Comment: I have been asked to clarify the relationship between a WPR approach and governmentality studies.

Both WPR and governmentality studies are informed by Foucault-influenced poststructuralism. Hence, there are many overlaps in premises and analytical projects. In particular there is a focus on governmental practices – i.e. on how governing, read broadly, takes place.

Remembering that governmentality studies constitute a wide field with many variations, it is possible to identify four main themes pursued both in WPR and in governmentality studies:

  • Ÿpolitical rationalities (ways of thinking about what governing entails);
  • the technologies and instruments involved in governing;
  • Ÿthe “subjects” of government, or the diverse forms of persons that are presupposed and also delivered by governmental activities;
  • Ÿthe problematizations through which governing takes place (adapted from Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 9; see also Bacchi 2012).

In terms of shared premises in WPR and governmentality studies, I would highlight the following:

  • a conception of governing as including but beyond the state;
  • a rejection of grand theorizing in favor of a focus on singular 
“events” and mundane practices;
  • a conception of power as relational and productive;
  • the centrality of knowledges (discourses) in governing processes;
  • the usefulness of identifying “family resemblances” among problematizations to characterize political rationalities;
  • the usefulness of comparisons among problematizations for making 
judgments about potential deleterious effects;
  • a genealogical focus; and
  • a view of “subjects” as constituted in practices.

(from Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 45)

To these I would add that governmentality studies and WPR both adhere to Foucault’s nominalist critique (see Alasuutari 2010 in Bacchi 2012: 5).

Turning to differences between WPR and governmentality studies, a major distinction is how the two approaches engage with governmental problematizations. Inda (2005: 8; emphasis added) explains the way in which governmentality scholars deploy the concept of problematization. As he says, for governmentality scholars,  “government is inherently a problematizing sphere of activity – one in which the responsibilities of administrative authorities tend to be framed in terms of problems that need to be addressed”.  He continues:

Guided with this perspective on governments, the governmentality literature tends to explore how certain events, processes, or phenomena become formulated as problems. Moreover, they are often concerned with investigating the sites where these problems are given form and the various authorities for vocalizing them. To focus on government, then, is to attend, at least on some level, to its problematizations– to the ways intellectuals, policy analysts, psychiatrists, social workers, doctors, and other governmental authorities conceptualize certain objects as problems. It is to focus on how government is bound to the continual classification of experience as problematic. (Inda 2005: 8)

While in WPR there is a shared interest in how rule is thought and made practicable through problematization, I argue that WPR provides access to a broader canvass to explore this topic. The key question becomes where to find problematizations.I suggest that governmentality scholars in the main tend to follow Foucault’s lead and look for problematizations in the “specific situations in which the activity of governing comes to be called into question, the moments and the situations in which government becomes a problem” (Dean 1999: 27).

By contrast, as I explain in Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be?(Bacchi 2009: 31), a WPR approach “makes the case that every policy [and indeed every program and governmental technology], by its nature, constitutes a problematisation”.  The WPR approach, through its seven forms of questioning and analysis (see Bacchi WPR CHART;Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20), assists researchers to tease out and interrogate the implicit problematizations in each and all of these sites. This expansion of the understanding of problematization beyond “specific situations” and “crisis” points (see Bacchi 2012: 2, 5) means that instead of being “relatively rare” (Dean 1999: 27), problematizations are ubiquitous.

In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 31) I explain other points of contrast between WPR on the one side, and Foucault and some governmentality theorists on the other. Specifically I put in question the suggestion that problematizations are due to some pre-existing set of “difficulties” that spark a response from governments, taking issue with this characterization in Foucault:

Actually, for a domain of action, a behavior, to enter the field of thought, it is necessary for a certain number of factors to have made it uncertain, to have made it lose its familiarity, or to have provoked a certain number of difficulties around it. These elements result from social, economic, or political processes. (Foucault 1984: 4-5)

In WPR, by contrast, the analytic target is the shape of implicit problematizations (or problem representations) in specific proposals, including policy proposals and other forms of proposal (see Bacchi 2018: 6-7). These problematizations are not driven by pre-existing changes in social conditions. In my view this shift from “putative conditions” that provoke “responses” to the implicit problematizations in all policies creates more analytic space to contest the ways in which policies and other proposals constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems.

Finally, WPR emphasizes the need to interrogate assumed categories of analysis wherever they appear – i.e. in all forms of governing texts and in research. For example, in Analysing Policy, I draw attention to  and query the way in which the governmentality scholar, David Garland (2001: 90), draws upon rising crime rates as part of his analysis, leaving the term “crime” unproblematized. Along related lines, I find Fraser and Gordon’s (1994) genealogy of “dependency” compelling, while the governmentality scholar, Mitchell Dean (1999: 66), is skeptical about this form of critique.

WPR brings together a concern both with the ways in which concepts are embedded in governmental practices and programs (highlighted by Dean), and with the uneven power relations involved in shaping the meaning of concepts (recognized by Fraser and Gordon). These concepts, I would argue, can be subjected to critique without assuming that “the oppressed are able to achieve an actual or potential greater access to truth”, which Dean (1999: 64) contends is necessary to this form of criticism (see entries in Research Hub on “subjugated knowledges”, 3 Sept. and 17 Sept. 2018).

In short, WPR provides a “tool” for interrogating problematizations in forms of proposal, broadly conceived (see “Buildings as proposals”, Research Hub, 14 Jan., 2018). The analytic strategy it offers, starting from proposals and looking back to see – or “reading off” – how they constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems, opens up a wide field of contestation around diverse governing practices. The accompanying focus on contested concepts (Bacchi 2009: 8-9) supports this project.


Alasuutari, P. 2010. The nominalist turn in theorizing power. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13, 403-417. doi:10.1177/1367549410377579

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible. Open Journal of Political Science,Vol 2, 1-18.

Bacchi, C. (2018). Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a poststructural analytic strategy, Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 3-14.

Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice.NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dean, M. 1999. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. 1984. Polemics, Politics and Problematizations, based on an interview conducted by P. Rabinow. Trans. L. Davis, in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol 1, Ethics. NY: New Press.

Fraser, N. and Gordon, L. 1994. A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State. Signs, Vol 19, No 2, pp. 309-36.

Garland, D. 2001. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.