How do land use conflicts escalate? Unveiling the causal mechanisms in a conflict over a biogas plant


  • Meike Fienitz Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research
  • Rosemarie Siebert Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research


land use conflict, conflict dynamics, escalation, agonistic conflict, process tracing




Land use conflict research has long focussed on attempting to avoid or solve conflicts. However, more recently, agonistic views of conflict have found their way into the research field, with scholars emphasizing the inevitability of conflicts, as well as their positive functions (i.e., Harrison and Loring 2020, Wolf 2021). Rather than avoiding conflict per se, research has begun to focus on the question how conflicts can be managed to achieve productive outcomes. As a result, the dynamics of land use conflicts are recently receiving increasing interest in scholarly debate (i.e., Gualini 2015, Sahide et al. 2021). However, thus far, research has focussed on the causes of different conflict dynamics. In the present paper, we argue that additionally, knowledge of the processes by which certain conditions lead to escalation is important for improved theorization of land use conflicts’ dynamics and allows us to identify options for more targeted interventions. Therefore, the objective of this paper is to analyse not why, but how land use conflicts escalate. To achieve this, we perform process tracing on an in-depth case study of an escalated land use conflict concerning the expansion of a biogas plant in an urban-rural fringe region in Brandenburg, Germany. We analyse material obtained through document analysis, a field visit, and semi-structured, episodic interviews with all involved actors, applying qualitative text analysis. We thus identify a chain of five causal mechanisms that connect the conditions resources, adverse structures, and emotional opposition with the outcome escalation: A lack of dialogue during the early phase of the conflict leads to a lack of understanding between the conflict parties, as a result, central actors are unable to imagine a compromise, which renders them unwilling to compromise, which finally confounds with them perceiving other options as more attractive than collaboration to lead to escalation. Our results confirm, but also specify the causal relevance of previously identified conditions for escalation in land use conflicts. Moreover, our findings reveal several options for policy-makers and planners to create conditions that foster agonistic conflicts and for involved actors to achieve collaborative dynamics instead of escalation. Most importantly, the early phase of a conflict emerged as key for interventions, with achieving a dialogue from the very beginning as the main leverage to thwart the escalation process. Providing access to mediation and making negotiation more attractive in comparison to litigation emerged as further options. Beyond the specific case, we therefore formulate options how policy-makers, planners, and conflict actors can achieve agonistic arenas for the negotiation of divergent land use interests.


Gualini, E. (ed.) (2015) Planning and Conflict. 0 ed. Routledge.

Harrison, H.L., and Loring, P.A. (2020) ‘Seeing beneath Disputes: A Transdisciplinary Framework for Diagnosing Complex Conservation Conflicts’. Biological Conservation 248 (August), 108670.

Sahide, M.A.K., Sirimorok, N., Batiran, K., Fisher, M., Verheijen, B., Sulu, M.N., Faturachmat, F., Supratman, S., and Maryudi, A. (2021) ‘Actor-Center Framing on Measuring Land Use Conflict Visibility’. MethodsX 8, 101450.

Wolf, E. (2021) ‘Dismissing the “Vocal Minority”: How Policy Conflict Escalates When Policymakers Label Resisting Citizens’. Policy Studies Journal 49 (2), 640–63.