Comment: This entry is prompted by a question from a PhD student received mid-December 2017. The question concerns how to link identified problem representations to particular political rationalities. Using a WPR analysis, problem representations are identified through examining how specific policies produce or enact “the problem” (see Bacchi, Analysing Policy, Pearson Education, 2009). But how, I am asked, can you take the next step and draw links between these representations and particular political rationalities, such as neoliberalism? The short answer is that specific ways of representing “the problem” – e.g. who is held responsible, what is deemed to be the proper domain of government, how relations between governments and business activities are conceptualized, etc. – link to ways of thinking (“political rationalities”) that have a certain coherence (such as social liberalism, neoliberalism, etc.).
A longer reply requires two steps: first, elaborating what is meant by political rationalities; second, showing how these rationalities are linked to problematizations and hence to problem representations.
Rationalities, as used in governmentality studies, have nothing to do with being rational in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, rationalities are rationales, the logics or ways of thinking that make particular modes of government intelligible and hence acceptable. They are not ideologies; nor do they translate into policy in a direct fashion (see Larner, W. . “Neo-liberalism: Policy, ideology, governmentality”, Studies in Political Economy, 63, 5-25). Instead, based upon forms of knowledge that characterize our intellectual heritage, they underpin contingent routine and mundane governing practices (see Bacchi and Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 43).
The best way to characterize a political rationality is to note that it is a style of problematization (Dean, Mitchell and Hindess, Barry (1998) Governing Australia: Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 9). As suggested in the short answer above, we can best identify a political rationality by considering how aspects of social relations are problematized. For example, a neoliberal mode of rule is commonly associated with governmental practices that presume self-regulation and an entrepreneurial spirit as desirable human traits. In this rationality/rationale, individuals themselves are held to be responsible should their economic or health status fail to meet expected standards. If one observes a pattern within targeted policies that problematizes political subjects in this way, holding them responsible for “failings” – a stance often described as “responsibilization” – one can say that a neoliberal rationality is in evidence. So too, one can examine how social relations more broadly are problematized. For example, considering social relations purely in economic terms can also be linked to a neoliberal rationality (see Calişkan, K. and Callon, M. (2009) Economization, Part 1: Shifting attention from the economy towards processes of economization, Economy and Society, 38:3, 369-398; and Birch, K. and Siemiatycki, M. (2016) ‘Neoliberalism and the geographies of marketization: The entangling of state and markets’, Progress in Human Geography, 40(2): 177-198).
The analytic task involves offering ways to interrogate and critique political rationalities that have possible deleterious effects. Here, WPR provokes reflection on the limits in particular ways of conceptualizing governmental and social relations by asking what is not problematized in specific practices and their underlying knowledges (Question 4 on Bacchi WPR CHART). It also directs attention to the forms of subject presumed and hence elicited through practices that produce individuals as responsible for their own health and welfare (Question 5 on Chart).