Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

"Escape from hell..." A case study on crisis management in the chemical industry

BASF (1921/1948), Chemiekombinat Bitterfeld (1968), Sandoz (1986), Höchst (1993)

Prof. Dr. Clemens Wischermann, Porf. Dr. Katja Patzel-Mattern, Thilo Jungkind


Oppau and Ludwigshafen, Bitterfeld, Bhopal, Basel, Frankfurt, Toulouse… The list of chemical industry accidents is long. Regardless of when and where they occurred, catastrophes in the chemical industry threatened not only people’s lives and health as well as their economic and social livelihood. Far more, they questioned the modern imperative of technical progress as the foundation for social welfare. What Ulrich Beck (Risikogesellschaft, Ffm. 1986, p. 7) wrote after Chernobyl is, in a narrower sense, also relevant for the history of chemical industry accidents: “Their violence is the violence of danger that abolishes all protection zones and differentiations of modernity.” Chemical accidents thereby become a central experience of disintegration in industrial societies.

The destruction of a seemingly self-evident order at the same time allows chemical catastrophes to become a landmark in public communication. The catastrophe is not self-explanatory; it requires reflection and needs to be embedded in the relationships of meaning beyond the destruction. Discursively, a new order needs to be created in which options for action are opened and cohesion defined. The phase of transformation from a crisis following a catastrophe to a new normality is thereby distinguished by the failure of the prevailing rational system of communication up until that point. Numerous play-on-words shift into its place and take recourse to the old religious system of values in order to wring some meaning out of the catastrophe.

The development and change of these communication strategies will be examined in an historical perspective, based on the hypothesis that transcendence represents a strong value-discourse as well as the formation of common ideals related to the central aspects of crisis communication in enterprises in the event of  a catastrophe. This will be undertaken using the example of the chemical industry. This industry is ideal for a study of this type as it was symbolic for the industrial progress and social welfare of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, the industry brings with it a high risk potential. This is further exacerbated through the specific production locations close to large urban centres. The chemical industry is thereby positioned in an area of tension that, historically, was simultaneously marked by much optimism with regard to progress as well as a high element of uncertainty.

From the numerous chemical industry disasters, the analysis singles out those that occurred since the establishment of the branch in the mid/late nineteenth century, that allow an examination over a long time frame and that received special publicity at the time. These include the explosions at BASF in 1921 and 1948, the chemical accident in Bitterfeld in 1968, the fire at Sandoz in Schweizerhalle in 1986 and the disturbance at Hoechst in 1993.

The analysis addresses the question of how catastrophes following a chemical industry accident are dealt with on a communicative level. It does this on two levels – that of the media and of the enterprise. Where possible, the perspectives of those affected, whether employees or the general public, will also be taken into consideration. Central to the considerations will thereby be the internal and external communication of the firm. Firms are central factors in the order of the modern, rationally organised economic systems of the western world. Although in their current-day form an invention of the late nineteenth century, firms give the impression of unparalleled magnitudes of research, development and economics. The instability of firms is only recognised in their eruptive form, the catastrophe. At the moment of the catastrophe, the power of integration of the rational compromise of progress and prosperity is questioned. The erosion of negotiated and naturalised normality fundamentally threatens the coherence of the relationship within a given order.  In order that these be reestablished, alternative forms of communication must be activated. Elements of religious discourse arise in the place of rational argumentation.

Using the example of the catastrophic event within a thematically restricted framework, the aim of this research project is to uncover strategies through which order and meaning are given in a secular and industrial world. At the moment in which a central experience of disintegration occurs – the chemical industry catastrophe – fundamentally shaking the structures of order in the form of the firm, the environment, the region, the population, communication structures are activated which fall back on cultural resources from the area of the transcendental. The world of the homo oeconomicus comes off its progress-oriented, rational tracks and can only be reformulated through recourse to religious discourses and carried over to all involved socially integrated magnitudes of discourse in a different form. On the communicative level on which crises are dealt with, the persistence of religious discourses will be analysed. To be shown is that social integration, even within the supposedly rational field of economics, cannot be thought or achieved without the religious.



Jungkind, Thilo: Risikokultur und Störfallverhalten der chemischen Industrie
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