Dismissing the" vocal minority": How policy conflict escalates when policymakers label resisting citizens

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This article investigates, through the theory of social construction and policy design, the feedforward effects of labeling on policy conflicts. It argues that such conflicts escalate when policymakers distinguish between more and less deserving and more and less powerful segments of the population. It draws on the empirical analysis of 32 narrative interviews with vital stakeholders in the conflict over the contested multibillion‐euro Oosterweelconnection highway in Antwerp (Belgium), as well as on the media analysis of 739 articles. According to such analyses, Flemish policymakers became increasingly hostile toward action groups as the latter moved beyond conventional policy‐making procedure, labeling them as a powerful but undeserving “vocal minority.” Meanwhile, they endorsed the Oosterweel policy, claiming that it represented an increasingly powerless but deserving “silent majority.” However, labeling action groups as powerful but undeserving and consequently dismissing them resulted in the escalation of a substantive policy conflict to a relational policy conflict, which became increasingly difficult to settle as parties fought each other rather than fighting over policies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)640-663
JournalPolicy Studies Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • social construction
  • policy design
  • policy conflict
  • Belgium
  • urban planning
  • policy framing, policy frames, frame analysis, policy analysis, sense-making, naming, categorizing,


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