COMMENT: In the last entry I opened up for consideration the ways in which researchers become involved in reproducing the existence of “problems” as self-evident referents. I expressed concern that this phenomenon, which I call “the investment in ‘problems’”, is depoliticizing, since it undermines the ability to recognize how governing takes place through problematization – through the shaping of “problems” as particular sorts of problems. However, if funding is tied to “problems” as pre-set foci for analysis, what are researchers to do?
A 2018 piece by Pineaar et al. provides insights into this situation. It examines the policies of three Australian LGBTIQ health organisations, namely the National LGBTI Health Alliance, the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) and ACON (formerly known as the AIDS Council of New South Wales). The authors apply the WPR questions to selected policies of these organisations and show how the policies endorse the construction of LGBTIQ consumption of alcohol and other groups as a problem. They go on to consider the subjectification effects of these policies (see Question 5 Bacchi WPR CHART), and conclude that the policies enacted “LGBTIQ consumers as an ‘at-risk’ minority”, arguing further “that this policy formulation has somewhat mixed political implications”. The authors point out that
these policy documents play a key role in securing funding, which means that governmental funding structures necessarily shape the problematisations identified in that they require the issues targeted by policy to be constructed as problematic matters of state concern if they are to warrant government attention and resources . (Pineaar et al. 2018: 193)
Hence, this article illustrates exactly the dynamic I discussed in the last entry – how funding requirements produce researchers who reinforce what are described as problems as self-evident referents.
This research provoked a response from the leaders of the three organizations that were the focus of the research. The response raised concerns about limited selection of the policy documents used in the Pineear et al. (2018) article and the lack of attention to the “different purposes and audiences for which the documents were developed” (Ruth et al. 2018: 195). In addition, the organization leaders stressed that, unlike academics who “may be in a position to ignore or sidestep existing policy and political contexts”, they had to “work for change while operating within the existing system” (Ruth et al. 2018: 195). The organization leaders were particularly critical of the implication, as they saw it, that they “misrepresented research or information for the purpose of funding”, and were motivated by self-interest (Ruth et al. 2018: 196). They concluded that the research could damage their reputations and fuel “the arguments of those who seek to halt LGBTI progress”.
This encounter between academics and policy advocates raises numerous important issues. One I take to heart is the relevance or irrelevance – and perhaps possible political danger – of the kind of poststructural analysis offered in WPR. More generally, are we seeing here an example of the conflict Tanya Li (2007: 2) identifies between “the work of the programmer (one who designs and pursues governing strategies) and the critic”? Li argues that:
A central feature of programming is the requirement to frame problems in terms amenable to technical solutions. … Under pressure to program better, they are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis. A critic can take a broader view.
I resist Li’s dichotomy between critics and programmers. It is clear from the Pineaar et al. (2018) article that they are aware that the link between funding and governmental problematizations affects all researchers:
As researchers, we engage in similar practices for the purposes of grant funding applications: to attract increasingly competitive research funding, we are obliged to frame research questions as “problems” of national concern requiring urgent attention. (Pineear et al. 2018: 190).
As Suzanne Fraser (2015: 52) says, “All science relies on funding imperatives, institutional forces, and individual careers. All science is located in specific historical, political, and social conditions.”
It follows that academics are not all that free to sidestep political contexts. Moreover, so-called “programmers” are acutely aware of the political implications of research. Sue Goodwin and I (2016: 9) describe “the policy worker cum analyst as engaged in the practices of interrogating, criticizing and evaluating policies”. Indeed, many policy workers/analysts are already engaged in deploying WPR as an analytic strategy (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 11).
I remain convinced, therefore, that we need to change how we think about “problems” and to become more sensitive to the ways in which pre-set “problems” – e.g. obesity, climate change, car mobility, etc. – constrain the forms of questions that can be raised. The strategy I recommend is to examine how specific proposals produce those “problems” as problems of particular kinds, providing a novel basis for debate and contestation.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fraser, S. 2015. A Thousand Contradictory Ways: Addiction, Neuroscience, and Expert Autobiography. Contemporary Drug Problems 42(1): 38-59.
Li, T. M. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Pienaar, K., Murphy, D., Race, K. & Lea, T. 2018. Problematising LGBTIQ drug use, governing sexuality and gender: A critical analysis of LGBTIQ health policy in Australia.International Journal of Drug Policy 55: 187-194.
Ruth, S., Parkhill, N. and Reynolds, R. 2018. A response to Pienaar et al (2018). Problematizing LGBTIQ drug use, governing sexuality and gender: A critical analysis of LGBTIQ health policy in Australia.International Journal of Drug Policy,55: 195-196.