I’m Calling a Session! (part i)

It was on my way down to a conference called Devoted and Disgruntled 7 that I read,

one can distinguish between ideal types of organic and associative social structures. A person is born into an organic social structure, or grows into it; by contrast, a person freely joins an associative social structure. The former is a ‘living organism’ whose parts depend on the whole organism and are determined by it; the latter is ‘a mechanical aggregate and artifact’ composed of individual parts. The former is thus enduring, the latter transient. In short, organic social structures are communities of being, while associative social structures are alliances for a specific purpose.

I was heading down to DandD7 at the invitation of my sister who has been participating in it for several years. DandD aims to be a gathering place for theatre makers and performing artists to discuss and explore major issues surrounding the arts industry. The reason I was traveling the 271 miles from Durham was to experience a organizational framework used at DandD called Open Space Technology.

Open Space Technology was discovered by an American called Harrison Owen. The story goes that he had set up a conference to explore issues stemming from his paper about “organizational transformation” and ran two successful events. On the approach to the third conference he found he was not relishing the idea of all the work necessary to put on such a large scale event; agendas, speakers, etc. It was then that he realized; most participants of the previous years’ conferences said the best part of those events were the coffee breaks, which Owen had not organized. Owen then sent out a one paragraph invitation to anyone to come and discuss ‘organizational transformation’ and 100 people turned up.

The seats for delegates were set out in a circle and the time was booked. Apart from this nothing had been set in place; it was open. The basic premise is it’s a meeting based on the dynamics of a coffee break.

Open Space, therefore, is distinctive in its lack of an agenda past the initial problem which needs to be discussed; in DandD’s case ‘What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?

Before getting to DandD7 I asked my sister why she had invited me? She said she thought that Open Space Technology may well help me in my research to formulate some ecclesiology (lit. words about church) which denied the use the rigid hierarchy which, in my opinion, stifles creativity of a group and denies full participation of every member in a community. What was interesting in her description of Open Space was the deliberate use of the words ‘her church’ and ‘her community’.

When it came to Saturday morning my over arching question was: To what extent could DandD be described as my sister’s church?

I need to briefly explain my use of the word ‘church’ in this context. Church is both a building and a gathering of people, usually made up of Christians. The word comes from the Greek ecclesia, which means ‘gathering’ (or to be specific ek – out and kaleo – to call). The Christian associations were a later addition to the concept and in that respect I will play down this element for now. I do want, however, to hold onto the connection this term has with ‘community’ because it was this idea that encouraged my sister to use the specific word ‘church’.

In order to answer my question I wanted to discover whether DandD is primarily seen as a conference or a community. I use the term ‘primarily’ deliberately as it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it was always going to be both. Indeed, most gatherings are a mixture of these two ideas. What I am keen to do here, however, is to discern whether it is possible to use Open Space purely as a community framework without the conference element and thus be able to agree with my sister that this is primarily a community she is a part of not just a conference she goes to religiously.

If we take these terms in the general sense they overlap in a number of ways. In the specific, however, I would be keen to posit unique attributes to each in order to communicate something important for my sister and many others whom I met at DandD7.

A conference, in this instance, encapsulates a business, mechanical artifact used to interact with others akin to the associative social structure we read about early. A community, on the other hand, is a gathering of people who participate in a level of intimacy brought on by experiencing liminality as a group. Community therefore, in this argument takes on the typology of the organic social structure.

For my sister she used words that would attribute themselves easily into the community/organic social structure model. Was this an adequate description of what happened? I was intrigued because Open Space Technology has its genesis in the conference world, where the task, it seems, is a primary focus with relationship as a happy by-product. Owen has, however, used it in community groups and in peace negotiations where, one could argue, relationships come first with the specific task as a necessary structure which is held to lightly.

Turning again to the quote I read before there are some clear qualities that separate organic social structures from associative. In the former the ‘parts’ depended on the whole organism and are determined by it, i.e. the whole adds or requires the part to have certain characteristics by its relationship to it; its focus is on being. The latter has no call for the individual part to depend or be determined by the whole; the individual can remain separate and singular. The associative social structure’s focus is on fulfilling a task without requiring an ontological connection.

At this point I would like to say that I am fully aware that I am attributing concepts and labels to things which may not, necessarily be the case. My observations are based, purely, on two days and an introductory investigation into the purpose and priorities of both Open Space and DandD. I would like the reader to be acutely aware that I am processing this and opening up a ‘session’ online. Please do correct where I have been unfair, ignorant or arrogant.

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