this yellow vest, by its phosphorescent properties, caught my attention and alerts me about the presence of someone whose car appears to be broken down. Barad would argue that the intra-action catching attention/alerting, which makes this experience possible, creates two relata: on one side, I have been warned about the presence of a car and its driver along the road, and on the other side, the car and his driver have been noticed by me. This is the essence of intra-action, but from my stance there is still interaction (this term is still useful!), as the car and myself are not reducible to these experiences, we exist beyond their creative dynamics.

24I am well aware that the examples chosen do not illustrate what we traditionally have in mind when we speak about interactions, but they do allow to show what I mean when I am using this term. In many articles, books or chapters (e.g. Cooren, 2010; 2012; 2015b; 2016; 2017; 2018), I have used classical human interactions, so I am trying here to broaden my position.

25So let’s note that another building block of the Montreal School is its relational ontology: whatever exists, exists in relations rather than in some kind of substance. Nothing exists in isolation, everything exists in relation to something else, and, you even say: everything is constituted in this relationship. So if we take meetings as a very common form of interaction, how does your relational ontology change the way we look at meetings? 

26You already mentioned meetings a couple of times. You said that in meetings, organizational elements such as mission statements, principles, rules, procedures, objectives, strategic plan, numbers, reports, etc. are not only staged and reproduced, but also created, articulated or transformed. You also described meetings as a kind of portal (if I may say so) through which participants can access or communicate with another world. You said:

Even if meetings are always situated and located, communication is a way to dislocate the ‘here and now’ and allows people to access the ‘there and then’.

27And here we can see your relational ontology in action, as it were, when you immediately add:

Any participant in a meeting can therefore be seen as a medium through which certain aspects of a situation express themselves.

28So it is not only the participants who use the meeting to access a world beyond the meeting itself, but that world, those “aspects of the situation,” as you say, also use the participants to “express themselves.”

29So, what exactly is expressing itself in a meeting? Can we not keep things simple and say that it is only the participants who are expressing themselves?

30Yes, it would certainly be simpler to stop at the fact that only human participants express themselves in a meeting. I am not denying, of course, that they do express themselves since what they say is often crucial in my analyses. However, I want to be able to go one step further by also paying attention to what is invoked, convoked or evoked in these discussions. “Invoking,” “convoking” or “evoking” are, precisely, verbs that reflect ways to give a voice to what is invoked, convoked or evoked. This is what the suffix “voke” (derived from the Latin word vocare) means.

31When an accountant alludes to numbers that are supposed, according to her, to prove the poor financial situation of a company, this person is not only expressing herself. Through her speech act about a financial situation, she gives a voice to these numbers, which are presented as showing that the company is in trouble. This is what these numbers are supposed to do, according to her, and this could, of course, be contested by other participants around the table. I believe this simple shift (from the expression of people to the expression of the things they are talking about) is crucial, as it allows me to reconnect the scene of the meeting with its broader context, and show that the context is talked into being, as Heritage (1984) would say. Which means that this context expresses itself in this meeting, which also means that the context begins to exist.

32Earlier in this discussion, you used the metaphor of ventriloquism to characterize this invocation of context:

If [a mission statement] is invoked or ventriloquized, it is part of the interaction. If it is known by a member and it animates his or her action, then it is part of his/her interactions.

33This metaphor of ventriloquism is central to your work (Cooren, 2010). Indeed, you have proposed a (meta-)theory of communication according to which communication is itself a form of ventriloquism (Cooren, 2012). How can this theory help us understand meetings? Or how has it helped you to understand meetings?

34Ventriloquism is the art of making something or someone say things (faire parler, as we say in French). It’s a metaphor I like to use, although it has its own limits, because it allows me to highlight that when we communicate, we are both ventriloquists and dummies. We are ventriloquists because speaking, writing or more generally, expressing oneself is always a way to make other things express themselves. This is what happens when, for example, we let the facts speak for themselves, when we invoke what we believe a document says, or when we evoke what a situation dictates. But we are also dummies (or figures, as ventriloquists sometimes call their dummies) to the extent that these elements lead us to say what we say or to do what we do. For instance, sometimes we are driven to speak out loud when we are enthused, angered or preoccupied by something. When I am studying meetings (or interactions in general), I therefore try to unfold these voices that are enfolded in what we say. This is the essence of analysis.

35What is a meeting after all? It is the coming together of people who are supposed to talk about specific topics and sometimes make decision about what needs to be done regarding what has been discussed. This means that there are basically two orientations to these discussions: an epistemic orientation where people try to figure out what is happening somewhere, and a deontic one where people try to figure out what to do about this situation.

36What I noticed in studying meetings is that we tend to be the voice of what preoccupies or concerns us, which is, of course, normal. If you put together an accountant, an engineer, and a salesperson, they will come with specific concerns/preoccupations that will match their respective expertise (financial aspects for accountants, technological aspects for engineers, and marketing aspects for salespeople). Each time they speak, you will notice that they will ventriloquize and be ventriloquized by these concerns, because these concerns precisely lead them to defend such or such position. They will therefore tend to have different views about what matters in a specific situation, which means a form of negotiation will hopefully have to take place. When these people talk to each other, they, in fact, also speak to specific matters that end up responding, or not, to each other.

  • 3 At the beginning of the 20th century, Mary P. Follet (1940) proposed a new definition of power in s (...)

37This is what interests me in a meeting: not only what people tell each other, but also how various matters of concern end up responding or not to each other. Only following this way a form of compromise or integration (in Mary Parker Follett’s sense of the term [1940]3) can result.

38Yes, Mary Parker Follett’s dictum to depersonalize conflicts and to, instead, obey “the law of the situation” seems to match your ventriloquism proposition: listen to the matters of concern that express themselves in a meeting. The idea is, that by taking these concerns seriously and letting them talk to each other, the meeting can sometimes achieve the impossible by somehow integrating the diversity of seemingly incompatible voices.

39Yet I wonder: what to do when some participants don’t allow these matters of concern to be foregrounded - either by refusing to explain what matters to them or by ignoring what matters to others? Do you think it is possible for meetings to do their magic even under these conditions? Or do certain requirements have to be fulfilled in order to reach compromise or integration?

40On this point, I think that we may have to rely on Ross Ashby’s (1956) law of requisite variety, which says that a system must try to become as complex as the environment in which it evolves and on which it depends. When voices are systematically ignored in a meeting, it means, by definition, that what matters to the participant whose voice is silenced does not get a chance to express itself. This consequently means that the situation that participants are trying to deal with will not have a chance to express itself in all its complexity in this meeting.

41I recently wrote a paper (Cooren, 2018) in which, paradoxically, I try to show that undecidability and surprisability need to be cultivated in meetings. A meeting where there is no surprise or where people do not experience a form of undecidability might be a meeting where the same voices come back over and over. It’s a place where alternative voices don’t have a chance to get heard. To participate in a meeting where multiple voices can be heard is to participate in a meeting where people might experience undecidability, precisely because these multiple voices dictate courses of action that appear incompatible and contradictory.

42This does not mean that no decision can be made. It simply means that the people around the table give themselves the chance to realize that the situation might be (surprisingly?) more complex than they initially thought, and that compromises or integrations might be necessary. This could also mean that some sacrifices might be at stake, but at least these sacrifices will be knowingly made. For me, the magic of the meeting necessitates this imperative of having multiple voices heard, as it is the very condition of integration.

43Thank you, François, for taking the time to answer these questions.

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Bibliographie

Ashby R.W. (1956). Introduction to Cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs: Journal of Woman in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801–831.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham; London: Duke University Press.

Boivin, G., Brummans, B. H. J. M. & Barker, J. R. (2017). The Institutionalization of CCO Scholarship. Management Communication Quarterly, 31(3), 331–355.

Cooren, F. (2004). The Communicative Achievement of Collective Minding: Analysis of Board Meeting Excerpts. Management Communication Quarterly, 17(4), 517–551.

Cooren, F. (Ed.) (2007). Interacting and Organizing: Analyses of a Management Meeting. NYC: Routledge; Routledge Communication Series.

Cooren, F. (2010). Action and Agency in Dialogue. Passion, incarnation and ventriloquism. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Cooren, F. (2012). Communication Theory at the Center: Ventriloquism and the Communicative Constitution of Reality. Journal of Communication, 62(1), 1–20.

Cooren, F. (2015a). Organizational Discourse: Communication and Constitution. Hoboken: Wiley.

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Cooren, F. (2017). Acting For, With, and Through. A Relational Perspective on Agency in MSF’s Organizing. In Boris H.J.M. Brummans (Ed.), The Agency of Organizing. Perspectives and Case Studies (1st ed.), 1–28. Routledge.

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Notes

1 The Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium was first held in 2017, at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden). This edition aimed to initiate an encounter between academics from all fields related to the social sciences (e.g. anthropology, organizational communication, management, sociology, linguistics, psychology and political science), working on “meetings” (see https://kunsido.net/gmss/). The second edition was held in Copenhagen last May 2019 (see https://kunsido.net/mss2/), and a third edition is planned for 2021 in Belgium.

2 See https://forum.kunsido.net

3 At the beginning of the 20th century, Mary P. Follet (1940) proposed a new definition of power in situations of negotiation. She suggests prioritizing what the “law” a situation calls for, and to favor a shared power between stakeholders: that is, “power with” rather than “power over.” From this constructive perspective of an organizational situation, no stakeholder sacrifices its interests or compromise its values. Decision-making is based on the skills and jurisdiction of all the implied stakeholders, doing so, strategic options are broadening (Groutel, Carluer & Le Vigoureux, 2010).

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Christoph Haug et François Cooren, « “The Magic of the Meeting Necessitates Having Multiple Voices Heard.” An Interview with François Cooren about Ventriloquism, Interaction, and the Montreal School », Communiquer, 29 | 2020, 111-119.

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Christoph Haug et François Cooren, « “The Magic of the Meeting Necessitates Having Multiple Voices Heard.” An Interview with François Cooren about Ventriloquism, Interaction, and the Montreal School », Communiquer [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2020, consulté le 23 septembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/communiquer/5891 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/communiquer.5891

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Auteurs

Christoph Haug

Senior lecturer, Department of Sociology and Work Science
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Christoph Haug is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Gothenburg and was a Marie-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Montreal in 2015 and 2016 where he studied inter-organizational meetings. His interest in meetings originates from studying decision-making in social movements where he found that meetings constitute a crucial infrastructure outside formal organizations. As the founder of the Meeting Science Symposium and the online discussion forum Kunsido, he aims to foster transdisciplinary dialog about meetings in research and practice.

François Cooren

Professor, Department of Communication
University of Montreal, Canada

François Cooren (Ph.D., Université de Montréal, 1996) is Professor and Director of the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. Specialized in organizational communication, he has published to date a dozen books, over 60 articles in international peer-reviewed journals and over 40 book chapters. Former editor-in-chief of the journal Communication Theory, he was president of the International Communication Association in 2010-2011. He was elected Fellow of the International Communication Association in 2013 and Distinguished Scholar of the National Communication Association in 2017. François is one of the principal representatives of the École de Montréal, a school that advocates a “constitutive” approach to communication. Initiated in the 1990s in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal, this school is now internationally recognized in the fields of organizational communication, management and interaction analysis.

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