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Meetings, Manners and Civilization: The development of modern meeting behaviour. (Reviews).

Meetings, Manners and Civilization: The Development of Modern Meeting Behaviour. By Wilbert Van Vree (London & New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 1999. xiii plus 370pp.). Awarded with the Norbert Elias Amalfi Prize 2001.

Medieval concepts of meeting all had strong connotations of fighting and sexual intercourse, thus depicting both ends of the continuum of possibilities when people get close: they make love or war. This corresponds to relationships characterized by rather unrestrained enmity or congeniality, possibly in rapid alternation. Meetings held by ruling 'free men' were known under several names such as 'thing,' 'ding' or '(ge)moot.' These men always came armed and made decisions by clashing weapons or groaning, respectively expressions of approval and rejection. In cases of doubt, public man-to-man combat was one of the oldest and most wide-spread methods used for settling conficts. The outcome of these 'juridical duels' was conceived as a divine judgement. For many centuries, meeting regulations contained numerous stipulations referring to violent disruptions to order such as fighting, knife pulling, glass throwing, and bearing arms. In nineteenth-century England, the word meeting was known as a euphemism for a duel . Gradually, as the fight about communal as well as conflicting interests turned into a battle with words only, connotations of violence were removed from the concept of meeting. Particularly in the struggle for recognition of the freedom of meeting for all citizens of a state, the concept aquired the more specialized meaning of coming together for common discussion and decision making.

Wilbert Van Vree's book is full of this kind of interesting details and trends. It presents a history of meetings and meeting manners via a number of 'cases' and moments selected for representing significant changes in western societies. It reports the meeting manners of the medieval, agrarian societies dominated by warriors and priests. It deals with the 'courtization' of meetings during the Renaissance. It explores the developments in meeting behavior at times in which courtiers as a ruling group were substituted for parliamentarians and when business entrepeneurs increasingly tended to become professional meeting holders.

Van Vree's perspective is built upon Norbert Elias's theory of civilizing processes: the history of meetings is considered within the context of a long-term process of expanding and increasingly dense networks of interdependency. He shows how meetings and 'meeting regimes' expanded from concerning the administration of the law, preparations for war, and the establishment of peace, to controlling taxation, water boards, trade, industry, social services, and many other activities and problems stemming from the extension and differentiation of the chains of actions. Special attention goes to the connection between changes in meeting regimes and the pacification of societies via the monopolization of the use of violence in the hands of the state. Prior to state formation, corresponding to the relatively short and little differentiated series of transactions, the tendency to solve problems by discussion and agreement was, in general, relatively weak. Particularly when tensions mounted, the tendency to resort to vi olence was strong. Only where organized violence was monopolized over extensive areas, the danger of physical attack diminished and allowed persuasion, argumentation, negotiation and compromise to blossom. In these pacified areas, rules of conduct were sanctioned with a degree of generality and durability, which made it possible to accept them as 'objective' rules, as 'laws'. In a chapter on the meeting rules developed in the Protestant Reform movement, Van Vree argues that the formulation of these rules as ethical norms or laws of God rather than as worldly wisdom or practical requirements for social exchange, helped to spread a stricter and broader meeting discipline among middle and lower classes.

The Dutch Republic is presented as an early example of a state in which the nobility lost their leading position as they became subordinate to merchant patricians. These new leading groups had to treat differences of opinion and conflicts with greater care and discipline. In contrast to monarchies in which the king had the power to separate conflicting factions, any such higher authority was absent in the Dutch Republic. Even the stadholder of the States of Holland in his position of commander-in-chief of army and navy was officially a servant of the States, because army and fleet (next to the whole central official apparatus of the Republic) were financed largely by taxation and loans provided by the fiscally autonomous provinces. The very decentralized organization and control of the monopolies of taxation and physical force prompted members of the States-General towards using negotiation, persuasion, informal discussion, sending delegates, threats with economic sanctions, and buying others off. All importa nt decisions were made in meetings of people who had received their directives from meetings taking place at lower levels of integration. The replacement of a monarchy by a government of a relatively large group of mandated and, in principle, equal, meeting participants thus promoted predominantly peaceful, more businesslike and less personal meeting manners. Due to the strongly decentralized and, from an international perspective, exceptionally financed governing system, the first "meeting class" of Europe, as Van Vree calls them, came into existence.

A topic of special attention is the development of elected national parliaments and parliamentary manners. Van Vree shows that changes in the composition and power of national parliaments ran in tandem with changes in parliamentary manners and regulations. The (meeting) manners that developed in parliaments functioned as examples, and soon 'parliamentary' behavior also meant 'polite' behavior. As national states further integrated and larger parts of the population directed themselves to this model, a "parliamentarization" of the population occurred. Van Vree presents an extensive overview of the development and spread of parliamentary manners in western industrializing societies (focusing on the formation of political parties and the parliamentary use of language).

In the 20th century, power differences and tensions between social groups within western societies declined. In this process the level of mutually expected self-control increased while the mutual fear and the sharpness of debate between representatives of different classes and groups diminished. On the whole, meeting manners became more relaxed and at ease. A study of international meeting manuals traces this process of informalization in which demands of sensitivity, reflexivity and flexibility increased. It shows a development from a formal parliamentary-juridical approach demanding a rather strict ban on emotions to an increasingly informal, sensitive, reflexive and flexible approach demanding a fine-tuned emotion management. Whereas norms of ordering and obeying dominated in autocratically regulated societies, parliamentary regimes demand a higher capacity to think for oneself and to follow the directions of one's own reflections and conscience rather than merely the directives of social superiors. Thus, social success has become increasingly dependent upon an individual's competence and experience in talking and decision-making in relation to lengthy and differentiated chains of actions.

By focusing on meetings and meeting manners, Van Vree has opened a fascinating new window on the history of humankind. His book pioneers into new territory and presents empirical evidence that both supports and expands Elias's theory of civilizing processes.
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Author:Wouters, Cas
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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