Comment: On 21 October 2017 I gave a short address at the University of Umeå where I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. The full title of the address is: “Declaring war on problems: A call to rein in the concept”. In this entry I provide a brief summary of the argument and also attach an abridged version of the talk in Umeå [Bacchi Declaring War abridged]. I have labeled this entry #1 because I intend to follow it up in a week’s time with a second entry that considers the questions – “if we are not to refer to problems, are there alternative terms that are preferable? What about ‘issues’? ‘challenges’? ‘matters of concern’?” The goal in that second entry will be to identify what is at stake in selecting one of these options and why I recommend avoiding all of them!
I start the Umeå paper by explaining that the title – “Declaring war on problems” – does not imply that I am crusading against conditions commonly labeled as “problems”, for example, homelessness, discrimination, violence against women, etc.
Rather, I am declaring war on the concepts “problem” and “problems”. I proceed to list five reasons for my disquiet with these terms.
First, I am concerned by the ubiquity of the terms. Almost every discussion of government policy, by politicians and in the media, is peppered with references to “problem” and “problems”. Have a listen and see if you agree!
Of course, if it were clear what was intended by the usage of the terms, I would be happier about the situation. However, I suggest that the terms are at best vague and at worst meaningless – my second qualm!
Third, I note the worrisome negative valence attached to the terms, seen in the common association with the notion of “social problems”.
Fourth, I turn to the policy domain and the common characterization of policy as reacting to and solving problems. I proceed to offer the “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” (WPR) approach as a new way to think about how policies do their work.
Fifth, I turn my critical gaze to “problem-solving” as a paradigm dominating the intellectual and policy landscape. My examples are the “evidence-based” movement and education. Here I challenge the view that “problem-solving” is the basis of critical thinking.
I end the paper by noting that, as with all concepts, “problem” and “problems” need to be considered within the projects to which they are attached. Hence, the argument is not to eliminate the terms but to rein them in.