Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 0. Nr. August 1997

Conflict, Crisis, and Catastrophe

Cultural Codes and Media Management in Environmental Conflicts:
the Case of Water

Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

  1. The challenge
  2. Risk research and communication conflict
  3. Water talk – an African field study
  4. Objectives

1 The challenge

This is a short report on a new research project based on a joint initiative of the recently installed chair for génie sanitaire at the Institut du Génie de l'Environnement (Ige/Gs) of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Epfl)(1) and the chair for Textwissenschaft at the Department of Germanic Studies of the University of Berne. It aims at bringing together at least six different perspectives of research hitherto operating in entirely separate fields: media studies, intercultural communication, conversation analysis, environmental studies, sanitary engineering, public relations analysis. The focal point where these perspectives meet is discourse. It is to start a dialogue on an issue of vital importance to ecology world-wide: water. It serves as an example for key questions such as how environmental conflicts are communicated in the mass media, how environmental awareness can be awakened by the media, how media can be used to change everyday behavioural routines with respect to sustainable development, how intercultural instruction can be enhanced by technology and face-to-face interaction.

One of the major ecological problems of the near future will be the global water shortage, already today responsible for many political conflicts all over the world, as well illustrated by a recent German television series on the issue ("Wasser", ZDF July-August 1998, focusing especially on the situation in Africa, Mexico, Turkey, Syria, Israel, etc.). Our main research interest, therefore, is to look at the increasingly important rôle of media in communicating ecological problems caused by water shortage and sustainable solutions to fight their consequences. If such solutions to a sustainable management of water resources cannot be communicated effectively, water problems may well deteriorate not only into environmental crises, but also political conflicts, and even regional catastrophes which in the last resort will affect our First World societies in one way or another (e.g., migration, international relations, developmental policies, crisis intervention, etc.: cf. Hess-Lüttich 1997).

So far, sanitary engineering has proposed a number of solutions, however predominantly technical, i.e. solutions dealing with preserving water quality and reducing water consumption. The communicators involved in the complex dialogue process from finding the solution and inventing the necessary technology to its local implementation and effective application are institutions and organisations on one hand, local project workers and their addressees on the other. Thus, the attempt of analysing this complex dialogue process means taking systematically into account aspects of (i) institutional communication (mass media, help organisations, local communication networks), (ii) interpersonal communication (face-to-face conversation, instructional discourse, behaviour routines), and (iii), due to the manifold cultural differences involved, intercultural communication (cross-cultural dialogue, cultural stereotypes, international relations).

The research project sketched out in the following aims at the construction of a theoretical framework for the transdisciplinary analysis of the interface between the three main communication axes (institutional, intercultural, interpersonal), and the establishment of a model derived from that analysis for the application "in the field work", allowing to implement, harmonise, and optimise communication patterns in local cross-cultural instruction processes as well as in campaigning environmental issues through critical media reports, public relations concepts, and the like (cf. Hess-Lüttich 1992 a, b). The findings could, and should, be applied, for instance, to the field of sanitary engineering where the Ige/Gs has established a close co-operation with the École Inter-Etats d'Ingénieurs de l'Équipement Rural (Eier) and the Centre Régional pour l'Eau Potable et l'Assainissement (Crepa) in Burkina Faso, for the francophone West Africa, on the one hand, and on the other to the field of communication studies and public health where the Bern Institute is about to establish contacts with the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (Ccms) at the University of Natal, Durban, for the anglophone East and South Africa.

2 Risk research and communication conflict

In modern "risk society" (Beck 1996), everybody is obliged to deal with uncertainties and their consequences. Facing risks has become part of everyday life nowadays (Blanke 1990: 135). The term risk society refers to the social institutionalisation of acceptance of risks within contemporary societies (Beck 1996). Special interest groups conducting their initiatives no matter whether or not they contradict the interests of other groups typically take the risk of conflict. If the conflict cannot be resolved by negotiation, this may lead to a crisis. A crisis marks the turning point at which the balance of power is re-considered, re-discussed, re-evaluated by all parties involved. If all negotiations fail, i.e., if the conflicting parties insist on questioning and re-defining the existing equilibrium, the crisis may become a catastrophe in the sociological sense of conflict research (Apitz 1987: 13).

What would the scenario for a global catastrophe look like in a post war age? Which would be its crucial issues? When would it occur? Meadows et al. recently revised their famous 1972-report to the Club of Rome, entitled The limits of growth, which gave a prognosis on the increase of resource consumption with growing world population. In their second report twenty years later, Beyond the limits, it is clearly stated that within a few decades many natural resources will be exhausted, the first of which being water. People need water to drink, to prepare meals, to wash their laundry, to produce products, to enable agriculture.

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According to the prognosis published in Meadows et al. 1992, water will be the first primary resource to become exhausted.

People not only consume water, they also contaminate it, thus causing a remarkably high passive water consumption. To remediate contaminated groundwater resources is such a complex and costly problem that only highly developed countries can afford it under the condition of a clearly defined need. While Europeans today enjoy an average water consumption of some 250 litres per person per day, and US Americans of more than 600 litres, peri-urban population in cities like, say, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, has to cope with some 20 litres per person per day, way below the absolute minimum defined by the WHO for developing countries. Critical water shortage is already reality and part of everyday life in many countries today. There are conflicts as to water rights, many areas are frequently plagued by crises in water supply, some are on the verge to be exposed to regional catastrophes caused by water shortage.

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(Liquid waste from a hospital enters an open channel. About one hundred meters downstream water is collected from wells neighbouring the channel to water the vegetables that are to be sold on the local market. In times the water wells have run dry, water is taken directly from the channel (Burkina Faso, photo by Karin Linxweiler, 1998)

But why on earth should we in central Europe think about these problems? Take Switzerland, for instance, a country as rich of water as it could be, where it is abundantly available. That is exactly the point forcing us to think about a global water crisis and its possible consequences. According to Brand (ed. 1997), the pressure of migrating people seeking space, resources, water, will increase considerably as compared to those fleeing from civil wars and political or religious suppression. Any ecological crisis will have a negative impact on the economy, on social structure, probably even on the internal social peace the rich countries have been enjoying for such a long period of time (cf. Joas 1992: 325 et passim; Scharping & Görg 1994).

The management and resolution of crises normally starts with their prevention in the phase before the crisis breaks out, i.e. in the phase of conflict (when crisis management comes too late – as described e.g., in the Unesco Kurier 10 (1997) – it slides into the phase of catastrophe). Although there are numerous international organisations dealing with the exploitation of water resources in regions of water need, the demand has increased. Although an International Water Decade (1980-1990) was proclaimed by the UNO, the number of military conflicts over water resources is growing. Although the technology is available to resolve water shortage, the global water management has deteriorated. And finally, although the Rio de Janeiro World Summit in 1992 passed the well-known Agenda 21 including the, meanwhile almost proverbial, notion of sustainable development, the concept of careful resource consumption for the benefit of future generations – as clear and simple as it sounds – has yet not been sufficiently implemented. Could it be that it has not found the right communication path through administrations, organisations, institutions down to the people who are affected by these resource shortages? It is this very question we want to raise in this multidisciplinary dialogue (cf. Welford 1995; Breitmeier 1996: 132-145; Joussen & Hessler eds. 1995; Brand ed. 1997).

One of the key aspects of understanding and explaining conflicts with respect to primary resources such as water seems to be a failure in communication due to the mismanagement of the down-to-the-consumer information and control. Socio-cultural, political and economical characteristics of the population in focus have to be taken into consideration already in the planning phase of a crisis communication project. This is common ground in all disciplines dealing with communicating technical information between cultures since the 1950s (Clyne 1996, Scollon & Scollon 1995). In the late 1980s, however, when an integrated theory of intercultural technology transfer was still not achieved, Kievelitz (1988) outlined a theory of development ethnology ("Entwicklungsethnologie"). From a pragmatic viewpoint, he pointed at weaknesses and contradictions in communication models to date and asked to combine ethnological theory and practice in order to improve communication strategies in projects of technical co-operation across cultures (Kievelitz 1988: 99):

Technische Zusammenarbeit spielt sich stets in einem fremden Kulturraum ab. Dabei macht die Kooperation und Interaktion zwischen Einzelpersonen, Gruppen und Vertretern von Institutionen den überwiegenden Teil jeglicher Projektarbeit aus. Die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Menschen ist die wichtigste aller Aufgaben im Projekt; über Personen wird jeglicher Erfolg in der Arbeit erreicht, ganz unabhängig davon, ob ein Projekt auf Regierungsebene angesiedelt ist oder unmittelbar bevölkerungsnah, und gleichgültig, ob es sich dabei um ländliche Regionalentwicklung, Institutionenaufbau oder Regierungsberatung handelt.

[Technical co-operation takes always place in a foreign culture. The co-operation and interaction between individual persons, groups or representatives of institutions represents the main part of any project work. The co-operation between people is the most important of all tasks of a project; via people every success of the work is achieved, regardless if the project is launched on governmental level or directly close to the population, and aside from the type of development project, be it regional, institutional or governmental.]

Recent studies agree that these findings remain to be tested empirically and applied in field work (cf., e.g., Prochnow 1996: 63). Although the traditional intervention philosophy has meanwhile shifted towards a participative concept of empowerment, many reports show that, in practice, inefficiency and cost-ineffectiveness prevail in intercultural communication (Weiland 1984; IEZ 1994), and that quite often misunderstanding and even social conflicts are provoked (Gnägi 1995: 361-368).

Facing the existing trends towards globalisation, the empirical investigation of intercultural communication should not be restricted to what has been dealt with so far within the framework of cultural studies, and it should be linked with the expanding research field of international communication. Meckel & Kriener (eds. 1996) propose a systematic division of the research on international communication in four segments: (i) the technical and infrastructural development on a global scale, (ii) the institutional dimension of internationalisation, (iii) the institutional context of media products (i.a., journalism, instruction), (iv) the textual dimensions of media products (i.a., content analysis, media semiotics). On the background of newly emerging structures of global communication and new technical developments in the media system, the authors take a close look at recent political, economical, social, and journalistic implications of international communication, thereby not only introducing aspects of journalism and communication theory into the discussion on international communication, but also strongly suggesting to change the clearly eurocentric direction of the traditional analysis of the impact of mass media in developing countries, especially those with resource shortages (cf. Grossenbacher 1988, Grossenbacher & Saxer 1987).

All this is of direct relevance to the analysis of crisis communication: for companies and organisations, crisis communication has primarily economical dimensions; a crisis interferes with the standard routine, it disturbs the normal processes and affects negatively the economy of an organisation. Many examples of, sometimes not very successful, attempts of ecological crisis management, are, for the better or worse, still in the public conscience, linked with catchwords such as Bophal, Seveso, Tschernobyl, Brent Spar, Schweizerhalle, to name only a few. Instances such as these have been analysed from various perspectives: from a primarily economical viewpoint by, e.g., Weber (1980), from a strictly communicative perspective by Apitz (1987) or Heintzel, Kunczik & Zipfel ( eds. 1995), and, most recently, from an integrated standpoint combining economical analysis of ecological crisis management with its communication theoretical implications by Scherler (1996).

The overall communication structure of a typical reaction of organisations (companies) having caused a severe ecological accident is characterised by the initial phase of an internal discussion of the social, and thus economical, impact of this accident on the organisation or company. At the next stage, press releases are prepared by the public relations department of the organisation (for a more detailed discussion of the term public relations and its research tradition, introduced into German already by Oeckl 1950 as "Öffentlichkeitsarbeit" (Oeckl 1993), cf. Barthenheier, Haedrich & Kleinert eds. 1982, Flieger 1986, Böckelmann 1991, Becher 1996). At this stage, the functioning of the internal communication is crucial for a successful positive presentation of the organisation to the outside. All board members must know the complex structure of their organisation and their communication pathways, allowing them to communicate efficiently within their infrastructure and through all the levels of hierarchy as a prerequisite of a full feedback to the members of staff working out the public relations strategy (cf. Kalmus 1994, Armbrecht 1992). Internal business communication ("Unternehmenskommunikation", cf. Bungarten ed. 1994 a, b) is a vital factor in the organisation's attempt to socialise its staff members and make them identify with their company and its corporate identity. PR-training is considered to play an important part in this process. So far, however, a unifying concept of the function of PR does not exist (Ronneberger & Rühl 1992: 11).

Since the late 1980s, PR has been recognised as an ample field of research in communication science and its neighbouring disciplines also in the German speaking countries. Whereas the research on PR carried out in the United States remained more or less empirical with a strong focus on application (Armbrecht & Avenarius eds. 1992), European studies clearly emphasised also the theoretical desiderata. Having diagnosed a "defizitäre wissenschaftliche PR-Lehre und -Forschung" [an insufficient academic teaching and research in PR] in Germany, Ronneberger & Rühl (1992: 10) called for a theory of public relations and submitted "a first draft". It gives an outline of the few existing theoretical approaches and of recent developments, but also indicates certain contradictions in fundamental concepts and methodology of these approaches. Alternatively, it offers a new approach based on communication science, bridging the gap between PR-theory and PR-practice.

The gap is still wide, the interest in practical tools of PR is still dominant, reflecting the prevailing underestimation of the external relevance of PR for the organisation's image in the media. The same applies to internal business communication, the structuring of which is hardly influenced at all by PR concepts (cf. Broghs 1994, Armbrecht 1992, Theis 1994). There are very few attempts to analyse the fundamental relationship between communication, decision, organisation, and market. The management function is only one among many other functions of PR (Ronneberger & Rühl 1992). They also include scrutinising the demands of the organisation, the rules of external markets, and the social environment of an organisation; in particular, they include providing complex decision strategies for (the change of) daily routines and for the adjustment and/or optimisation of communication. Following the lines of system theory, the authors distinguish between three levels of PR: (i) on the macro-level the functional relationship between PR and society as a whole, (ii) on the meso-level the performance of PR in relation to other functional systems in society (such as mass media, pressure groups, lobbyism, etc.), and (iii) on the micro-level the tasks of PR and internal as well as external communication structures of an organisation, including, e.g., face-to-face interaction in project work (Ronneberger & Rühl 1992: 183-193 and 249-280). In this sense, PR theory can be understood as one possible starting point for providing the supporting pillars for a bridge between mass communication and individual communication, between institutional and interpersonal communication, as the most relevant frameworks for crisis communication. As far as we can see, the interface of these two frames of conflict communication has so far not been investigated in a synoptic approach (cf. new proposals in Fiehler ed. 1998). A concept for a theory integrated model remains a desideratum (an early exception is Richter 1979). However, empirical case studies in various fields seem to indicate the necessity of a more complex approach and an in-depth analysis of this relationship.

For instance, in a field study dealing with the installation of a municipal waste incineration plant, Wiedemann, Schütz & Peters (1991) come to the conclusion that an open information policy may trigger interactive participation of the target groups concerned. Hence, PR could well serve as a key issue in fostering the empowerment of groups facing conflict situations.

Modern societies call for a new ecological quality. It is more and more regarded as one of the core dimensions of freedom. For many years, conservation or restoration of an intact environment was believed to be a task of solid engineering. This exclusively technical approach has been shattered considerably in recent years (cf. Joussen & Hessler eds. 1995): modern ecology favours a transdisciplinary co-operation between engineering sciences, social and political sciences, psychology and semiotics, natural science and humanities. Only such a dialogue between all the disciplines involved can provide the ground for a fruitful discussion of how to respond to environmental degradation in an effective, i.e. publicly accepted, manner. The manifold facets involved make it difficult, however, to develop an integrated theoretical strategy for communicating ecological concepts through media and across cultures. The core function of communication in this process is yet scarcely acknowledged (cf. Aurand, Hazard & Tretter eds. 1993). It is still widely ignored by communication science which seems absorbed by investigating headline journalism and media scandals, text design and media ethics.

One of the rare exceptions to the rule is a recent study by Meier & Schanne (eds. 1996) which was sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Devoted to the "Rolle des Journalismus bei der Wahrnehmung und Bewältigung gesellschaftlicher Risiken" [the rôle of journalism in realising and mastering social risks], it presents an in-depth survey of the media performance on ecological issues in general and on environmental risks in particular. According to these findings, it appears that mass media often serve as a mouth-piece for the ventilation of the interests of industries, companies, organisations. PR playing a key role in this process is therefore an important object of research (cf. Grossenbacher 1989). Astonishingly, the water crisis as one of the most urgent environmental problems to be dealt with globally was not even mentioned, let alone been defined as an object for further case studies.

On the other hand, an aspect which has been investigated thoroughly in communication sciences is the mutual dependency and the resulting rôle conflict between journalists and PR-agents, media and organisations (cf. Baerns 1985). Organisations, institutions, and companies, facing an increasingly critical and ecologically aware public, are more than ever confronted with problems of legitimising and procedures of justification. This again holds a strong potential for further rôle conflicts (Becher 1996). But topical studies applying this to the water crisis are still missing to date, just as the systematic investigation into instruments and types of PR such as open door and information days, poster campaigns (as launched by the pharma industry), TV commercials (e.g., Fighting Aids-campaigns), cultural events (e.g., the August 1 floating candle campaigns for Swiss-Aid), or cross-cultural campaigns of help organisations (e.g., Red Cross).

3 Water talk – an African field study

Water is a case in point. International experts and environmental organisations do not hesitate to speak of a global water crisis. This indicates that the very complex implications of such a crisis will not only affect arid areas of the world but also in one way or other the so-called water rich countries in the northern hemisphere. The problem can only be tackled with a combination of international and interdisciplinary approaches decidedly across traditional academic boundaries. In the light of this understanding the Epfl has allocated a seed budget to the Ige/Gs to finance the preparation of a research project focusing on communication problems with respect to the water crisis (7/98 - 12/98). This is why two research groups have decided to co-operate which normally would be protected against any contact with each other by the high barriers of scientific cultures: the chair for génie sanitaire at the Institut Génie de l'Environnement of the Epfl and the chair for Textwissenschaft of the University of Berne (see above), both strongly motivated by an unconventional understanding of the social responsibility of scientific endeavours.

The premises were optimal for a pilot field study. The Ige/Gs has been co-operating for many years with the École Inter-États d'Ingénieurs de l'Équipement Rural (Eier) and the Centre Régional pour l'Eau Potable et l'Assainissement (Crepa) in francophone Africa. The Crepa was founded as an international organisation based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, dealing with problems of water supply and sanitary engineering. Branches ("antennes nationales") of the Crepa are located in more than 15 French speaking countries in western and central Africa.

All along the sub-sahelian zone, ecological problems dominate daily life. Of special interest here are the peri-urban zones since these are the fastest growing in population but have at the same time the weakest infrastructure. The UNO-Summit Habitat II in Istanbul 1996 published an assessment according to which two out of three inhabitants of our planet will be living in cities in less than one generation (quoting a prognosis of the World Resource Institute Washington carried out in collaboration with the World Bank). In the fast growing peri-urban zones of poorer countries neither water nor electricity is available. Clean water has to be collected at water points which have been installed with the help of international organisations in co-operation with local institutions and authorities. In the peri-urban zone the health situation is hazardous. Insufficient waste management causes multiple diseases connected with lacking sanitary installation.

Our pilot field study was devoted primarily to the peri-urban quarters of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, during an intensive two-week survey in June 1998. But for comparison, the much smaller city of Ouahigouya in the north – a so-called "ville secondaire" – and the rural village of Roumtenga were also included in this survey. Its main interest was to analyse the attempts of international aid organisations, such as Crepa, to communicate concepts of water supply and sanitation to the local population.

On-site discussions with the delegates of Crepa, with municipal officers and administrators, with the local water point committees, with the water masters and traders, and with the target groups of the local population yielded an insight into the most complex communication pattern developed in a pragmatic way by those sharing the common interest in getting and providing water. These communication efforts – which include not only the transfer of technical and social issues but at the same time aim at changing traditional behaviour patterns for vital reasons of mere survival – have so far not been analysed.

The instructional concept of Crepa concentrates on the problem of how the quality of clean water collected at the well point can be maintained until the moment of consumption. The quality of water may degrade already during the transport to the huts if not carried in closed containers, and later in the huts if not stored in especially designed jars. If the water quality degrades due to insufficient sanitary precautions water related diseases are the inevitable consequence. In the poor quarters of the towns – which are mainly located in the peri-urban zone – the mortality rate of infants exceeds 30%.

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Women gather at the local water distribution points: the starting points of the water communication path
(Burkina Faso, photo D. Genske 1998).

Some time ago, Crepa has decided – probably somewhat intuitively – to start with sanitary education efforts at the water points since those are the locations the local women go to every day in order to satisfy the water demands of their families. To designate water points as optimal locations for the implementation of educational campaigns was certainly a wise decision, by the way, one with a long tradition: utilising the water distribution path as a communication path is a strategy which has been used for ages by magicians, churches and mosques, especially in the more arid regions of the world.

The task of Crepa, however, was complicated by the fact that an educational programme dealing with issues of sanitation has to address delicate questions of the private sphere and maybe even intrude into intimate behaviour patterns. In order to communicate these issues, Crepa has adopted the Sarar-concept which was developed by the Indian ministry of Education already in the 1970s. Sarar is an acronym for the five principles the concept is based on: Self-esteem – Associative strength – Resourcefulness – Action planning – Responsibility. An important aspect of the adopted Sarar-approach is that local representatives from the quarter in which the water point was installed are recruited and trained to communicate sanitary concepts. They are referred to locally as 'animateurs' and 'animatrices'. The locals have confidence in them since they live in the same quarter and are familiar with their local culture and their particular problems. The 'animateurs' and 'animatrices' are based at the water points to contact the locals on their daily walk for water. They talk with the women in their language and go with them to their huts to discuss problems of sanitation face-to-face. This personal procedure has proven far more successful than any other approaches such as public slide shows or videos or hypertext computer instruction, which are, if at all, consumed passively without triggering any change of behaviour, besides the fact that these methods of instruction are more expensive and demand a certain technical infrastructure which normally cannot be provided in the underdeveloped peri-urban zones.

Another specific complication is that, as a rule, the locals in the peri-urban zones migrated from rural areas. Many of them cannot read nor write, and often they speak different dialects. This is not a problem of sociolinguistics or language policy, but one of cultural semiotics. To overcome the communication barrier, Crepa adopted the strategy of the "boîte d'images" first introduced in connection with projects financed by the World Bank. This approach works with pairs of iconic illustrations in the form of cartoon sequences representing the before and after status as traditional everyday routines vs. new behaviour patterns. The former are interpreted as dangerous to health and therefore marked as undesirable while the latter, indicating an improved sanitary standard, are explained as to how the people will benefit from them. All illustrations are semiotically adapted to the local culture of the people and to situations of their everyday experience, depicting typical huts of the quarter, inhabited by local people wearing typical clothes. Therefore, the target person can easily identify herself (or himself) with the situation depicted and recognises certain behavioural patterns, realises their consequences, and understands the way how to improve the situation. The "boîte d'images" is repeatedly discussed with the locals and commentated in order to ensure the individual educational success in this instructional discourse.

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The Sarar-method works with images depicting undesirable behaviour patterns juxtaposed with the improved situation
(Burkina Faso, photo by Karin Linxweiler 1998).

Under the impression of this experience, Crepa has realised that communicating water related problems cannot be left alone to the engineers who develop the technologies to ensure minimal sanitary standards such as special water jars or transport equipment. Any technical innovation which makes it necessary to change traditional behaviour patterns in situations of intercultural contact calls for the contribution of sociologists, ethnographers, and communication experts, turning this educational task into a transdisciplinary challenge.

The water and sanitation project visited in Burkina Faso offers a textbook example for the specific intercultural communication problem that we are interested in: a message developed within an organisation (such as Crepa) has to be communicated – by means of PR procedures and based on cultural semiotics – to a target group, in triangular intercultural dialogue (expert – animateur – local) and face-to-face conversation (animateur – local, animateur – expert for feedback and re-evaluation), supported by culture specific and locally adjusted instructional material that does not require any technical infrastructure, in order to initiate the change of behaviour patterns detrimental to those exercising them.

The very interface between these two axes of communication is what we focus on. We are aiming at giving it a theoretically integrated basis for empirical analysis which in turn may be of interest for the conceptual advancement of both dialogue analysis and theory of intercultural communication. Another long-term perspective for further research may be to try and transfer those communication strategies observed to be successful in getting people to practically change the way they deal with water, and apply them in carefully adapted ways to other educational issues of equally vital importance. For instance, the Agence Canadienne de Développement International (Acdi), which we contacted during our field study and which conducts a 14 million Canadian dollar project to fight the Aids-crisis in the French speaking countries of Africa (Projet d'appui à la lutte contre le Sida en Afrique de l'Ouest), was not aware of the communication strategies utilised by Crepa, let alone of its proven efficiency. Ironically, the head office of Acdi in Ouagadougou is located just some hundred meters away from the Crepa and Eier offices. This, we believe, illustrates more than anything else the need for further research and mutual co-operation across academic boundaries in this scientific endeavour.

4 Objectives

In a world with ever increasing international communication links and at the same time degrading primary resources, ecological crisis communication is a challenge for all parties involved, be they natural scientists offering technical solutions, PR-agents of organisations ventilating concepts, or project workers in situ initiating changes in behaviour face-to-face. The danger of misunderstanding is high since language differences and cultural contrasts complicate the approach. Differences in forms of communication as well as the locally varying interpretation of standards and status add fundamental problems to the analysis of communication processes in this particular context. When dealing with issues of water quality and sanitation, diverging ethnical traditions, moral beliefs, magical rituals open up further dimensions of the problem. There is not much use in developing sustainable technological solutions fighting the water shortage if they cannot be communicated. Communication failures with regard to essential primary resources easily lead from conflict to crisis, and from there to catastrophe.

For reasons of reducing the complexity of the problem, we suggest to focus on the two main frames of communication which we associated with a multiplicity of perspectives in the first section:

• the intercultural-institutional perspective: media communication

• the intercultural-interpersonal perspective: face-to-face interaction.

The first frame raises questions as to the codes of cross-cultural media campaigns of First World organisations with the objective of alerting people for ecological issues, the second to the codes of cross-cultural instructional discourse with the objective to initialise changes in individual everyday behaviour routines in Third World areas of ecological crisis (or even catastrophe, if you think, e.g., of Sudan).

Our research project will follow both perspectives in drawing a systemic model for an integrated analysis of the heterogeneous facets of the semiosis or communication processes involved, paradigmatically illustrated by those concerning the water crisis. The already established co-operation of Ige/Gs with Crepa/Eier offers a real world reference case. It could, and indeed should, be complemented by a similar constellation of problems (African culture, peri-urban zones, water crisis) in a different, i.e. anglophone area of the continent. Therefore, contacts were also established with the Durban Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (Ccms, University of Natal), where similar lines of transdisciplinary research with regard to crisis communication have been followed (sponsored, e.g., by state departments of education and of health; cf. Tomaselli 1992, Parker 1994, Tomaselli 1996).

The objectives of the project include

• information on conflicts or crises due to water shortage

• participants in the dialogue on water shortage conflicts

• rôle model of these participants according to the perspectives given above

• content analysis of technical information communicated in the dialogue

• content analysis of social, cultural, organisational information

• dialogue analysis of fallacies and misunderstandings

• model of the interface between institutional and interpersonal communication

• PR strategies to prevent conflict leading to crisis and catastrophe

• application of the model to case studies in African peri-urban zones

With these objectives we hope to bridge the gap not only between cultures in the empirical analysis of cross-cultural communication on issues concerning us all, but also between scientific cultures (in the sense of C.P. Snow) in the co-operation of disciplines which normally take no notice of each other, the methodological hinge joint being dialogue analysis of conflict communication in intercultural settings (Fiehler ed. 1998).

© Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

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(1)  I am indebted to Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dieter D. Genske (Lausanne) and to Karin Linxweiler (Bern) for their cooperation and advice.


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