Engaging conflict

Merlijn van Hulst and Eva Wolf

Department of Public Law and Governance, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

In the current political landscape, conflicts over public policy in cities abound.  Although this is often framed as problematic, urban conflicts carry many positive attributes. Through conflicts, the public can become engaged, express their voices and demand attention. Conflicts could thus be seen as opportunities rather than threats to democracies.

We know very little, however, of the way in which different institutional venues and the agents within them, structure conflicts and the effects this has on the way conflicts play out.

At a time when our democratic institutions are rocked to their core by the grievances brought to them, and agents inside and outside of these institutions are grappling with conflicts while trying to make a difference in the urban areas that we study, this is an omission. It is up to us to understand how to make sense of urban conflicts, of the narratives produced in and by conflicts, and to develop, with those involved in them, ways forward.

This leads us to ask: Do conflicts in cities produce fragmentation, or can they also produce cohesion? What does this mean for the ways in which public policy can and, perhaps even should, answer conflict? And what would be novel, sensible modes of engaging urban conflicts?

Merlijn van Hulst is an Associate Professor and Head of Research in the department of Public Law & Governance (Tilburg Law School). He also leads the Global Law and Governance programme in the Tilburg Law School. An ethnographer, his research focuses on the work practices employed in the governance of public challenges. Merlijn has studied the practices of urban civil servants, police officers and intermediaries. In addition, he has studied storytelling in local government and at the police. Furthermore, he specializes in interpretive analyses, narrative and frame analysis in particular, and in ethnographic fieldwork. He has published about his research and about methods in a broad range of journals across the social sciences, including Public Administration Review; The American Review of Public Administration; Organization Studies;  Organization; The British Journal of Criminology; Local Government Studies; Planning Theory; and Urban Studies. 

Eva Wolf is an assistant professor at the department Public Law & Governance at the Tilburg university in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on understanding public policy conflicts and the dynamics of (de)escalation at play in conflicts. The past few years she has focused on the way in which democratic institutions meet conflicts. Eva currently leads the JPI Urban Europe funded project CONTRA (CONflict in TRAnsititions). CONTRA compares urban planning dealing with climate transition in Norwegian Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish cities to learn how conflict is handled in different political-legal contexts and whether conflict is used for sustainable transformation. In Norway, OsloMet and NIBR will conduct the research. Eva has published her research in various policy and planning oriented journals, including: Public Administration, Governance, Policy Studies Journal and Policy Sciences.