Talking Across the Waterline: A Study of Cross-Sector Communication and the Challenge of Resolving Agricultural Conflicts around Water
This paper presents the results of an experiment in multi-stakeholder consensus-building. The grant-funded project, funded by University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenges initiative, worked with “Future IQ” to facilitate a two day-long event bringing together 64 participants representing agribusiness, environmental nonprofits, government, and educator-researchers. A team of videographers filmed four breakout sessions involving cross-sector dialogue. Combining quantitative content analysis (Krippendorff, 2018; Neuendorf, 2016) and qualitative conversation analysis (Lester & O'Reilly, 2018), the authors examined videos and transcripts in order to better understand how participants across all four sectors contributed to the conversation.
After accounting for the relative numbers of participants in each sector, agribusiness and education representatives spoke more often, spoke for longer periods of time, used more words per speaker, and used more words per sentence than participants in the other groups. More problematic than the overrepresentation of business voices was the relative silence of the nonprofit sector. There was also a high level of rhetorical hegemony. For example, the term “consumers” was used almost exclusively to refer to people or “stakeholders” outside the conversation. Other lexical options, such as “citizens,” barely registered. This is important because the ways that subjects of a conversation are interpellated (Althusser, 2006) says much about a conversation’s rhetorical framing and therefore the ecopolitical possibilities of a dialogue. The authors suggest several applications, especially for facilitators of cross-sector dialogue and nonprofit participants. The former need to be attuned to the rhetorical tendencies of each sector. The latter, nonprofit environmental communicators, need to become very actively involved when entering into multi-sector dialogues.