COMMENT: This entry is a reply to Andrew Clarke’s 2017 article in Critical Policy Studies entitled: “Analyzing problematization as a situated practice in critical policy studies: a case study of ‘customer focus’ policy in urban compliance services” (DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2017.1414619).

Clarke argues the need for a “supplement” to the WPR approach, which would offer an analysis of “the situated practices that give rise to particular problematizations” (Abstract). He wishes to provide a method to reveal “how a certain discourse came to be imbued in the policy under study” and to this end wants to foreground “the work of particular actors in shaping the formation [of] policy problems in particular times and places” (p. 2; emphasis in original).

Let me preface these brief comments by noting that I am genuinely pleased and flattered to see researchers exploring possible modifications of and additions to WPR as I have never suggested that it provides the only useful form of political analysis. However, in my reading, the focus on actors as agents locates Clarke’s analysis within an interpretive analytic tradition, which I distinguish from Foucauldian-influenced poststructuralism and the WPR approach, making his suggestion of a “supplement” difficult to support (see “The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations” Bacchi The Turn to Problematization].

A key distinction between interpretivism and WPR is how the political subject is conceptualized, an issue that Clarke does not address. In brief, interpretivists can be located in a hermeneutic tradition that sees people’s self-interpretations as central to understanding social organization, whereas Foucault-influenced poststructuralists support a posthumanist analysis that questions the existence of a sovereign subject who can access “true” meaning (see C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin 2016 Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 40). Put briefly, Clarke probes the competing understandings of “problems” put forward by specific subjects/actors whereas WPR interrogates governmental problematizations and how subjects are constituted within them (see “subjectification” in Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016, pp. 49-53).

Clarke (p. 4) argues that the perspective he offers derives from “the novel reading of Foucault’s later work advanced by Rabinow (2003) and Collier (2009)”, and leads to “an alternative conception of problematization that examines it at the level of situated practices”. However, Foucault uses the term “problematization” in two ways, adopting a verb form to describe a kind of analytic practice (“thinking problematically”) and a noun form, to refer to the objects for thought that emerge in historical problematizing practices, including governmental practices (“the forms of problematization themselves”) (Bacchi 2015, p. 3). Collier and Rabinow are concerned with the former usage. Their intent is to elaborate the specific form of thinking Foucault is putting forward as “thinking problematically”. Clarke correctly quotes Collier who describes this form of thinking as “critical reflection that establishes a certain distance from existing forms of acting and understanding and also works to remediate and recombine these forms” (Collier 2009, p. 80; my emphasis). This view of thinking in Foucault is reinforced in another quote from Collier (p. 90): “As we will see, he [Foucault] places particular emphasis on the work of actors – thinkers – who constitute existing ways of thinking and acting as problems, and seek to reform and remediate them.” Here Collier (p. 96) is exploring how thinking in Foucault “makes possible a certain critical distance from existing ways of understanding and acting” – an elaboration of “thinking problematically”.

The point here is that Collier, drawing on Foucault, is describing a particular way of thinking critically, not simply the thinking that goes on in the formation or development of public policies, which Clarke describes. This point is clear in Collier’s use of the italicized term “thinkers” (see above from Collier, p. 90), a term that unfortunately is cut from Clarke’s version of the Collier quote.

By contrast with Collier Clarke’s analysis looks to explain “contradictory discursive explanations” within selected policy documents. The frequent references to “strategy” and “strategic” suggest that he offers a version of strategic framing (see Clarke, pages 12 and 16), which fits within interpretivism. On this point, Clarke usefully describes WPR as “a critical and reflexive approach to studying policy problems that is more sensitive to the productive role of discourse than existing approaches to problem framing” (p. 4; my emphasis), pointing to the tensions between interpretivism and Foucault-influenced poststructuralism.

We are left therefore with a familiar dilemma – is it possible or useful to blend paradigms? Can we adopt an interpretive focus (such as Clarke’s) to study the contributions of policy actors to the formation of understandings of “problems” and add it as a “supplement” to a poststructural analytic strategy (i.e. WPR)? Elsewhere, Malin Rönnblom and I develop the argument that it is important to consider how methodologies create realities and that there is a need therefore to reflect on the forms of politics enabled in contrasting theoretical stances. In that paper we make the case that poststructural theory offers opportunities for political challenge closed off by more empirical approaches and invite researchers to engage theories at the level of politics, to ask how they are political, and what sorts of politics they make possible. This invitation remains open! (see Research Hub entry on ‘Ontological politics’ 10 December 2017; see also C. Bacchi and M. Rönnblom 2014. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism—A Poststructural Alternative, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, DOI: 10.1080/08038740.2013).