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van Lieshout, M., A. Dewulf, N. Aarts, and C. Termeer. 2011. Do scale frames matter? Scale frame mismatches in the decision making process about a “mega farm” in a small Dutch village. Ecology and Society 16(1): 38. [online] URL:

Research, part of Special Feature on Scale and Governance

Do Scale Frames Matter? Scale Frame Mismatches in the Decision Making Process of a “Mega Farm” in a Small Dutch Village

Maartje van Lieshout 1, Art Dewulf 2, Noelle Aarts 3,4 and Catrien Termeer 5

1PhD candidate Public Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University, 2Assistant professor Public Administration and Policy Group Wageningen University, 3Associate professor Communication Science Group Wageningen University, 4Professor Strategic Communication University of Amsterdam, 5Professor of Public Administration and Policy Wageningen University


Scale issues are an increasingly important feature of complex sustainability issues, but they are mostly taken for granted in policy processes. However, the scale at which a problem is defined as well as the scale at which it should be solved are potentially contentious issues. The framing of a problem as a local, regional, or global problem is not without consequences and influences processes of inclusion and exclusion. Little is known about the ways actors frame scales and the effect of different scale frames on decision making processes. This paper addresses the questions that different scale frames actors use and what the implications of scale frames are for policy processes. It does so by analyzing the scale frames deployed by different actors on the establishment of a so-called new mixed company or mega farm and the related decision making process in a Dutch municipality. We find that actors deploy different and conflicting scale frames, leading to scale frame mismatches. We conclude that scale frame mismatches play an important role in the stagnation of the decision making process.

Key words: decision making; frames; framing; levels; mega farm; policy process; scale mismatch; scales


Complex policy processes increasingly play out in multilevel and multiscale contexts; this means that actors and processes operating on different scales and levels are involved. Among others, administrative, spatial, and time scales can be distinguished, whose levels and boundaries do not neatly correspond with each other. This makes it difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for what, who directs the process, and how problems and solutions are defined and valued (e.g., Lovell et al. 2002, Lebel et al. 2005).

Scales can be defined as “the spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure and study any phenomenon” (Gibson et al. 2000:218). Apart from scales, levels can be distinguished. Levels are “the units of analysis that are located at the same position on a scale” (Gibson et al. 2000:218), or in other words, the different locations on a scale. On the administrative scale, for example, we can distinguish the global, European, national, provincial, and municipal levels, and on the time scale we can distinguish between, e.g., short-term and long-term processes (Cash et al. 2006). Scales, however, are not just out there as fixed entities with an unequivocal meaning. Through the process of framing, actors highlight different aspects of a situation as relevant, problematic, or urgent, and by doing so situate issues on different levels and scales. Framing refers to the interpretation process through which people construct and express how they make sense of the world around them (Gray 2003). Resilience to flooding, for example, could be framed as a national issue of dike infrastructure, or as a local issue of flood-proof housing. We use the term “scale framing,” by which we mean the process of framing an issue using a certain scale and/or level. Scale framing is not without consequences. It makes a difference in terms of actors, interests, and interdependencies whether problems are addressed at one scale level or another (Dewulf et al. 2011). Scale framing can be used as a means of legitimizing inclusion and exclusion of actors and arguments in policy processes (Kurtz 2003). Actors can behave strategically by scaling the problem such that they situate themselves at the center of power (Termeer and Kessener 2007). Obviously these processes are highly contested as actors attempt to reshape power and responsibilities (Kurtz 2003).

Although different authors address scale issues in the context of natural resource management (e.g., Lovell et al. 2002, Adger et al. 2005, Berkes 2006, Borgström et al. 2006, Young 2006, Biggs et al. 2007, Folke et al. 2007, Olsson et al. 2007, Papaik et al. 2008), only a few study scales as social constructions (e.g., Delaney and Leitner 1997, Lebel et al. 2005). In some disciplines, for example, political and human geography, the construction of scales has been studied, but only a few address the use of scale frames in policy processes (e.g., Kurtz 2003, Harrison 2006, Dewulf et al. 2011).

In this paper, we study scales as social constructions, focusing on the role of scale frames in a complex decision making process on sustainability issues. We address two related research questions: (1) Which scale frames do actors use and how do these differ from each other?; (2) What are the implications of scale frames for policy processes, with regard to inclusion and exclusion of actors and arguments?

We address these questions through an in-depth case study of the decision making process in the establishment of a so-called mega farm in a designated agricultural development area (ADA) near a small Dutch village. The fact that different actors refer to the same farm as a new mixed company (NMC), a mega farm, a pig flat, or an agricultural production park indicates that the development is contentious and gives rise to divergent frames. All these different names have different connotations and frame the farm in different ways. In this paper, we show how different actors construct and use different scale frames with regards to the farm, and we discuss their implications. In the following, we build the theoretical framework we need for the analysis, explicate the methods used, present the results, and discuss their implications.


Because we are interested in scale frames and their implications for policy making, we developed a theoretical framework starting from the concepts of policy making, frames and framing, scales and scale framing. We used theories from different scientific disciplines, including policy science, public administration, communication science, organizational psychology, and human and political geography.

Policy making

We followed authors like Stone (1988), Fischer and Forester (1993), and Hajer and Wagenaar (2003) in their idea that public policy is largely made up of language. As Fischer and Forester (1993:2) make clear: “Policy analysis and planning are practical processes of argumentation.” Deborah Stone explains that the essence of policy making is the struggle over ideas: “Policy making is a constant struggle over the criteria for classification, the boundaries of categories and the definition of ideas that guide the way people behave” (1988:11). Policy making is reasoning by metaphor and analogy; it is trying to get others to see the situation as one thing rather than another (Stone 1988). In other words, “policymaking is mostly a matter of persuasion” (Goodin et al. 2006:5).

From this point of view, problems, causes, and solutions are not given, but “created in the minds of citizens by other citizens, leaders, organizations, and government agencies, as an essential part of political maneuvering. Symbols, stories, metaphors, and labels are all weapons in the armamentarium” (Stone 1988:156). The fact that problems, causes, and solutions are created by individuals and groups in society leads to a multiplicity of perspectives on the problem, its causes, and possible solutions. According to Rein and Schön (1996), this multiplicity in the policy realm is reason for worry. They suggest a frame-reflective approach to deal with it.

In line with this, we view the decision making process under study as part of a larger policy process (see Appendix 1), that is, as a series of on-going discursive negotiations (see also Aarts and van Woerkum 2002). This means that we discuss the impact of scale frames on ongoing negotiations, not on succeeding stages in a policy process.

Frames and framing

We used theories on frames and framing (Bateson 1972, Goffman 1974, Schön and Rein 1994, Lewicki et al. 2003, Aarts and van Woerkum 2006, Dewulf et al. 2009) to obtain a better understanding of how actors use scale frames to make sense of contentious issues. Frame analysis starts from the idea that people make sense of situations for themselves and for others by means of certain perspectives or frames that they deploy in interaction (Weick 1995, Kurtz 2003, Harrison 2006, van Lieshout and Aarts 2008, Dewulf et al. 2009). As Entman (1993:52) puts it, “to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating context, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” Consequently, the framing of an issue, including scale framing, is the result of processes of interaction and negotiations between different actors, and at the same time it is the input for these processes. A policy process consists of a series of framings of the issues under debate.


The concept of scale is applied in different scientific disciplines that attribute different meanings to it. Different scale dimensions can be distinguished; for example, spatial, temporal, or administrative scales. Furthermore, the concepts of scale, level, hierarchy, etc., are used as synonyms in certain disciplines whereas they are strictly separated in others. Gibson et al. (2000) and Buizer et al. (2011) present an overview of how scales are conceptualized in various disciplines.

We drew on the literature on politics of scale in human and political geography to discuss the use of scales as sense-making devices. This approach defines scale as a social construct, “suggesting that scale is not pre-given but a way of framing conceptions of political-spatiality” (Kurtz 2003:894, see also Delaney and Leitner 1997, Marston 2000, Brenner 2001, Harrison 2006). A problem may, temporarily, be formulated in such a way that certain scales become dominant whereas others are attributed less significance. “Central to the politics of scale is the manipulation of power and authority by actors and institutions operating and situating themselves at different [spatial] scales. This process is highly contested, involving numerous negotiations and struggles between different actors as they attempt to reshape [the spatiality of] power and authority” (Leitner 2004:238-239, author’s brackets, Dewulf et al. 2009). To put it differently, the setting of a scale depends on the actors involved and the goals they pursue, and vice versa. It is a causal circular process in which social, institutional, structures influence problem definitions and problem definitions influence social structures (Termeer and Kessener 2007, Dewulf et al. 2011).

Scale frames

In this paper, we focus on the scale frames that different actors construct to understand the role of these frames in the sense-making of an issue in policy processes. Scale frames can be considered as a specific type of issue frame, i.e., framing the topic of concern, that actors use in communicative contexts, in addition to other frames, such as identity frames, i.e., framing one’s own identity, characterization frames, i.e., characterizing other stakeholders, or power frames, i.e., framing the power relations of the actors involved (Gray 2003).

Kurtz (2003:894) makes a distinction between scale frames and counter-scale frames. “Scale frames are the discursive practices that construct meaningful (and actionable) linkages between the scale at which a social problem is experienced and the scale(s) at which it could be politically addressed or resolved.” She uses the term counter-scale frame to “refer to an action frame intended to undermine the resonance and persuasiveness of a given scale frame” (Kurtz 2003:907).


Methodological approach

We used an interpretive approach (Yanow 2000, Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006) to study the scale frames of the different actors. Interpretive methods were based on the presupposition that we live in a social world characterized by the possibility of multiple interpretations (Yanow 2000). Interpretive researchers try to understand the way in which people, or groups of people, give meaning to specific events (Van Bommel 2008).

We see our case and analysis as a powerful example of an in-depth scale frame study from which we can learn about the implications of scale framing in complex policy processes in other contexts (see Flyvbjerg 2006).

Data collection

We analyzed our case by means of:
  • Seventeen semistructured interviews. Semistructured interviews do not follow a prefixed list of questions but allow for a conversation based on predetermined themes (e.g., Silverman 2001). We interviewed representatives of all involved parties, i.e., politicians, civil servants, farmers, citizens, action group.
  • Studying four important moments in the municipal decision making process, i.e., council meetings about the ADA and/or the NMC, in which the different stakeholders interacted.
  • Studying policy documents, newspaper articles, and reports.
Data analysis

The conversations and council meetings were audio-taped and typed out verbatim. The transcripts of the interviews and council meetings were repeatedly read and compared. The contents of the transcripts were coded, using software for qualitative data analysis (Atlas-ti). Parts of the coded texts were subsequently categorized, analyzed, and interpreted using the theories and concepts discussed in the previous section.

The first step in our analysis was to read the transcripts looking for words, phrases, etc., that could possibly point toward scale-related issues; for example, words such as scale, scale effect, large-scale, scale-up; words related to time, referring to time scales; words relating to spatial or administrative areas; words relating to the size of the farm, etc. Subsequently, we coded the quotations around these words as different scale frames in Atlas-ti. Scale frames were deployed throughout the different interviews and formed 27% of the coded quotations (17 conversation transcripts, in which 1,529 quotations were coded, of which 408 with scale-related codes; the council meetings were only coded for scale frames). Next we looked in detail at how the respondents built up their frames, and we made interpretations of the arguments they presented.

To ensure a systematic analysis, we made a theoretical division of spatial, administrative, agricultural, and time scales (see Table 1). This is a theoretical division because these scales are not completely separable: sometimes they coincide, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they conflict. In other words, these scales map the world in different ways, but they do relate to each other.

To illustrate the different scale frames used by the different actors, we analyzed the stories of three key actors in the case: the alderman, the founder of the local action group, and the chicken farmer in the NMC consortium (Appendices 2, 3, 4). These key actors can be seen as representing the main groups in the process, and their quoted citations were chosen because they are the best examples to illustrate our results. To illustrate the implications of scale frames with regard to inclusion and exclusion, we analyzed four council meetings (Appendix 5) and reconstructed the decision making process (Appendix 1).


In the following, we present the scale frames of three key actors and subsequently the analysis of the scale frames in the decision making process.

The alderman

The alderman repeated several times during our conversation that it is essential “to find a balance,” by concentrating intensive animal husbandry in ADAs, and providing opportunities for other rural functions in other areas of the municipality (see Appendix 2 and Table 2). The dominant frame deployed by the alderman emphasizes the importance of “sustainability on a higher level” as an argument for the developments in the agricultural sector. Concerning the area vision for the ADA, building on his sustainability argument, the alderman explained that he is of the opinion that it is a good vision document, because it provides “future-proof sizes.” These scale frames focus on the agricultural sector as a whole and on intensive agriculture in general, rather than on the ADA and the NMC in the municipality, and on the opportunities offered by the concentration of intensive agriculture.

The alderman used mainly spatial and agricultural scales to phrase his arguments about the establishment of the NMC and the development of the ADA (Table 2).

The alderman stressed the advantages of developments like the ADA and the NMC on mostly regional and higher scale levels, stating that we have to look at the higher levels to solve sustainability questions. In this way, he downplays the local level and the actors on that level. The other local developments, e.g., the sand-depletion installation, expansion of the fruit and vegetable auction, expansion of the greenhouses, which is the main argument of the action group, are no part of the alderman’s story.

The founder of the action group

The founder of the local action group stated that this group does not have a problem with the ADA, but with the NMC (see Appendix 3 and Table 3). He started his argument by placing the establishment of the NMC in a broader local perspective, explaining that the village is surrounded by different developments, which by themselves are not such a threat, but altogether it is felt that the village is being enclosed by these developments. In his enumeration, he continually repeated the argument of the positive effect the individual developments may have on a higher administrative or spatial scale level, but its negative effects on the local level. In other words, he stressed the other developments on the local level to construct the argument that the accumulation of negative effects of the developments is unacceptable; i.e., “local accumulation scale frame.” He used the accumulation of the negative effects of the developments together to neutralize the argument that the initiatives by themselves are positive developments. In addition to the local level, he stressed the global level, to contest the advantages on the national level by mentioning disadvantages for the rainforest in Brazil and far larger farms in Ukraine, to construct his arguments against the ADA and the NMC. This we refer to as “unsustainability on the global level scale frame.”

Using spatial, administrative, and agricultural scales and levels, the founder of the local action group portrayed the NMC as a bad development on multiple scale levels. (For a visual illustration see

One of the entrepreneurs

One of the entrepreneurs argued that concepts like the NMC are an inevitable part of the future of intensive agriculture (see Appendix 4 and Table 4). The entrepreneur framed the development of the NMC on a spatial scale, at the regional rather than the local level. There is a chance that the entrepreneur will establish the NMC in the Netherlands, but there are also other possibilities. The entrepreneur was of the opinion that Dutch society is about to decide on the future of intensive agriculture and the future of food production (time scale frame). He made it seem as if he does not really care whether and where the NMC will be established in the Netherlands, as long as the concept of the NMC is established somewhere. If not here, then he will go somewhere else, for example, to India where he is already involved in a project. Stating it this way, the entrepreneur gives the creation of the NMC an importance that goes beyond the ADA, municipality, or province; he puts the development on the national level of the spatial scale.

In line with this reasoning, the entrepreneur framed the NMC as “a very sustainable concept for future intensive agriculture, an example for the rest of the world” that exceeds personal, local, or national interests. By taking his argument one step further, reasoning that the importance of the project is so great that the specific location is not the point of discussion, “if not here, then somewhere else”, he keeps out of harm’s way. In other words, he depersonalizes the issue and at the same time excludes the citizens, the local action group, and even the local administration from the issue.

The entrepreneur was of the opinion that the NMC will improve the situation on higher spatial levels and will only cause slightly more trouble on the local level. Therefore, the entrepreneur does not ignore the effects on the local level, he rather downplays them. The other developments around the village, which worry the founder of the action group, are no part of the story of the entrepreneur.

For the entrepreneur, the discussion was about the NMC, not about the ADA. In contrast to the founder of the local action group, the entrepreneur used several scales and levels to show how good the development of the NMC is.

The decision making process

The analysis of the different council meetings (see Appendix 5) shows that the different speakers used different scales and levels to frame the NMC and ADA. In all the meetings, the arguments made by the citizens and representatives of different groups and organizations were hardly addressed in the political debate. The citizens discussed the NMC, whereas the political debate was about the area vision for the ADA: a scale frame mismatch between the agricultural and spatial scale. We see that different parties commented on the mixing-up of the discussion about the NMC and the development of the ADA, but nothing was done about this. The fact that the political debate was not about the concerns of the citizens with regard to the NMC, but only about the criteria in the area vision, led to citizens having the feeling that they were not being listened to, resulting in commotion and discontent. As a consequence, the action group was founded, and media attention was attracted to make the concerns public. Both the action group and media attention led to several delays and obstructions of the decision making process.

Although it seemed that the different actors were discussing the same topic in the meetings, they used different arguments built on different scale frames, which they didn’t explicate. The analysis shows that scale frame differences and mismatches occur; different actors, although discussing the same topic but using different scale frames, talk at cross purposes. As a consequence, we saw the different actors repeating their arguments in each subsequent meeting, resulting in tenacity and even conspiracy.

The scale frames deployed in the meetings were comparable to the scale frames deployed by the key actors in the interviews. In the meetings, the “regional balance scale frame,” the “future-proof scale frame,” the “sustainability on a higher level scale frame,” the “local accumulation scale frame,” and the “global unsustainability scale frame” as deployed above were repeatedly brought to the fore. Particularly the “sustainability on a higher level scale frame” was recognized throughout the different administrative levels, when the reconstruction or intensive cattle breeding was discussed (see Appendix 1). Using certain scale frames enabled actors to include some and exclude others from the decision making process. For example, the alderman, and administrators in general, by framing the issue on a regional or higher level, downplayed the actors on the local level and indirectly excluded them from the decision making process. The repeated use of certain typical scale frames also showed who was engaging with whom and which actors shared the same opinion. Furthermore, it showed that actors are not open to the scale frames of others.


In this section, we compare the different scale frames used by the different actors, followed by a discussion on the implications of scale frames for policy processes and ideas for future research.

The different scale frames compared

Our study shows that the three key actors used different scales in their framings of the issue. The alderman used mainly spatial and agricultural scale frames in his reasoning. He used his dominant “sustainability on a higher level scale frame” to justify the negative effects and disadvantages of the development of an NMC at the local level. The founder of the action group also used multiple levels and scales, i.e., spatial, administrative, and agricultural, but he used these to highlight the downsides of the NMC. He used different scale frames to construct different arguments against the NMC. His dominant scale frame can be characterized as “accumulation of local developments.” The entrepreneur presented different scale frames relating to space, agriculture, and time to frame the development of the NMC as “an example of sustainable intensive agriculture for the rest of the world.” Putting it this way, the entrepreneur placed the issue in a national or global perspective, emphasizing that the interests are far larger than his personal interests. For the entrepreneur, it was about the concept of an NMC and the future of intensive animal husbandry. The entrepreneur considered the NMC as a solution for future intensive animal husbandry because it solves problems relating to animal welfare and environmental issues. In contrast to the founder of the local action group, he used multiple scales to show how good the NMC is.

In the council meetings, the dominant scale frames as deployed by the three key actors were continuously brought to the fore and repeated by the other actors in the same configuration. By repeating, strengthening, and adding to each other’s claims, frames become frozen, with the result that they become absolutely true for the people of the group who use them and therefore are put forward in no matter what context (Ford 1999, Gray 2003, Aarts and van Woerkum 2006).

We conclude that different actors use different kinds of scales to construct their specific scale frames, in which they highlight different levels. Therefore, in addition to, for example, identity frames or characterization frames (Gray 2003), scale frames are used to make sense in complex policy processes, emphasizing both the problem at stake and the direction in which the solution should be sought. Furthermore, our study shows that actors use and mix multiple scales and levels, and not only the spatial scale as studied in human and political geography (Delaney and Leitner 1997, Marston 2000, Brenner 2001, Kurtz 2003, Harrison 2006). They frame their arguments as convincingly as possible and from different points of view, implying that they have thoroughly considered their standpoint. Following Kurtz, the frames of the alderman, politicians, and policy makers on higher levels together with the entrepreneur(s) on the one hand, and the frames of the action group and citizens on the other hand, relate to each other as scale frames and counter-scale frames. If we take the analysis a step further however, these scale frames and counter-scale frames consist of different scale dimensions, e.g., spatial, agricultural, administrative, and time scales, that highlight different aspects of the issue and are positioned on different levels. The use of differently mixed scales and levels enables more arguments, provides a structure for arguments, but also tends to obscure the interests at stake. Actors try to legitimate their positions by juggling scale frames but do not take on board the scale frames and arguments of others with opposing opinions. The analysis of the council meetings shows that certain configurations of actors use and stick to the same, frozen, scale frames. The use of these various different scale frames can be explained as actors speaking different languages, expressed in different frames, resulting in incompatible stories that fit diverging interests (Pearce and Littlejohn 1997). As a result of the use of different scale frames without explication, scale frame mismatches occur.

Scale frame mismatches

We conclude that, in addition to scale mismatches (see for example Borgström et al. 2006, Cumming et al. 2006, Termeer et al. 2010a), we can speak of scale frame mismatches. We identify three types of scale frame mismatches: (1) framing the issue using different scale frames, (2) framing the issue using different scales, and (3) framing the issue at different levels of the same scale. Because we only selected scale frames for the analysis, i.e., where issues are framed using a certain scale and/or level, all of these involve more than merely issue framing mismatches. However, not all the differences between the scale frames are mismatches; we refer to scale frame mismatches when the scale frames deployed by different actors point in varying directions, making decision taking problematic.

Framing the issue using conflicting scale frames

In the context of this local decision making process, for example, both the founder of the action group and the farmer framed the issue using the global food system level on the agricultural scale. However, they did so in conflicting ways. The founder of the action group implied that the NMC’s sustainability is questionable, “If you watch what happens in South America, where gigantic soy plantations are cut down and a large part of it is transported to feed the pigs here [...] You should rather produce much more soy and vegetables and those kinds of things, then you need a smaller agricultural area for more nutrition.” The farmer, however, framed the NMC as “an example for the world.” Therefore, the scale frame of the founder pointed in the direction of developing small-scale regional food production instead of NMCs, whereas the farmer was of the opinion that concepts like the NMC provide solutions for sustainable food production worldwide.

Framing the issue on different scales

The alderman and the farmer, for example, framed the NMC as solving bottlenecks/problems somewhere else. The alderman stated, “The strength of the concept [NMC] I think is that you solve bottlenecks somewhere else, in nature areas” and the farmer comparably said, “So I solve many problems in four other places,” both using a spatial scale, regional level. According to the founder of the action group, instead of solving problems, the NMC “is disastrous for family farms,” thereby using an agricultural scale, farm level.

Framing the issue at different levels of the same scale

The alderman, for example, framed the NMC on the spatial scale, neighborhood level, as causing environmental inconvenience only in its immediate surroundings. “Look, in the end because we’ll concentrate we’ll realize an environmental gain. [...] Only on the Dutch scale, on the European scale, on the provincial scale, on the municipal scale that’s right, but somewhere something [NMC] is being developed that in that surrounding leads to an increase.” The founder of the action group, however, framed the NMC as a win-win situation on the national level, but a degradation for the region, emphasizing the regional and national level, “for the region it [NMC] is still a degradation. You can read that in the [consultancy name] environmental advice. On the national scale there is a win-win situation.”

Implications of scale frame mismatches for complex policy processes

Our analysis shows how actors use scale frames to legitimize the exclusion of certain actors and/or ideas from the conversation and to invalidate certain arguments in the discussion. Framing the issue on a particular scale and level makes it possible, consciously or unconsciously, to include and exclude arguments and other actors without literally saying so. The alderman, for example, excluded the local citizens by framing the issue not on the local, but on regional and national scale levels. Also, the use of the local level by the founder of the action group allowed him to include other local developments in his argument as well.

Looking at the evolving policy process, we can observe relations between the identified scale frames and different process stages. An example of the use of a particular scale frame that has implications for the process is the framing by the alderman, and the council more generally, of the NMC as a positive and sustainable agricultural development. Because the alderman was already positive before the official debate on the development of the ADA started, this agricultural scale frame has influenced the municipal decision making process from design to decision. On the other side, citizens only discussed the NMC whereas the formal debate was about the area vision, including the ADA. Throughout the process, this made it easy for the alderman to consider the arguments as irrelevant and consequently exclude these arguments, while at the same time he did not have to debate the NMC. By defining the worries of the citizens with regard to animal welfare and health as part of a national debate, the alderman shifted responsibility for this debate to the national level and at the same time excluded these arguments from the local discussion.

Another type of implication follows from the scale frame mismatches that we have identified. As a result of scale frame mismatches, communication problems occur, but the strategic use of scale frames also provides opportunities for change. We can make a distinction between scale frame differences and scale frame mismatches. Scale frame differences are not problematic per se; on the contrary, they may allow for enrichment of the debate and change. Scale frame mismatches, on the other hand, imply difficulties and conflict. In the following, we discuss the implications of scale frame differences and mismatches, based on negotiation and communication theory, because this seems an important issue for further research.

In the negotiation literature, a distinction is made between distributive negotiating and integrative negotiating (e.g., Pruitt and Carnevale 1993, Aarts and van Woerkum 2002). Distributive negotiating is about “one cake that has to be divided,” and integrative negotiating is about “the baking process,” about jointly baking a larger cake (Pruitt and Carnevale 1993). In the former, actors keep motives, interests, and feelings to themselves, and knowledge is translated into arguments that are used as weapons in the struggle to achieve the maximum result. Scale frame mismatches fit this negotiation style. The latter is about openness, joint fact finding, and social reflection (e.g., Pruitt and Carnevale 1993, Aarts and van Woerkum 2002). Scale frame differences fit with this style.

In the decision making process that we have studied (see Appendix 1), scale frame mismatches play a role in the stagnation of the communication between the actors in the process and consequently play a role in the stagnation of the policy process as a whole. We can look at this particular decision making process as a distributive negotiation process. When actors involved in multistakeholder problems do not make their interests explicit, and instead emphasize different scales and different levels to undercut the arguments of the other parties, the meaning of the issues and the delimitation of the problem domain remain contested. In other words, the question, ‘what are we coconstructing together?’ is neither asked nor answered. No joint fact finding, social reflection, or reframing takes place. Instead, through processes of positive feedback within their own groups, the scale frames are continuously repeated and strengthened (see also Termeer et al. 2010b), resulting in an unstable distributive process (Pruitt and Carnevale 1993), frozen frames (Gray 2003), fixations of the process (Termeer and Kessener 2007), and the problem becoming intractable (Morgan 1998, Gray 2004). This complicates the discussion and decreases the space for negotiation. It resembles the stagnating effects on policy processes of so-called dialogues of the deaf (van Eeten 1999).

In our case, the area vision was approved in February 2008, but, as of August 2010, the initiators of the NMC do not yet have permission to start building. The opponents continue to obstruct the process, using their “accumulation on the local level scale frame,” by requesting more and more studies to prove the accumulated effects and to question the assumed sustainability. Furthermore, using the “accumulation on the local level scale frame” and the “unsustainability on the global level scale frame,” the opponents have been able to involve national campaigning groups and to create a media hype. By obstructing the process on the local level, the alderman is made responsible, and the province and central government are no longer involved, but the process is difficult to continue and complete without the support of higher administrative levels and their resources.

To conclude, we argue that, in addition to research on dealing with scale mismatches, further research on scale frame mismatches and the implications thereof is needed. Looking at policy processes as negotiations, we need more insights into the role of scale frames, scale frame differences, and scale frame mismatches in interaction. Being reflexive about scale frames, so as to enable joint fact finding and reframing, might prove to be an important ingredient for scale-sensitive governance.


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We would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their many detailed comments, which helped us to improve earlier versions of this paper. This paper was written in the context of the IP/OP 'Scaling and Governance' Research Program, which has been spearheaded by Wageningen University and Research Center (Wageningen UR), as part of its mission to contribute to solutions for the most pressing global environmental problems.


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Address of Correspondent:
Maartje van Lieshout
P.O. Box 8130, bodenr 48
6700 EW Wageningen


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