December 13, 2021

Maintaining Order

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I like a certain amount of orderliness in my life. I make lists and have rather predictable patterns when it comes to what I eat and how I spend my time at work as well as my leisure time. As I blogged about two years ago, I strive to be a minimalist. Order makes me feel a semblance of control and relief.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I am interested in a core aspect of sociology: how groups large and small seek to maintain order. Whether it is challenging the current social order on a grand scale or how rules are created within small groups and organizations, the quest to achieve order is woven through many areas of study within sociology. Emile Durkheim wrote quite a bit on this topic, noting that interdependence, or solidarity were central to maintaining stability.

Lately I have become fascinated with Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of procedures created in 1876 to provide structure to formal meetings that seems to reflect Durkheim’s perspective. I first learned about these rules when I was in high school and joined the model United Nations (UN) club. We would travel to events around the region, competing with other high schools within UN simulations. Our school would be assigned a country to represent, and in the process we would learn how to negotiate with other “countries” to pass resolutions that reflected our country’s interests and ostensibly promote positive global changes. We would make speeches and debate foreign policies; not based on our personal opinions, but based on an attempt to represent a country’s perspective.

These meetings were governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. We were given pamphlets to study and lectures on the different procedures within the rules, but observing a model UN conference in action was the best way to learn the rules. These rules provided a framework that guided who could speak, when they could speak, and for how long. They set the ground rules for proposing resolutions, and even for debates about the ground rules themselves.

For five years, I served as a member of the board of a small organization, which followed Robert’s Rules as well. Some of the rules, for example:

A quorum of board members had to be present in order for a meeting to proceed. By contrast, this same number of board members could not meet unofficially (say, chatting in the driveway) otherwise it would technically be a board meeting that the membership had to be informed about at least three days in advance.

The meeting had to be called to order by the person presiding over the meeting, who was typically the association’s president. This person also declared when the meeting was adjourned, or officially over.

Someone in the organization was required to take meeting minutes, or a detailed description of what takes place during a meeting. The minutes would have to be formally approved at the next meeting before being distributed to the membership.

Someone would need to make a motion to approve the minutes, which then another board member would need to second, or indicate that they are also in favor of the motion. The board would then typically vote “in favor” or “opposed” after the presider asks, “All those in favor” and then “All those opposed?” If there are more yesses than nos, the motion passes.

The meeting would follow a published agenda, which members had access to before the meeting. Within the agenda is a list of topics to be discussed, and the order in which they will be talked about.

The agenda typically included time for members to speak and ask questions in an open forum. This section of a meeting typically follows a format in determining who can speak, and for how long.

What’s interesting to me about Robert’s Rules is that they are so ubiquitous; we use a version of these rules in formal meetings at work, with rules about who can vote on particular issues, and whether the vote can be verbal or it needs to be written. Other than my high school experience before going to a model UN conference—an experience I presume to be rather rare—I was never actually taught the rules. I assume most people learn the rules by observing. Perhaps the intimidation factor of not knowing the rules keeps people from disrupting meetings, although that certainly does happen (and teleconferenced meetings allow the host to mute participants who do).

These rules have persisted for 145 years, which says a lot about the continued desire to create and maintain order in formal organizations. Maintaining order can also work to exclude people who don’t know the rules or are disadvantaged as the result of the rules. Sometimes the social order needs to be disrupted to create change.

What other examples of formal rules can you think of that govern organizations? How to they work to maintain order?

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