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The Emergent Organization: Improvisation and Order in Gulf Coast Disaster Relief

Symbolic Interaction

Published online on


This article employs the interactionist concept of emergence to explore volunteer behavior in organizational settings after natural disasters. Through a several‐year ethnographic study of volunteer relief groups in the Post‐hurricane Gulf Coast, I examine how emergent social groups navigate situations where interactional norms, practices, and procedures are ambiguous, unclear, or in continual flux. Grassroots volunteer groups improvised organizational decision‐making and leadership structures to develop timely and appropriate responses to the post‐disaster environment. In particular, I focus on two distinct groups of volunteers whose response to these emergent interactional structures: improvisers embraced the ambiguity of group norms as an opportunity to innovate and express their creativity, whereas ritualists rejected the lack of structure and order characterized by the volunteer organizations.