Organizational Fields as Interpretation Systems: Interorganizational Sensemaking and the Estonia Ferry Disaster



We investigate the interpretive system of the Baltic ferry industry through the Estonia ferry disaster where 852 people died. Rather than focusing on the sensemaking breakdowns on the bridge of the ship during the evening of September 27th, 1994, we trace the interorganizational relationships between the organizational actors that produced those breakdowns. Although disasters are well documented, the connections between disasters and the broader organizational fields in which they are embedded has yet to be explored systematically in the sensemaking literature. We use 53 bow-door anomalies and 6 bow-door incidents that occurred over 21 years prior to the disaster to unpack the sensemaking dynamics underlying the interorganizational interpretive system. We show how three increasingly inclusive cycles of distributed updating linked the organizational actors in the industry in response to bow-door anomalies and incidents: 1) the operating cycle, 2) the maintenance cycle, and 3) the regulatory cycle. In addition, we trace the vulnerabilities in the three cycles that can occur when a vessel is transferred from one interorganizational interpretive system to another. Our study extends the disaster sensemaking literature by embedding individual disaster episodes within a broader interorganizational interpretive system of anomalies, incidents and relationships distributed across time and organizations.