The issue of the status assigned conceptual categories, considered in the last entry, marks a clear distinction between poststructuralism and critical realism (see also Research Hub 1 Feb. 2019). Wendy Larner (2008: 23), for example, points out that Stenson’s (2008) “realist governmentality” takes key terms such as “white flight”, the “knowledge economy” and “social capital” as “self-evident descriptors of the terrain being analysed” in his study of “community safety” in the UK Thames Valley region. As Larner explains, in treating these “entities” as “real”, the politics involved in their formation disappears from the analysis.
But how useful is this form of poststructural questioning of key concepts? In a recent defence of critical realism Alex Stevens (2020: 2) argues that ontologically oriented research, which he calls “radical constructionism”, leads to political paralysis. In his view, the argument that “scientific processes produce their objects” (Moore 2011: 82 in Stevens 2020: 2) cannot provide a sound basis for analysis: “All it can do is throw up a ‘multiplicity’ of competing ‘forms of reality’ (Moore 2011: 85)” (Stevens 2020: 2). Rather, says Stevens (2020: 2), researchers have to embrace a “conceptual framework” that accepts an external reality (such as Stenson’s self-evident descriptors) as a backdrop to their analyses. Critical realism, he argues, provides such a framework.
valentine and Seear (2020) offer a robust commentary on Stevens’ article and I recommend reading it in its entirety (see also Howarth et al. 2020). For my purposes, I am interested in valentine’s and Seear’s insights into the impact of STS (Science and Technology Studies) research on policy developments in alcohol and other drug research. They elaborate the point made by Larner about the need to make visible the “made-in-practice status of realities” by opening up these categories to critical analsyis. Their examples of such “made-in-practice realities” include: “knowledge”, “evidence”, “data”, and “drug effects” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2). They also emphasize that ontopolitical research of this sort is not intended simply to “highlight the multiplicity of realities”: “It is rather a political response to particular realities, those that produce and reproduce social injustices” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2).
The point I am making in this entry complements this analysis. If, as I and others argue, researchers need to interrogate their own categories of analysis in order to offer “useful knowledge”, then poststructuralism becomes an essential research tool. It alerts researchers to the ways in which their views of what is real are contingent and provisional. It is not an optional extra or an annoying detour – it is a necessary part of useful political reflection. This mode of critical analysis seems particularly important to those embarking on “ontopolitically-oriented research”. To repeat a point made in an earlier Research Hub entry (30 Nov 2020), the terms we adopt are not innocent “explanatory” devices; instead, they play a central role in “world making” (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 4).
In several places Stevens attempts to lay bare what he sees as clear inconsistencies in poststructural argumentation. He offers a version of the commonly made argument that the challenge of poststructuralism to notions of “truth” is itself a truth claim (see fn 2 regarding Law’s [2004: 155] statement that “there are no general rules”, which Stevens identifies as itself a general maxim, or rule.). This rather tired argument neglects a key point. Poststructuralism is not an epistemological theory; it is a political stance. It does not offer a “god’s eye” or a “we know better” (Stengers 2008) view. Rather, its claims and arguments are developed in the name of political commitments to progressive change, with “progressive” open to discussion and debate. To repeat Mol’s (2002: 151) contention, quoted in the last Research Hub entry, “veracity is not the point. Instead it is interference”.
There is a good deal at stake in these discussions. We are talking about key decisions to do with directions in research strategy. With Joan Eveline (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 157) I have argued against the conclusion that the best poststructuralism can offer researchers are “throw-away explanations” (Chia 1996: 49). By contrast, poststructuralism prompts an interrogation of all taken-for-granted concepts and precepts, including our own such precepts, leading to a practice of self-problematization (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 38-41). I see such a critical intervention as bridging tensions between “compositionism” and “the guerrilla of ontological interferences” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54; see previous Research Hub entry).
Next time I hope to offer a much-needed update on my reflections with Jennifer Bonham on governing through experimentation in a time of COVID-19 (see Research Hub entry, 30 April 2020).
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chia, R. 1996. The problem of reflexivity in organisational research. Organization, 3(1): 31-59.
Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. Power, resistance and reflexive practice. In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline (Eds) Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.
Lancaster, K. and Rhodes, T. 2020. Towards an ontological politics of drug policy: Intervening through policy, evidence and method. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102932
Larner, W. 2008. Comments on Kevin Stenson’s “Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety”, Social Work & Society 6(1): 21-25.
Law, J. 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.
Mol, A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Moore, D. 2011. The ontological politics of knowledge production: Qualitative research in the multidisciplinary drug field. In S. Fraser and D. Moore (Eds) The drug effect: Health, crime and society (pp. 73-90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Munk, A. & Abrahamsson, S. 2012. Empiricist interventions: Strategy and tactics on the ontopolitical battlefield. Science Studies, 25(1): 52-70.
Stengers, I. 2008. Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism. Subjectivity, 22: 38-59.
Stenson, K. (2008). Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety. Social Work & Society 6(1): 1-14.
Stevens, A. 2020. Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”. International Journal of Drug Policy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102723
valentine, K. and Seear, K. 2020. Commentary on Alex Stevens (2020) Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 84: 102879.