Policy Sciences

, Volume 50, Issue 3, pp 449–468 | Cite as

How policies become contested: a spiral of imagination and evidence in a large infrastructure project

  • E. E. A. WolfEmail author
  • Wouter Van Dooren
Research Article


This article investigates how framing processes lead to polarization in the public debate on a large infrastructure project. Drawing on an analysis of newspaper articles about the “Oosterweel connection” in Antwerp (Belgium), it concludes that imaginative framing (appeals to emotions via symbolic language) and framing through evidence (appeals to rationality via factual language) mutually reinforce each other. Because of the mutual reinforcement, we talk of a spiralling motion. When evidence backs up appeals to the imagination, such as when facts back up metaphors, these appeals are endowed with authority and hence legitimacy. While this strengthens appeals that have been “proven” to be true, it also makes actors backing these appeals increasingly frustrated with other parties that still refuse to accept them. Because of their frustration, the former are spurred to launch new imaginative appeals conveying their anger and to seek new evidence to substantiate these new appeals. Going back and forth between imaginative appeals and appeals to evidence, all parties in a conflict develop their own vision of the contested issue and their own evidence base for the policy position. Over time, their tolerance for ambiguity decreases and the debate polarizes.


Frame analysis Conflict Planning Evidence-based policy-making Spatial policy Belgium 



Funding was provided by Province of Antwerp and University of Antwerp Research Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. 2016: Feiten en cijfers. (2016). Cijferboekje 2016. Retrieved from
  2. Bateson, G. (1987). A theory of play and fantasy. In G. Bateson (Ed.), Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, pshychiatrie, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 138–148). Northvale: Jason Aronson Inc.Google Scholar
  3. Boswell, J. (2014). “Hoisted with our own petard”: Evidence and democratic deliberation on obesity. Policy Sciences, 47(4), 345–365. doi: 10.1007/s11077-014-9195-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brillouet, W. (2014, February 12). Regering moet kiezen: Mobiliteit vs leefbaarheid. Gazet van Antwerpen, p. 16.Google Scholar
  5. Broto, V. C. (2013). Symbolic violence and the politics of environmental pollution science: The case of coal ash pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Antipode, 45(3), 621–640. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.01059.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brummans, B. H. J. M., Putnam, L. L., Gray, B., Hanke, R., Lewicki, R. J., & Wiethoff, C. (2008). Making sense of intractable multiparty conflict: A study of framing in four environmental disputes. Communication Monographs, 75(1), 25–51. doi: 10.1080/03637750801952735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burningham, K. (2000). Using the language of NIMBY: A topic for research, not an activity for researchers. Local Environment, 5(1), 55–67. doi: 10.1080/135498300113264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Campbell, J. L. (1998). Institutional analysis and the role of ideas in political economy. Theory and Society, 27(3), 377–409. doi: 10.1023/A:1006871114987.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Claeys, M. (2005, September 7). Schuif de Oosterweelbrug dan noordwaarts. De Standaard, p. 36.Google Scholar
  10. De Baere, M. (2009, March 7). Hoe de Lange Wapper crashte aan een keukentafel in Borgerhout. De Morgen, p. 26.Google Scholar
  11. Demeester-De meyer, W. (2009, October 16). Wivina Demeester vindt dat Oosterweel past bij een ambitieuze stad. De Morgen, p. 26.Google Scholar
  12. Dewulf, A., Craps, M., & Dercon, G. (2004). How issues get framed and reframed when different communities meet: A multi-level analysis of a collaborative soil conservation initiative in the Ecuadorian Andes. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14(3), 177–192. doi: 10.1002/casp.772.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dewulf, A., Gray, B., Putnam, L., Lewicki, R., Aarts, N., Bouwen, R., et al. (2009). Disentangling approaches to framing in conflict and negotiation research: A meta-paradigmatic perspective. Human Relations. doi: 10.1177/0018726708100356.Google Scholar
  14. Durnova, A. (2013). A tale of “fat cats” and “stupid activists”: Contested values, governance and reflexivity in the Brno railway station controversy. Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning. doi: 10.1080/1523908X.2013.829749.Google Scholar
  15. Edelman, M. (1977). Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail. New York: Academic press.Google Scholar
  16. Elliott, M. (2003). Risk perception frames in environmental decision making. Environmental Practice, 5(03), 214–222. doi: 10.1017/S1466046603035609.Google Scholar
  17. Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01304.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Falter, R. (2005, September 24). Diesel over de dokken. De Tijd, p. 13.Google Scholar
  19. Fischer, F. (2000). Citizens, experts, and the environment: The politics of local knowledge. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fischer, F. (2003). Reframing public policy: Discursive politics and deliberative practices. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Flyvbjerg, B. (2004). Phronetic planning research: Theoretical and methodological reflections. Planning Theory and Practice, 5(3), 283–306. doi: 10.1080/1464935042000250195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Goffman, E. (1986). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gottweis, H. (2007). Rhetoric in policy making: Between logos, ethos, and pathos. In F. Fischer, G. J. Miller, & M. S. Sidney (Eds.), Handbook of public policy analysis: Theory, politics, and methods (pp. 237–250). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  24. Gray, B. (2003). Framing of environmental disputes. In R. J. Lewicki, B. Gray, & M. Elliott (Eds.), Making sense of intractable environmental conflicts (pp. 11–34). Washington: Island Press.Google Scholar
  25. Gusfield, J. R. (1981). The culture of public problems: Drinking-driving and the symbolic order. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  26. Hajer, M. A. (2005). Coalitions, practices, and meaning in environmental politics: From acid rain to BSE. In D. Howarth & J. Torfing (Eds.), Discourse theory in European politics (pp. 297–315). Basingstoke: Palgrave macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Healey, P. (2007). Urban complexity and spatial strategies. Towards a relational planning for our times. Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Hisschemöller, M., & Hoppe, R. (1995). Coping with intractable controversies: The case for problem structuring in policy design and analysis. Knowledge and Policy, 8(4), 40–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kurtz, H. E. (2003). Scale frames and counter-scale frames: Constructing the problem of environmental injustice. Political Geography, 22(8), 887–916. doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2003.09.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  31. Laws, D., & Rein, M. (2003). Reframing practice. In M. A. Hajer & H. Wagenaar (Eds.), Deliberative policy analysis. Understanding governance in the network society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. McAvoy, G. E. (1998). Partisan probing and democratic decisionmaking: Rethinking the Nimby Syndrome. Policy Studies Journal, 26(2), 274–292. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-0072.1998.tb01899.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Moran, L., & Rau, H. (2014). Mapping divergent concepts of sustainability: Lay knowledge, local practices and environmental governance. Local Environment, 9839(October), 1–17. doi: 10.1080/13549839.2014.963838.Google Scholar
  34. Nedlund, A., & Garpenby, P. (2014). Puzzling about problems: The ambiguous search for an evidence-based strategy for handling influx of health technology. Policy Sciences, 47(4), 367–386. doi: 10.1007/s11077-014-9198-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Novy, J., & Peters, D. (2012). Railway station mega-projects as public controversies: The case of Stuttgart 21. Built Environment, 38(1), 128–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pellizzoni, L. (2011). The politics of facts: Local environmental conflicts and expertise. Environmental Politics, 20(6), 765–785. doi: 10.1080/09644016.2011.617164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rein, M., & Schön, D. (1993). Reframing policy discourse. In F. Fischer & J. Forester (Eds.), The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning (pp. 145–166). London: UCL Press Limited.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rein, M., & Schön, D. (1996). Frame-critical policy analysis and frame-reflective policy practice. Knowledge and Policy, 9(1), 85–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Schmidt, V. A. (2008). Discursive institutionalism: The explanatory power of ideas and discourse. Annual Review of Political Science, 11(1), 303–326. doi: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060606.135342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Schön, D. A., & Rein, M. (1994). Frame reflection: Toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York: Basic books.Google Scholar
  41. Snow, D. A., Rochford, E. B., Worden, S. K., & Benford, R. D. (1986). Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation. American Sociological Review, 51(4), 464. doi: 10.2307/2095581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. “Stad speelt met vuur.” (2005). Het Nieuwsblad/Antwerpen, p. 20.Google Scholar
  43. Stone, D. (2002). Policy paradox. The art of political decision making (Revised ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  44. Throgmorton, J. A. (2003). Planning as persuasive storytelling in a global-scale web of relationships. Planning Theory, 2(2), 125–151. doi: 10.1177/14730952030022003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. van Dijk, T. (2011). Imagining future places: How designs co-constitute what is, and thus influence what will be. Planning Theory, 10, 124–143. doi: 10.1177/1473095210386656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. van Eeten, M. J. (1999). Dialogues of the deaf: Defining new agendas for environmental deadlocks. Delft: Eburon.Google Scholar
  47. Van Eeten, M., & Roe, E. (2000). When fiction conveys truth and authority. Journal of the American Planning Association, 66(1), 58–67. doi: 10.1080/01944360008976084.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. van Eeten, M. J. G. (2001). Recasting intractable issues: The wider implications of the Netherlands civil aviation controversy. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 20(3), 391–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. van Herzele, A., & Aarts, N. (2013). “My forest, my kingdom”-self-referentiality as a strategy in the case of small forest owners coping with government regulations. Policy Sciences, 46(1), 63–81. doi: 10.1007/s11077-012-9157-7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. van Hulst, M., & Yanow, D. (2014). From policy “frames” to “framing”: Theorizing a more dynamic, political approach. The American Review of Public Administration. doi: 10.1177/0275074014533142.Google Scholar
  51. van Lieshout, M., Dewulf, A., Aarts, N., & Termeer, C. (2011). Do scale frames matter? Scale frame mismatches in the decision making process of a “mega farm” in a small Dutch village. Ecology and Society, 16(1), 38.Google Scholar
  52. Verelst, J. (2009a). Een brug te ver? Hoe de Lange Wapper aan het wankelen ging. Antwerpen: Manteau.Google Scholar
  53. Verelst, J. (2009b, October 17). Campagne voeren op enthousiasme en overtuiging. De Morgen, p. 26.Google Scholar
  54. Verelst, J. (2009c, October 19). Patrick Janssens: ‘Dit wordt geen boksmatch maar een schaakspel, elke zet is van belang.’ De Morgen, p. 2.Google Scholar
  55. Verhoeven, I., & Duyvendak, J. W. (2015). Enter emotions. Appealing to anxiety and anger in a process of municipal amalgamation. Critical Policy Studies, 0171, 1–18. doi: 10.1080/19460171.2015.1032990.Google Scholar
  56. Vliegenthart, R., & van Zoonen, L. (2011). Power to the frame: Bringing sociology back to frame analysis. European Journal of Communication, 26(2), 101–115. doi: 10.1177/0267323111404838.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wagenaar, H., & Hajer, M. (2003). Deliberative policy analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Wesselink, A., Colebatch, H., & Pearce, W. (2014). Evidence and policy: Discourses, meanings and practices. Policy Sciences, 47(4), 339–344. doi: 10.1007/s11077-014-9209-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wolsink, M. (2000). Wind power and the NIMBY-myth: Institutional capacity and the limited significance of public support. Renewable Energy, 21, 49–64. doi: 10.1016/S0960-1481(99)00130-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

Personalised recommendations