In the two previous entries I have considered the possibility of adapting WPR for use in analysing media texts and interview material. On media texts (30 April 2021), I caution against adopting WPR to (simply) canvas opinions, expressed in a media post of some sort, on an issue or “problem”. At the same time, 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). In the latter case, the target is the conceptual logics within governmental (read broadly) proposals, not opinions.
In relation to interview material (31 May 2021), there are two levels of challenge regarding attempts to apply WPR. The first involves the kind of subject assumed in the use of research interviews. As WPR puts in question the notion of an “authentic” or sovereign self, the use of interviews to provide “true” meaning conflicts with this premise. The second challenge is that interviews do not, in my view, appear to offer “guides to conduct”. They are not “practical” or “prescriptive texts” in the sense developed by Foucault (1986: 12-13) and adopted in WPR (Bacchi 2009: 34). Therefore, I, with Jennifer Bonham, developed Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA) as a “sister strategy” to WPR in order to tease out conceptual logics within interview material (see Bacchi and Bonham 2016).
The query in this entry is whether it is possible to use WPR to analyse legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (upper-case “G” signals official institutions). I ask: can the words of politicians and legislators be drawn upon to build a WPR-style analysis? I offer as exemplars three WPR applications that use either legislative debates (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, and Johnson et al. 2021) or the official pronouncements of heads of state and heads of Government (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020). All three studies are stimulating and challenging analyses that have assisted me to sort through my thinking on these issues. Given space limitations I introduce these articles only briefly and recommend that those interested in the topic read them in their entirety. To preview my argument, I suggest that it is possible to bring a poststructural analytic to such debates and pronouncements but, depending on the specific character of the material analysed, sometimes WPR can be applied and sometimes PIA is a more promising strategy.
Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) analyse “how two Australian problem-solving courts – Victoria’s Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list for people with cognitive impairments or mental illness – have been conceptualized by Victoria’s Parliament” (Abstract). With the appellation of “problem-solving court” the topic appears to invite a WPR analysis. And the authors offer useful insights into how the very existence of courts described as “problem-solving” represents the “problem” of crime prevention. They note for example that such courts derive from the “therapeutic jurisprudence movement of the United States” and “operate on the premise that law, its personnel and processes can have therapeutic effects on participants’ wellbeing” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 459). There is rich material here that could be pursued further.
The authors turn their attention to “the legislative processes through which these courts came about”. And, to that end, they examine “what is said” in parliamentary debates “pertaining to the development of both the Victorian Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 460). Their targets are the “pervasive cultural logics” or “imaginaries” underpinning “what was said”. For example, they note how the subject in the Victorian Court is produced as “agentive, responsive, responsible and capable of change”. They also identify the “dominant cultural imaginary of the addict as a lesser citizen” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463). In relation to the Assessment and Referral Court list, they point out that “members of the Legislative Assembly appear to rely on a medicalized and protectionist discourse of disability and mental health” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463). They conclude that such “dominant cultural imaginaries” shape “the ways by which ‘problems’ are constituted” and foreclose “other possible problematizations” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 467).
The focus on “what is said” in the selected Parliamentary debates, in my view, invites a PIA analysis rather than a WPR study. This is mainly because WPR relies on proposals in “prescriptive texts” for its starting point and the statements of legislators do not, in my view, constitute prescriptive texts in any straight-forward manner. Moreover, the authors state clearly that their goal is to bring attention to “the limits on what can be said” about a range of topics, which is the stated goal in PIA – to consider how precisely “what is said” could be said (how it is “sayable”) (Bacchi and Bonham 2016: 116).
However, it is possible to apply WPR in the ways Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) recommend if one approaches the legislative statements as governing technologies. An article by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al.(2020) illustrates how this can be done. In this article the focus is on a collection of speeches given by “heads of state and heads of government” in Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden to frame “the problems and solutions to the spread of the [COVID-19] virus during the pandemic’s initial phase”. The authors specify that they adopt a “Foucauldian-inspired method of problematization”, alongside narrative analysis, governmentality, risk communication and taskscape theories (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract). On problematization, referring to my work (Bacchi 2009, 2012), they ask: “What are the ‘problem(s)”’ and the ‘solution(s)’ to the spread of the virus represented to be in the communication of the heads of state and heads of government in the four countries included in the study?”.
The authors (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: 9) develop the argument that, because the speeches explained the restrictions and interventions planned and implemented by the state, they formed part of “the strategy implementation”. It follows, they say, that the speeches “can be understood as governance technologies” in the Foucauldian sense of mechanisms of rule. A particular interest is how these mechanisms, such as the spatial distancing and self-governance demanded by the regimes, “create subject positions for individuals or groups” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 1). The point that individuals and groups are rendered “governable” through “the communication between the state and the public [i.e. through the speeches of heads of state] as well as through the technologies and rationalities employed by the state” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 3) seems well taken. Along similar lines, the governmentality scholars Miller and Rose (1990: 1) describe language as an “intellectual technology” that “renders aspects of existence amenable to inscription and calculation”.
In terms of WPR, the authors focus on the “solutions presented” (e.g. social distancing, hand-washing, etc) and how these produce a “problem-solution complex”. With “postulated solutions” read as proposals, it becomes possible to explore how these “solutions” produce the “problem” of contagion. As explained in my article on problematizations in health policy (Bacchi 2016: 10-11) WPR begins with a “postulated solution” (or proposal) and “identifies the problem representations within it”. Furthermore, it is clear that the official pronouncements collected by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. target the “conduct of conduct” and allow the authors to raise questions about the effects of such interventions:
“Through invoking a sense of responsibility, sacrifice, and current life during the pandemic as a difficult time, the speeches allude to how people through changed behavior can/should, contribute to the greater good. The individual is positioned as a key cause of, and solution to the problem; however, construing the individual as an indispensable actor to overcoming the crisis also means that the individual is laid open for reprehension.” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract)
There is one issue that requires more discussion in using WPR to apply to legislative debates. This is the issue of intentionality. As Manlik (2020) reminds us, in relation to media texts (see Research Hub 30 April 2021), in a WPR analysis, there is no suggestion that blame should be assigned to particular individuals. The level of analysis targets underlying governmental presuppositions not individual intentions. And yet it seems to me that the heads of state and heads of government in Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. set out with the clear intentionof altering citizen behaviours. As with media texts and interviews, then, in applying WPR, there is a need to ensure that the focus is on governmental problematizations and not on individual opinions or intentions.
A 2021 piece by Johnson et al. wants to blend these tasks. They set out to critically interrogate and compare legislation in Louisiana and Maryland that restricts and regulates how and when public colleges can ask applicants about their criminal history. The debates around this topic link to campaigns to “ban the box” on employment applications that ask if a candidate does or does not have a criminal history. The authors describe how they approach the issue, using WPR, in these terms: that, while the policies they examine “appear similar on the surface, they vary in the solutions they pose, reflecting different understandings of the problem they aim to address”.
Here I would suggest altering the wording to read – “they vary in the solutions they pose, and hence produce[or enact, or constitute] the “problem” of prior convictions (or criminal history) as a particular sort of problem”. Those readers who have followed the entries in the Research Hub will recognize the distinction I am drawing here between an interpretive approach that focuses on competing understandings, or interpretations, of an issue and a poststructural analysis that looks at how specific interventions produce different realities. Johnson et al. (2021: 6; emphasis added) proceed to base their analysis largely on the comments of legislators in “legislative hearings”. They explain that their focus is “on how various actors – state legislators, representatives from advocacy organizations, public citizens – shape the policy discussion and how the problem is defined”, illustrating that they are working within an interpretive tradition.
From my early work on WPR in Women, Policy and Politics (Bacchi 1999) I have endeavoured to draw a distinction between “problem definitions”, as described here, and “problem representations”, as I first develop in that book. There (1999: 34) I note that those interested in “problem definition” tend to focus on the people (e.g., policymakers, researchers, etc) involved in setting the norms that determine when certain conditions are to be regarded as policy problems and, hence, on the values and interpretations of those people (Bacchi 1999: 28; see also Bacchi 2015). By contrast, the focus of analysis in WPR is not the competing interpretations of policy actors but the deep-seated conceptual logics in governmental problematizations. To gain access to the conceptual logics in legislative debates or government pronouncements, they need to be interrogated through identifying “proposed solutions” and their implicit problem representations – ensuring that the “proposed solutions” are not simply the opinions of select social actors.
Next time I look more closely at the analytic formats available for WPR-inspired analyses, either question-by-question or as an “integrated analysis”. In relation to the latter, I will ask a question that some of you might have been pondering – do we really need WPR?
Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. London: Sage.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making politics visible. Open Journal of Political Science, 2(1): 1-8.
Bacchi, C. 2015. The Turn to Problematization: Political implications of contrasting interpretive and poststructural adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science, 5: 1-12.
Bacchi, C. 2016. Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning how “Problems” are Constituted in Policies. Sage Open, April-June: 1-16. DOI: 10.11771/21582440/6653986.
Bacchi, C. & Bonham, J. 2016. Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi & S. Goodwin, Poststructural policy analysis: A guide to practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 113-121.
Foucault, M. 1986. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality. Volume 2. Trans. R. Hurley. London: Viking Press.
Manlik, K. 2020. Allies or at-risk subjects? sexual minority women and the “problem” of HIV in Lesbians on the Loose, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1837907
Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1990. Governing Economic Life, Economy and Society, 19(1): 1-31.
Johnson, R. M., Alvarado, R. E. and Rosinger, K. O. 2021. What’s the “Problem” of Considering Criminal History in College Admissions? A Critical Analysis of “Ban the Box” Policies in Louisiana and Maryland. The Journal of Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2020.1870849.
Sjölander-Lindqvist, S., Larsson, S., Fava, N., Gillberg, N., Marcianò, C. and Cinque, S. 2020. Communicating About COVID-19 in Four European Countries: Similarities and Differences in National Discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Frontiers in Communication, Volume 5, Article 593325.
Spivakovsky, C. and Seear, K. 2017. Making the abject: problem- solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment, Continuum, 31(3): 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1275152