In the last entry I introduced a way to think about the operation of Foucault’s nominalist critique as a political stratagem for producing a particular kind of analysis. As Rajchman (1983-84) points out, once you put the existence of “universals” (or “constants”) into question, it becomes necessary to focus on the multitude of factors and practices that lead “things” to “become something” (“devenir quelque chose” (Senellart 2008: 19). Genealogy describes the history of that multitude of factors and practices. 

In this entry, I’d like to show how Foucault’s nominalism leads to his focus on practices and on problematization. Afterwards, I’ll examine briefly the implications of this stance for conceptions of “power”, “the state” and “man”. In each case it is useful to think in terms of challenging these “things” as simply existing (“exister”), focusing instead on how they have come to be something (“devenir quelque chose”). I emphasize how Foucault’s efforts to displace unitary conceptions of “the State” are linked to his development of the concept of governmentality.

As seen in the last entry Foucault clearly connects his challenge to the existence of universals to practices. He highlights the “conjunctions” made by “a whole set of practices”, “real practices” (Senellart 2008: 19). But what are these practices? In two previous Research Hub entries (30 Nov 2019, 31 Dec 2019) I pursued this topic, indicating the need, at the very least, to consider the plurality of approaches in the “turn to practice” which continues to characterize contemporary social theory. I mention there that Foucault evades the temptation to start from a definition of practices by referring to practices as “places” (see previous Research Hub entry on the refusal of definitions in poststructuralism). As he explains, practices are places where “what is said and what is done … meet and interconnect” (Foucault 1991: 75). This starting point allows Foucault to focus on what he calls the juridicative and veridicative components of practices – how they establish and apply norms and render them as “true” or “false”. It follows that practices are not simply the “actions” of individuals, as can appear to be the case in some developments in the “turn to practice”. The distance between thinking of practices as simply what people do and what Foucault has in mind is clear in the examples of practices that he mentions – i.e. “the sequestration of the insane, or clinical medicine, or the organization of the empirical sciences, or legal punishment” (Foucault 1991: 79)

To see how practices are involved in making “things” come to be something, requires a focus on the ways in which they problematize those “things”. For example, it is through examining how “the mad” are dealt with (the practices involved in their “sequestration”) – “how madmen were recognized, set aside, excluded from society, interned, and treated” (Foucault 1969 in Eribon 1991: 214) – that we can see how they were “problematized” and conceptualized, and “trace how they have come to be translated into specific kinds of ‘problems’ and objects of government” (Pienaar et al. 2018: 188). 

In “Why study problematizations?” I (2012: 1) consider how the term “problematization” has two meanings in Foucault. One meaning uses “problematization” as a verb to refer to the mode of critical analysis Foucault calls “thinking problematically” (Research Hub entries 9 July 2018, 23 July 2018). The second meaning, a noun form, is tied to the “historical process of producing objects for thought”, which we need to remember do not simply exist (exister). Here “problematizations” are the “somethings” produced through this historical process, captured in Foucault’s nominalist genealogies – “the forms of problematization themselves” (Foucault 1986: 17-18).  In WPR I call these “objects for thought” or forms of problematization “problem representations” (Research Hub entry 11 June 2018). Through the study of problematizations, therefore, it is possible to reflect critically on the multitude of factors and practices that lead “things” to “become something” (“devenir quelque chose”) (Bacchi 2017).

I now comment briefly on three universals that Foucault sets out to displace – “power”, “the state” and “man” – to illustrate where his nominalist critique takes us. This trio of concepts formed the basis of much theoretical discussion in the middle to latter half of the twentieth century when Foucault wrote. They also, of course, continue to feature prominently in contemporary theoretical speculation. 

The tendency to think about “power” as something people possess is ubiquitous. We continue to talk about people “having” power – often understood as having power over others. To challenge this position, Foucault at times writes “Power” in scare quotes, a nominalist strategy deployed to take distance from analytical concepts (Alasuuarti 2010: 407). “Power”, he specifies, is “not an institution, and not a structure”. Rather, it is (simply) “the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (Foucault, 1980[1978]: 93; emphasis added).

Importantly, Foucault’s notion of strategy, as in “a complex strategical situation”, does not require a conscious strategist (Alasuuarti 2010: 406). The analytic focus shifts therefore from “actors” intentionally deploying power to the “strategic situations” in which power “is produced from one moment to the next, at every point” – a “micro-physics of power” (Foucault 1980: 93). Rather than “actors” having“power”, subjects are constituted in and through power relations (see comment on “man” below), a process described as “subjectification” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-51). 

Foucault brought this same nominalist focus on “complex strategic situations” to his study of governing (Alasuuarti 2010: 411-412). His primary objective is to point to the limitations of thinking about governing in terms of a grand theory of something called “the State”.  

“The State” in Foucault is a “mythical abstraction” (Rose and Miller 1992: 173), an anchor point for myriad strategic relations that merge in specific political forms, rather than an entity with a presumed essential necessity or functionality. Rather than talking about “the State” as a “thing”, we need to see the term (simply) as a way to talk about a particular form of governing. “The State”, therefore, needs to be decomposed into practices and relations.

Foucault coins the term “governmentality” to mark out this research agenda. Governmentality studies investigate the minutiae of routine and mundane practices of governing. Categories and concepts are “denaturalised, made specific and their governmental implications revealed” (Larner 2008: 23).

This intervention has important political effects. It broadens the focus of our studies from political institutions (“The State”) to encompass numerous sites, agencies and “ways of knowing” that interrelate to shape social rules (Bacchi 2017: 7). In tune with the poststructural refusal to offer definitions of “things” (see previous Research Hub entry) “governmentality” is not given a firm definition. As Valverde (2010: 52) explains, governmentality is not a concept; it is a “dynamic abstraction deployed strategically”. 

“Man”, of course, is another presumed universal in much contemporary social theory and political analysis. There are repeated references to “human nature” and to “man’s” instincts. Consider for example behavioural economics, nudge theory (Haydock 2014) and situational crime prevention (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49). In two previous Research Hub entries (30 Sept. 2019, 31 Oct 2019), I explored Foucault’s challenge to the humanist, Enlightenment subject who is presumed to be fixed, autonomous and a reliable source of knowledge (Scott 1991: 782). Here, I wish only to emphasise how nominalism disrupts established categories of thought and analysis, including “man”, opening up new avenues of research and thinking. 

What does all this mean for our research practices? First and foremost, there is the obligation to examine the categories of analysis we adopt as presumably fixed and meaningful. As Barbehon (2020) notes, the classifications we use to describe “reality” (including “reality” itself of course) are social artifacts. It does not serve us well, therefore, to treat our categories of analysis as simply existing (“exister”), as fixed and hence useful “things”; rather, it is incumbent on us to consider how these categories have “come to be” something (“devenir quelque chose”). Moreover, since research practices, alongside other practices, produce “realities” (see previous entry), there is an obligation to consider the “realities” our analytic categories produce (elaborated below). 

This stance points to an important distinction between Foucauldian poststructuralism and much realist sociology. Foucault (Senellart: 2) made this clear in the Birth of Bioethics where he listed some of the concepts put into question through his nominalist starting point: “notions such as the sovereign, sovereignty, the people, subjects, the state, and civil society, that is to say, all those universals employed by sociological analysis, historical analysis and political philosophy in order to account for real governmental practice”. On these grounds the postrstructuralist scholar, Wendy Larner (2008), questions the “realist governmentality” produced by Stenson (2008), pointing out how his analysis treats terms such as “knowledge economy”, “welfare dependency”, “white flight” and “communities at risk” as “self-evident descriptors of the terrain being analysed”, instead of the “names” bestowed on “things”. I suggest similar objections can be made to the reliance on presumed fixed categories of social analysis in critical realism (Research Hub 1 Feb 2019) and in uncritical ethnography (Research Hub 28 Feb 2019, 31 March 2019).

In line with this position, the Foucauldian scholar, William Walters (2009: 495) cautions against the tendency to ontologize our spatial concepts. He asks: what is a region? a zone? a territory? a network? an area? With Larner, he suggests that policy analysts need to become “much more nominalistic about the diversity of global spaces” (Larner and Walters 2004: 16). Remembering that research practices produce “realities”, the use of common spatial concepts needs to be seen in political terms as reinforcing the “existence” of those things that do not exist (as essences). For example, when analysts and researchers deploy concepts such as “nation-state” unproblematically, they actively support and entrench the “reality” of “nation-states”, reinforcing current geopolitical power relations (Law 2004: 144; Mol 2002: 136). 

A number of WPR applications usefully interrogate commonly accepted analytic categories, which feature prominently in governing practices. In a recent critical commentary on the NDIS (Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme), Horsell (2020) opens to contestation “fixed concepts and categories (such as fixed and homogeneous conceptualisations of disability) that shape policy formulation”. In tune with this analysis, Barry Allan (2018) puts in question the notion of “impairment” and its reliance on a “medical perception of normality”. Along related lines Marley (2018) uses WPR to investigate the conditions fundamental to the “existence” of ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). 

Step 7 in WPR emphasizes the importance of self-problematization as part of any WPR analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24). This Research Hub entry helps to explain its importance. The undertaking to apply the WPR questions to one’s own proposals (which is what Step 7 entails) is intended to alert researchers to the danger in simply accepting and deploying common analytic categories such as “nation-state”, “impairment” and so many others, and to the benefit of becoming more nominalistic about such terms. 

My hope in this entry and the previous one is to indicate the usefulness of bringing a nominalist lens to our research. In my view, it accomplishes several important things. First, it encourages the kind of critical deconstruction of established categories that WPR is commonly used to achieve. And second, it reminds us of the need to apply this same critical approach to our own categories of analysis. Finally, by highlighting that “things” are created in practices, it opens up the possibility for researchers to create new “things”, to engage in ontopolitically-oriented research practices (Fraser 2019), a topic pursued next time.


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