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Anticipating Rude Surprises:

Reflections on “Crisis Management” Without End

Todd R. La Porte

Department of Political Science

University of California

Berkeley, CA  94720-1950


Global economic, political and technological trends assure the potentials for the “institutional crises” of such magnitudes that international cooperation is likely to be needed to limit their damage and possibly their frequency.  The emerging literature about institutional responses to emergencies, disasters and crises signals both an intensifying expectation that political and economic institutions should be able to limit societal damage and speed recovery, and a sense that such capabilities are far more complex and demanding than formerly recognized.  Preparing to respond to crises, then, calls for much better understanding of the phenomenon, and the evaluation of earlier experiences with cogent applications to training practitioners and to institutional planning process.  

One preliminary view (animating this conference) suggests that this sprawling literature could be oriented “around four research traditions in the study of crisis management that (combine) somewhat different analytical emphases: (those that stress) threats originating from ‘people and groups’, or those originating from ‘macro-structural’ characteristics of the institutional/ organizational systems involved, as viewed from ‘operational/technical perspectives’ or ‘political/ symbolic perspectives.’ ” (See Table 1 below for a first cut of the result.)  Indeed, one of the conference’s purposes is to test, so to say, the degree to which this frame allows us confidently to draw “lessons learned” from the past and to nominate “best practices” upon which 1) “to build a more holistic approach to crisis management,” and 2) do so in ways to “enhance a transatlantic capacity to diffuse such knowledge to other scholars, policymakers, and practitioners.”  

The array of topics/foci in Table 1, splay out across much of organization and management literature as one moves from the usual practices of normal operations, to emergency response, and then to the extraordinary dynamics of crisis containment.  They cover a very wide range of institutional phenomenon, especially if transnational activities are included.  In taking up these considerations, I  take an outsider’s view, that is, puzzling about the question in terms of institutional responses to serious surprises as seen mainly through the prisms of  studying highly reliable

1 Presented to Conference on Transatlantic Crisis Management, Adirondack Conference Center, Syracuse University, August 6-10, 2003. Sponsored by the Center for Crisis Management Research and Training (CRISMART), Swedish National Defense College, the Crisis Research Center, Leiden University, and the Trans-boundary Crisis Management Project, Maxwell School, Syracuse University. Initial section draws in part from Conference orienting materials.

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