COMMENT: Following on from the last entry on the challenges of self-problematization, I want to reflect on the relationship between research/ers and “problems”. To prefigure the argument, I feel disquiet at the extent to which “problems” as self-evident givens, as “problems-that-exist”, become the bread and butter of many, if not most, researchers. I refer to this phenomenon as “the investment in problems”. Clearly, this disquiet is due to my conviction that “problems” are not self-evident givens but are produced through the proposals purported to address them. Hence, treating them as givens misses out on the politics involved in their formation.
I have argued for some time and in many places that there is a need to disrupt the common impression in political deliberation that policy needs to solve “problems-that-exist”. Rather, I have argued that governing takes place through the production of “problems” as particular sorts of problems. In order to govern, governments (and other agencies) have to problematize their territory – to put forward proposed changes as “solutions” to “problems”. In the process of doing this, “problems” are shaped or problematized in particular ways. I am not talking about deliberate manipulation, but about the way in which proposed “solutions” necessarily produce a “problem” as a particular kind of “problem”. An example I often use is that a proposal to offer women training programs as a way to increase their representation in high status positions produces the “problem” as women’s lack of training. My argument, therefore, is that it is misleading to refer to problems as simply existing, waiting to be “solved”. There are no problems separate from their problematizations, and the analytic task becomes to interrogate these problematizations – to ask what presuppositions and discourses they rely upon, how they have come to be (i.e. “the circumstances, practices, historical conjunctures and relations that have produced them” (Foucault, 1991)), how they function and with what effects.
Given this view, I am keenly interested to explore how problems have come to acquire a self-evident status as “things-that-exist” [I’d like to thank Angie Bletsas for this useful phrase] and, relatedly, how problem-solving has come to dominate our political and intellectual landscape. An important contributing factor, I argue, is the symbiosis between researchers and “problems”, the ways in which researchers become involved in studying “problems-that-exist”. As an example, evidence-based policy invites researchers to propose studies on pre-set problems. Problems, therefore, become taken-for-granted foci for analysis, and researchers become invested in both the thinking behind problem-solving and in the methods associated with such thinking (e.g. empirical studies of alternative interventions along the lines of scientific problem-solving).
For example, in my study of alcohol and other drug policy (Bacchi 2015: 140), I found that the notion of “alcohol problems” emerged as a category of analysis in part due to researchers’ concerns to establish credibility for their work. The category “alcohol problems” raised the profile of associated research. Moreover, since – as conceptualized – “alcohol problems” – e.g. domestic violence, drink drinking, absenteeism – could be counted, they fitted the prevailing positivist research paradigm. “Alcohol problems” thus are sociological and political creations, not “facts”.
In more recent research I have been investigating the political fallout accompanying international “skills” assessment programs, specifically the OECD’s PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] and PIAAC [Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies] programs. I believe it is important to consider how these programs establish their authority. One factor appears to be the way in which researchers become “co-opted” into research projects devoted to counting and assessing student and adult “skills”. As just one example, Waldow (2009: 481) notes: “The enormous resonance of the PISA debate has led to a massive expansion of empirical educational research of the PISA-type in Germany”. And with this research, Radhika Gorur (2016) argues, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to “see like PISA”.
Making these sorts of observations is a fraught exercise, unlikely to make you popular. In a keynote address at a 2009 conference at the University of Surrey on the “mother war” problem, I drew attention to the ways in which social attitude surveys – through the questions asked – played a part in producing a presumed dichotomy between “stay-at-home” mothers and “working” mothers. In this way the research reproduced the “problem” of the “mother war”.
In discussion I was taken to task for suggesting that researchers abandon reliance on social attitude surveys, a method associated with “solid research” and “defendable” “outcomes”. I was told that the Vice Chancellor Research, for one, would be deeply unhappy should researchers follow this advice (Bacchi 2012: 149)!
Clearly, the suggestion that our research needs to be monitored for its political effects is contentious. This suggestion follows from the argument developed in an earlier entry on “ontological politics” [10 December 2017], that research practices produce realities. As Annemarie Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) says, “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediatebetween an object and its representations”.
This issue is clearly linked to the question of research funding and research “utilization” (Bacchi 2008). Put simply, how research is funded affects the extent to which researchers become “invested” in “problems”. If researchers are compelled to seek and accept research projects funded from external (non-university) sources, including private sector and government funding, they are likely presented with pre-set “problems” to “solve”. We need more studies of this dynamic so that we can envisage how to intervene – how to shift the research focus from presumed “problems-that-exist” to governmental problematizations and their effects [note that in line with a governmentality perspective “governmental” encompasses conventional political institutions and the many agencies and groups involved in the “conduct of conduct”]. We also need analytic “tools” that serve to dislodge the commonsense understanding of problems as self-evident referents. WPR is put forward as one such analytic strategy (Bacchi 2009).
In the next entry I reflect briefly on the implications of this thinking for relationships between researchers and the groups they research.
Bacchi, C. (2008). The Politics of Research Management: reflections on the gap between what we “know” [about SDH] and what we do. Health Sociology Review, 17(2): 165-176.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be?Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. 2012. Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic interventions and exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, pp. 141-156.
Bacchi, C. 2015. Problematizations in Alcohol Policy: WHO’s “Alcohol Problems”, Contemporary Drug Problems 42(2): 130-147.
Foucault, M. (1991). Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller (Eds.).The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality (pp. 73–86). Harvester Wheatsheaf :Hemel Hempstead.
Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.