Studying the Extreme

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated that “plans are nothing, planning is everything”. This holds especially true in extreme environments, where the accepted truth is that planning and execution have to be tightly integrated for individuals to survive. An extreme environment is “an environment where one or more extreme events are occurring or are likely to occur that may exceed the organization’s capacity to prevent and result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological, or material consequences to – or in close physical or psycho-social proximity to organization members” (Hannah et al., 2009) As actions in such environments can carry a high risk of harm, it follows that activities have to be carefully considered. Among the challenges in such environments is the issue of how to uphold safety while responding to constantly changing conditions.

A surgeon in a hospital must for example minimize physical harm in situations involving stress and time-pressure, effectively balancing standardized procedures with decision-making in a state of uncertainty. In stable environments, “group cohesion” (White, 1992) or the limitation of individuality in processes and planning have been found to be appropriate responses. However, processes of planning and organizing in extreme environments – such as a military unit in combat – is much more multi-layered and multi-dimensional (Corona and Godart, 2010). In other words, activities in extreme environments will involve decision-making that negotiates between varied and at times contradictory frameworks, but must still do so in an efficient and timely manner. This research project is occupied with these processes, particularly in environments associated with the likelihood or threat of first-person physical harm. Within this context, the interesting question becomes how people in extreme environments manage to uphold the operations while at the same time improvising, inventing, and enacting decisions?

  • Operations in extreme environments are based on plans, routines, rules and experience. Contemporary research has focused on the spectacular parts of the environments while leaving the everyday activities and decisions under-researched. Still these mundane activities explain how these organizations operate.
  • When physical harm is immediate people have to take responsibility for their decisions. In this, everyday decisions may not only go against routines, they may also be meaningful for both the individual and the organization. The consequence of decisions is therefore larger in extreme environments than in organizations that have a greater capacity to absorb differences.

Based on the above, the investigation aims at providing an answer to the following questions; How does everyday decision-making occur in mountain-climbing expeditions and emergency rooms? What are the commonalities and the differences in activities between the cases – and what are the consequences of the difference/similarities of the activities?

In any extreme environment, decision-making abilities may be severely impaired by phenomena such as tiredness, stress and (in the case of work on high altitudes) lack of oxygen. For example, the ability to make sound decisions are reduced when climbing the world’s highest mountains due to oxygen deprivation (Hällgren, 2010). Still, decisions have to be made, e.g. regarding the use of bottled oxygen. Taken separately, these everyday decisions may not be critical, but together they shape the operation (Tempest et al., 2007). Remove altitude and similar conditions apply to emergency rooms. Decisions are made continuously on how to use resources and how to assess the short-term future in the fast-paced diagnostic work (Coget and Keller, 2010). Counter-intuitively, everyday decision-making is thus highly important in both environments.

Methodologically the project adheres to the practice turn within the social sciences (Schatzki et al., 2001) that appreciates the value of studies of practices, everyday activities and processes (Hällgren and Söderholm, 2011) in e.g. the practice of anesthetist nurses (Jordan, 2010). Studying practice essentially means taking the practitioners experience and discourse seriously (Bourdieu, 1990). In both cases the research relies on video-material, observations, audio-diaries, interviews and archival data and thus are of a qualitative nature. In Yosemite a camera will be set up close to a climbing route, and interviews be made by the ones climbing, in addition to field notes. At the emergency room video-material will be gathered from the coffee-room, through observations of the nurses practice and audio-diaries. This approach is similar to contemporary ethnography and video-ethnographies and provides detailed accounts of behavior (LeBaron and Streeck, 2009). This is supplemented by formal semi-structured interviews with all personnel categories (Chirban, 1996), and written material (routines etc).

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