Organizing in and for Extreme contexts

The aim of this standing working group is to bring together scholars who are interested in theorizing about organizing in and for extreme contexts. To fully understand such a complex phenomenon an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. This is reflected in prior research that has engaged organizational theorists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and engineers alike. Extreme contexts are environments “where one or more extreme events are occurring or are likely to occur that may exceed the organization’s capacity to prevent and result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological, or material consequences to—or in close physical or psychosocial proximity to—organization members” (Hannah et al. 2009: 898).

The practical relevance of investigating extreme contexts seems clear: war, terrorism, gun violence, industrial pollution, air accidents, political controversy, extortion, and computer hacking scandals headline our media reports with increasing frequency. When considering these alongside such natural disasters as floods, draughts, forest fires, and earthquakes, the fragility of our world becomes ever more apparent. Still, even as we may have had our fill of global warming and war- mongering, of divisive “poor man’s idea of a rich man” politicians, Brexit brayers and Europhiles, all indications suggest they are far from done with us. These developments and events raise important questions around how individuals, organizations, and society might go about preparing for their impact. For organizations, such questions relate to production capacity, resources, consumer markets, and their workforce. What can today’s organizations learn from those that have had to respond to industrial accidents, information leaks, or acts of terrorism in the recent past? What might they learn from organizations whose daily reality revolves around mitigating risk in unusually fragile ecosystems (e.g., disposing of radioactive waste) or regular exposure to risk of injury or death (e.g., fire fighters)?

Some good stuff apparently. Substantial contributions to management and organization studies (MOS) were originally derived from extreme contexts (Bamberger & Pratt, 2010; Bartunek, Rynes, & Ireland, 2006), including from aircraft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), health care actions teams (Faraj & Xiao, 2006), the Bhopal chemical leak (Shrivastava, 1987), the Mann Gulch fire (Weick, 1993), the 1996 Mount Everest expedition (Elmes & Frame, 2008), the Colombia and Challenger shuttle (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005), the partial nuclear meltdown on Three Mile Island (Perrow, 1984), and collective action on Flight 93 (Quinn & Worline, 2008), among others. Perhaps, it is the heightened awareness of today’s political, economic, and ecological uncertainties that explains a surging interest in extreme contexts. Perhaps, it is an awareness of the cost of tripping up—the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) put a price tag of some $250 billion on the cost of natural disasters during the last decade alone (van de Vegt, Essens, Wahlström & George, 2015).

In recent years, significant research interest has emerged to try to extend the early work on high reliability organizing, toward meso-level explanations of teamwork and practices that characterize resilient ways of organizing in a range of settings ranging from hospitals, trauma centers, fire-fighting, police work, high-risk health interventions. Recent work, based on innovative field studies of response organizations has already generated insight on how to minimize error in situations of crisis, how to mount a fast response, improvise and break protocols to meet the unexpected, and how teamwork unfolds in high-risk contexts. Yet, beyond recognition of the need for in-depth studies and favouring a situated practice perspective, theoretical progress has been slow (van der Vegt 2015).

The SWG will have three specific aims. The first aim is for this SWG is to move the debate from the particular empirical description of a phenomena towards building theory from extreme contexts. Its second aim is to use this theorizing to advance management and organization studies in general. What may once have been a hard line between extreme and conventional contexts has begun to fade research wise, in that recent papers have been keen to bridge settings but also theorize more broadly. Bechky and Okhuysen (2011), for example, draw comparisons between a SWAT team and film crew, a research strategy mimicked by more recent papers (Garud et al., 2011; Haunschild et al., 2015; Morgeson et al., 2015). This development is critical as it provides the basis for empirical and theoretical transferability and generalizability. Extreme context research (ECR) is becoming an active contributor to a more general interest within MOS in process studies of organizations (Barton & Sutcliffe, 2009; Busby, 2006; Goh et al., 2012; Haunschild et al., 2015). Extreme contexts would seem well suited to advancing process research, given an innate interest in the sequencing of events leading up to catastrophe, and in its subsequent development under severe time constraint. A third aim is to address the methodological innovations that emanated from the challenges and opportunities of research on extreme contexts. Gephart’s (1984) rigorous, systematic analysis of public inquiry-derived texts is perhaps one of the earliest examples of methodological innovation. More recently, scholars have relied on content analysis and grounded theory to theorize extreme contexts (Quinn & Worline, 2008; Shepherd & Williams, 2014; Whiteman & Cooper, 2011). Yet others relied on action research (Vashdi et al, 2013), video-ethnography (Coreen et al., 2008), film (Godfrey et al., 2012), and self-report methods (Bacharach & Bamberger, 2007; Margolis & Molinsky, 2008). Importantly we do argue for some consolidation, but we do not foresee, nor call for, a theory of extreme contexts. Rather, we call for more contextualization, more robust theorizing, and more methodological innovation. Each of the three aims have a significant role in each of the four themes, that we plan to discuss during the four-year period; The role of organizing in extreme contexts, The role of temporality and coordination in extreme contexts, The role of emotions and embodiment in extreme contexts, and finally The role of society, institutions and networks in extreme contexts.


The role of organizing in extreme contexts (2020)
The aim of the sub-theme is to open up a dialogue on how to conceptualize extreme contexts for the purpose of integrating and consolidating the fragmented literature. Thereby we initiate a dialogue between theoretical approaches around the everyday activities in extreme contexts, resilient ways of organizing, responding to novelty and crisis, where errors potentially have disastrous consequences. Whilst high-reliability research (e.g. Weick and Sutcliffe 2001) has highlighted organizing principles, such as a preoccupation with failure, as core to managing in extreme contexts, there exists a stubborn need to develop a deeper theory-informed understanding of how such preoccupations are enacted in situations of adverse events and in extreme contexts. Example topics include, but are not limited to:

  • When the extreme becomes normal
  • The role of rules, guidelines and routines for organizing in extreme contexts
  • How individuals, teams and organizations cope with disruption of organizational practices in extreme contexts
  • Practicing resilience

The role of temporality and coordination in extreme contexts (2021)
The aim of the subtheme is to explore how temporality and coordination is practiced, and shapes practice in extreme contexts. Issues of temporality is inherently associated with extreme context research since much of that refers to crises, disasters and accidents that require a timely response to mitigate situations. Timely coordination of response efforts is key for resilient managing in any organization. Through these discussions we want to inform recent debates in management and organization studies in relation to processes and practices in i.e. organizational routines and temporary organizations.

  • The emergence of temporary organizations in disaster response
  • The emergence of coordination practices in unstructured terrain
  • Condensing and expanding time related to events
  • Dealing with crises as a temporary way of organizing

The role of emotions and embodiment in extreme contexts (2022)
The aim of the subtheme is to explore how and why emotions and embodiment are central to our understanding of operating in extreme contexts. By definition, emotions and embodiment are important for operations since the wrong move may get someone hurt or killed, in addition of the role of senses for interpreting the situation. This would be important for moving the literature on for example sensemaking, organizational routines and the microfoundations of institutions. This would embrace the “turn to affect” in MOS (Gherardi, 2017) and advance our knowledge of what a skillful performance in extreme, as well as in conventional contexts, is really all about. Suggested themes include

  • How managers deal with the emotional tension between feeling responsible for what is happening, and yet the need to also distance themselves from the situation at hand to be able to function effectively
  • The regulation of emotions in extreme events
  • The role of boredom in extreme contexts
  • The role of sensory knowledge for interpreting sensemaking in extreme contexts

The role of society, institutions and networks in extreme contexts (2023)
The aim of this subtheme is to investigate how and why society, institutions and networks are affecting, and affected by extreme events and risk. The role of these, and other stakeholders are important for understanding of how conditions are shaped in the past, current and the future. These insights inform research about paradoxical and often competing institutional logics in management and organization studies in general. Public hearings, media discourses, and governmental documents about risks and catastrophic events provide empirical richness for understanding how multiple logics (e.g., governmental, civilian, professional, economic, safety, and so on) coexist and dominate institutional discourses. Secondly, the role of institutions builds on the recognition that extreme contexts rely on sets of interactions between suppliers, producers, and distributors and technologies and social processes (Goh et al., 2012; Madsen, 2013). Topics include

  • The commercialization and perception of risk
  • The development of the risk society and its stakeholders
  • The capacity for resilience of cities, communities, governmental agencies
  • Competing logics among collaborating stakeholders in disaster response