The Rituals of Public Meetings


Katherine A. McComas is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, where she specializes in risk, science, environmental, and health communication. She is particularly interested in examining incentives and barriers to public participation and the role that communication plays in individuals' decisions to participate. Much of her research has focused on the use of public meetings as methods of public participation.

John C. Besley is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. His research focuses on how citizens communicate with decision makers managing health and environmental risks, including the role of the news media. He is particularly interested in how news and entertainment content frame risk and the impact of this framing on attitudes toward new technologies, health beliefs, and scientific authorities.

Laura W. Black is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. Her research interests include group deliberation and dialogue in public and organizational settings. Her current research examines how telling and responding to personal narratives during a disagreement infl uences deliberative group members' sense of collective or civic identity.


Public meetings are often referred to as “rituals” to denote a largely symbolic activity with little concrete meaning. This essay explores how public meeting rituals may produce very real impacts on participants and pragmatic outcomes. Whereas tangible outputs of rituals are not always evident, ritual theory suggests that participants can derive latent meaning and significant comfort from their application. Although rituals serve to reify certain norms or control behaviors, they may also reaffirm civic values and encourage group cohesion. A deeper appreciation of public meeting rituals will enable participants and officials to respond more effectively to restructured or nontraditional formats as well as better deal with the challenges of maintaining participation when rituals lose their meaning.