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 transformation 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.
Dr Sarah Moore joined the University of Bath in 2015, having previously held lectureships at Royal Holloway, University of London and Queen’s University, Belfast. In 2009 she was a Visiting Fellow at Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology, and in 2019 she is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s Humanities Research Centre.
She is the author of four books, with a fifth in preparation, and over 15 book chapters and articles in, amongst other journals, Sociology, British Journal of Criminology, Health, Risk, & Society, and Crime, Media Culture. Her first monograph, Ribbon Culture: Charity, Compassion, and Public Awareness (2008/2010, Palgrave Macmillan) was awarded the 2009 British Sociological Association Philip Abram’s Memorial Prize for ‘Best first book in Sociology’.