From reductive to generative crisis: businesspeople using polysemous justifications to make sense of COVID-19

Ioana Sendroiu (2022)

American Journal of Cultural Sociology. Online first

Abstract. Both lay understandings of crisis moments and influential psychological models of cognition in times of uncertainty emphasize how crises limit thinking. Conversely, scholars as diverse as Foucault, Swidler, Bourdieu, and Butler have elaborated generative conceptions of crisis, which specify crises as moments of change, transformation, and heightened cognition. The research presented here takes up the question of how crises become thinkable, as actors gradually make sense of a newly uncertain context. Against a backdrop of polarization on the topic, in-depth interviews with 60 businesspeople navigating the coronavirus pandemic show that they see public health and economic well-being as interrelated. This has important effects on how businesses interpret and implement government directives and public health guidelines, from choosing to close before being mandated to do so, to staying closed even when allowed to reopen. Taken together, these findings substantiate generative models of crisis while drawing attention to the polysemous justifications elaborated by actors as they navigate shifting cultural and social scaffoldings.

Extract: “Polysemous crisis justifications
In elaborating this polysemous conception of crisis, I draw on Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006 [1991]) theory of justifications (see also Lamont 2012).Footnote 3 Simply put, they theorize that actors consistently shift among modes for justifying and evaluating their interests and goals (Boltanski and Thévenot 1983, 2006 [1991]). This helps solve the question above, regarding the cultural mechanisms underpinning the generative view of crisis.
Indeed, Boltanski and Thévenot elaborated their model in response to Bourdieu’s more unitary view of habitus, a view that is also implicitly part of Bourdieu’s model of crises. For instance, in Homo Academicus, Bourdieu (1990) details the struggles among different actors using a variety of frames or perspectives in order to compete for prominence during the 1968 protests in France. But these frames emerge out of these actors’ positions within pre-crisis fields: tenured professors take a perspective on the protests that differs from nontenured academics, representatives of less prestigious disciplines (such as sociology!) are more amenable to the protests, and so on (Bourdieu 1990; see also Strand and Lizardo 2017). For Bourdieu, then, these competing frames are rooted in actors’ structural positions, rather than any one actor having the ability to wield competing justifications.
Boltanski and Thévenot (2006 [1991]) meanwhile argue that actors justify their positions by appealing to different (and diverse) logics; for instance focusing on profit maximization when making use of a market logic, or emphasizing civic solidarity when engaging with a civic logic. In turn, subsequent empirical research has shown that actors will draw from a range of such logics in justifying their claims to money and recognition (Levi and Sendroiu 2019). A multiplicity of grammars of worth can even explain diversity in definitions of personal worth, which Lamont (1994; 2009) operationalizes in terms of money, morals, and manners.” (p. 7/8)

Lien / Link