The diversity of crisis literatures and learning processes
Like many phenomena explored in the social sciences, crises have multiple dimensions and can be defined in various ways. As Colin Hay has aptly maintained, “crises may be singular, exceptional, recurrent or periodic; momentary, ephemeral, enduring or eternal; linear or cyclical; destructive or creative; underdetermined or overdetermined; inevitable or contingent; pathological or regenerative; organic or inorganic; paralyzing or liberating; immanent, latent or manifest” (Hay, 1999, p. 318). To this empirical complexity and heterogeneity, we can add the variability that different approaches to theorizing about crises can generate. How one chooses to characterize and represent crises is clearly connected to the observer’s ontological and epistemological tenets. Indeed, as Janet Roitman (2014) notes, even to treat a given event or process as a crisis as opposed to some other kind of phenomenon involves specific theoretical and normative judgments. Likewise, Rahm Emanuel’s proposition that “you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste” (2008)1 suggests that crises have at least a dual significance. Besides signalling a more or less significant rupture in established systemic, institutional, organizational, or behavioural routines, crises also provide opportunities for change and, perhaps, improvement. This indicates the importance of considering the subjective as well as objective features of crisis and, in particular, the importance of whether and, if so, how different kinds of social agent interpret, respond to, and learn about natural and social phenomena that come to be characterized as crises. Theoretical contributions to the study of crises within political economy and mainstream economics are remarkably diverse. Among the usual theoretical suspects here are (Neo-)Marxist, (Post-)Keynesian, Neo-Gramscian, Neo-Institutional/Evolutionary, Real Business Cycle and Effcient Market Hypothesis approaches.2 These have contributed in diverse ways to the study of the nature and significance of economic, political, and socio-cultural crises. A parallel body of work, mostly in organization studies, communication studies, policy analysis, public administration, conflict management, and cognate fields is more concerned with crisis management and policy learning. Unsurprisingly, given the breadth of these topics and/or disciplines, the scope of this literature extends far beyond crises in the political economic field. This chapter will focus on organizational and cognate disciplinary analyses that bear directly on the kind of crises discussed in this collection and, in this context, on contributions that address the extent, scope and conditions of learning in, about, and from crises. In the light of Pearson and Clair’s observation that “any crisis process results in relative degrees of success and failure” (1998, p. 67), a key issue in this regard concerns the factors that shape the understanding of crises and abilities to anticipate, prevent, or, at least, manage them successfully. This is where the literature on organizational learning can contribute much, directly and by extension, to work on the pedagogy of crisis. The aim of this chapter is to study the intersection between the literatures on the nature/meaning of different types of crises and on organizational and policy learning around crisis management. These two disparate literatures have developed in parallel and explicit theoretical links between them in the mainstream literature are relatively rare and weak. For example, the literature on the nature/meaning of crises tends to be more abstract and largely reflects a thematic organization of the topic (Castree, 2010 illustrates this) and/or a given author’s preferred theoretical perspective. Conversely, the literature on policy/organizational learning in crisis management is more concrete - reflecting the concerns of specific sets of actors - and is oriented to practical lessons. Here one can distinguish managerial and organizational concerns with coping with crisis (functional challenges such as prevention, preparedness, decision making, coordination and communication responses) and the more political and strategic dimension of crisis management (impact of crisis on political elites and institutions and general problems of leadership)3 (Brand, 2013; t’ Hart and Sundelius, 2013). To explore potential links between these two relatively distinct fields of investigation, I suggest two ways in which crisis and learning may be linked, depending on whether the crisis literature deepens the analysis of learning, or vice versa. In the first approach, the learning literature adds much to these analyses of crisis. It treats crises as triggering events pertaining to moments of temporal or intertemporal uncertainty and fluidity (such as critical junctures or paradigm shifts) and, based on this definition, highlights how policymakers construe these events and moments as a guide to action (Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, 2005). At its best, this approach incorporates insightful agency-based explanations oriented to different spatial and temporal horizons into historical and conjunctural analyses of crisis dynamics. The second approach complements the first because a nuanced crisis literature deepens the understanding of learning. This way of linking the two literatures treats crises as nodes of potential transformation where outcomes are influenced by the politics of framing (Boin, t’ Hart, and McConnell, 2009; cf. Stone, 2001). It thereby teases out the relation between chronocentrism (hereafter also presentism) - i.e. the “tendency to concentrate upon the present moment and, in so doing, to remove that moment from its historical context” (Hay, 2002, p. 112) - and the historically specific. This approach is illustrated by different kinds of thick and thin constructivism and cognate currents in historical materialism.
Knio, M.K.A. (2018). The diversity of crisis literatures and learning processes. In The Pedagogy of Economic, Political and Social Crises: Dynamics, Construals and Lessons (pp. 25–48). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1765/113599