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Meta-Conferencing: Integration of the Concept Structure of Debate

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Meta-Conferencing
B. Visual tracking of conceptual foci
C. Map curvature and "geodesic" conferences

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Annex 14 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks


This note is concerned with the development of tools to facilitate overview -- by participants -- of the conceptual structure of the discussion amongst them. There is a marked need for such devices, especially during the course of a conference on a complex set of interrelated topics for which a hierarchical ordering is inappropriate. Two possibilities are reviewed. The first, based on the development of a form of sociogram, can be readily implemented and has already been tested in its simplest form. However this only permits a succession of grosser pictures following the processing of questionnaire information during the conference. The second requires the development of a new form of visual "note-taking" through direct coding into the computer-based graphics display. 

A. Meta-conferencing

This technique was first developed by the cyberneticians Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask as a way of raising the level of debate at conferences of the Society for General Systems Research. It consists of the following steps:

(a) Statement formulation: Participants are called upon to each formulate a single statement on a file card. Participants are free to make out more than one statement, or to join with colleagues in a joint statement. To clarify the conceptual dimensions of the conference, recommended guidelines may include:

  • statements should be important to the participant;
  • statements should be relevant to the conference theme;
  • to discourage platitudes and banalities, the participant should expect that the negative of the statement should find defenders (possibly even dividing the conference 50-50);
  • value of avoiding conventionally accepted categories (of the conference, of a particular discipline, or of the media). 
Statements may be signed or remain anonymous.

(b) Editorial regrouping: An editorial team then groups the statements into "foci of concern", sharpening statements and eliminating duplicates. 

(c) Questionnaire production: The resulting list can then be distributed to participants as a numbered list of anonymous statements in questionnaire form. The document can be briefly explained.

(d) Participant response: Participants mark the statements, choosing between agree/disagree/indifferent (or possibly rating them between 1 (irrelevant, disagree), 4 (neutral), and 7 (agree)). Names, initials or pseudonyms, may be requested. The questionnaires are then collected. 

(e) Computer processing: Replies are fed into a database. Names,

initials, or a code number may be used to identify the source of each statement in the database. There are a number of standard statistical programmes available to process such data on an ordinary computer (even a laptop). The aim is to correlate the patterns of response in two ways so as to establish the degree of relationship:
  • between people in the light of their response to the statements;
  • between statements in the light of the degree of similarity of the profile of responses to those statements amongst all responding participants.

(f) Distribution of results: The results can be produced in the form of two tables indicating the degrees of correlation between people, or between statements. The tabular information can be restructured into the form of network maps that give a visual sense of clusters and links. These may be accompanied by a key, if the people or statements are indicated in coded form. Editorial comment may be provided with the results. This may include cautionary remarks concerning the methodology.

(g) Iterative process: The process can then be repeated at a later stage of the conference by evoking further statements from participants.

Many variants of this approach can be used depending on the methodological skills of those processing the data and the needs of participants. The main area requiring development is the computer conversion of tabular information into meaningful graphic form.

Of special interest is the use of this technique to facilitate some form of convergence amongst a disparate group of participants reflecting conflicting agendas. The visual display may provide participants with insights into new configurations of issues and those concerned that do not depend on unanimity or consensus. They may even make structural use of disagreement and opposition (as is in architectural analogues).


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