KWI – Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Intitut Essen, KWI)

Research areas

Project New Regional Formations: Rapid Environmental Change and Migration in Coastal Regions of Ghana and Indonesia

Principal investigators: Prof. Dr. Michael Flitner (Sustainability Research Center, Unversität Bremen), Prof. Dr. Volker Heins (KWI)
Cooperation Partner: Sustainability Research Center (Unversität Bremen), Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (Universität Bremen), Jacobs University Bremen, Freie Universität Berlin
Funded by VolkswagenStiftung
Duration: 01/2014 - 12/2016

Foto: M. Lukas
Angelnde Kinder in der Großstadt Semarang in Zentraljava, Foto: M. Lukas


Coastal regions are focal points of social and ecological change. They are traditionally destinations of regional migratory movements as well as gateways for and to international migration networks, and they often function as central nodes of transfer in larger migration regimes. At the same time, coasts around the globe are continuously undergoing morphological and ecological change on different spatial and temporal scales through, among others, geomorphological and climatic factors. The reciprocal influences between the two spheres are at the center of two key concerns of today’s societies: environmental/climate change and migration. One of the key assumptions of our research project is that rapid environmental change in coastal regions of Africa and Asia creates what the sociologist Kai Erikson has called ‘a new species of trouble’ for the affected populations. This trouble differs from more familiar troubles brought about by calamities such as war, civil unrest or economic crises, because there are no established systems of meaning and explanation of what is going on and no routines that tell people how to respond to those changes. Rapid environmental change can result in single disastrous events or in longer-term, chronic conditions that affect the livelihoods of local populations slowly and insidiously, often forcing them to adjust in radically new ways, for instance by migrating. In this process, people draw on cultural resources which can be defined as ‘an ensemble of enabling conditions for problem-solving’ (Habermas). To the extent to which cultural resources are, first, relatively autonomous from other resources and circumstances and, second, differ from group to group, people in the selected coastal regions can be expected to respond differently to events and conditions created by rapid environmental change. Using the concept of ‘risk cultures’, we want to expand our attention beyond established institutions to include non-institutional settings governed by cultural codes, narratives and symbols. Risk cultures determine how people think, act and feel in challenging situations, but also what they imagine to be their possible futures.

Importantly, we argue that cultural worldviews and stocks of knowledge should not only be seen as shaping people’s perception and their readiness to take risks ; neither is culture only one among other ‘factors’ influencing migration decisions. Rather, we assume that cultures, instead of being fixed to territories, travel with migrants, shaping their outlooks and actions along the way. Following James Clifford and Ulf Hannerz, sociologists and anthropologists increasingly insist on the mobility of cultural meanings: ‘people move with their meanings’. This has consequences for the design of research projects which also need to become more mobile. It is also important to note that cultural ways of meaning-making may change in the process of migration. Formerly well-organized ‘packages of meanings and meaningful forms’ may become untied or fall apart, dissolving the social bond and weakening the moral fiber of individuals and groups. But people may also seek new bases for expanding their economic, political, discursive and personal networks, thereby contributing to what we call new regional formations.

  • Further Cooperation Partners:

Prof. Dr. Felicitas Hillmann, FU Berlin
Prof Dr. Achim Schlüter und Prof Dr. Hildegard Westphal,
Leibniz Zentrum für Marine Tropenökologie