Navigating frames : a study of the interplay between meaning and power in policy deliberations over adaptation to climate change

M.J. Vink

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



The PhD thesis is inspired by the rapid rise in political attention on climate change from 2005 onwards, followed by the media hype known as ‘climategate’ and the subsequent fall in attention afterwards. The polarisation in the public debate between so-called activists and deniers shows that climate change is a classroom example of what scholars in policy and planning define as a wicked or unstructured problem. This type of problem is characterised by a wide variety of societal understandings or frames through which new knowledge is interpreted. Governing wicked problems is a tricky process and has a history of policy conflict and controversy. In this thesis, I aim to elucidate the process and outcomes of governing adaptation to climate change. I do so by focusing on the social interactions of public and private players in governance and how they develop meanings and related policy outcomes through their frame interactions.

The thesis starts with the notion that adapting to the long-term and uncertain character of climate change results in a special type of governing, especially in the context of the little institutionalised policy domain and the wide variety of societal frames involved. Governing adaptation to climate change involves careful monitoring of policy direction, speed, and societal current in relation to scientific projections and societal sensemaking of what climate impacts might be ahead. Navigating climate change therefore metaphorically boils down to a form of dead reckoning, a systemised method of monitoring course, speed, and current through which sailors in the 15th century used to navigate their ships into the unknown.

Navigating hierarchically organised ships, however, is different from steering plural democratically organised societies. In policy sciences, this process of governing long-term policy issues in plural societies is traditionally defined as a dynamic process of both puzzling over what the issue means to society and powering to get things done. Puzzling and powering are broadly defined as interrelated; new meanings might alter actors’ positions and corresponding policy outcomes, and changing power positions might alter societal understandings of what is at stake. Processes of puzzling and powering are considered to vary across traditions of state organisation and related institutional arrangements.

In the climate adaptation governance literature however, the governance process is differently defined. Scholars define governance of adaptation to climate change as a matter of getting the knowledge system right to design the right policies, and getting the institutional system right to enforce the policies. This static approach does not show an interrelated or dynamic understanding of actor-centred processes based on sensemaking and positioning. Other scholars define climate adaptation as a matter of developing the right knowledge, creating legitimacy, or enhancing justness through deliberative or participatory approaches to governing, but seem to neglect the need for power organisation to get things done.

To be able to contribute to both the policy sciences and the climate adaptation governance literature, the thesis opens up the black box of climate adaptation governance by zooming in on the actual policy deliberations in four concrete governance cases in different institutional arrangements and traditions of state organisation. To do so, I propose frame interactions as a means for better understanding the traditionally defined interplay between processes of puzzling over meaning and powering over positions in different institutional contexts. This results in the following central research question:

In what way do frame interactions construct interplaying processes of puzzling over meaning and powering over positions in different institutional arrangements occupied with governing societal adaptation to climate change?

Research design

To investigate and compare the frame interaction processes in different institutional arrangements and state traditions, I started with a distant view towards frame developments in official water policy proposals over time. Using longitudinal frame analysis, I discussed these developments against the backdrop of a rise and fall in societal attention to climate change. Subsequently, I systematically assessed the scholarly approaches in making sense of climate adaptation governance. Inspired by both the developments in official policy framing over time and the different theoretical approaches to governance of adaptation to climate change, I opened the black box of frame developments and frame interactions in concrete governance practices. I adopted explorative case study research to get an in-depth understanding of the governance processes. By participatory observation, semi-structured interviews, and longitudinal frame analysis of policy deliberations in four different case studies, I was able to get in-depth understanding of governance processes in different institutional contexts. Because my research was embedded in the Dutch research programme Knowledge for Climate, which centres on climate adaptation governance challenges in the Dutch context, I took this Dutch context as my point of departure. The lowland delta nature of most of the Dutch territory makes the country potentially vulnerable to climate- related issues. Climate change poses governance challenges to delta regions in general, for which the Dutch delta might be an interesting illustration and an interesting case for academic inspiration and cross-national comparison.

In terms of institutional arrangements, Dutch adaptation to climate change empirically shows continuities as well as discontinuities with the traditional Dutch cornerstone of dealing with collective action problems through poldering. In two selected case studies, climate adaptation is mainstreamed in existing poldering approaches and follows what is traditionally defined as a neo-corporatist state tradition. In neo-corporatism, a limited number of traditionally defined organised interests negotiate with the state in an institutionalised fashion. One selected case study shows signs of discontinuity with this traditional approach, allowing for more ad hoc deliberation with a much wider and less organised array of stakeholders and societal actors, known as deliberative governance. This approach follows the pleas in the contemporary climate adaptation governance literature for more participation. To understand the implications of state traditions for framing processes, I compare the selected case studies with a fourth selected case study of a similar deliberative governance initiative in the pluralist state tradition of the UK. Pluralism entails less state involvement in policymaking, but more central coordination of societally initiated policy actions through national legislation.


From a distant view, I show how policy frames evolve over time as an ongoing long-term conversation between policy proposals. Zooming in on four case studies reveals a wide array of frames in governance processes, which can be classified according to the scales addressed in the frames, and the nature of the issues framed. In relation to framing the nature of the issue, two archetypical frames can be defined: technical frames and political frames. Frame interactions shape learning processes, but due to the inclusion and exclusion effect of frames they can never be viewed without more conflict-based notions on policymaking. Counterintuitively, technical frames appear to change power positions, but, in the same counterintuitive way, political frames allow for puzzling over roles and responsibilities as well. Therefore, the thesis shows how meaning alters power positions and frame interactions affect substantial and relational outcomes. I show how these insights complicate what I define as the system assessment approach, which is dominant in the climate adaptation governance literature. Frames appear to do things in climate adaptation governance processes, from which I conclude that frames navigate climate adaptation.

In addition to frame interactions as a puzzling and powering interplay, I show how a second interplay might be defined between institutions and frame interactions. Different institutional arrangements yield different frame interactions and outcomes. Institutional arrangements determine the rules of what can be defined as a framing game over wicked problems. Institutions also determine who is playing what framing game and therefore determine player dependencies. Institutions interplay with frame interactions, and may create the preconditions for effectively navigating the wide array of frames in climate adaptation governance. Without institutional demarcation of roles and responsibilities, the framing game might allow for new players and knowledge, but risks becoming gratuitous. In little institutionalised deliberative governance contexts without central coordination, frame interactions are likely to yield a dominant self-referential technical framing which empowers experts and promises technical efficiency solutions to a wicked problem. These contexts might yield the preconditions for what I define as a political bystander effect in deliberative governance. In addition, I show how state traditions play a role in what institutional arrangements yield what type of frame interactions. Therefore, I conclude that institutional arrangements in combination with state traditions play a role in how the variety of climate adaptation frames can be navigated.

These findings point towards my most important recommendations. For future research, I would suggest further investigation of: (1) the possible emergence of a dominant technical framing in deliberative governance; (2) the extent to which this framing might point towards what other scholars have labelled self-reinforcing frames; (3) related political bystander effects in specific combinations of governance arrangements, policy issues, and state traditions. In relation to that, my most important recommendations to policymakers are: (1) be aware of the variety of frames in governance, (2) be aware of state traditions, (3) choose the right institutional arrangement, and (4) be modest in depoliticising wicked problems. In general, my recommendation would be to frame climate adaptation as an ongoing process of dead reckoning, which allows for explaining uncertain events, anticipating changing societal currents, and learning-by-doing.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Termeer, Katrien, Promotor
  • Dewulf, Art, Co-promotor
Award date7 Oct 2015
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462574694
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • climatic change
  • climate adaptation
  • water policy
  • governance
  • policy


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