You might remember that only a short time ago it was generally accepted that the Dutch or British ways to integration via a multicultural approach (i.e. stimulating different identities to be maintained and preserved by fostering and enabling dialogue and conversation) had produced effective results; while the traditional US based approach to integration via the ‘melting pot’ had exploded in the early eighties with the eruption of traditional American societal values. So the story went…
Not so now… as the relatively recent assassination of van Gogh in Holland and the London bombings in the UK produced an impressive and immediate recoil of public rhetoric for the multicultural approach and showed that, maybe in some cases, history can really appear to turn back.
In attempting to conduct a post analysis of this phenomena and trying to understand its dynamics, I have recently run into an interesting concept, that of immaterial infrastructure.
One possible explanation for the impressive suddenness of that reverse could be that in both countries, at the time of those two unexpected events, there was an insufficient ‘immaterial infrastructure’, meaning that the multicultural approach had not sufficiently rooted itself into both ethnic and mainstream societies. A tragic and globally mediatised event quickly decomposed those many threads of coexistence, dialogue and mutual recognition which had been developed at enormous costs by individuals, communities and the State.
Having the privilege of passing and enjoying my private life with a reputed contemporary historian, I asked her why she maintains that history never repeats itself and confronted her with the ‘immaterial infrastructure’ concept. She reacted by saying that when it ‘appears’ that history turns back this is only an optical illusion as, to the contrary, society is so mobile that, despite what the media implies or says, its components are always in constant development.
This made me think of what happens when an unexpected crisis hits two organizations operating in the same sector, involved in producing comparable outputs but the outcomes of that crisis are so diverse: one organization explodes and disappears, the other survives and emerges from the crisis in better conditions. I have seen this happen many times, as I am sure you have as well.
Is there a correlation? Is it possible that the surviving organization had a rooted ‘immaterial infrastructure’ while the other’s was absent or insufficient?
The idea of ‘immaterial infrastructure’ is at least as oxymoronic as many of my colleagues claim that the two way tendentially symmetric public relations model is…. but there has been, since it was conceptualised, sufficient evidence to prove that it is highly effective, certainly much more than the traditional scientific persuasive one.
If this is so, it is important that we operate quickly and intensively to make sure that the blows our professional community receives day-in and day-out from many undesired and pervasive professional practices, do not have the same effects on our reputation and, more importantly, on society that the van Gogh assassination or the London bombings had on the Dutch or British integration models.
So the issue then becomes: how does one define ‘immaterial infrastructure’? Which are its principal components? And how can we distinguish, as with any other infrastructure, those components which are structural to the whole, from those which need to be flexible and to be constantly adapted so that the ‘edifice’ -as my highly esteemed friend and mentor James Grunig elaborates- sways without collapsing and thus adapts to the inevitable and constant change which our profession is experiencing in this so testing period?
It is obvious that the components of the ‘immaterial infrastructure’ of an organization have a lot to do with the relationships it is capable of developing with its influential publics and the environment it operates in. This implies culture, values (which by the way, as I learned recently from a new friend, the reputed international consultant Fons Trompenaars, are not added but may only integrate or clash), myths and many other elements… all having to do with communication practices.
As much as it still might sound esoteric to some, most of us are by now used to dealing with (or at least being aware of) these components.
But, as with the Dutch and the British cases of the analogy, it is clear that whoever was responsible for governing those multicultural integration efforts, failed in dissecting the structural elements of the infrastructure (in which much more investments were necessary) from the super structural ones (if you accept this Marxist reminiscence), which probably absorbed too much attention.
Thus, to avoid the same error, we must be able to distinguish the ones from the others.
And this, besides of course your opinions on whether the whole argument makes some sense, is where I would very much like to learn from you: which are the structural and which the super structural elements of our profession’s ‘immaterial infrastructure’?