This entry was prompted by Mark Kelly’s 2018 book, entitled For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory. It also follows on from the previous two entries (Feb. 28 and March 31, 2019) on “lived effects” as an analytic category in WPR. Basically, the purpose of this entry is to consider how researchers “evaluate” or “assess” the effects – discursive, subjectification and lived – identified in Question 5 of the WPR approach (see Bacchi WPR CHART).

We need to start by considering the difficult term “normativity”. First, it is important to clarify that the discussion in this entry is not about “normalization”, referring to the imposition of social norms. Rather, the debate about “normativity” in political theory relates to whether or not researchers are entangled in value commitments and/or whether or not they prescribe, on the basis of these commitments, what ought to be done.

I suggest that there are two separate points here – first, the extent to which researchers’ views and positions reflect values; and second, the extent to which they are prepared to impose these values on others. Along these lines Kelly (2012: 2; emphasis added) distinguishes between what he describes as an “inflationary” understanding of normativity as broad value commitments, and a “much stricter definition of the ‘normative’ … which takes it as merely a by-word for prescription, which is to say for ‘oughts’”.

Kelly makes the case that Foucault distances himself from the latter position – that is, from prescription– an argument I support. Foucault made it clear on several occasions that he did not wish to endorse specific reforms and wanted to separate his analytic contributions from “politics” as an arena for designing such reforms (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 25). On the basis of this position, I, with Kelly (2018: 121), would argue that Foucault ought not to be aligned with American pragmatism (see discussion in Bacchi 2015: 9; Bacchi The Turn to Problematization; see also Olsen 2014).

However, contra Kelly, I would suggest that Foucault clearly adopted a number of political commitments that imply a value orientation. For example, among subjugated knowledges (see entries Sept. 3 and Sept. 17, 2018), he included those produced by “the prisoner, the exile, the ‘abnormal’” (Flynn 1989: 196). In the 1970s Foucault was directly involved in campaigns to reform contemporary French prisons, founding the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (Bacchi 2012: 2; Bacchi Why study problematizations?). As Jon Simons (1995: 91) puts it, the perspective affirmed in these commitments “is that of those who resist”.

Kelly (2018: 8-9) is not satisfied that such alignments make Foucault “normative”. He claims that, even “if there is normativity at work in the selection of the object of investigation, the investigations themselves can be more or less objective and historical”. Such a position, I would suggest, sits uncomfortably with a poststructuralist questioning of “truth” and “objectivity”.

There are long-standing debates about Foucault’s value commitments. Habermas coined the term “crypto-normativist” to describe Foucault, suggesting that he was a kind of secret or “closet” normativist, “publicly rejecting normative commitments while tacitly relying on them for criticism” (in Kolodny 1996: 67). Nancy Fraser (1989) also believed that Foucault’s unwillingness to declare his political ideals undermined his political analysis.

Kolodny (1996) provides a way forward in these discussions. Based on Foucault’s political commitments, discussed above, Kolodny (64-65) argues that “Foucault’s work was self-consciously critical, and criticism is inescapably normative”. He argues that the “later Foucault resisted not the demand for norms, but rather the demand of a normative theory” (1996: 65; emphasis in original) – an argument that sits comfortably alongside Kelly’s (2018: 11) claim that “Foucault’s political thought is atheoretical, eschewing systematization”.

With Cynthia Coe (2011) I would argue that Foucault “refuses the polarity of nihilism and normative foundationalism”:

If we are searching for normative foundations, what Foucault is up to will look like nihilism. But the purpose of his genealogical work is to illuminate the contingency of our intellectual quests in order to open up new practices of resistance to particularly modern forms of oppression. 

In support of this view Foucault refuses a theory of power. He (1987: 129) famously declares that “relations of power are not something bad in themselves, from which one must free one’s self”. Still, as Yates (2002: 41-42) points out, Foucault preferred some forms of power to others. He preferred “agonic” forms of power – “those that are flexible enough to allow for creative and continued resistance, and which contain as little domination as possible” (see also Patton 1994).

Accepting Kolodny’s argument (above) that criticism is inescapably normative, WPR seeks likewise to explore the space between nihilism and normative foundationalism. In several places I refer to the need to assess or evaluate identified problem representations in terms of their “deleterious effects”, or “deleterious implications” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 45, 64, 72-74, 90). In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 42), I state explicitly that the WPR approach “presumes that some problem representations benefit the members of some groups at the expense of others. It also takes the side of those who are harmed”.  The goal, I explain, is “to intervene to challenge problem representations that have these deleterious effects, and to suggest that issues could be thought about in ways that might avoid at least some of these effects”.

The language of “benefit” and “harm” is, of course, contentious (see Bacchi 2006: 9; BacchiNCETA2006-2 copy). “Deleterious”, in my view, is less heavy-handed, providing researchers more space to reflect on the varied implications of the problem representations they identify. Merriam-Webster defines “deleterious” to mean “harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way” ( This “lighter” normative standard contrasts with the insistence in critical realism on “the necessity of thick ethical concepts in social science” (Sayer 2012: 179; see Research Hub entry, Feb. 1, 2019).

Regardless of the language adopted, there is a broad or “inflationary” normativity at work in Question 5. However, there is also a commitment to avoid overly simple explanations and a refusal to prescribe, to say what ought to be done. What follows is a commitment to close contextual analysis of specific situations. Moreover, any analysis one produces needs to be scrutinized through the lens of self-problematization (see Research Hub entries, Oct. 21 and Nov. 5, 2018).

In Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 25), Sue Goodwin and I directly confront the question of whether or not it is possible to support an egalitarian politics while refusing to advocate specific reforms (i.e. to refuse to be prescriptive). There we argue that, not only are the two perspectives compatible, they are actually necessary to each other. This is because reform programs often buy into problematic premises that need highlighting and questioning. We offer the examples of “social inclusion”, “literacy” and “wellbeing” from Chapter 6 in the book. With Foucault (2001: 1431), therefore, the objective is a practice of continuous critique, engaging in “a work of problematisation and of perpetual reproblematisation”.


Bacchi, C. 2006. “Policy, Theory, Politics: problem representations in drug and gambling policy”. Keynote address, 2ndInternational Summer School on Inequality and Addictive Behaviours: A Fair Go For All? Policy Responses to Alcohol, Drug and Gambling Issues. NCETA (The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction), University of Adelaide, 18-19 September.

Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be?  Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible. The Open Journal of Political Science  2(1): 1-8.

Bacchi, C. 2015. The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science5: 1-12.

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

Coe, C. D. 2011 Review of: D. Taylor (Ed.) Michel Foucault: Key Concepts. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: An Electronic Journal. Available at: (viewed on 21 January 2019).

Flynn, T. (1989). Symposiums papers: Foucault and the politics of postmodernity. Noûs, 23 (2), 187–198.

Foucault, M. (1987). The ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom: An interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984, with R. Fornet-Betancourt, H. Becker, A. Gomez-Müller, J.C. Gauthier, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 12, 112–131.

Foucault, M. (2001) [1984]. À propos de la généalogie de l’éthique: Un aperçu du travail en cours (rewritten version). In D. Defert, & F. Ewald (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Dits et Écrits, tome II. Paris: Gallimard.

Fraser, N. 1989. Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions. In N. Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 17-34.

Kelly, M. 2018. For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Knifton, C. and Yates, S. 2019. A “history of problematizations” for dementia education: a Foucauldian approach to understanding the framing of dementia, Journal of Research in Nursing, 1-19.

Kolodny, N. 1996. The ethics of cryponormativism: A defense of Foucault’s evasions. Philosophy and Social Criticism  22(5): 63-84.

Olsen, K. 2014. Genealogy, Cryptonormativity, Interpretation. Foucault Studies  18: 253-260.

Patton, P. 1994. Foucault’s Subject of Power. Political Theory Newsletter  6: 60-71.

Sayer, A. 2012. Power, causality and normativity: A critical realist critique of Foucault.  Journal of Political Power  5(2): 179-194.

Simons, J. 1995. Foucault and the Political. NY: Routledge.

Yates, S. J. 2002. Power and Subjectivity: A Foucauldian discourse analysis of experiences of power in learning difficulties community care homes. PhD thesis, De Montford University, Leicester, UK.