A World in Crisis?

We inhabit a world in crisis. Or, to formulate it more accurately, we live in a world where the language of crisis has become the most common way of representing a series of situations we face. We have global economic crises, eurozone crises, refugee crises in Europe and the Middle East, leadership crises in the United States and Venezuela, institutional crises in Hungary and Poland, nuclear crisis in North Korea and Iran, humanitarian crises in Yemen and Congo, food crises in South Sudan and the Horn of Africa, environmental crises in the Arctic and the Amazonia, as well as identity crises, legitimation crises, solidarity crises, security crises, gender crises,… and even crises in the social sciences.

This ubiquity of the idea of crisis tells us something about the actuality and the imaginary of contemporary societies. One can regard it literally as a sign of our times: it signals something important about the present. In fact, the word has an interesting genealogy. While it stems from Greek krisis, a fundamental concept in Hippocratic theory which designates the crucial phase in the disease when the uncertain outcome between recovery and death is definitively settled, the shift from the ancient medical meaning to the contemporary general one of a difficult or dangerous situation collectively experienced occurs in the late 18th century, when one starts to speak of political crisis or crisis of values, the term being from then on progressively generalized. The idea of crisis is thus a defining feature of modernity. Indeed, the very possibility of becoming conscious of a crisis presupposes, first, a conception of time as non-linear, at risk of ruptures, and in need of subsequent reassessments, and second, a capacity for self-reflection by societies upon the course of their own history, including a sense of uncertainty, indeterminacy, and even uneasiness.

It could certainly be argued that it is not the first time that the world is in crisis. With two deadly world wars, several genocides, a violent decolonization, a major financial crash, the 20th century has had its share of crises. However, the beginning of the 21st offers certain disquieting traits in terms of the quality, intensity and spread of its crises, whether one considers the human imprint on the planet’s sustainability, the forced migrations caused by conflicts, persecution or poverty, the multiplication of radical religious, ethnic or nationalist movements, the deepening of inequality within and across societies, the rise of xenophobic populism and its electoral successes, and the questioning of knowledge and facts associated with fake news and conspiracy theories. So, is the world experiencing a new “age of anxiety”, as the British poet W. H. Auden could write in 1947? It is tempting to think that we are in one of these delicate moments when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, in the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s words. Hence, the significance and even urgency to mobilize the social sciences to apprehend the present moment.

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