Editorial: Exploring the Theoretical Foundations of Crisis Management
Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 1–3, March 2013
How to Cite
Roux-Dufort, C. and Lalonde, C. (2013), Editorial: Exploring the Theoretical Foundations of Crisis Management. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 21: 1–3. doi: 10.1111/1468-5973.12014
- Issue published online: 6 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
Despite some attempts to define disasters, very surprisingly, organization theorists do not seem to share the same concern for the concept of crisis. Not because they do not consider it as unimportant but partly because the concept of crisis does not have such a central role in the management literature. More specifically, the lack of consensus around the definition of crisis undermines the foundations of crisis management as a field (Quarantelli, 1998, 2005; Boin, 2004; Kouzmin, 2008). This situation looks paradoxical at the time when such a reflection on the theoretical foundations of the field would be badly needed to equip managers and leaders with new intellectual perspectives to develop innovative practices and to embrace the numerous challenges raised by the context of globalization.
This theoretical gap is all the more surprising that in most human and social science disciplines as history, economics, political science, psychology or even medicine and philosophy, the concept of crisis has been subject of a deep attention on behalf of researchers and is commonly viewed and used as an important concept. It usually serves to account for complex phenomenon and processes of radical and cumulative change and transformation. Could we imagine economics or even political science with no theory of crisis? The development of the concept in philosophy for example shows how crisis has become a universal concept to bring about responses to the increasing level of uncertainty and disruptions that hits the world (Ricoeur, 1988; Morin, 1993). In organization science and management, this very concept is far from having the same status. Even though researchers have suggested theoretical variations about crisis, the concept remains evasive and serves more as a pretext to highlight other concepts rather than to develop and consolidate the theoretical foundations of crisis in management per se. A number of avenues could be explored to discuss the theoretical foundations of the field. To start off, we could explore the different approaches and meaning attached to the concept in other disciplines. The famous philosopher Paul Ricoeur has offered different perspectives and sources of inspiration on crisis applications, of which could be discussed and extended to the management literature (Ricoeur, 1988). Four of these sources are presented here to provide conceptual paths for the elaboration of a theory of crisis in management.
The first source of inspiration is certainly one of the most borrowed by researchers in the field of crisis management. It is the medical approach. In medicine, crisis is defined as the turning point of an illness when the pathology reveals itself and leads to a positive or a negative outcome. Three characteristics of this definition could serve for generalization to other disciplines: a pathological context in which the main symptom is pain or bad being, a disruption in the temporal pace of the illness itself taking the form of a brutal attack or an eruption and the prognostic of an alternative outcome whether positive or negative implying a fatal or saving post-crisis period. A second source of inspiration reveals itself through the many studies conducted on the psychology, psychosociological and psychiatric development. From this standpoint, crisis designates a deep body and/or psychical discomfort related to the transition from one period of life to another. Instead of being a continuing transformation, the crisis is seen as a discontinuity from a previous dismantling equilibrium to another emerging one. This applies to adolescence as well as for adult life (midlife crisis for example). This alternation between equilibrium and disequilibrium is a specificity of what Ricoeur calls a developmental model of crisis. Along with the first meaning, we identify in this model an alternative outcome for each phase. Ricoeur emphasizes that each critical phase may lead to a potential improvement or deterioration. The concept of crisis in this approach is used not to account for a catastrophe but for a crucial period of acute vulnerability and potentialities. From this standpoint, the crisis serves mostly to designate an identity crisis.
A third source of inspiration is epistemological. This is particularly exemplified in the work of Kuhn about the scientific revolution. In this view, progress emerges through a series of discontinuities and disruptions. As such, a crisis is viewed as a transition between two paradigms seen as a set of coherent assumptions and axioms about the world. The disruption takes place when facts, experiments and knowledge cannot be captured within established scientific assumptions. A change of paradigm is then necessary. Although opposite views for paradigm shifts have been elaborated (Lakatos, 1994), which suggest that different paradigms coexist within sets of competitive research programs, Ricoeur still suggests that the Kuhnian view could provide an interesting angle to account for crisis phenomenon inasmuch as it also assumes an alternation of equilibrium and disequilibrium and suggests the idea of an increasing and cumulating complexity of knowledge. The crisis is then a crisis of transition that we can name and identify only after the emergence of the new paradigm. Contrary to the previous approaches, this meaning does not include any idea of pain or bad being. Finally, the fourth source of inspiration is obviously economics. Following Ricoeur, three main processes could be of interest to account for crisis from an economic point of view. First, the crisis can be analyzed as a process of autonomization. For example, the recent economic crisis could be analyzed as the result of an autonomization of the financial circuits from the rest of the economic world, the financial system having no more links with any social and tangible activities. Second, the cyclical nature of crisis (the famous economic cycles) punctuated by four different phases: growth, crisis, depression and recovery offers an attractive perspective as well. The cyclical view of economic crisis assumes again an alternation of periods when vulnerabilities cumulate and disruptions when resources can be restored to prepare the recovery. As Ricoeur puts it in the economic perspective, the cyclical nature of crisis maintains hope as there is always a crisis exit phase.
The purpose of this special issue is to explore the ‘taken for granted’ assumptions underlying the concept of crisis. Crisis management covers a large range of disciplines sometimes with the aim of reconciling them. This raises the question of the strengths and weaknesses of the multidisciplinary approaches and opens a discussion about the threat of dilution of the concept. Even though crisis is a very diverse phenomenon that calls for divergence and multiplicity, the majority of crisis management research is still focused on crises seen as low-probability and high-impact events. There seems to be a normative assumption that crisis is a bad thing that should be avoided, prevented or mitigated as soon as possible to come back to business as usual. In a complementary manner, the four abovementioned avenues of inspiration around the concept of crisis make it possible to apprehend it from very different angles and to theorize it as a long and deep process of transformation without which organization wouldn't evolve overtime. Alternatively conceived of as disruptions of temporal spaces, developmental processes, building and change in identity, cyclical or autonomization processes, opportunities of improvement or deterioration, non-routine context of practice that may lead to interesting innovations, the concept of crisis may be helpful to account for a wide spectrum of organizational phenomena.
Five contributions compose this issue. Patrick Lagadec and Benjamin Topper examine a series of assumptions and visions about crisis management that they deem outdated and show that the profound changes in the field crisis management and in nature of crisis for the last 10 years has not been accompanied by an adequate evolution of knowledge able to capture these major transformations. Building on this discussion, they suggest an innovative theoretical approach through the use of a fractal approach in order to rethink and capture the essence of the new scenes of operations that must be dealt with. The second contributor, Joeri Van Laere, takes a look at another intriguing aspect of crisis and raises the question about ‘when everyday ends and crisis begins’. Crisis management does not only deal with big disruptions and inescapable catastrophe but also covers a series of ambiguous events that do not display the characteristics of crisis right away. In these contexts, interpretation reveals to be a key process to set the limit between normality and crisis. Based on a vast empirical research in Swedish municipalities, Van Laere explores how crises become an issue of debate and interpretation among an array of individuals and managers and how for different participants, a crisis may actually start and end at different moments. In the same vein but drawing on a different theoretical framework, theories of performativity, the third paper from Anouck Adrot and Jean-Luc Moriceau suggests that more than being associated with their ability to interpret a situation, crisis responders’ actions are highly dependent on their own performance of emotions and professional values, as well as their perception of others’ performance. In this vein, the authors question another very current assumption of crisis management about the necessity of consistent data and shared interpretation for effective coordination in times of crisis. As such, their paper offers interesting avenues by highlighting how the existence of multiple and divergent meanings does not necessarily hinders the crisis management process. On the contrary, the authors show how performing emotions can instigate appropriate reactions from crisis responders when shared meaning is not necessarily associated with immediate action and commitment. How crises develop and amplify has also been the subject of extended studies in the crisis management literature especially when internet and the social media take over. Denis-Rémi, Lebraty and Philippe explore this side of crisis management building on the theory of information cascade and exploring the case of Carrefour Boycott in China in April 2008, which resulted in a unprecedented display of demonstrations and protests. According to these authors, information cascade occurs when decision makers observe the actions of other individuals and reproduce the same choices as those independently of their own judgement. As such, their paper analyzes the weight of social media and Internet and the information cascade that it promotes during this crisis. Adopting a realistic and pragmatic approach, they suggest that efforts should be put not necessarily on stopping the information cascade process rather on channelling the flow of information with the help of a strong network of stakeholders. The last paper leads us in another case study in the banking industry. Through the study of two successive takeover attempts of a major French bank, Rhama Chekkar-Mansouri and Stéphane Onnée address the controversial issue of crisis recurrence and crisis learning. From a theoretical point of view, experiences with past crises may lead an organization to operate substantial changes in the manner it manages future crises. Although there may exist differences between past and current crises, the knowledge of past events and the lessons drawn from those are likely to bring about precious help for responding more efficiently to future crises. The authors explore how the same organization has managed the same type of crisis 11 years after a first takeover attempt took place. They aim at identifying and specifying the process an organization can implement in order to avoid the recurrence of a crisis.
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