When places collide: power, conflict and meaning at Malheur

  • Micah L. IngallsEmail author
  • Amy Kohout
  • Richard C. Stedman
Special Feature: Original Article Sense of place in social - ecological systems: From theory to empirical exploration
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Sense of Place in Social - Ecological Systems: From Theory to Empirical Exploration


Place meanings—notions of what a given location is, and what it ought to be—are critical to the social negotiations that produce regulatory and management regimes. These, in turn, contribute to the material social–ecological outcomes that determine both the sustainability of system processes and the ways in which costs and benefits are distributed across society. Ascribed meanings are foundational to the social determination of what constitutes a ‘desirable’ system state, a core concern of resilience-based approaches to managing sustainability transformations. However, place meanings are never simple or unitary—they are diverse, overlapping, and often contested. While such contestations over place meanings may remain latent, at times they erupt into overt social conflict wherein competing narratives of place find visceral, and even violent, expression. Taking a particular case—the armed standoff between ranchers and federal agents at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the United States in early 2016—we examine the ways in which place meanings and associated place claims first informed and then gave rise to violent conflict, and explore the relevance of these for understanding social–ecological processes in contested places and implications for transformation toward sustainability. Tracing the origins of the conflict at Malheur through the contested histories of place-making in the American West, we argue: (1) place meanings are produced and compete across a highly uneven landscape of power wherein some place claims are privileged while others struggle to gain traction; (2) contested place meanings come to particular dominance when they achieve the status of ‘normal’—when they inform the taken-for-granted lenses through which society views a place. However, dominant claims are never hegemonic, always facing the threat of subaltern claims, and so the process of place-making is never finished; (3) place meanings and conflict over these are often brought to our attention in contemporary time involving local places, but they are typically the product of very pre-contemporary and non-local influences and trajectories, pointing to important cross-scalar relationships; and (4) conflict over place meanings and claims, while problematic and sometimes destructive, may also be generative. Conflict provides moments of opportunity wherein latent contestations are surfaced and made explicit, prompting new social negotiations that may lead to new and surprising outcomes. We also explore the implications of contestation over place meanings with regard to the production of social capital and possible roles that place attachment may play in fostering resilience within contested areas and informing efforts to navigate change toward more sustainable futures.


Place-making Place meanings Conflict Social–ecological systems American West 



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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Development and EnvironmentUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of HistoryColorado CollegeColoradoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Natural Resources and EnvironmentCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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