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Round-Table Conferences: An Application of Small-Wins Theory

“Quixotic” and “chaotic” are the two words that often describe our efforts to imagine and achieve solutions to such serious problems as environmental collapse, cycles of injustice and revenge, nuclear war, or the loss of law and democratic processes in many regions of the world, including our own. The very scale of the problem can paralyse us.

Karl Weick’s “Theory of Small Wins” (in “American Psychologist”, vol. 39, 1984) argues that social activists need to conceive their actions as small, completely contained, quantal projects. These should be opportunistic and take advantage of principles of leverage. That is, we should use resources that attract and make use of other resources and that recruit a variety of motivations: We should arrange actions that have the possibility of an effect that is greater than the efforts warrant.

Small, opportunistic projects require fewer resources and do not exhaust us, as do larger projects. If a small project succeeds, then we receive re-enforcement for further actions. A record of small wins can attract others, and in the long run, can compile to a major win. However, if a small project fails, then that is not too damaging to our morale, since not much was invested in the first place. In small-wins theory, it is of primary importance that social activists maintain and cultivate their own morale and motivations. Burn-out and discouragement are to be avoided.

With this brief theoretical background, I would like to propose that our Science-for-Peace organization consider promoting a wide program of round-table conferences in Canada. Our organization has been riding on the energy and labour of relatively few members in the Toronto region, and we have been oriented towards relatively large projects, such as organizing big conferences, or publishing and selling books, or preparing policy papers for government and UN commissions. This has had several negative consequences: 1) the few activists in the center experience burn-out and may feel put upon or exploited by the rest of us in the periphery. 2) Those of us in the periphery feel ignored and isolated. 3) Our membership narrows and relatively few new young scholars are recruited to our membership. 4) We experience frustration and loss of motivation if we see that our big projects do not achieve the big effects we had imagined.

Round-table conferences are small, easily organized, and use the resources available to any faculty member in any academic department. Their success is determined largely by the creativity and social dynamics of the participants, and is thus totally under the control of the participants. In other words, success is relatively certain when success is determined by the quality of the thinking and discourse at the meeting. Round-tables welcome graduate students and junior faculty, give them career enhancing opportunities, at the same time engaging them in Science-for-Peace actions.

Round-table conferences would not replace other Science-for-Peace actions and projects, but would supplement them with additional energy, new ideas, and new members. The work load of activism would be more distributed and more of Canada could be involved and contributing.

The procedures for hosting a round-table conference would be something like this:

1. Any Science-for-Peace member or small group of members conceives a topic or an issue that they would like to discuss, research, criticize, develop policy alternatives about, etc. For example, “The Role of Apologies in International Relations”, or “Alternative Technologies for De-Mining Forest Lands”, or “Models for Predicting Terrorist Targets”, or “Mechanisms for Civilian Monitoring of Covert Nuclear Testing”. The topics for a round-table conference could be very focussed and limited, or could be broad and general. The organizers decide.

2. They petition the Science-for-Peace board for permission to use our name in hosting and promoting this round-table conference. Other sponsor might be sought, for example, CPREA, or Pugwash, or the university’s department of mathematics, for example.

3. They arrange a meeting room within their own university or department. No cost.

4. An email list is compiled of all organizations that might have an interest in the topic. Many association newsletters are only mailed quarterly, so sending notice of the meeting to these would be a priority. Other important promotion sites would be the university newspapers, electronic bulletin boards, and departmental notice boards in ALL of the universities and colleges within driving distance. For most of Canada, some US universities are within driving distance.

5. Information would need to be prepared for out-of-town visitors, concerning location of the meeting, parking, and reasonable accommodations.

6. As people respond to the call-for-papers, a program would be devised. The program coordinator might personally recruit particular people with expertise on the topic.

7. Refreshments and social events might be arranged. For example, an opening breakfast meeting. Lunch. Coffee breaks. Dinner together, or an evening dinner party or cocktail party. Normally, these would be paid by the participants, but support funding might be found within the university, or possibly by Science-for-Peace. Since a round-table does not have a large number of participants, perhaps 15 to 25, many of the social events could be hosted within the department or the homes of the organizers.

8. A decision would have to be made in advance, or after seeing the quality of the presentations, as to whether or not the collected papers and discussion might be edited for internet posting or hard-copy publishing.

9. Graduate students might be particularly welcomed to these small conferences, and given roles in organizing, promoting, hosting, and publishing.

10. Science-for-Peace might begin an electronic journal for the quick and inexpensive distribution of the round-table proceedings. Over a period of years, such might become a valuable resource for new ideas and bibliographies.

11. The participants in these round-tables would all receive a pamphlet describing Science-for-Peace and welcoming the participants to membership.

12. The hosts and organizing group, at the end of it all, would make some brief written report to the Science-for-Peace board, of what went well and what not, so that over a period we would build up some efficiencies in organizing round-table conferences.

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