Blog 2: The stabilizing gambit

Author: Ann Mische

Ann Mische is associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. This is the second in a series of posts examining public debates over prediction, crisis diagnoses, and social transformation stemming from COVID-19. The opening post can be found here

As protests over racial injustice continue to roil the country -- accompanied by militarized police repression and blatant autocratic posturing -- the instability of our current moment has been thrown into dramatic relief. How do we find stable ground for planning and action when the future seems so powerfully uncertain? In this essay I address this question with regard to institutional responses to the coronavirus situation, but also make a more general point about the communicative moves that people make to steer action in the midst of heightened contingency and crisis. 

The day after our virtual degree conferral for 2020, my university was among the first in the country to announce a new plan for post-COVID-19 reopening. As you have likely heard by now, the Notre Dame plan entails beginning the semester two weeks early, skipping fall break, and ending by Thanksgiving. All students will be back on campus, and (yet-to-be determined) provisions will be made for testing, social distancing, and isolating those who get sick. Given the possibility of outbreaks, faculty were told that we should be prepared to teach classes three ways: face to face, online, and through “dual delivery,” in which some students participate remotely. The tone of the announcement was reassuring, almost cheerful, seeming to operate under the assumption that this would be terrific news for (almost) everyone, a tone echoed in public relations messaging, news reports, and broadcast interviews.

While many undergraduates were overjoyed with the prospect of returning to their beloved campus, many faculty and staff were not at all reassured. The announcement set off a lively, panicked round of commentary and debates in social media and other online venues at my institution and around the country, as other schools announced similar plans. How could they be sure they could keep everyone safe? What kind of testing, tracing, cleaning, and distancing protocols could work in the face of a confusing and fast-spreading disease, small world campus networks, and unruly, bored students starved for communal ritual and social interaction? What about the elderly and the immunocompromised? What about the dangers to support workers and the surrounding community? What about the added burden on faculty and staff, the lost research time, the emotional and physical toll of carrying on our already complex jobs in such weird, strained, and (most likely) frustrating social conditions?  

Some colleagues pushed back on these concerns. What about the financial strain to the institution if we do NOT re-open? How many jobs and livelihoods would be lost, mostly among the least privileged and protected members of our community? How many students might be diverted from attending college next year? And more catastrophically, might the world in which we teach, learn, and produce knowledge together suffer long-term damage and even collapse?

The purpose of this post is not to arbitrate these questions, although I have my views, and voiced them loudly in those opening hours along with many of my colleagues. At this point, over two weeks later, I find I am less certain of those views, in fact less certain about everything, but also somewhat calmer. I find that odd. Why should my acute awareness of uncertainty make me calmer? Isn’t uncertainty supposed to exhaust us and freak us out? Aren’t we always trying to reduce uncertainty, in the attempt to know how and when to act? The contingencies alluded to in my institution’s plan have in no way been resolved (in fact, they have barely been revealed), and yet time and action roll forward nonetheless. 

In this post, I reflect on how we absorb, manage and distribute contingency in unsettled times. I argue that my university’s announcement was what we can call a “stabilizing gambit” in a period of intense disruption and uncertainty. A gambit, according to Google’s dictionary, is a “device, action, or opening remark, typically one entailing a degree of risk, that is calculated to gain an advantage.” To call the move a “gambit” does not necessarily mean that it was made cynically, as an expression of a narrow financial calculation, or out of callous disregard for human consequences. While I have strong concerns about the neo-liberalization of higher education, I don’t think this is an adequate explanation for what is happening here. 

Rather, I want to make a more general point about how “plans” function in highly contingent times, that is, “interrupted” periods that resist planning and predictions. Plans are never certain; we all know how many of our projects and intentions do not work out “as planned.” Yet if you, like me, have tried multiple strategies to manage the complexities of your personal and professional life, you know that plans are useful because they help us get something, anything, done. I rarely accomplish my plans; but I get more done with a plan than without one.   

Provoking action in unstable fields

So what do I mean by a stabilizing gambit? This is a move made in the face of intense uncertainty in which the goal is not simply to sacrifice one asset to gain another (which is how some are interpreting the decision). Rather, the goal is to provide enough provisional stability in a swirling environment so as to provoke and enable actions on the part of others. While in some sense this redistributes contingency (as I will show below), it also allows planning to move forward. Such a move is made with full understanding of the uncertain and tenuous nature of the planning in question; the initial plan is merely an “opening move” in an unstable field. In making the gambit, you hope that by provoking the responses of multiple others, you will have a better chance of steering the unfolding action in a manner that will ensure the advantage (here, perhaps simply the survival?) of your organization. 

When people are in crisis mode and waiting on a decision from you -- and thus trusting you to do all of the contingency planning, risk/benefit analysis, and decision-making so they can react accordingly -- they may put their own lives and decisions on hold. Sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici describes highly contingent events (such as stand-offs or other disruptive situations) as “frozen moment(s), where the mechanisms and processes of social interaction have ceased to function in their usual predictable and elastic way.” Since the intensified uncertainty of such events is unresolvable in probabilistic terms, people wait to see how others will interpret the situation and decide to act, and thus the whole system is temporarily paralyzed. Time feels like it is standing still.

Perhaps having people wait to make their next move is a useful thing if you are confident that your team will, eventually, be able to make the “best” decision for all  -- and, critically, if your people trust you to do so. But the situation may be so unpredictable that your likelihood of gaining that certainty seems quixotic at best. In the meantime, people are postponing important decisions about, say, college choices, course planning, retirement decisions, childcare arrangements, and medical treatment. In that case, you are better off making at least one initial “decision” that makes it imperative for other people to organize their actions and move forward.  

Communicative risk and the redistribution of contingency

The stabilizing gambit has risks, but that is not a novelty in pandemic times in which every action (and every surface or encounter) has risks. The particular risk of the gambit is NOT that it will “not work out as planned.” You knew that going in. The risk is communicative, based in what the social theorist Niklas Luhmann calls “double contingency.” We can never be sure how our interlocutors will interpret attempts at communication, although we try to anticipate and account for their responses. However, our interlocutors interpret those attempts by taking into consideration their view of us. If people do not interpret the communication in the way we hope they will -- for example, if they distrust our motives, information or planning skills -- they may resist re-organizing their own planning and actions in a way that preserves our ability to steer the unfolding of events. 

The gambit works -- if it does -- not by settling the future, but by provoking interpretations that redistribute contingency. Since others may have no more certainty than you -- and may in fact be quite cognizant of the limitations and conditionalities built into your plan -- their own responsive action needs to take this new “default plan” into account. I will pay my child’s tuition deposit, but I won’t dismantle her bedroom at home. I will start planning for my fall courses, thinking through how to teach my class in (at least) three possible ways. I will start discussing with friends and colleagues how to re-organize childcare in the event that camps and schools will not open and I need to go back to work. I will consider the specific conditions under which I will and will not be willing to expose myself and my family to the risk of pandemic disease. And if I am skeptical of the plan, I will consider ways in which to voice this disagreement and debate alternatives. 

The shift provoked by the gambit is this: rather than allowing the future to remain a fuzzy, frozen blur while waiting for others to make decisions, everyone is now forced to think through scenarios and make plans for multiple eventualities. These possibilities gain a clarity and tangibility that they did not have before, when all the contingencies were being handled by the distant, assigned task forces and all we could do was wait for official reports. Thus contingency takes on new form and focus as it diffuses throughout the system. The moment “unfreezes” -- at least partially --  and becomes newly fluid, leaky, and unstable. In fact, people may experience the situation as a wet chaotic mess, even though the choices ahead seem more visible and defined. We all join the “official” planners in splashing our way through multiple possibilities, although the future seems no more certain than before.  

The problem of trust and displacement

Understanding my university’s announcement as a stabilizing gambit -- with attendant communicative risks -- helps us avoid the tendency to react either through cynicism (of administrator motives) or dismissal (of faculty and staff concerns). This was merely a steering move made in full awareness of continuing uncertainties, with the goal of allowing planning to move forward throughout the system. The question then arises -- did it work? Has the stabilizing gambit allowed the university to steer the reorganization of action in the hoped-for direction?

The answer, like most things these days, is uncertain. We have all had to move forward in our thinking about the fall, but the process has also generated anxiety, argument, and pushback. In the days following the announcement, many of us were initially reassured by the realization that the plan was not as settled as it first seemed. Internal communication from our deans and chairs emphasized that the new default plan was in fact “partial and conditional.” We were told that the task forces are continuing to think through the details of multiple possible futures, rather than simply off-loading those contingencies onto us. We also sensed that there is still considerable disagreement among the official deliberators about what to do, and that they are watching and absorbing reactions across the university community.

But while many faculty and staff have appreciated the internal acknowledgment of uncertainty, this does not mean that we have been willing to let it rest. Provoked by the university's move, we have been vigorously debating our way through multiple scenarios. Much of the faculty discussion has shifted to the problem of trust, transparency, and governance. How can we trust that the university is being adequately attentive to concerns about community health, safety, and well-being if we do not have independent voice and representation on the task forces? How do we know that these possibilities that are suddenly circulating in our conversations with fearful clarity are being considered by those authorized to determine our futures? Now that you have charged us with (some of) the action and planning, how can you now tell us to simply trust and wait?

Once contingency has been displaced across the system, it takes on its own communicative dynamic and can be difficult to steer and control. This is especially the case when the details of the plan are still opaque, and yet are seen as having life and death consequences for some in the community. The promised details have been slow in coming, probably because many of them have not yet been determined. Because we have so few details, and because it is not that hard to spin forward the many “what ifs” that may impact our lives, we have a hard time assessing which of our scenarios (and attendant anxieties and hopes) are justified. 

As time goes on, the initial reassurance afforded by the acknowledgement of uncertainty begins to fade, and tension rebuilds. This is especially the case when it is not at all evident that our “all too easy to see” possible futures are being incorporated into official conversations. The field does not feel at all stabilized -- due in part to the real unknowns, and in part to the disjointed dynamics of communication, with many parallel conversations and considerable uneasiness about who is listening to whom.

The more general takeaway from this post should NOT be simply that the future is radically uncertain and thus impossible to plan for. Rather, there are several more subtle points that help us parse this complex communicative situation:

1. Once the community as a whole is charged with planning and preparation, then paternalistic approaches are likely to backfire. People are less likely to trust you to think for them if you have just made them think about things more clearly. As the boundary between experts and the rest of us blurs, democratic governance and serious community engagement become even more essential.

2. Messaging is important, but tricky, given multiple audiences. Students and parents may have appreciated the cheerful confidence of my university’s announcement (although some have voiced concerns). But many faculty and staff preferred the more qualified and contingent language coming from other universities that clearly laid out multiple scenarios for fall re-opening. The more uncertain language paradoxically evoked more trust in the institution’s care and carefulness. However, such trust can be short-lived if conversation about the details of those scenarios is not forthcoming (thus reinforcing point 1).

3. Thinking through possible futures in times of intensified uncertainty is messy and contentious. While opaque to those outside the “room,” the conversations currently unfolding in official task forces and administrative Zoom meetings are likely to be just as jagged and multi-stranded as those in faculty/staff online forums (at least judging from sociologist David Gibson’s analysis of the Kennedy deliberations during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Stabilizing gambits do not resolve this messiness, and under some situations can intensify and (re)distribute it. 

The communicative flurry and upheaval that we are currently experiencing is not due simply to our inability to predict the future. Rather, as I noted in my last post, it is due to the fact that it is possible for all of us to imagine many plausible lines of action, causality, and consequence. Some of these imagined futures may be better rooted in reasoning, experience, data, and projective insight than others. However, all of them are subject to dispute and, well, to being proven wrong by the contingent unfolding of events. 

The next post in this series will focus on the problems and possibilities of prediction in periods of intensified uncertainty and crisis.