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

Eva Wolf, Wouter Van Dooren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)449-468
Number of pages20
JournalPolicy Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • policy framing, policy frames, frame analysis, policy analysis, sense-making, naming, categorizing,
  • planning
  • evidence-based
  • Policy Making
  • Infrastructure
  • Belgium


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