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Language, gender and sustainability: a pluridisciplinary and comparative study of development communication in traditional societies

The field of development communication has become an important branch of development research in recent years. Its primary focus has been on social and technological aspects of c ommunication (Melkote/Steeves et al. 2001), to the almost total neglect of linguistic aspects. The relative emptyness of the vast field of potential common interest shared by linguists and development researchers is evidence of a strategic gap in interdisciplinary dialogue and cooperation. Calls for taking local language seriously as a key for development have mainly emanated from African development research (Koné & Sy 1995). Recent pioneering research (Robinson 1996) focuses on the interface between development source and development target languages in the initial stage of development. Yet there are good reasons for the assumption that the "parallel discourses" (Bearth 2000b) accompanying development projects in all stages of their implementation may well be, at the level of the local community, the key to the ultimate success or failure of a development project.

The present project proposes therefore three parallel longitudinal studies to be carried out in different regions of the world (West Africa, Southwest Africa and Indonesia) in generally comparable settings (traditional societies) and based on a set of common theoretical assumptions and methodological premises, allowing for comparative evaluation of the results. Its main objectives are (i) to derive, from solidly documented case studies, a general paradigm of the relevance of language to development; (ii) to investigate the conceptual, discursive and linguistic processes associated with the operational phases of development processes; (iii) to integrate from this perspective linguistic and communicative aspects of changing gender roles triggered by socio-economic pressures at the macro-societal level; (iv) to document the generally underestimated role of lexical and argumentative resources available through the communicative expertise of local communities in support of desirable preservation, change and innovation.

In terms of its methodological presuppositions, the present proposal is complementary to the general orientation of previous work in the field of development communication research and of sociological and sociolinguistic approaches to development. It starts from the premise that the most primary and most consequential objective of development communication research is not the conceptual understanding of an exogenous message of innovation by a target community, and not even its immediate collective response to it, but the conditions under which an innovative message becomes endogenous and endogenously reproducible through a process of argumentation and negotiation. Its most basic assumption is the principle of communicative sustainability as a prerequisite to sustainability in development. It proposes to transcend the global/local dichotomy by claiming that local knowledge systems encoded in a community's first language (L1) and accessible to inspection through analysis of L1 discourse, far from being limited to merely serve purposes of community survival in the narrow sense, contain in themselves essential presuppositions for the perception of global concerns and adjustment to requirements of ecolo-econo-social sustainability (Diawara 2000).

The project is conceived as a joint venture initiated by language-oriented and development-oriented researchers at the universities of Frankfurt a/M, Kassel and Zurich, in close cooperation with their counterparts in the countries in which the research is to be carried out (Ivoy Coast, Namibia, Indonesia) and with actors engaged in various roles in ongoing development projects. It is anticipated that the projected results of the inquiry will draw the attention of the scientific community to the richness of the interdisciplinary potential contained in the study of language towards the understanding of social and environmental problems from a perspective of the local actors and towards their solution in a socially and culturally compatible way. By proposing a linguistic approach to the subject of development communication, it will provide practitioners with helps in order to identify communication gaps interfering with the process of development and to work out appropriate strategies of compensation. It will direct attention to neglected areas of communication research in the context of development, in particular to mostly unnoticed clashes between argumentative strategies and the area of inferential reasoning. It will provide new insights into communicative roles and their significance for transfer of innovative concepts and activation of local knowledge through local language resources.

From the viewpoint of development sociology, the project promises to fill an important gap existing between the well-researched domains of development communication on the one hand and sustainable development on the other hand. While research on the impact of externally induced communication to development has been vigorously promoted in the past few years, the language component has been almost entirely neglected. A focus on socio-economic change mediated through language as proposed in this project could bring essential new insights which could prove to be highly significant, not least for practical purposes of counselling and supervision in the domain of agricultural extension.


 
A Project of 
Volkswagen Foundation