Comment: This entry is prompted by a stimulating article by Marlon Barbehön, entitled: “Ever more complex, uncertain and urging? ‘Wicked problems’ from the perspective of anti-naturalist conceptualizations of time” (Zeitschrift Diskurs, April 2018; accessed through academia.edu.au). I draw on this article in two ways: first, to indicate the usefulness of troubling wicked problems as supposedly self-evident, natural or objective entities; and second, to suggest that the analysis offered by Barbehön resonates with WPR even though there is no mention of the approach (nor need there be!).
On the first point, I have found “wicked problems” troubling for some time. In my 2016 paper on problematizations in health policy I suggest that “wicked problems” tend to refer to “problems” as fixed or self-evident, even though they are held to be “complex”. Hence, the term reinforces a problem-solving mindset – “the conventional, pervasive view of policy as reactingto problems that must be solved” (Bacchi The Turn to Problematization, p. 8).
Here I am not ignoring the way in which some researchers use the term to stress the importance of acknowledging that certain policy “issues” are multi-causal and require intersectoral interventions. However, treating such issues as given, as fixed in some way, I suggest, undermines attempts to understand the governing practices involved in their production. Think here of “obesity” and “climate change” as commonly “identified” wicked problems and what is left unsaid in their naming and characterization.
Barbehön (2018) supports my disquiet with the concept “wicked problems”. His particular target is the tendency to refer to “them” as pressing or urgent, as if this is a naturalcharacteristic of such “problems”. As he describes, “wicked problems” are generally characterized as naturally“complex” and “uncertain”. Barbehön links this view to the tendency in a good deal of contemporary social theory to characterize the present as “fundamentally risky” (think of Beck 1992), unpredictable or uncertain (think of Callon et al. 2009), due to the “speedup of economic and technological dynamics”. Counter to this assumption, Barbehön offers “anti-naturalist perspectives” on time drawn from phenomenology and systems theory. Put much too simply, if how we think about time affects our theorizing, clearly it is important to reflect on the political implications of specific conceptions (of time). The suggestion here is that it is inadequate to say that there are “problems” which naturally reflect the “speed up” of technology; rather, we want to ask how our problematizations reflect specific conceptualizations of time.
The more general point is the need to reflect on the political implications of characterizing policy “problems” either as “wicked” or indeed as “tame” – commonly set as the counterpoint to “wicked”. Barbehön is particularly helpful on this point. In specific cases, he shows, since “wicked problems” are deemed to be naturally “complex” and “urgent”, they operate as “things” that can never be solved but only managed “in a never-ending chain of decisions” (p. 4), supporting a managerial style of governing. The “politics of urgency” can also, in specific instances, be reflected in “quick solutions”, “sometimes at the cost of democratic procedures” (p. 13). On the flip side, “problems” designated “tame” become the stuff of routine, thereby avoiding critical analysis and possible contestation.
Barbehön’s intervention – and you do not need to accept all parts of his argument to recognize the usefulness of his main contention – leads to the need to rethink current research and writing on “wicked problems”. Instead of trying to characterize “them”, to say what they are, we need to ask what they are represented to be and to consider the political implications of specific representations.
Here I see Barbehön’s analysis as paralleling the thinking in WPR. In effect, he asks (without using the words): “what kind of ‘problem’ are ‘wicked problems’ represented to be?” He details the characterization of “wicked problems” as “complex, uncertain and urgent”, and proceeds to explore the assumptions underpinning these representations (Question 2 of WPR; Bacchi WPR CHART). His analysis is particularly useful because it illustrates the type of deep-seated ontological and epistemological assumptions targeted in a WPR analysis – here, assumptions about conceptions of time. Further, he probes the political implications (Question 5) of such assumptions.
My point in signaling the parallels between Barbehön’s analysis and a WPR analytic strategy is to suggest that the WPR approach offers a way of thinking that has a long and fertile heritage in critical literature. It also signals the possible usefulness of applying WPR to forms of knowledge production, such as, in this instance, the theorizing of “wicked problems” (see entry 18 March 2018). The aim of systematizing the WPR approach in a list of questions (see Chart) is to facilitate its application and hence hopefully to encourage this way of thinking – a way of thinking that I believe we desperately need in the current intellectual climate of evidence-based policy and problem-solving models of thought.
Addendum: I am currently researching the ways in which ANT (Actor Network Theory) scholars turn to “issues” as the focus and starting point for political analysis (Marres 2007). On this topic Bruno Latour (2007) quotes Walter Lippman approvingly:
Yet it is controversies of this kind, the hardest controversies to disentangle, that the public is called in to judge. Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions. The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle. They are the public’s problems (Lippmann: 1927, 121; CB’s emphasis).
I have a long list of questions provoked by this quote – e.g. What are the implications of portraying the majority of political “issues” as able to be handled by institutions? How is the “public” unfit? What makes something a controversy? Are controversies unambiguous empirical objects or political creations? For the entry today I draw attention to the invocation of “hard problems” as assumed givens that, in my view, require critical questioning along the lines of WPR. In a sense “hard problems” appear to be precursors of “wicked problems”, which I find troubling. I would be keen to hear from anyone who is pursing this or related topics.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. First published in 1986. London: Sage.
Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. & Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. First published in 2001. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Latour, B. (2007) “Turning Around Politics: A Note on Gerard de Vries’ Paper”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 811-820.
Lippman, W. (1993 ) The Phantom Public. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
Marres, N. (2007) “The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contribution to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 759-780.