The crisis: meaningless catch-all term or rigorous concept?

We often — probably too often — hear about crisis, but most of us are unable to give a precise and, more importantly, general definition of the concept. Since 2008, crises have been at the forefront of the news several times. Recall the headlines on the subprimes crisis, the American and European banking crises, the public debt crises, and the most mediatized among them, the Greek debt crisis. Natacha Ordioni, professor at Unvisersité du Sud Toulon-Var, in France, analyzed the usage of the term « crise » in the French press, between January 2002 and November 20101. Her work shows a constant rise in the usage of the term, from 45 thousand occurrences in 2002 to a peak of 195 thousand in 2009, linked to a peak of the economic crisis (failing banks, sharp rise of the public debts in the Eurozone). The detail of her work, illustrated by graphs, can be found at the other end of this link (in french). With the help of Google Trends , similar trends can be observed in other countries.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

But the success of this word has not been to its benefit, and crisis suffered a sort of conceptual impoverishment. Crisis is nowadays associated in the mediatic discourse to a state of suffering, to a change we fear. It is perceived as a problematic situation, a deviation from a supposed "normal" state, intervening between a better past and a necessarily brighter future. The predominance of the economic interpretation of the term only reinforced this image of an abnormal state, diverging from a virtuous model.

Everyone will be able to find an economic, politic, or even emotional meaning to crisis, but it is more difficult to find a common meaning unifying all these domains. However, a large-enough body of work, from researchers in several branches of human and social sciences, exists that can help explain globally the mechanisms of a crisis.

The goal here is thus not to explain what is considered a crisis in economics, sociology, or psychology, but to propose an unifying explanation, applicable to all these disciplines, through a model of the concept of crisis. In sciences (physical as well as human), this approach is called modeling. The model is a theoretical synthesis that allows to represent the precise mechanism of a phenomenon (such as the water cycle) or an object (a cell in biology) and whose flexibility allows its application to many concrete cases. This simplification is not a problem: it is precisely the discrepancies between the model and the observed reality that help highlight the specificities of the observed phenomenon or object. You may have already encountered such cases: for example, the model of a cell represents its global composition, but there exists vegetal cells, skin cells, nerve cells, that have specific characteristics. It is then sufficient to adapt the starting model to a new case.

The model proposed here to understand the concept of crisis will enable us to understand globally its theoretical working, in particular for human societies — we will not detail the specificities of the concept in medicine, for example.

A short history of the concept of crisis

If the contemporary uses of the term don't help elucidate its meaning, the origin of the word "crisis" is more precise and agreed upon. A short historical overview of the word will thus help us understand the foundation of our reflections.

The word crisis derives from the Greek word krisis, itself derived from the verb krinein, meaning to sort, separate, judge. From this etymology derive three main usages of the word. First, in justice: it is a matter of discriminating the just from the unjust, to deliver the right judgement. It is the critical activity, the result of the decision depends on an examination effort. The second usage comes from Hippocrates’ medicine: the crisis is a phase of a humor imbalance, it is the apex of the disease, the moment where its outcome is decided: it is the critical moment. There is no idea of exceptional state here, the crisis is only a step in a process (the disease), whose effect can be predicted, with the right diagnosis. The last usage is in theology, with a reappropriation of the term at the dawn of christianity. Crisis represents here the last judgement, the end of all history.

Each of these meanings then oriented the evolution of the term's usage until the modern period (15th-18th centuries), where it appears in vernacular and in the study of some specific fields, such as political philosophy and philosophy of history. The German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) thus observed2 a transposition by analogy from the medical to the political sense. For Machiavel, crisis is the art of political diagnosis and decision-making. In the language of the 17th and 18th centuries, crisis does not refer to the irruption of disorder, but to a situation of tension in the relation between states, and requires the right decision, thus the right diagnosis.

The philosophy of history, emerging at the end of the 18th century, gives a news aspect to crisis: it is a turn of history (a key period), a unique and singular event (but not necessarily rare), comprising tensions and with the future in balance (question of switching to a new order). This approach in philosophy of history is original in that it situates crises in a temporal dynamic: “the constant and regular causes of the historical development of societies are completed by the sudden tremors of crises3”.

In parallel, the study of crises in history gave birth to the theory of economic cycles. From that point on, the crisis, delimited in time and space (economic domain, country), is the demonstration, at a precise moment of the economic cycle, of a significant degradation of the activity (production, consumption, trade, growth).

For sociologists, a crisis is an event that cancels itself, in that societies are constantly transforming, creating numerous imbalances. From this comes an idea of permanent crisis, in every domain and linked to every change, whose treatment allows societies to evolve and transform. A permanent crisis is then nothing of a crisis, it is only a part of the normal functioning of society, without any exceptional character. For Natacha Ordioni4, the concept of crisis constructs a «myth of the golden age» and creates «the illusion of a fictional identity», past or future. She highlights there a danger of idea of a crisis: by playing on this «fictional identity», they can be instrumentalized by the political world.

Examining the history of the concept of crisis shows how it has been instantiated in multiple senses: each domain appropriated its meaning and adapted it to its own specificity. These theoretical fluctuations have mainly participated in confusing the meaning of the word and hiding its potential for examining numerous phenomena.

To understand the workings of a crisis, think system

This article will allow you to better understand the birth of crises, and their possible outcomes for human societies, and in particular for social systems. The concept of social system, developed in 1951 by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in his book The Social System deserve its own article, but the goal here is only to introduce the elements in social systems that will be the starting point of a crisis. Crisis can be triggered by perturbations, internal or external to the social system, or both at once. External perturbations can be, for example, natural disasters, while internal perturbations reveal dysfunctionings that were present in the social system before the crisis, and this is why we need to understand the general workings of such systems.

One should not confuse the system with the organization. Let us consider the case of a medium or large company. The approach from the organization point of view would be to observe the organization chart of the company: it teaches us how the workers are classified according to their function in the company, defining various services (sales, public relations, research and development, ...) and showing the relations between these services. The system approach describes the company as a moving group, not limited to its administrative structures, but comprising all the interactions between the individuals both inside the company and with the outside (with clients, bankers, insurance companies, for example). The company as a system is an open and moving organization, that constantly produces new interactions as a result of its activities. Also part of the concept of a system is the dependency of the parts on one another, of the parts on the whole, and of the whole on the parts. This means, in the context of a company, that all interactions produced by individuals both on the inside and the outside can affect the activities of the company, at the scale of a service or even of the whole company. A change too brutal can have a lasting impact on the organization and the life of the company. Considering something as a system implies thus that every change, every alteration of one of its parts can have lasting consequences on the whole, and vice versa. We are thus in a truly mechanical way of thinking, where a dysfunctioning cog can jam the whole machine. The relations become more complex when we observe a country for instance: it is itself a system that contains other systems (public administrations, companies, various social groups). The complexity of a system is then potentially infinite, with deeper and deeper nestings.

The system is thus composed of a set of distinct and differentiated elements, organized together in a set of structuring relations. The system is the product of a balance kept between its parts, which guarantees its stability. In this constantly evolving set, the parts of the system develop relations of complementarity, among themselves and with the whole they are part of. A mechanism of domination of the parts by the whole is also put in place: the organization of the group is above and more important than the individuals that compose it. Thus, each applies daily a set of rules and principles, subconscious as well as conscious, that help maintain the stability of the system one is part of.

However, every system includes potentially disturbing elements (directly or indirectly, and purposefully disturbing or not). Philosopher Edgar Morin5 called them "antagonisms". With the goal of maintaining its balance, the system has developed two main strategies against antagonisms: it can act by immobilizing them (for example, reinforcing the structures of control, policing and repression) or by mobilising them, integrating them into the system (for instance, school is one of the main tools of social integration, and allows individuals to appropriate and reproduce the codes that participate in preserving the social order).

The time of the crisis

Before the crisis, everything works in the system in a somewhat predictable way: one finds various economic, social and institutional markers, that assume and enforce a form of determinism and leave only a small space to antagonisms. Thus, « every social system features disorder, and works despite disorder6 ».

The state of crisis is a period where the imbalances tend to become dominant and the complementarities between the elements of the system less important. We can find common features in crisis cause by internal and external perturbations, but the stakes are not the same. In both cases, even the existence of the system can be threatened. But, while external perturbations don't depend on the system, internal perturbations come from the system itself, and raise the question of a possible transformation, of adapting to survive.

The time of the crisis is the peak of the imbalance, when the antagonisms pass some tolerance level and the system can't manage them anymore. It is a state of contagion, during which the disorganizing and unbalancing elements have an effect on a part, or even the totality of the system.

This generalization of imbalances leads to a situation where the system is blocked: it is unable to solve problems it used to solve, before the antagonisms reached the critical level. This translates into an incapacity to exert control and organize the elements of the system. This blocking is also the symptom of an inability to answer a situation that was not foreseen. The usual markers are then shaken, predictions less accurate, and the classical tools used to solve problems turn out inadequate. This situation then favors the creation of tensions and conflicts. On one hand, the organizations in power can not tolerate disorder in a system where they are tasked with maintaining the organizing function. On the other hand, individuals express more and more demands. The main risk of the acceleration of these tensions is that they threaten the cohesion of the social system. Crises thus affect both the workings of the system (its organization, its capacities for regulation, the relations that are part of it, etc.) and how it is perceived by the individuals. A crisis is lived through, and everyone can interpret and take a position with respect to the changes it causes.

The crisis evolve in such way that it becomes urgent to take decisions. The state of crisis in itself is a state of generalized magnification of deep imbalances, and it is the actors that face it that must react.

The way out of the crisis? Provoking the unblocking

When the crisis arises, nothing's decided yet: the outcome of a crisis is open and depends on the decisions and on the coordination capacity of the components of the system to reorganize it. Because of the increased tensions, more and more radical solutions may be considered. Individuals may seek to isolate the guilt and attribute the cause of the imbalances to a scapegoat. The rising tensions may also cause the rise of the extremes: the crisis stimulates opposing forces that compete for the decision that will guide the system to a new stable state.

However, the crisis offers new conditions for action: what was natural, what seemed obvious and functional, is questioned. Through a research and diagnosis effort, innovations can emerge and motivate the system to adapt and to transform. The crisis is overcome by conciliating the system with the new situation, including the new data revealed by the crisis.

The crisis is a "suspended time7", a time that awaits the decision, in which the system is paralyzed in a situation that requires overcoming. The crisis is an in-between, between a not yet overcame past and a yet undefined future, “the end of something and the beginning of nothing8”. It is an unpredictable time with unresolved outcomes. But this unpredictability is relative: a society is not transparent to itself, it is open to important changes. But sometimes antagonisms are denied, until the outbreak of a crisis.

In the end, it is possible to propose a typology of crisis resolutions. The First possibility is regression: the system loses flexibility and complexity (strengthening of the structures of control and domination, a split in several pieces or even destruction). The second possibility is progress: the system incorporates new properties and gains in complexity. Last possibility, the status quo: the disturbance is resorbed and the system continues its operation without significant transformation. However, the flaws that existed at the beginning of the crisis remain present and the system remains vulnerable.

In any case, the crisis remains a weakening event: the post-crisis period is a period of reconstruction and reconsolidation.

General conclusion and proposal of a model of how crises work

The crisis situation is not a rare situation, it constitutes a part of history. But it is a key event, because the outcome of the crisis decides the future of a system. It is a break with two impacts: revealing and effecting. Revealing, first, because it illuminates theoretically the system and its adaptive capacity. It reveals its strengths and inherent weaknesses. Then, it is effecting: “it starts, if only for a moment [...], all that can bring change, transformation, évolution”. The antagonisms may thus “be the condition of transformative reorganization”, provoke evolutions, enrich the system with new relations. It puts the actors of the system in competition for the solution of the crisis and favors the rise of tensions that may constitute “joined moment of overcoming” The commitment remains central to overcoming the crisis, as it drives the system in a dynamic of complexification, and helps in giving it giving it new principles.

Well defined, crises are keys to understanding the construction of societies. Each crisis is specific and should be seen in context. Above all, they raise some questions: why has a given antagonism developed? How has it spread? What in the system (fault) allowed this rise of antagonisms? Starting to think about these questions (or even answering them) is a base for a diagnosis.

You will find below a diagram proposing a model of the operation of the concept of crisis. It allows to synthesize all that has been said before. This theoretical exercise is common in scientific practice, and should be confronted to concrete study case, to observation in the field. It is also adaptable to many different scales: from the crisis of the individual to the global crisis. You can have fun to take ownership of this model, to watch the news around you and perhaps try to see more clearly through it. In any case, remember that it is not frozen: on the contrary, each specific case will transform it and enrich it.

Proposal of a model of the workings of the concept of crisis - Florian Ravail


  • DUBAR Claude, « Temps de crises et crise des temps », Temporalités, 13/2011, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2011, consulté le 17 novembre 2015.
  • FERRY Jean-Marc, « Leçon n°7 : Approches différentielles de la notion de crise », Séminaire de l’Université de Nantes du 03/02/2012 : L’Europe face à la crise, quel modèle économique et social ? Conception Faculté de Droit et des Sciences politiques de Nantes - Mai 2012 © Université de Nantes.
  • HABERMAS Jürgen, Raison et légitimité, 1978, Paris, Payot, traduction Jean Lacoste, pp. 14-16.
  • KOSELLECK Reinhart, Kritik und Krise. Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt, 1973, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp, Traduction française sous le titre suivant : Le règne de la critique, 1979, Paris, Editions de Minuit.
  • MAZADE Olivier, « La crise dans les parcours biographiques : un régime temporel spécifique ? », Temporalités, 13/2011, mis en ligne le 05 juillet 2011, consulté le 16 novembre 2015. URL :
  • MORIN Edgar, « Pour une crisologie », in La notion de crise, sous la direction d’André Béjin et d’Edgar Morin, Communications, 25/1976, pp. 149-163. DOI : 10.3406/comm.1976.1388. Persée © 2005-2015.
  • ORDIONI Natacha, « Le concept de crise : un paradigme explicatif obsolète ? Une approche sexospécifique », Mondes en développement, 2/2011 (n°154), pp. 137-150.
  • RICOEUR Paul, « La crise : un phénomène spécifiquement moderne ? », Revue de théologie et de philosophie, 1988, n°120, pp1-19. © Comité éditorial du Fonds Ricœur.


  1. ORDIONI Natacha, « Le concept de crise : un paradigme explicatif obsolète ? Une approche sexospécifique. », Mondes en développement 2/2011 (n°154) , pp. 137-150. 

  2. KOSELLECK Reinhart, Kritik und Krise. Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt, 1973, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp, Traduction française sous le titre suivant : Le règne de la critique, 1979, Paris, Ed. de Minuit.  

  3. Ibid. 

  4. ORDIONI Natacha, 2012, op. cit. 

  5. MORIN Edgar, « Pour une crisologie », Communications, 1976, n°25, pp. 149-163.  

  6. Ibid. 

  7. MAZADE Olivier, « La crise dans les parcours biographiques : un régime temporel spécifique ? », Temporalités, 2011/13, mis en ligne le 05 juillet 2011 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. MORIN Edgar, op. cit., 1976. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid.