COMMENT:  I have been asked on several occasions how WPR is similar to or different from analyses that refer to framing and/or problem definition. I have written on this topic elsewhere and refer you to the sources at the end of this entry if you want to pursue the matter.

It seems important to locate this discussion in relation to views on the meanings of concepts. I argue, in good company, that concepts have no fixed meaning. They are never exogenous to (outside of) social and political practices. Therefore, we need to examine carefully specific uses of terms, including “discourse”, “reflexivity”, and our topics today, “framing” and “problem definition”. It is important to approach such theoretical languages as part of a terrain that needs to be mapped – see if you can identify something of the history of various usages (see Bacchi 2009) and try to ascertain the particular role or function served by the concept/s under investigation. That is, consider the meanings of concepts in terms of the specific projects to which they are attached. Following this thinking, you ought not to be surprised to see that “framing” and “problem definition” appear in many different theoretical projects, and with contrasting meanings.

In the main, “frames” are used by scholars who are interested in how social actors manage political arguments. Hence, in the main, they are interpretivists (see Bacchi 2015). As an illustration of this perspective, in the 1970s and 1980s an important group of American political scientists advocated training policy advocates in the skills of “framing” and “problem definition” (e.g. rhetoric). Dery (1984), for example, dedicates an entire book to “problem definition,” which in his view requires political scientists to be concerned “with the production of administratively workable and politically realistic ideas for solving social problems” (p. 38). A later development, within sociology, focuses on what is referred to as “strategic framing”, the marshaling of particular “problem definitions” to gain political support  (see Bacchi 2009).

In these approaches “problem definitions” and “frames” become competing interpretationsof an issue or problem, interpretations mounted by diverse social actors. By contrast, a WPR analysis interrogates how “problems” are conceptualised within policy texts. It starts from proposals within policies to see how they represent the “problem”, rather than examining how specific social actors mount their arguments. These contrasting starting points are tied to deep disagreements about the status of the political subject and the meaning of power, and have implications for political agendas (see Bacchi 2015).

A more recent development in health sociology draws on “discourse analysis” to examine how “problems” are conceptualized (or “framed”) within policy documents, suggesting a closer link with WPR than previous usages of frame theory (Bacchi 2016). However, the authors associated with this development locate themselves within “the linguistic turn”, whereas WPR offers a study of knowledges rather than of language use (see Bacchi and Bonham, 2014). The primary target of these frame theorists is the rhetorical distance between descriptions of “problems” within policies on the one hand and “recommendations” for change on the other hand, which are judged to be limited or disappointing. By contrast, in WPR, the target of analysis is not the rhetorical ploys of governments judged to be reluctant to deliver substantive change, but deep-seated “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault, 1981/1994, p. 456) that underpin specific policy proposals and shape “problems” as particular kinds of problems.

There is no doubt that the word “frame” is a useful term. At a very general level it means simply the shape or configuration of an argument or stance. For this reason I have occasionally used the term myself – though I now resist doing so to avoid confusion between WPR and frame theory. The emphasis on “problem representations” in WPR, as opposed to “problem definitions”, indicates the commitment to subject existing policies to critical interrogation.

I was reminded recently that no concept is “sacred” in some research I have been conducting on Herbert Simon, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s primarily on administrative behaviour and decision-making (Bacchi 1999: 22-23). In later work Simon uses the concepts of framing and indeed “problem representations” (how disconcerting!). A closer look (Simon 1978: 275-276) clarified Simon’s usage of “problem representation”.  For Simon a “particular subject represents a task in order to work on it” and the “relative ease of solving a problem will depend on how successful the solver has been in representing critical features of the task environment in his problem space” (emphasis added). The focus in Simon’s perspective, therefore, is on social actors and their relative ability to produce “successful” representations – those that assist in “solving problems”. There is no interest in probing critically how “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems. I hope the distance from WPR is clear, despite the overlap in theoretical terminology!


Bacchi, C. (1999) Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems, London: Sage. pp. 20, 21, 27,  34, 36-37.

Bacchi, C. (2009). “The issue of intentionality in frame theory: The need for reflexive framing,” in E. Lombardo, P. Meier and M. Verloo (eds) (2009) The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality: Stretching, bending and policymaking. NY: Routledge. pp. 19-35.

Bacchi, C. (2015). “The Turn to Problematization: Political implications of contrasting interpretive and poststructural adaptations”. Open Journal of Political Science, 5: 1-12. [Bacchi The Turn to Problematization]

Bacchi, C. (2016) “Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How “Problems” Are Constituted in Policies”, Sage Open, pp. 1-16 [Bacchi Problematizations Health Policy]

Bacchi, C. & Bonham, M. (2014). Reclaiming discursive practices as an analytic focus’. Foucault Studies, 17 (March): 173-192.

Dery, David (1984). Problem Definition in Policy Analysis.Foreword by Aaron Wildavsky. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Foucault, M. (1994). So is it important to think? (R. Hurley & others, Trans.). In J. D. Faubion (Ed.), Power: Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984(Vol. 3, pp. 454–458). London, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1981)

Simon, Herbert (1978). “Information-Processing Theory of Human Problem Solving”, in W.K. Estes (ed.) Handbook of Learning and Cognitive Processes, Vol. V. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 271-295.