Crisis Diverted: A Sociological Study of the Handling of Public Crises

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

This paper explores how contemporary UK public crises are framed and managed, paying particular attention to their tendency to calcify. The dominant sociological view is that we have too many public crises. I want to suggest an altogether different problem, namely that too few public crises are fully-realised. I will suggest that, in the first instance, the ethical aspects of crisis are subdued by fixating on the crisis-event as the unfolding of an emergency; the problem is then customarily shifted into a soft legal realm where the crisis is reframed as a catastrophe.

The paper will be anchored in a discussion of UK-based case studies: provisionally, social housing safety, in the aftermath of a devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, West London, in 2017, and the Metropolitan police’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy, precipitated by the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005. These case studies will be used to outline a set of key institutional processes and structures for managing crises, with a particular focus on the role of public inquiries. Amongst other things, the paper will explore how inquiries affect the pace of public crises, work to conflate causes with their symptoms, and determine the cast of key actors. The more general transfor-mation that occurs when crisis-resolution is moved into a soft legal realm is that it becomes forensic work driven by the aim of determining lines of responsibility. This work relies upon legal ideas about causation, intention, and evidence. The paper will consider how these help set the remit of public crisis-resolution and work to authorise its conclusions.