Content: In earlier entries (25 Dec. 2017, 1 Jan. 2018) I declared war on “problems”. I was and continue to be disturbed by the ubiquity and vacuity of the term “problem” – how it serves as a placeholder and substitute for considered thinking on particular states of affairs.
The goal of WPR is to destabilize the term “problem”. It does so by drawing to attention how postulated “solutions” or “proposals” for change presume, and hence create, “problems” as particular sorts of problems. If, for example, activity regimes for children are introduced as a way to reduce childhood “obesity”, the “problem” is constituted as children’s inactivity (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 16-17). In effect, then, no “problem” stands as self-evident, as separate from this constitutive or generative process.
My questioning of “problems” in this way has, I argue, a wide range of significant political implications. For example, if there are no “problems” per se, the emphasis in so much of our education theory on problem-solving as a skill to be developed needs to be rethought. Equally, the designation of evidence-based thinking as the key to decision-making in just about every policy domain clearly begs the question of what “problem” the “evidence” is meant to address.
Returning briefly to the theme of the meanings we impute to concepts (see entry on 2 Dec. 2018) I wish to stress that, as with all concepts, the meaning of the term “problem” is open to contestation. In my abridged talk from late 2017 (see Bacchi Declaring War abridged) I mentioned that, when we are told that there are no problems, only challenges, indicating a person’s ability to take charge of any difficult situation, I actually prefer “problems” to “challenges”. Hence, in approaching references to “problems”, the goal becomes identifying the specific role the concept plays in the situation where it is deployed.
Two theorists, Irit Rogoff (see previous entry 17 Dec. 2018) and Kane Race (2018), need to be acknowledged for taking another approach to this topic.
Rogoff (2006; italics added) emphasizes “people’s inherent and often intuitive notions of how to produce criticality through inhabiting a problem rather than analyzing it.” The point, in Rogoff’s explanation, is “not to find an answer but rather to access a different mode of inhabitation … a ‘living things out’ which has a hugely transformative power as opposed to pronouncing on them”. I welcome this contribution for its challenge to the problem-solving mindset that dominates our current social and political landscape. However, the “problems” Rogoff wishes people to “inhabit” appear to be taken-for-granted as “real” conditions – a position I would question.
In his recent book, The gay science, Kane Race (2018: 7) suggests that the term “problematisation” is “unwieldy” (2018: 7). As an alternative, he thinks that “problem should be a verb” and so he refers to “probleming”. Race explains that the word “problem” draws its origins from the Greek and means “to throw forth or propose”. In his view,
“This invites us to conceive of problems as performative actions, embodied gestures; practical wagers on the world – ways of doing things that can be experimented with and transformed.”
Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms, especially gerunds, achieved by adding “ing” to the noun (i.e. problem-ing), is a common poststructural analytic strategy (Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016: 31, 94 fn1). The objective in such a strategy is to highlight how “things” are made to be and are in continual formation. I welcome “probleming” as an innovative stratagem to destabilize “problems”, and look forward to more examples of its political usefulness.
There are, of course, numerous important theoretical contributions – indeed the vast majority – that do not destabilize the category “problems”, that treat “them”, to varying degrees, as self-evident situations. For example, the poststructural scholars Glynos and Howarth (2007, p. 167) follow Shapiro (2002, p. 601; emphasis added), who proffers “problem-driven research” as preferable to “theory-driven research,” where “a phenomenon is characterized so as to vindicate a particular theory rather than to illuminate a problem that is specified independently of the theory.” Here, we need to recognize the clear and valuable attempt to displace “theory-driven research”. Still, I would like to raise for consideration what may be lost politically in treating “problems” as taken-for-granted starting points for analysis in the postulated alternative of “problem-driven theory”. It is at this level of political implications that I believe the conversation would be most productive.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Glynos, J., & Howarth, D. 2007. Logics of critical explanation in social and political theory. London, England: Routledge.
Race, K. 2018. The gay science: intimate experiments with the problem of HIV. NY: Routledge.
Rogoff, I. 2006. “Smuggling” – An Embodied Criticality, https://gold.rl.talis.com/items/48A2BAC5-8C5B-0602-2E97-863D663C78C6.html
Shapiro, I. 2002. Problems, methods, and theories in the study of politics, or what’s wrong with political science and what to do about it. Political Theory, 30, 596–619.