Comment: This entry is prompted by a question from a PhD student, received in late December 2017. The question had to do with a comment I made in the keynote address I delivered at the Fourth Contemporary Drug Problems Conference (“Making Alcohol and Other Drug Realities”) in Helsinki in August 2017. The keynote address can be viewed at https://ndri.curtin.edu.au/events/cdp2017/
In that address I suggest that the WPR approach can be used to critically analyze buildings and other artefacts because, in effect, such artefacts can be seen as proposals that contain problem representations. The student wants to know in what sense buildings can be seen as proposals and why WPR is a useful form of analysis to apply to these kinds of material.
First, I need to mention that part of the purpose of the Helsinki address was to indicate the variety of materials that could usefully be examined critically using WPR. Please watch the video (link above) should you want the full list of kinds of material that I offer for WPR analysis (or see Bacchi, C. (2017). Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a poststructural analytic strategy, Contemporary Drug Problems, 1-12. DOI: 10.1177/009/450917748760). In each case the argument runs thus: what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change and hence what is deemed to be problematic – what the “problem” is represented to be. To apply WPR beyond the policy field, therefore, we need (only) to identify forms of material that can be perceived as “proposals”.
Buildings and other artefacts can be seen as proposals in the sense that they commit to particular ways of organizing the world. It follows that it is possible to ask: “If this building [or some part of a building, e.g. a purpose-built room or facility] is a statement about how things ought to be, what is seen as needing to change and hence as ‘the problem’?” Bottrell and Goodwin (2011, p. 4) use the example of modern schools with their “uni-purpose facilities located on enclosed land, fenced and gated” and how they reflect a “hidden curriculum” that problematizes the moral and cognitive training of young people (“Contextualising schools and communities”. In D. Bottrell & S. Goodwin (Eds.), Schools, communities and social inclusion. South Yarra, Australia: Palgrave Macmillan).
Other authors have drawn attention to the cultural and hence meaning-filled dimensions of buildings (see Woolgar and Jezaun 2013. “The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies?” Social Studies of Science, 43, 321–340). The question becomes: how are we to engage critically with artefacts of this kind? WPR, through its seven forms of questioning and analysis (see Bacchi WPR CHART), makes available a critical analytic strategy to interrogate buildings and other artefacts as to their presuppositions and limits, producing useful political analysis of a wide range of materials.