Crisis and the Medium Term
Our sociological concepts, however, bear the mark of the time in which they are forged, and the networks of meaning to which they are linked. For instance, DuBois used the term crisis to characterize a historical watershed: to him, after the failure of Reconstruction, the choice was between “catholicity and tolerance, reason and forbearance” versus “bigotry and prejudice, emphasized race consciousness and force.” Invoking crisis meant preparing the grounds for renewed understanding and social mobilization around progressive causes. This intervention confirms one perspective on crisis: calling a state of affairs as a state of crisis means engaging in a kind of moral work, intended to uncover (and transform, or at least act upon) epochal forces through critique. But, thanks to Janet Roitman’s thought-provoking critique of the notion of crisis itself—based on a careful re-reading of Kosellek’s work—we now know that, in spite of the seemingly obvious affinity between crisis and critique, such moral work can also serve, paradoxically, to reaffirm the status quo, under the guise of a normality to which we want to return once we overcome the crisis we denounce (Roitman 2013). And, as organizational scholars Marshall Meyer and Lynne Zucker demonstrated in a very different context, a state of crisis can become institutionalized, giving rise to organizations that “permanently fail” in meeting their goals and yet survive because of the loyalties and attachments they generate (Meyer and Zucker 1989).
A crisis is often associated with urgency: something needs to be done now to avoid total collapse. It is not a matter of decades, it is a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Weick’s discussion of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire disaster seems, to me, one of the most interesting exemplars of this genre (Weick 1993): he shows the collapse of role structures and sensemaking in a small “smoke-jumping” crew who gets fatally overwhelmed by a wildfire in Montana—a process that begins once the crew foreman notices how far the fire had already jumped and orders the crewmembers to drop their tools and help him light a fire to then shelter in the burned area. These commands, argues Weick, were fundamentally incomprehensible to the crew—their identity could not be suddenly separated from the tools they had, and the idea to start a fire in the middle of an existing one simply seemed nonsensical; as a result, the world stopped making sense to them.
This is all to say, we have the elements of a theory of crisis: reflexive (describing some aspect of the world as in crisis is a form of moral work, and it is therefore not neutral), attentive to scale, and attentive to temporal variation. And yet, important work remains to be done, it seems to me, especially with respect to time, to fill in that gap between the sudden, urgent, and undelayable; and the long-term, slow-moving, totalistic, and seemingly inexorable. That gap is the middle range, or the “medium term.” But is the medium term simply a time between the immediate and the long-term? When we talk about the medium term, are we just referring to a residual category, or is it a temporal category that needs to be theorized in its own terms? It may be a bit too early to theorize about the aspect of the ongoing pandemic, but the medium term strikes me as the most tragic point of failure in the global response to the crisis. The medium term is the time between the lockdown and the vaccine—or perhaps, it is the terrifying two weeks between the uptick in infections and the rise in deaths. I suspect that what makes the medium term so important but also so neglected is that it is the time when planning takes shape and the implementation of a plan has its results—and planning, in Western market societies at least, remains a politically weak proposition. The medium term is the gap between the reaction to a perceived emergency (the conjuncture), and the ideological construction of a shared future—a realm of pragmatic interventions that take time before they take full effect.
In this sense (if any of this is correct), we need to rethink sociology’s debt to Weber’s classic distinction between asceticism and mysticism (and it is indeed in a conversation with my friend Erika Summers-Effler about whether mysticism can be rationalized that came the idea for this brief contribution). To Weber, the irrationality of salvation could be domesticated through daily, disciplined work—asceticism prevails because of its tight embracement of calculative tools. Under some circumstances, however, like the desperate firefighters at Mann Gulch, we need to drop those tools: and to Weber, this is the moment that the mystic is better positioned to navigate, because the mystic rejects the day-to-day and finds inspiration in the transcendental. Of course, this is a massive simplification of an unsettled debate, but a striking feature of Weber’s scheme is the contrast between the day-to-day focus of the inner-worldly ascetic to deal with a very long-term problem, and the day-to-day rejection of day-to-day problems by the mystic is order to bring to life the very long-term. What this temporal structure papers over is the medium-term—incidentally, the temporal unit that organizations have to master in order to survive.
The ASA program has gone fully virtual, and I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss these issues (and not only these issues, of course!) at the open-submission panel I am co-organizing with Robin Wagner-Pacifici. More generally, in Theorizing Crisis, we invite papers that focus on the conditions under which a state of affairs is declared to be in a crisis, which events are linked to the crisis—and which events are not—as well as the moral work entailed in constructing and managing a crisis.
The section’s program will offer two additional, open panels: I could make a case that they are too, in some ways, connected to how we understand crisis, but their primary objective is different. Pragmatist Theorizing in Sociology: Emerging Directions, organized by Shai Dromi, focuses on recent developments in pragmatism, and invites papers reflecting on how American sociology can further capitalize on pragmatic resources and reflect on the different strands of pragmatism we have been using. Theorizing Liberation and Emancipation, organized by Gianpaolo Baiocchi, focuses on emancipatory theories, and the push and pull between emancipatory projects and social theory, welcoming papers from the sociology of utopian thought to the sociology of liberation, from a historical/intellectual perspective to the theoretical analysis of emancipatory movements (including decolonization, abolition, queer and trans liberation, and communism and socialism). Hannah Wohl and Emilio Lehoucq will organize the section’s roundtables, and one session in the program will be, as usual, the Coser Salon.
I look forward to our future conversations, thank you for reading this editorial, and hope you will enjoy this new issue of Perspectives.
DuBois, WEB. 1910. The Crisis. 1(1): November.
Meyer, Marshall W., and Lynne G. Zucker. 1989. Permanently Failing Organizations. 1st edition. Newbury Park, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Roitman, Janet. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Schwarz, Andreas, Matthew W. Seeger, and Claudia Auer. 2016. The Handbook of International Crisis Communication Research. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Weick, Karl E. 1993. “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” Administrative Science Quarterly 38(4):628. doi: 10.2307/2393339.