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ECPR Joint Sessions 14-17 April 2020

How Policy Conflicts Develop: Interpretation and Action in Policy Making

When: 14 – 17 April 2020

Where: Toulouse (France)

Who: Imrat Verhoeven and Wouter van Dooren

Organisation: ECPR Joint Sessions

In policy studies, conflict is generally treated as something to be avoided or resolved. Good policy processes seek consensus by creating mutual gains (Susskind & Cruikshank 1987, Susskind & Field 1996) to allow for the normative ‘leap from is to ought’ that characterizes policy change (Rein & Schon 1993). As Weible and Heikkila (2017) observe, policy scholars and political scientists mostly treat conflict as a background concept while focusing on other phenomena, or they study conflict indirectly as protest mobilization, competing values, or other political activities. While Weible and Heikkila (2017) try to fill this research gap by putting forward their Policy Conflict Framework (PCF) based on the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) within policy studies, we propose to approach policy conflict from a foundation in conflict studies and in Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA).In this workshop we seek to push the development of an approach to policy conflicts that begins from the analytic categories developed in conflict studies (Rubin et al. 1994, Deutsch 1973, Glasl 1982, Schelling 1960, Alxelrod 1984) and that builds on the seminal interpretive work on policy controversies by Schön and Rein (1994) and ensuing work by Laws and Forester (2015), Laws et al. (2014), Dodge and Metze (2017), Wolf and van Dooren (2017), Verloo (2015), Cuppen (2011) and Verhoeven and Duyvendak (2015). The workshop aims at two contributions to develop further debate on policy conflicts.

Our first contribution is to analyze policy conflict as it develops in interactions among stakeholders. Building on the interpretive tradition in policy analysis (Majone 1989, Fischer & Forester 1993, Hajer & Wagenaar 2003, Stone 2012), we focus on language as a communicative practice in which values, perceptions, beliefs, interests and findings are contested and get shaped and reshaped, constructed and reconstructed in discourses via framing, story telling, and categorization. Contrary to Weible and Heikkila’s (2017) structural approach to policy conflicts, which treats values and belief systems as resistant to change, we argue that policy conflicts cannot be predicted on the basis of value positions or structural attributes. Hence we treat policy conflicts as emerging through interactions. Over the course of a conflict, expectations of consequences are brought into focus, stakeholders are prompted to reflect on their interests and on what they view as appropriate goals. In the course of this process they continuously evaluate what range of action is possible and desirable. As such, we see policy conflict as inherently open: conflict can always become better or worse through the agency of those who are involved. In order to analyze such conflict, we need to understand the interaction between sense-making and strategic action at play in the contentious interactions between stakeholders in policy conflicts.Our second contribution lies in our focus on the domain of action. It is in the domain of action that policies pinch, needs and interests get articulated through this experience, and stakeholders shape the horizon of the possible through their interactions. In these interactions, perceptions become historical features as stakeholders act on them. As actions become history, potential traps for escalation are created, but so too are opportunities for learning and change via reflection and improvisation. Here we build on Lipsky’s (1980) analysis which stresses that policy is made not only in the offices of ministries, political parties, state officials and interest groups, but in important ways on the streets where policy on paper gets enacted. The same can be said of policy conflict. Plans to build new highway connections, to strenghten dikes, to extract shale gas through fracking, to house asylum-seekers, or even to locate playgrounds all involve a shift from policy to action. Individuals react, action groups form, and standing organizations get involved as they try to make sense of the situation in which they find themselves. In and through their interactions with proponents of policies, conflicts start, escalate, and develop, whether towards stalemate or settlement. This focus on the domain of action is complementary to Weible and Heikkila’s (2017) analysis of institutionalized policy settings and the system world of policy actors. Our interpretive analytical approach, however, is markedly different from their structural approach, as explained above.

Why this matters
We need to develop a richer understanding of policy conflicts’ deeply political nature. Policy conflicts are driven by difference and ambiguity. The former speaks both to differences in stakes as well as to the human propensity to emphasize difference in setting expectations and interpreting actions. The latter is the idea that language and symbols ‘(…) can mean two or more things simultaneously’ (Stone 2012: 178). In a conflict, everyone is reading the situation (including the motives and likely actions of others) and making projections about what is about to happen through their own keyhole. This makes policy conflicts deeply political, in the sense of seeing politics not as an outside factor influencing a conflict, but as constitutive of and constituted through struggles between proponents and opponents of policies. Conflict is a core practice in contemporary governance which needs to be studied in the domain of action through an interpretive approach.
Research directions for the workshop
This workshop is meant to broaden the focus on policy conflicts by intervening in the academic debate started off by the PCF. The objectives of the workshop are:
• To expand the theoretical, empirical and methodological knowledge on policy conflicts
• To provide an opportunity for meeting scholars from different generations and countries sharing an interest in our perspective on policy conflicts
• To work with participants toward a contribution to the debate in the form of a special issue or an edited volume.
Guided by these aims, we want to address some overarching questions such as: How can we conceive of policy conflicts from an interpretive perspective? What are important drivers of the dynamics involved in policy conflicts? How can we normatively assess if and how policy conflicts contribute to democracy?


To find answers to these questions, the workshop envisages exploring a broad range of topics such as:

1) Developing agentic perspectives on the dynamics of policy conflicts that build on social psychological and strategic perspectives on conflict (Rubin et al. 1994, Deutsch 1973, Glasl 1982, Schelling 1960, Axelrod 1984). Another conceptual topic is further developing interpretive perspectives on policy conflicts that go beyond the classical distinction between policy disagreement and policy controversy (Schön & Rein 1994) or beyond the role of framing in intractibility of environmental conflicts (Putnam & Wondolleck 2003).

2) Institutions always play a role in policy conflicts. Whether it is the obligatory Environmental Impact Assessment that needs to be completed before construction of a controversial project can start (Wolf & Van Dooren 2017), or the possibility to organize a referendum (Durnova 2013), formal and informal rules are brought into play. Based on our interpretive approach, we see the actors in policy conflicts as drawing on formal and informal rules by interpreting, adapting, bending and resisting them (Lowndes & Roberts 2013). It could be interesting to explore how actors involved in different types of policy conflict activate different institutional environments and how these mediate their interactions.

3) Policy processes always involve knowledge, evidence, facts and numbers (Wildavsky 1987, Majone 1989, Stone 2012). Recent public policy research indicates that both proponents and opponents of policies often make use of knowledge to underpin their claims and to delegitimize the claims made by the others (Wolf & van Dooren 2017, Pellizoni 2011). In conflict resolution literature there is a long standing tradition of joint fact finding as a solution to this problem (Laws & Forester 2007). Building on both traditions, we need to deepen our understanding of the ‘knowledge wars’ that underly policy conflicts.

4) Political decision-making may lead opponents to framing procedural critique that questions the validity and the legitimacy of decision-making (Gordon & Jasper 1996, Tyler 1988). Currently we have very limited knowledge of how procedural justice claims influence policy conflict dynamics.

5) Policy conflicts often bring strong emotions into play. Proponents of policies tend to be critical of emotional resistance, while opponents of policies are influenced by strong emotions like fear, anger, distrust, moral outrage, surprise, shock or anxiety (Verhoeven & Duyvendak 2015). Research on the role of emotions in policy conflicts is only just beginning.

6) Lower tiers of government such as municipalities or regional governments may also resist policies by national governments or the EU. This happened for instance in local resistance against the negotiations of the Transatlactic Trade Agreement and Partnership (TTIP), or resistance against plans to win shale gas, to store CO2 under ground through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or resistance against processes of municipal amalgamation. Local or regional governments often collaborate with citizen action groups, NGOs or SMOs (Verhoeven & Duyvendak 2017). These clashes between lower tiers of governments and their civil society supporters with higher tiers of governments are currently understudied.

7) A final topic, is the normative assessment of policy conflicts. There is a small strand of literature in public policy arguing that policy conflicts also stand for engagement and creativity (Cuppen 2011, Laws et al. 2014, Verloo 2015). In political philosophy, we find perspectives that welcome conflicts as an integral part of democracies (Rosanvallon 2008, Mouffe 2000), while in governance literature theories have mainly focused on collaboration and largely neglected conflict as an important dimension of governance (Davies 2011, Griggs et al. 2014). The relations between policy conflicts and democracy or governance deserve further attention, also when it comes to negative influences.

We believe that this set of topics would serve the purpose of assembling an edited volume with a broad scope on policy conflicts in the domain of action, or perhaps one or two special issues in journals such as Policy Sciences or Local Government Studies.