I have been asked about the kinds of materials open to a WPR form of analysis. I have addressed this question in other places but decided it was worthwhile to lay out some clearer guidelines through the medium of the Research Hub. To keep entries to a reasonable length, I will produce three in succession on the topic. In this first entry I will review some earlier thoughts on the possible uses of WPR, focusing in particular on media texts. Subsequent entries will consider whether or not WPR can be adapted to critically analyse interview material and Parliamentary debates.
In a 2018 piece in Contemporary Drug Problems (Bacchi 2018: 6-8), I offer some preliminary thoughts on how to apply WPR to materials other than policy texts, understood in the strict sense of the term – e.g. Government reports, pieces of legislation, Government programs (I use upper-case Government to refer to institutions and policies associated with conventional governing bodies). First, I note that, since WPR works with and through a governmentality perspective, it can be deployed to interrogate the full range of governmental (read broadly; here small “g” governmental refers to the broad matrix of governing practices and institutions) and knowledge practices. “Policy” in WPR is not simply what Governments (narrowly conceived as Government institutions) do; it embraces a wide range of actors and agencies, including experts and professionals, and the knowledges they produce. Hence, WPR can be applied to the range of materials produced by these agencies and experts. For example, a researcher could adopt WPR to reflect critically on reports or programs produced by professional groups or agencies, or non-governmental organizations.
The logic underlying WPR provides guidance on just which “sites” might be included in the analysis. That is, since WPR rests on the premise that what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change and hence what we deem to be “problematic”, WPR can be applied to any materials that make some sort of proposal about how things ought to be. Any “thing” (I say “thing” rather than “text” advisedly for reasons that will become clear) that tells us what to do or how to do something (how to conduct ourselves) becomes fair game for a WPR analysis. Importantly, researchers do not need to identify explicit instructions, such as “you must not engage in anti-social behaviour”, about how to conduct oneself. Rather, by their very existence, a wide range of materials set out (propose) to shape social-material relationships in certain ways, opening them to a WPR analysis. Consider, for example, general statements about the importance of “social cohesion” or “community”, which imply the need to augment either state, and thus constitute lack of “social cohesion” or lack of “community” as a “problem”.
Moving to specifics, in my 2018 article, I review how WPR can be drawn upon to tease out the problematizations in Governmental technologies, including “mundane programmes, calculations, techniques, apparatuses, documents and procedures” (Miller & Rose 2008: 55; e.g. the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA, 2017; see Bacchi 2020). Also, because WPR assumes a broad view of governing that moves “behind” or “outside” (Foucault 2007: 162-163) Government institutions, it can also be applied to non-governmental technologies – e.g. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013; see Buller et al. 2021). Other targets for analysis include expert knowledges (e.g. “evidence-based” discourse; see Lancaster, Treloar & Ritter 2017), case law and precedent (Seear and Fraser 2014), symposia (Månsson and Ekendahl 2015), and social marketing texts (Farrugia 2016).
In the same article (Bacchi 2018) I mention briefly the possible extension of a WPR way of thinking to phenomena that are not strictly textual, such as buildings, ceremonies and organizational culture. The argument here, as elsewhere, is that these “things” can be approached as proposals about how social-material relations ought to be organized, making it possible to apply the WPR questions (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). Finally, I suggest the potential usefulness of applying WPR to theoretical propositions (e.g. the importance of “class struggle”, or a realist perspective in international relation), which are clearly proposals about how things ought to be. Following similar reasoning, concepts such as “class”, “social capital” or “national borders” can be approached as proposals to which WPR can be applied.
With all this, I found myself puzzling over the possible application of WPR to media texts. I gave a seminar at the University of South Australia in 2014 where I expressed hesitation about applying WPR to media texts. My concern was, at least in part, that statements in the media are often associated with specific actors. Hence, I had difficulty seeing how to draw on them to examine governmental logics. I was also hesitant to step into the well-developed field of “media analysis”, for which I had no training. However, there have been some interesting applications of WPR to forms of media texts and these have assisted me in thinking through this issue.
First, media texts produced by Governmental organizations have been usefully analysed using WPR. For example, Nielsen and Bonham (2015) draw on WPR to critically interrogate a road safety campaign screened by the South Australian Motor Accident Commission (MAC) from 2010 to 2014 (for details see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 77-78). As another example, in his study of the adoption of a broader understanding of “security” in Sweden in the 1990s, Larsson (2020) includes as material for analysis a Government website, “Your Security”, operated by MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency), the MSB YouTube channel, and the MSB podcast series If a Crisis Comes. Such “texts” can be readily seen to contain “proposals” (understood broadly) on behalf of conventional State institutions to influence conduct. As a result, they can usefully be approached as “levers” to open up reflections on the forms of governing, and associated effects, instituted through a particular way of constituting a “problem” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18).
Second, there have been applications of WPR to forms of media representation not associated with Government directives. For example, Carole Zufferey (2013) examines representations of “homelessness” in “broadsheet Australian newspaper articles” between 2000 and 2011. She notes that “media articles about homelessness tended to represent homelessness as a crisis problem to be solved urgently”. She also highlights that “people who experienced homelessness tended to be represented in homogenous categories” as “lackers”, “slackers”, and “unwilling victims”. Zufferey offers useful analysis of links between these representations and deep-seated historical and cultural assumptions about “deserving and underserving” people. She also directly engages with the question of the “gaps” and “silences” in print media representations of homelessness. For example, she points out how “homelessness” is constructed as the absence of an abode whereas many women are “homeless” at home, due to violence (Zufferey 2013).
Several issues remain unresolved. For one, it is important in a WPR analysis to make clear that the target of analysis is not an individual author or editor. WPR does not operate at the level of actors’ opinions. Also, in a WPR analysis the project involves examining proposals to guide conduct as a means to interrogating strategies for governing. In my view, general analyses of media “views” on an issue do not qualify for this form of analysis in a clear and straight-forward manner.
However, in a recent article Manlik (2020) illustrates how it is possible to read certain media texts as proposals regarding conduct and hence as governing strategies, making a WPR form of analysis possible. Manlik (2020) brings the WPR questions to an analysis of Australia’s largest LGBTQ women’s magazine, Lesbians on the Loose (2014-2017 editions). She highlights the absence from HIV discourse of SM (Sexual Minority) women – how HIV exposure categories cannot record (potential) “female-to-female” sexual transmission of HIV due to the presupposition of “lesbian immunity” that underpins dominant heterosexist HIV discourse. Her particular focus is the role played by “SM women’s print and online media publications for their place in the (re)production and circulation of HIV knowledges” (Manlik 2020: 2). To interrogate this role, Manlik explores “how SM women are interpellated into a diverse range of HIV subject positions through both their explicit representation in the magazine and the silencing of their identities, practices and desires”.
Manlik (2020: 13 fn 1), therefore, treats the magazine, Lesbians on the Loose, as a “practical text” as understood in WPR (Bacchi 2009: 34), which aims to produce particular effects in the “conduct” of their audiences. Specifically, she explains how SM women are positioned within the magazine texts “as responsible, at least in part, for addressing the ‘problem’ of HIV”. She shows how this stance illustrates Foucault’s theoretical focus on subjectification (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53), which is primarily concerned with how governing transpires through problematisations: “that is, how certain subject positions are rendered thinkable or unthinkable through, what Bacchi (2009: 48) terms, ‘problem representations’” (Manlik 2020: 4).
Crucially, the key point to remember is how to treat these “practical texts” in one’s analysis. Manlik (2020: 12) explains:
“And yet, it is important to note that, under Bacchi’s (2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016) WPR approach, blame should not be assigned to individual authors in LOTL or the magazine itself for (re)producing particular problem representations.”
When using WPR, the researcher targets underlying conceptual logics; it does not seek signs of intentional manipulation. The point to take from this example, then, is the possibility of interrogating the conceptual logics in at least some media texts through applying the WPR questions.
Manlik proceeds to offer useful insights into the political implications of the style of critique displayed in her (and other WPR-influenced) work. She notes that increasing the visibility of SM women in HIV discourses may not, in the end, serve them well, possibly forcing them to endure “surplus visibility” (Patai 1992). The purpose of her analysis is not, therefore, to advocate making SM women visible but to inquire into the forms of visibility required in order to be recognized as participating subjects in HIV discourse and accompanying legal regulations. Quoting Lamble (2009: 126) Manlik (2020: 12) concludes that “[t]he remedy for ‘limited thinking’ is not ‘better thinking’ but rather a critical interrogation of the conditions that make such rationalities possible.” To challenge taken-for-granted discourses and regulations through which governing takes place, they must be rendered as questionable – as open to interrogation and possible change. Such is the intent of a WPR analysis.
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