Comment: The previous two entries in the Research Hub [11 June, 25 June 2018] focused on the targets for analysis in WPR – problem representations, or problematizations. These are the “forms of problematizations themselves” in Foucault’s formulation (1986, pp. 17-18; see below for full quote), though, as explained in the last entry [25 June], WPR identifies these “forms” [problematizations] in every proposal or policy, rather than in “crises”, which are central to Foucault’s analysis.

The question for today is – what are we to do with these “forms of problematizations themselves”? How are we to approach them? The simple answer is that we need to problematize them. As I suggest in Analysing Policy(2009: 25; emphasis added), “We need to problematize [interrogate] the problematisations [the “forms” themselves] on offer”. But what does this entail?

First, note that the words “to problematize”, as used in the sentence from Analysing Policy, is a verb form [an infinitive], in contrast to the noun form of problematizations as “the forms themselves”.  This grammatical distinction becomes less helpful, however, when one wants to refer to “problematization” (a noun) as a method of analysis. The distinction in usage, therefore, is best thought of as a distinction between problematization as something researchers do – i.e. researchers problematize or engage in problematization – , while problematizations are the “forms of problematization themselves”, which I call problem representations [see Research Hub entry for 11 June].  For researchers, the task becomes the need to problematize [method of analysis] the problematizations [problem representations; the “forms” themselves] that they identify.

What, then, is involved in problematizing[or problematization] as a form of analysis?

In the conclusion to Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 271-2) I describe this analytic task as “problem-questioning”. However, the reference to “questioning” does not mean just any form of questioning. Foucault characterizes the kind of questioning involved in problematization (as a form of analysis) as “thinking problematically” (Foucault 1978 [1970]: 185-6). What did he mean?

Put simply, “thinking problematically” means to analyze something in terms of problematics [i.e “thinking problematic-ally”.] “Problematic” translates into French as problématique. It refers to the complex of issues associated with a topic. In France the term is often used to describe a thesis project, defining the question under examination.

In a 1984 interview Paul Rabinow asked Foucault to elaborate on what he meant by “thinking problematically”: “You have recently been talking about a ‘history of problematics’. What is a history of problematics?”

Foucault (1984) answers (obliquely of course) that this project involves a study of problematizations. His objective, he says, is to “describe the history of thought as distinct both from the history of ideas … and from the history of mentalities”. The “element that was capable of describing the history of thought” was “what one could call the problems or, more exactly problematizations”. It is useful to remember that Foucault explicitly engaged with the concept of problematization only later in his life and that he, along with many other philosophers, such as Deleuze, used the term “problems” as part of their analyses – a usage I wish to question.

The important point here is that, for Foucault, “thinking problematically” means analyzing problematizations [problem representations in WPR]. Elsewhere he elaborates that this project involves two analytic strategies, archaeology and genealogy:

The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms of problematization themselves, its genealogical dimension enabled me to analyze the formation out of the practices and their modifications (Foucault, 1986: pp. 17-18).

For example, to put the status of contemporary French prisons in question he “thinks problematically”, looking to see how systems of punishment were problematized in the past [archaeology] and tracing how current imprisonment practices relate to those earlier “problematizations” [genealogy].

WPR includes both Foucauldian archaeology and genealogy. Question 2 in WPR pursues Foucauldian archaeology while Question 3 encourages a genealogical analysis [Bacchi WPR CHART]. So, these, along with the other questions in WPR, are the questions that are intended when I recommend “problem-questioning” [more appropriately “‘problem’-questioning”] in Analysing Policy. The quotation marks, which I would now insert around “problem”, signal – lest there be any doubt – that the targets of the questioning are problem representations rather than some form of self-evident, independent problem.

The key points to take away from this discussion include:

  • “thinking problematically” is a way of describing problematization as a Foucault-influenced analytic strategy;
  • “thinking problematically” means “thinking in terms of problematics” (or problematizations);
  • “‘problem’-questioning”, as intended in Bacchi 2009: 271-2, is a way of “thinking problematically” and involves applying the WPR questions to identified problem representations [the “forms” themselves]

In the next entry I will pursue some of the challenges involved in “thinking problematically”.


Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be?  Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.

Foucault, M. 1978 [1970]. Theatrum Philosophicum. In D. F. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans D. F  Bouchard and S. Simon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 165-96.

Foucault, M. 1984. Polemics, politics and problematizations, based on an interview conducted by Paul Rabinow. In L. Davis. (Trans.), Essential works of Foucault (Vol. 1), Ethics, New York: New Press. Available at:

Foucault, M. 1986.The use of pleasure: The history of sexuality (Vol. 2). New York: Vintage.