Comment: In the last entry [25 December 2017] I forecast that I would be considering alternative terminology to “problems”, a concept that I consider vague and, in some cases, dangerous [https://ndri.curtin.edu.au/events/cdp2017/]. To anticipate my argument, I suggest that any term we decide to use to identify the target of our analysis (e.g. “problem”, “issue”, “matters of concern”) needs to be put in question. I contrast a form of thinking that interrogates presumed starting points for analysis to a form of thinking that takes such starting points for granted. I wish to contest the latter form of thinking – that which takes designated starting points for granted. This form of thinking is most readily observed in the problem-solving paradigm; hence, my “declaration of war” on the concepts “problem” and “problems” (Bacchi Declaring War abridged).

The previous entry (25 December 2017) ended by noting that all concepts need to be considered within the projects to which they are attached. I accept Tanesini’s argument that concepts have no fixed meaning but are “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” (see Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon & M. Whitford, Eds. Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. NY: Routledge, p. 207). Proposals are not necessarily intentional; rather, they represent the logic of an approach. The task here becomes sorting through the form of proposal associated with the uses of adopted concepts.

As an example, elsewhere [see above “Declaring War Abridged”] I note the recent tendency to argue that people face “challenges” rather than “problems”. Here “problems” are conceptualized as entailing some intrinsic difficulty. Turning them into “challenges” can imply that a person is to take charge of a situation, regardless of how difficult it may be, always remembering the importance of context. I find this usage of the term “challenges” worrying because it appears to depoliticize complex situations, turning it all back onto individuals. Hence, I actually prefer “problems” to “challenges” in such cases.

However, in the main, the terms “problem” and “problems” are themselves depoliticizing. “Problems” are presumed to simply exist. They are taken-for-granted conditions that need to be “solved”, denying the politics that goes into their shaping.

I have been asked if the term “issues” would be preferable to “problems”. It certainly appears to be a better choice since it does not carry the negative weight and hence judgment associated with “problems”. In Science and Technology Studies (STS; see Callon, M. 2009. “Civilizing markets”, Accounting, Organizations and society, 34: 535-548), a distinction is drawn between issues – called “stem issues” – and “problems”. “Stem issues” are described as “situations of initial shock” (p. 542), which are gradually “split into a series of distinct problems” (p. 543). STS theorist, Michel Callon, reserves the term “problematization” for the process of transforming “unsolvable [stem] issues into solvable problems” (p. 547; emphasis added).

I would clearly have difficulty with the second part of this argument since it adopts the very “problem-solving” logic I have challenged in Analysing Policy (2009) and elsewhere. However, I can also see reasons to object to the notion of “stem issues”. The question I am prompted to ask is – who decides what is a stem issue? I am wary of Bruno Latour’s “matters of concern” for similar reasons (see “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry, 30: 225-248). Callon (2009, p. 536 and throughout) treats “matters of concern” as synonymous with “stem issues”, indicating their conceptual affinity.

Clearly Latour’s sophisticated challenge to “matters of fact” and his endorsement of “matters of concern” requires more attention that I can give to it here. However, it seems to me that the term “matters of concern” still invites the question – who gets to decide what “matters of concern” involve? As I forecast at the outset, I wish to contrast a form of thinking that interrogates presumed starting points for analysis (including “issues” and “matters of concern”) to a form of thinking that takes such starting points for granted. I believe that interrogating the “problems” or “challenges” or “issues” or “matters of concern” set by others (using the WPR questions; Bacchi Chart) marks an important step towards critical thinking.