This entry is prompted by a recent article by Kayi and Sakarya (2020) which states that it uses “Bacchi’s framework” (commonly known as the WPR approach) to analyse government responses to COVID-19 in 13 countries (United States, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China). The article offers a survey of the arguments for and against the two main policy responses to COVID-19: suppression and mitigation.
While the paper is useful, it does not to my mind engage the level of analysis I associate with WPR. Clearly, I cannot and do not wish to “manage” how WPR is deployed. At the same time, I feel that it is worthwhile to consider the research approaches that appear in various WPR adaptations. I use the term “approach”, in line with Ozga’s (2019) account, to signal a focus on the “theoretical resources” drawn upon in forms of analysis.
On this point it is important to recognize that WPR is used in a variety of ways and in combination with other theoretical approaches (van Toorn and Dowse 2016; Van Aswegen et al. 2019). In other Research Hub entries, I have queried the possibility of some of these combinations, specifically on attempts to produce hybrids of WPR with CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis) or with critical realism (14 May 2018; 1 Feb. 2019).
Kayi and Sakarya (2020) describe their approach as interpretive, an approach they link to studies of representation and frames/framing. They refer to Browne et al. (2019: 3, 8) who offer interpretivism as a broad rubric encompassing WPR alongside other qualitative approaches that focus on “how meaning is created” in policy texts and interactions, and on how “different stakeholders represent policy problems”.
In a previous entry (4 March 2018) I emphasize one key distinguishing factor that separates WPR from other interpretive approaches: that interpretive analyses tend to focus on the rationales or perspectives advanced by policy actors or “stakeholders” whereas WPR, alongside other poststructural approaches, analyzes deep-seated presuppositions within governmental texts (see also Bacchi 2015 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization). Importantly, “governmental” is understood broadly to encompass the many rules, agencies, professional bodies, etc. that shape conduct, while texts go beyond written documents to include all practices of signification (see for example “Buildings as Proposals”, Research Hub entry 14 Jan. 2018; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18). The objective is to examine critically the “grounds of the system’s possibility” (Johnson 1981: xv) and the politics involved in its making.
In their introduction to WPR, Kayi and Sakarya ask: “What is the problem represented to be in the debate between defenders of mitigation and suppression strategies?” (2020: 31). This declared intention to identify problem representations in debates between defenders of mitigation or suppression strategies indicates a distance from the WPR objective of interrogating problem representations in governmental texts (see above). As a result, the authors fail to select proposals within governmental texts as starting points for asking the WPR questions, a key step in applying the framework (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 16, 19). What we are offered instead is an analysis of “points of view” or “commonly articulated reason[s]” (Kayi and Sakarya 2020: 32).
It appears, then, that the research approach in this analysis – that is, the theoretical resources drawn upon (see Ozga above) – contrasts with the WPR research project. Alvesson and Sandberg (2013: 53-56) offer a useful way to distinguish among analytic approaches, focusing specifically on the kinds of assumptions that researchers target for interrogation (or problematization). They produce five categories of assumptions: in-house, root metaphor, paradigmatic, ideological and “field assumptions”, associating the last with the work of Foucault. Studies that question “in-house assumptions” tend to work within the frames of reference accepted in their field, whereas Foucauldian-influenced research puts these terms of reference into question. Alvesson and Sandberg offer the example of “trait theory” in research on leadership. Those who dispute (only) the criteria for characterizing leadership retain the background assumption that leadership abilities depend on certain traits and hence tacitly accept the premise of “trait theory”.
Kayi and Sakarya (2020) produce analysis at the level of “in-house” assumptions, whereas WPR works at the level of “field assumptions”. They do not query the terms of reference (the “in-house” assumptions) marshalled in the debates about responses to COVID-19. That is, their approach stays within the framework of accepted medical and epidemiological categories. The goal becomes (simply) to highlight “fallacies” or missing information in relation to those terms of reference. For example, they spend some time pointing out that efforts to achieve herd immunity are compromised by the lack of a vaccine for “high-risk” groups (Kayi and Sakarya 2020: 36). And they note that: “The challenge with the simulation models is the need for input variables which are uncertain or absent” (Kayi and Sakarya 2020: 35).
A WPR approach, by contrast, raises questions about the categories of analysis (the “field assumptions”) that feature in governmental “responses” (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 62-63), e.g. “risk categories” (see Lupton, 1993; Dean, 1999: Chapter 9; Rose 2000), “modelling” (see Rhodes and Lancaster 2020), “immunity” and “distancing”. Such categories are seen as “contingent historical creations, human constructions, that need to be interrogated rather than enshrined as ‘truth’” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 5; emphasis in original).
In WPR, Question 2 probes the ontological and epistemological presuppositions that make those categories of analysis possible – for example, presuppositions about the nature of disease, “the body” and “human nature” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 21). Spivakovsky and Seear (2017: 458, 463) usefully refer to these presuppositions as “pervasive cultural logics” and “dominant cultural imaginaries”. They offer agency, capacity, disability and crime as examples of categories in the field of legal research that require critical interrogation at the level of deep-seated assumptions. By contrast, assumptions of this kind are, in general, rendered unremarkable in Kayi and Sakarya.
This tendency to work within accepted (“in-house”) terms of reference is clear in Kayi and Sakarya’s (2020: 40) enthusiastic promotion of evidence-based research. By contrast, the WPR framework encourages researchers to probe the ways in which conceptions of “evidence” rely on epistemological assumptions about “true knowledge” and ontological assumptions about a fixed “reality” (Bacchi 2009: 252-254).
In the article, the adaptation of Question 5 (in WPR; see Bacchi WPR CHART) also clearly illustrates the distance between Kayi and Sakarya’s research approach and WPR-related thinking – that is, how they stay within the terms of reference of mainstream policy analysis. While they pose the question “What effects are produced by the representations of the problem?” they describe their goal as assessing “outcomes” of the contrasting strategies. In their account, “effects” (“outcomes”) refers to the specific details of implementation. For example, here are the “outcomes” they observe in Sweden:
“Sweden maintains its mitigation approach: most places are open, only work hours are reduced, primary and secondary schools are open, people over 70 are particularly encouraged to stay at home, more than 50 people are prohibited from being together, and social distance rules are applied.” (Kayi and Sakarya 2020: 37)
Diagrams indicating the number of cases and deaths reported in the analysed countries also serve as “outcomes”.
By contrast, Question 5 in WPR identifies three kinds of interconnected effects (or implications): discursive effects, subjectification effects and lived effects. Discursive effects highlight the limits imposed on thinking and analysis by working within accepted terms of reference. Subjectification effects consider how specific policy “responses” affect how subjects “come to relate to themselves and others as subjects of a certain type” (Rose 1998: 25). For example, the focus on individual responsibility in social distancing rules – a policy proposal that crosses over the suppression/mitigation distinction – produces subjects who self-regulate in domains and practices that invite critical scrutiny. Finally, lived effects focus on how discursive and subjectification effects translate into everyday lives. Together, these three “kinds” of effects broaden our understanding of “outcomes” to consider how lives are shaped through governmental practices, “how social relationships are set up and [for] how subjects are positioned within policy and discourse” (Cui et al. 2019: 2). None of these issues is raised by Kayi and Sakaryi.
The WPR approach also emphasizes the need for researchers to practice self-problematization as a part of the research exercise (see Step 7 in Chart Bacchi WPR CHART). In the Covid-19 example, this step would involve researchers questioning their positioning in debates about, for example, containment strategies, “outcomes” and “evidence”.
As I mentioned at the outset, I have no desire to “police” how WPR is deployed. However, I would encourage researchers to pay more attention to the different levels of analysis produced in contrasting applications – if only to debate their potential usefulness. In the next two entries, I introduce several WPR applications in the field of medical practices to illustrate further what it means to query “field assumptions” and to suggest the political implications of such analyses.
I would like to thank Sue Goodwin and Anne Wilson for comments on an earlier draft of this entry.
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