By Stephen Mennell

Wilbert van Vree’s Meetings, Manners and Civilisation is an example of the best kind of sociology, but one of the rarest: the kind that can be read with enjoyment by the general reader for interest and enlightenment. Anyone who can be described as the general reader is also quite likely to be the general attender at and general participant in meetings of every kind; and thus many of the fascinating questions discussed here will chime with personal experience. We take too much for granted in our everyday lives, and Dr Van Vree makes us think afresh about many aspects, large and small, of how meetings take place in modern society. Why, at least in the richer countries of the world, can we complacently assume that no matter how severely they may disagree, participants in a meeting are unlikely to come to blows or to draw weapons? What is the significance of the chairmans authority, and how was it established? What is the origin of the chairmans gavel? How does the problem of confidentiality relate to the rise of the meeting as a typical way of doing business? Or, indeed, what is the significance of men not wearing hats in meetings (unless, of course, they happen to be a British MP raising a point of order during a vote in the House of Commons, in which case until 1998 they had to wear a top hat while remaining seated!)?
The fascinating details with which Dr Van Vree’s book is studded form parts of a larger picture. Dr Van Vree works on a broad canvas, and this is a work of major scholarly significance. The author shows how the rise of ‘meeting regimes’ is linked to many issues of central theoretical interest to historians and sociologists. He demonstrates, for instance, how the development of rules of order in meetings is tied to the long-term processes by which states were formed, how it was linked with religion, and with the intrigues of royal courts. He shows how meetings were themselves a means of instilling discipline, how Calvinists used them for this purpose, and how there thus emerged a Protestant meeting order. The Dutch Republic is seen to be a game of meetings, in which there was formed a meeting class with its code of meeting class manners. Moreover, Dr Van Vree being able like so many Dutch intellectuals to draw on literature in several languages, his book is replete with comparisons of meeting manners in Britain, Germany, France and the USA as well as in his native Netherlands. There are quite marked differences in national styles of meeting manners, and, for instance, the stridently adversarial debating style of the British House of Commons which rather alarmed many overseas viewers when parliamentary proceedings came to be broadcast on satellite television is very long-established.

Meetings, Manners and Civilisation is a distinguished product of the Amsterdam School of sociology. Over the last three decades at the University of Amsterdam, under the leadership of Professor Johan Goudsblom, an outstanding group of sociologists has pursued an extremely varied and wide-ranging research programme. One distinguishing feature of its work is that, unlike a great deal of contemporary sociology, it is not hodiecentric (Goudsbloms word) that is, it is not preoccupied solely with present-day societies. Whatever they are investigating, members of the school always set out to explain how and why the way we live now has developed out of often very different human arrangements in the past: their concern is always with change and process. They have taken as their paradigm Norbert Eliass book The Civilising Process (originally published in German in 1939). Although until recently British and American sociologists paid it relatively little attention, in 1998 this book was voted one of the ten most influential sociology books of the twentieth century by members of the International Sociological Association. Looking at more than five hundred years of Western European history, Elias sketched the links between two long-term trends, towards the civilising or pacification of manners in ordinary social encounters, and towards the internal pacification of territory in the course of state-formation and the division of labour. As more and more people became enmeshed in ever more extensive webs of interdependence, as they were forced increasingly to live at peace with one another, their emotional makeup or habitus gradually changed: from generation to generation they slowly developed higher standards of habitual self-constraint. In other words, as people became more and more interdependent with each other, and as power ratios between individuals and between groups and categories became somewhat more equal, a process of mutual pacification could be observed. These processes, as Dr van Vree lucidly demonstrates, were very clearly at work in the formation of meeting regimes. Today, as he notes, the conduct of meetings is often more relaxed in style than was once common. This is a reflection of an informalisation process widespread in western social life generally, which other Amsterdam sociologists have studied extensively. Paradoxically, though, it has been observed that the more informally people behave in their dealings with each other in meetings or in other contexts the greater, rather than the less, the necessary degree of habitual self-restraint. The less rigid the social rules, the greater the demands imposed on emotion management.

One might ask in conclusion why this imaginative and original book about meetings should come to us from The Netherlands. After all, meetings are a pervasive part of business and social life in all industrial or post-industrial societies. Yet my impression is that most studies of meeting behaviour by English-speaking social scientists are either pragmatically concerned with helping businessmen or the parties to conflict to negotiate more effectively, or they focus on the microscopic linguistic details of behaviour in meetings. They take the very institution of meetings for granted. Perhaps Wilbert van Vree, almost in passing, shows why the Dutch should take a regime of meetings for granted only at their peril. In Holland, the sea posed a perpetual danger, a danger which could only be met collectively. The dykes and canals which kept the land from flooding could only be maintained by common effort. Such were the realities of Dutch everyday life, and a regime of peaceful meetings emerged there at a remarkably early stage. Meetings, one may reflect, are a social activity sui generis, and in understanding them there is little room for Anglo-Saxon gut-reaction individualism of the kind that contends that there is no such thing as society.

Stephen Mennell
Dublin, 20 maart, 2001