Brandstrom, Annika, Fredrik Bynander & Paul ‘t Hart: Looking back

Brandstrom, Annika, Fredrik Bynander & Paul t’ Hart

Governing by looking back: historical analogies and crisis management‘, [originally published] Public Administration, 82, 1, 2004, pp. 191-210

A common misunderstanding about crises – understood here as epochs of profound uncertainty and urgent challenges to the problem-solving capacities of the socio-political order in which they occur – is that they are all unique. Of course at one level this is true. Each disaster has its own physical characteristics, each escalated conflict its own history, each corporate breakdown its own scenario. Yet if one goes beyond the specifics of time, place, method and scale, or if one looks not at the physical events but at the challenges to communities and policy-makers these events entail, crises lose their sense of uniqueness.

Moreover, crises are linked through time. When faced with the uncertainty and confusion that marks a crisis, people will search their memories and their knowledge base for situations that can at least give some clue as to what is going on. Policy-makers and organizations dealing with crisis draw upon some of these past experiences, however “unique” the current predicament may seem, to find clues about what to do and what to avoid. In that sense, they govern by looking back.

Serves as an introduction to this literature, although using mainly Scandinavian examples. Compare with this for the use of historical analogies in non-crises.

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