Comment: This entry is prompted by the publication of The Handbook of European Policies: Interpretive Approaches to the EU, edited by Hubert Heinelt and Sybille Münch (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018).
A book on interpretive approaches to European politics is most welcome. The Introduction, written by the editors, suggests the breadth and complexity of the field. The stance they develop is that the term “interpretivism” serves as an “umbrella” that “embraces both hermeneutical as well as post-structuralist approaches” (p. 4).
I would like to reflect briefly on the labels we attach to our theoretical perspectives and whether or not they matter. I would suggest that they matter if there are important discrepancies among approaches and if these discrepancies affect the kind of political analysis produced. I would not, for example, include the poststructural analytic strategy, known as WPR, under a broad umbrella of “interpretivism”. Briefly I’ll explain why not.
The editors acknowledge the importance of the distinction I draw elsewhere (see Bacchi The Turn to Problematization) between a Foucauldian poststructural analytic strategy and varieties of interpretivism. As they say: “Whereas interpretivists in the hermeneutical tradition regard political subjects as agentic, ‘that is, as sovereign or foundational subjects, who stand outside of and shape “reality”’, authors in the tradition of “discursive meaning” see subjects themselves as constituted in discourses and therefore as ‘precarious, contradictory and in process’ (ibid.; referring to Bacchi 2015, p. 3)”. However, this issue is not raised again in the Introduction and it is clear that most of the contributions to the book, as discussed in the Introduction, operate within the hermeneutical tradition. They are interested in actors and on the meanings those actors impart to issues. Mostly, the focus is on narratives and frames, described as “interactive sense-making” (p. 7). Frames are offered as competing constructions, commonly referred to as “problem definitions”, of “what the problem really is”.
By contrast WPR does not target people’s competing interpretations or definitions of a “problem”, which is presumed to exist. In WPR, there is no “real problem” in this sense in dispute. Rather, “problems” are constituted or produced within governmental policies and technologies, and the critical task is to interrogate these problem representations. A key point to pursue is how these problem representations shape ways for subjects to be – called “subjectification effects” – through “subject positions”, and with what political implications (see Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. Poststructural Policy Analysis, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 49-53). Subjectification effects are tied to the suggestion that political subjects are precarious, contradictory and in process (see above). In contrast interpretive analyses tend to emphasise how political actors shape their arguments, often for strategic reasons (see preceding entry, 18 February 2018).
The strong emphasis in interpretive approaches on sense-making and argumentation, as opposed to the focus in WPR on subjectification, appears in the meaning imparted to “discourse”. While the editors note the importance of contested meanings of “discourse”, they equate “discourse” with the “role of language” (p. 4). In Foucault-influenced poststructural policy analysis, discourses refer to knowledges, in the plural, not to language (see Bacchi, C. and Bonham, J. 2014 Reclaiming discursive practices as an analytic focus: Political implications, Foucault Studies, no. 17, pp. 173-192). Hence, attention is directed, not to the “communicative interactions” of social actors, but to the deep-seated assumptions and presuppositions that underpin ways of thinking.
In an earlier entry (10 December, 2017) on “ontological politics”, the point is made that theories play a constitutive role in shaping realities. Hence, there is a responsibility for researchers to reflect on the realities their theoretical propositions create. There is a common view in interpretive approaches that political subjects can and do operate as sovereign agents who shape arguments for a range of purposes. By contrast in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism subjects are always “becoming”, produced in practices, including policy practices. Such a perspective draws critical attention to both the operation of assumptions about a fixed human nature that underpin a range of policies – with effects that need to be traced – and to the ways in which policies are involved in producing particular types of subject (see entry on gendering, 11 February 2018).