Content: I ended the last entry asking about the “subject” in Foucault’s strategy of “counter-conduct”. Importantly, Foucault does not wish to posit a “counter subject” to the humanist subject. Rather, he wants to show what is gained analytically and politically by putting common assumptions about the humanist subject or “human nature” into question. As Butler (1992: 9 in St Pierre 2000: 502-503) explains, “The critique of the subject is not a negation or repudiation of the subject, but, rather, a way of interrogating its construction as a pregiven or foundationalist premise”.

To this end, Foucault (1977: 87) “places within a process of development everything considered immortal to man”, including “feelings”, “instincts” and “the body”. Contra “human nature” he emphasizes the possibility of a changing subject, a subject in process, “a thoroughly contingent human, ‘one’ ever open to (juridical) reinscription” (Golder 2009; see also Golder 2010).

In a recent entry on “Gendering” (30 June 2019) I explain how this view leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “woman” by nature; rather we are constantly becoming “woman”. This proposition lies at the centre of the feminist debates introduced in the previous Research Hub entry (1 September 2019). On one side, the argument is that we need a concept of “woman” to ground political claims, that a Foucauldian stance leaves us with no actors to initiate political projects and drive change. On the other side, following Butler, the argument is that political claims are actually facilitated if one works with a “subject in process” because talking about “woman” as a natural category of existence locks us into particular, limited ways of thinking change.

An example may help explain this proposition. In a recent article on “women returning to cycling”, Jennifer Bonham and I (2017) note that research that focusses on cycling as a predominantly masculine activity can inadvertently naturalize certain characteristics as “feminine”, e.g. that “women” are naturally risk averse, or naturally inclined to perform domestic labour. Assuming an a priori subject (“woman”) in this way, we suggest, bypasses questions about the politics involved in the production of “subjects”.  In this sense, a pre-given subject can be described as “anti-political” (Brown 1995: 37), closing off “questions about the ways in which the assignment of subjectivity and agency can work to include some and exclude others, authorizing some to speak and act in ways that bind others, while denying the same privileges to others” (Stern 2000: 113).

Bringing this critical interrogation of “the subject” to research involves new questions. Instead of asking “what do I know?” there is a need to ask, “how have my questions been produced?“ (Olssen 2003) and “what assumptions do I make about the categories of analysis I deploy?”, with clear links to the practice of self-problematization (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 52).

Think, for example, of how we treat research subjects in interview situations. Is there an assumption that we can access the “truth” of what happened through their accounts of their experiences (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688; Atkinson and Silverman 1997)? This question becomes particularly important when we recognize that research plays a central role in producing “reality” (see Research Hub entry on “ontological politics”, 10 Dec. 2017). In Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA), Bonham and I (2016) suggest as an alternative analytic strategy locating interview “subjects” within discursive practices.

As with conventional uses of interview material, actor-centred models of political change tend to treat “subjects” as self-authoring (Krott et al.2014). For example, research on deliberative democracy can appear to posit a “self-authoring subject” who can “unproblematically enter into dialogical democratic discourse with others to achieve consensus” (Eagan 2009: 149). Similarly, interpretive research on framing focusses on “how actors create meaning in the policy process and how they package those meanings for instrumental and expressive purposes” (Koon et al. 2016: 7). In other work I use the example of the interpretivist proposal to train policy actors to shape problematizations effectively to indicate the political implications of such a focus on policy actors as self-directed “subjects”. The commitment to use political theory to guide and facilitate reform initiatives, I argue, neglects the need to critically interrogate governmental problematizations (2015 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).

To query the dialogical and interpretive perspectives outlined here does not mean that actors cannot act. The question becomes how to theorize or think about those actors as always “subjects” in ongoing-formation (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). In earlier work I suggest the possibility of a “dual-focus agenda”, attending “both to the ways in which we are all in discourses, understood as institutionally supported and culturally influenced interpretive and conceptual schemas and signs, and to the active deployment of language, including concepts and categories, for political purposes” (Bacchi 2005: 207). I emphasized at the time that these two analytical perspectives need to be combined so that it becomes possible to recognize the contributions of policy actors while hanging on to the insights into subjectification. If, as occasionally happens, the projects are separated, there is a danger that “important insights into limitations imposed by our own subject positionings are lost” (see 2011: 6-7 RonnblomBacchiBudapest ).

Question 6 in WPR (see Bacchi WPR CHART) creates space for charting and analysing the actions of individuals and groups. It invokes the spirit of “counter-conduct” and reads: “How and where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How has it been and/or can it be disrupted and replaced?” As with the “dual agenda” (above), it is important to remember that the seven forms of questioning and analysis that constitute WPR form an integrated analytical strategy. Therefore, Question 6 needs to be considered together with the insights into subjectification (Question 5) and self-problematization (Step 7; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2). In these complex interrelationships, the humanist subject, described in the previous Research Hub entry, is decentred.

Mansfield (2000: 10) reminds us of how difficult it is to shift our thinking on this question of “the subject”. The major vehicle of constraint, he argues, is language, “which petrifies the illusion that for every action there is a pre-existing subject responsible for it”. Think, for example, of the commonly used terms such as “self”, “subject”, “individual”, “consciousness”, and “agency” (the last pursed in a subsequent entry). Jones (1997: 268) explains that, through language – her examples are the pronouns “I” and “me” – , we produce ourselves as “rational choosing actors”. As she describes, “we behave as though we are, we run whole social systems on that premise”.  The task becomes interrogating these taken-for-granted usages and to consider how they close off certain avenues for thought. Consider, for example, how assumptions about human nature commonly underpin policy proposals, limiting the factors considered relevant (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49). A step towards broadening our conceptions of politics and policy, therefore, involves politicizing “personhood” (Bacchi and Bonham 2016).

To replace a priori subjects and a priori structures, Foucault turns to practices – in his words, to “what happens” (Foucault 1982: 786), to “how things work at the level of on-going subjugation” (Foucault 1980). In the next entry I pursue what this position entails and how “practices” are deployed in several theoretical traditions – e.g. performativity theory and Actor-Network theory.


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