Starting Point and Aim

Starting from the allegedly trivial fact that any kind of socially relevant expertise needs to be couched in language in order to be communicable, the network aims to focus on language (or more precisely linguistic signs and their combination) as a medium that constitutes expert knowledge to enable the analysis of problems in expert and professional communication as well as problems in “publicised” and public communication about expert knowledge.
The aim of the network is to detect communication difficulties at the earliest possible stage, i.e. when specialised subjects and professional facts are being constituted in technical texts and discourses through language. Thus the aim is to detect these difficulties even before any publication of expert knowledge could be investigated from a specifically linguistic point of view. It is consequently assumed that all knowledge is, inter alia, encoded linguistically and that therefore problems of mediation should be solved through a cooperation between the respective professional experts and linguists.
For this reason the network consists of linguists who professionally and linguistically focus on a specialised body of knowledge. They work closely with experts in their chosen field to support their technical understanding.
The establishment of an interdisciplinary research network led by linguists and institutional connection of the scientific knowledge should satisfy the prerequisites for external funds.

  • Introductory remarks on the project
  • Hypotheses concerning the idea for the project and the research network
  • Consequences for the construction and organisation of the research network
  • The structure of the network: Domains of knowledge, project management, partners
  • Conclusions and tasks

 

Introductory remarks on the project

Disputes relevant to the general public are often discussed within the respective domains of knowledge prior to becoming known to the so-called public. The discussions that take place can be explained by means of methods of discourse description that have, inter alia, been developed in linguistics. If the discussions become part of the public discourse and are continued in supra-regional publications, the experts privy to the facts are usually surprised at how differently the facts are presented to the public from how they conceived them. This phenomenon can be explained by the distinction – known to media experts – between actuality (Wirklichkeit) and reality (Realität) (Schmidt 1996).
Actuality here means the tangible world that can be experienced and grasped through the senses, reality means the medially reproduced and thereby inevitably constructed scenario thereof. In view of this differentiation, we as citizens of the so-called age of information are to a large degree confronted with reality, i.e. with products that pretend to show actuality. When absorbing socio-politically relevant events we consequently deal with linguistically designed materials that have transformed actuality into reality. The linguistic and symbolic signs and concatenations of signs of the mass media are, therefore, a selected segment of the world viewed from the specific perspective of an interest-led constitution of reality in the spectrum of diverse actualities.

 

Hypotheses concerning the idea for the project and the research network

The following hypotheses illustrate the aims and the context:

  • The pre-scientific and intuitive assumption that the media report events is simplistic and untenable in this form. Although this our assumption, as media recipients has been frequently shaken, it remains the stereotypical attitude when exposed to media productions. The problem here is that linguistically constituted actualities are taken to be constants. In addition, it is believed that the media only want to represent or explain already existing facts. The process of putting things into words in order to create understanding as such is neither discussed from a semiotic nor from any other point of view. Such a purely instrumental (if not mechanistic) perspective, moreover, implies a naïve 1:1 relation between the linguistic sign and its ontological entity (i.e. the assumption of an ontologic-essential quality of the world and its objects). By contrast, S.J. Schmidt, amongst others, sees the meaning of media products (e.g. texts) not as ontological entities, but as results of socio-culturally oriented cognitive operations with regard to media products in concrete contexts. Signs and sign concatenations instruct cognition and communication but they do not direct them. The facts that are created through declarative speech acts in institutional media communication are characterised by various ontological categories of appearances (such as humans, events, actions, thoughts and objects). These categories, thus, have a certain status imposed on them and are thereby declared to be facts relevant to the general public. For the execution of such declarative speech acts to be effective, the speaker needs to have the authority and the relevant position within the systematic relations of the institutions.
  • The widespread constructivist thesis that the media creates media reality out of actuality that can be experienced suppresses the aspect that the reality of the mass media can also be created without an actual counterpart.
  • Often it is the media that establish a scientific fact as a social fact and only thereby create a fact that has its own peculiar quality and that would not exist without the institutional media communication. Such “media realities” without actual counterparts in the respective domains of knowledge are the reason for the surprise and insecurity of the experts. Many experts perceive such text transformations (i.e. the changing of a text through the transfer from technical to meditative texts) as distortions and attribute them to defective or disturbed communication.

 

Consequences for the construction and organisation of the research network

To make the above noted distortions of information through their transformation into texts better understandable, it is necessary to engage both technical and linguistic experts of the respective domains of knowledge. Linguistic critiques of the numerous mediation attempts stress the realisation that the problem cannot be solved through focussing unilaterally on meditative texts. Only if the specific technical conditions of constitution of the respective domain of expertise and knowledge are explained with regard to their properties of actuality can the problem be solved. An adequate mediation of the two discourses is not possible without knowledge of the way in which technical objects (in opposition to the everyday constitution of life) are created in technical jargon.

 

The structure of the network: Domains of knowledge, project management, partners

The consequences of these insights affect all domains of knowledge equally. The tasks in the respective domains of knowledge can only be dealt with adequately, if the technical experts of the respective domains of knowledge cooperate with linguists or rather discourse analysts skilled in the respective domain. Jointly, they present a technically well-versed tandem of professionals.

Currently assigned domains are:

The network can be expanded at any time.

 

Conclusions and tasks

The following research desideratum forms the central point of the network’s agenda: Difficulties in technical and professional communication as well as in “publicised” and public communication about technical knowledge are to be analysed from a linguistic point of view.
For this it is necessary to start not with the mediating texts, but with the technical texts of the technical discourse. Technical knowledge that has been created in the so-called public will be consistently analysed as to the role the medium language has with regard to the constitution of technical facts. The assumption here is that knowledge in all areas is, inter alia, constituted linguistically and should consequently be dealt with by a cooperation of technical experts and linguists. This tandem is best placed to attend to text transformations, i.e. the changes in text that occur when technical texts are conveyed into meditative texts.

 

The following three questions are considered helpful in dealing with all of the domains:

  • Which technically controversial facts in the respective domain of knowledge are relevant or of interest to the general public?
  • What linguistic research is available in the domain?
  • What consequences result from this for technical and professional communication as well as for “publicised” and public communication about the subject?

The projects managers are attempting to answer these questions and to structure the respective domains according to their specific discourse conditions.

 

Ekkehard Felder (project initiator and coordinator)