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What is consensus and how is it achieved in meetings? Four practices of consensus decision-making

Chapter in book
Authors Christoph Haug
Published in Joseph A. Allen, Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, Steven G. Rogelberg (Eds.): The Cambridge handbook of meeting science.
Pages 556–584
ISBN 9781107067189
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Place of publication New York
Publication year 2015
Published at Department of Sociology and Work Science
Pages 556–584
Language en
Keywords consensus, face-to-face meetings, collective decision making, unanimity, voting, silencing, interaction order
Subject categories Sociology, Communication Studies, Political Science


In many work meetings (as well as other settings), the preferred mode of decision making is consensus, especially when it is important to “get everyone on board” or when the aim is “deciding without dividing” (Urfalino, 2014, p. 14). But despite the frequent use of consensus both as a mode of decision making and as a concept in the literature on decision making in various contexts, the concept remains undertheorized and often misunderstood. This chapter makes three central claims. The first claim is that the term “consensus” has been used to identify two distinct phenomena: cognitive consensus and performative consensus. This claim is based on a review of diverse texts on consensus spanning a variety of disciplines, including sociology, social anthropology, political science, communication, social psychology, sociolinguistics, as well as management and organization studies. The second claim is that, to understand decision making in meetings, it is important to distinguish between consensus and unanimity as two distinct modes of collective decision making. This is not an original claim: Some authors have made similar observations, most recently and pointedly by Urfalino (2014). However, because these findings and observations are still rather unknown, I review them in the following section to provide a basis for the main argument that follows. The third claim is that consensus is a mode of decision making that can be practiced in different ways, thus making it necessary to distinguish different types of consensus when analyzing (and practicing) consensus decision making. This claim is based on my participant observation (and in some cases audio recordings) of 192 sessions of political activists in global justice movements between 2005 and 2009, where the predominant mode of decision making was consensus.

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