On the Launch of Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking

Institute-wide Project Steering Committee

Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking represents a new scholarly discipline whose aim is to investigate the mechanisms of and responses to various crises that arise in society from a social sciences perspective. Launched in 2016, it is a four-year, institute-wide project carried out by the entire Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Tokyo. The official designation of this project is "Social Science on Crisis Thinking."

If we consider "risk" (danger) to be a component of an undesirable state, "crisis" refers to the undesirable state itself or, in some cases, a change in direction towards that undesirable state. Crises represent dangerous situations. That said, depending on our response, they can also be chances to create new opportunities. If the prevention of risk, itself, should be the target of management, crises are what produce various outcomes and secondary outcomes depending on the nature of our response.

The significance of risk management theory lies in identifying optimal methods for managing risk. In contrast, social sciences of crisis thinking focuses on making sure that the methods for dealing with crises are widely understood by all members of society, and especially by those who would be directly impacted by such crises, and on identifying the conditions and environment needed to effectively carry out crises management. Social sciences of crisis thinking is a discipline whose aim is to identify the social conditions that enable crises to be identified as crises and for suitable action to be taken.

To be able to develop responses to crises and to coordinate efforts by a wide range of people, we must establish firm "axes" from which to view the crises, responses, etc. One such axis is the time axis. The time axis consists of a post-crisis response phase in which we seek to respond appropriately at the time of and following crises and a pre-crisis response phase in which we seek to identify and deal with potential latent crises before they occur.

Of these two, post-crisis responses require us to handle and implement measures to deal not only with crises that can be predicted beforehand but, also, "not-yet-known" crises that cannot be predicted or for which there is not widespread understanding. Although some crises can be overcome through control, there are many cases in which management itself is difficult. Social sciences of crisis thinking investigates means and approaches that will keep damage to a minimum while facing a crisis exceeding the capacity of control or management occurs.

Meanwhile, pre-crisis responses involve the investigation of social dynamics that promote or hinder the recognition and preemptive preparation against potential crises from a social sciences perspective. It is necessary to develop a robust image of the circumstances that might arise when society is facing a crisis and to think about what can be done beforehand to respond calmly and fully to such circumstances. The goal of social sciences of crisis thinking is to identify specific measures to be taken before crises arise.

To prevent crises before they happen, it is necessary to be aware of potential latent crises on a daily basis. However, the public, in general, has little sense of urgency or awareness, even regarding crises that have a high likelihood of occurring. Conversely, there are cases in which a strong awareness is stoked regarding crises that have a low likelihood of occurring. Another goal of social sciences of crisis thinking is to identify factors that create such gaps between the scientific probability of crisis occurring and public awareness of that crisis.

In addition to the time axis above, social sciences of crisis thinking sets the level of agency with respect to implementing crisis responses as another axis. Specifically, the social sciences of crisis thinking explicitly distinguishes microscopic responses carried out by individuals, citizens, members of civil society, and community members and macroscopic responses aimed at society as a whole carried out by organizations, the country, communities, and regions to clarify points of discussion.

With regard to microscopic responses, social sciences of crisis thinking seeks to identify social conditions that allow each individual to fully manifest suitable responses to crises based on his or her individual experience and knowledge. In terms of the social environment surrounding individuals, attention is paid to opportunities and incentives to study and acquire information regarding crisis response. The ultimate objective is for microscopic crisis responses based on decisions and actions by individuals to become firmly established as universal crisis countermeasures. The social sciences of crisis thinking also focuses on how the rules and processes of democratic society can be constructed to achieve this objective.

Macroscopic responses often entail control by and authority of the State to keep damage from crises to a minimum. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that the misuse of the term "crisis" in discussion can negatively affect society as a whole. Remarks and behavior by the government and other groups that overemphasize the idea of "crisis" can lead to the public overlooking abuses of authority and to distort the judgment of the nation's citizen. Just as there are crises in which the State should intervene and exercise control, there are other crises whose resolution should be left to the people. Assuming this to be the case, another goal of social sciences of crisis thinking is to investigate if and how these two cases can be distinguished.

Separating these microscopic and macroscopic perspectives will not only clarify points of discussion but, also, enable investigation of synergistic effects of crisis response by individuals or society as a whole. If the microscopic characterization of modern Japanese people as having low trust in their fellow citizens relative to people in other countries is indeed true, one example of such inquiry is how the distrust and lack of trust between individuals is helping to create current and future macroscopic crises.

Conversely, the nature of macroscopic crisis response may, in some cases, be creating mistrust between individuals and hindering microscopic crisis response by individuals. If that is the case, what kind of processes are at work? Creation of trust is an essential element of crisis response. To this end, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the relationship between microscopic and macroscopic responses.

There is a reason why "Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking" was chosen as the official designation for this discipline.

While there are crises that arise spontaneously due to causes beyond the scope of human understanding, we cannot ignore the existence of "crises created by society" brought about by the interactions among people. For this reason, alongside the investigation of natural phenomena, social science investigations targeting social structures and social relations are an essential element of social sciences of crisis thinking research.

One goal of the social sciences is to elucidate causal relationships in society. What kind of disasters occur when we misidentify the causes and consequences of a crisis? For example, if financial crisis is taken to be a consequence of social crisis, we are only able to see the true underlying crisis when we elucidate the causal relationships by which social conditions affect finances.

Although unexpected or as-yet-unknown crises are, by their very nature, difficult to predict, we must improve our ability to imagine such crises and to put some measures in place to prepare for such crises. There is good possibility that clues to such measures can be found, not by attempting to predict the future, but, rather, by looking back at the past.

Within the social sciences, there is much accumulated knowledge and wisdom regarding the causes and effects of past crises arising from wars, financial depression, and calamities. World War I is a prime example of a serious historic catastrophe that was neither desired nor predicted by anyone but that was brought about by a failure to respond appropriately to crisis. Lessons learned by studying history will undoubtedly prove useful when thinking about future responses to crises.

Many of the laws and institutions of society include crisis response as one of their goals. Social sciences such as the study of law, political science, economics, and sociology have investigated how laws and institutions affect society from their respective vantage points.

The meaning and manner in which laws and institutions are used change over time. Given the current social context in which risks are becoming increasingly complex, the very increase in frequency at which laws are enacted and institutions are activated, rather than deterring crises, may in some ways be amplifying crises. To investigate the role of laws and institutions related to crises accurately and from multiple viewpoints, it is necessary to reach across the existing boundaries between academic disciplines and to synthesize the efforts of all social sciences.

Based on the above awareness of issues, we hope to advance social sciences of crisis thinking as interdisciplinary research that combines critical examination of existing literature, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and region-specific site surveys while capitalizing on the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Tokyo's characteristics and experience in interdisciplinary and international research acquired over its 70-year history.