Comment: In the last entry Foucault’s analytic approach of “thinking problematically” was briefly introduced. I suggested there that WPR applies this form of analytic strategy. Today I want to reflect further on the challenges associated with “thinking problematically”.

Foucault’s argument is that, as a mode of analysis, “thinking problematically” (or problematization as a form of analysis) introduces a distinctive mode of thought. He distinguishes this mode of thought from Hegelian dialectics, an interpretive method in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis). In a review of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, published in 1970, Foucault wrote:

“The freeing of difference requires thought without contradiction, without dialectics, without negation; thought that accepts divergence; affirmative thought whose instrument is disjuncture; thought of the multiple… We must think problematically rather than question and answer dialectically … And now, it is necessary to free ourselves from Hegel – from the opposition of predicates, from contradiction and negation, from all of dialectics.” (Foucault 1978 [1970]: 185-6)

When researchers apply this form of analysis they become, in Webb’s (2014) coined expression,  “policy problematizers”. As policy problematizers, researchers refuse the problem-solving framework which still dominates policy thinking, and work to defamiliarize present categories and practices, opening up indeterminate spaces for creative possibilities.

There is a challenge here, which Webb acknowledges – how are researchers to defamiliarize categories and practices within which they are clearly immersed? Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011; see also Alvesson and Sandberg 2013) work on how to develop interesting research questions assists with this task. It is important to note that these authors use the term “problematization” in a broad sense to describe five different forms of analysis, linked to the level of assumptions one interrogates: in-house, root metaphor, paradigm, ideology and field assumptions. The last category of assumptions – “field assumptions” – they associate with Foucault. By contrast, in WPR, the term problematisation as a mode of analysis is reserved for Foucault’s usage – i.e. “thinking problematically”. In WPR the assumptions interrogated through this mode of analysis are characterized as deep-seated epistemological and ontological presuppositions, rather than as “field assumptions” (see Question 2 in Bacchi WPR CHART).

Despite these differences in approach, Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 257) have useful things to say about the difficulty of questioning the deep-seated assumptions in “ways of thinking”. They recognize that   “Field assumptions are difficult to identify because “everyone” shares them, and, thus, they are rarely thematized in research texts.”

They proceed to make suggestions about how to identify and interrogate such assumptions:

“One option is to search across theoretical schools and intellectual camps to see whether they have anything in common regarding the conceptualization of the particular subject matter in question. Another option is to look at debates and critiques between seemingly very different positions and focus on what they are not addressing – that is, the common consensual ground not being debated”. (emphasis in original)

Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 258) also recommend checking other critical literature.

Because it is so very difficult to move outside assumptions that form the backdrop to how we live and think, problematization as a form of Foucault-influenced analytic strategy requires critical self-reflection. Supporting this view Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 252; emphasis in original) recommend using “problematization as a methodology for challenging the assumptions that underlie not only others’ but also one’s own theoretical position”. Recognizing how challenging this task is, they note:

“The ambition is therefore not, nor is it possible, to totally undo one’s own position; rather, it is to unpack it sufficiently so that some of one’s ordinary held assumptions can be scrutinized and reconsidered in the process of constructing novel research questions.”

WPR directly confronts this issue of critical self-reflection in Step 7 of the approach, where researchers are encouraged to engage in self-problematization [see Bacchi WPR CHART]. WPR offers a practical exercise to engage in this necessary undertaking: it is suggested that one apply the WPR questions to one’s own proposals or proposed “solutions”, interrogating one’s own “problem representations”. The objective, as Chantal Mouffe (1996: 6) describes it, is to avoid complacency.

The key points to take away from the last two entries 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];
  • “thinking problematically” [problematization as an analytic strategy] requires self-problematization.



Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. 2011. Generating Research Questions through Problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36, 247-271.

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. 2013. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage.

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.

Mouffe, C. 1996. Deconstruction, Pragmatism and the Politics of Democracy. In C. Mouffe (ed.) Deconstruction and Pragmatism: Simon Critchley, Jacques Derrida, Ernesto Laclau and Richard Rorty.NY: Routledge. pp. 1-12.

Webb, P. T. 2014. Policy Problematization. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27, 364-376.