Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Emancipating Structures and Cognitive Styles

In chapter 6, we saw that communities that routinely invoke negative asymmetry display similar characteristics. Such communities maintain a service orientation; they display porous community boundaries. These communities are also fueled by a formal knowledge base and exhibit high levels of autonomy among community members. I have argued that these four characteristics are something more than a checklist of professional identity elements. Indeed, these characteristics, when occurring in combination, create a distinct type of social structure.1 I dub this structural type an “emancipating structure,” and I argue that such a structure can free groups and communities from the constraints of perceptual conventions. Thus, beyond MPs, beyond COPS, any group or community structured in this way can leave positive asymmetry behind. When freed to move from the best-case porthole, such groups come to anticipate quality conditions that those in other settings simply cannot see.2

To expound on the role of emancipating structures in the development of negative asymmetry, I present a comparison of four events. Each is a recent, high-profile case involving a worst-case scenario: the SARS outbreak of 2003, the Y2K threat of 2000, the FBI’s handling of the “Phoenix memo” in 2001, and the NASA Challenger disaster of 1986. Readers will recall that two of these potential disasters—SARS and Y2K—were quite successfully disposed. But we know all too well that the other incidents ended in catastrophe. What explains the difference? We will see that those addressing SARS and Y2K brought negative asymmetry to the problem-solving site, and this cognitive style came to dominate competing views. But in the case of the Phoenix memo and the Challenger disaster, the opposite occurred. Those who practiced positive asymmetry overpowered group members who championed a worst-case image of the world.

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