In the last three entries (30 Sept 2021, 30 Oct 2021, 29 Nov 2021) I have tried to elucidate some fine distinctions in political stances associated with varieties of critical analysis. In this entry I pursue this task a step further, examining the position advanced by some who endorse “assemblage thinking” (Savage 2018, 2020). My specific target is the different relationships imagined and carved out between “problems” and “solutions” in policy development. This topic comes up often in WPR applications. Many contributions use WPR to make the case that, if we examine how a problem is represented, we will be able to see how solutions are affected. By contrast, I have argued that it is more useful politically to start the analysis from “postulated solutions” to see how “problems” are constituted within those “solutions”, how “problems” are implicit within such “postulated solutions”. Does this mean that WPR is unhelpful in formulating (or constructing) “solutions”?
I am often pressed on this issue. I’m asked: “Just what follows from a WPR analysis? Where does WPR lead in terms of a reform agenda?” There are concerns that researchers who draw on WPR remain trapped in an endless cycle of problematization, re-problematization and self-problematization. I explain that proposing reforms is not the purpose of WPR. Rather, its objective it to create a space to reflect on issues that may escape our attention, largely because they rely on taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and social/political relations. Therefore, WPR is put forward, not as a method for devising policy “solutions”, but for critically commenting on the “solutions” (policies) that have been put in place.
My decision to revisit these questions is prompted by a recent article on developments in “critical policy sociology” (Savage et al. 2021). The article asks about the nature of critical scholarship and usefully sets out to “agitate the field” (p. 316) around this question. I am particularly interested in pursuing two themes raised in this paper: the discussion of problematization and “solution construction”, and reflections on the importance and nature of “self-reflexivity” (Savage et al. 2021: 309). I address the first theme in this entry and pursue the second in a follow-up entry. Links to assemblage theory (Savage 2020) are drawn where relevant.
On the first theme, the relationship between problematization and “solution construction”, Savage et al. (2021) put in question the emphasis placed on problematization in poststructural policy analysis. They (2021: 308) note that “scholarship that draws on poststructuralist philosophy and theory” often foregrounds “the benefits of critique and forms of problematisation but in lieu of articulating explicit solutions or visions for change”. They make the case that, compared to “acts of problematisation”, the “processes of solution construction are … just as capable of producing new possibilities for thinking and understanding the world” and that “the formulation of solutions should not be viewed as necessarily non-critical” (p. 309).
As I mention in the previous entry (29 Nov 2021), Savage et al. (2021: 309) argue, appropriately in my view, that the poststructural refusal to adopt a specific reform agenda itself constitutes a form of “preferred politics”. Importantly, however, Savage (2018: 310; emphasis in original) endorses “a more pragmatic orientation towards public policy research”, directing attention “away from theoretical abstractions and ideal types” and “towards more materialist, relational, and bottom-up orientations that seek to understand the tangible stuff of policies”. The conviction that “at the end of the day all policy makers must do something” helps explain the focus on “solution construction” (Savage 2018: 317). Extrapolating from this argument, the question for researchers becomes: why should policymakers be interested in WPR, if it doesn’t assist them in making decisions/policy?
Importantly, Savage et al. (2021: 309) retain a place for “problematisation” in political analysis. They argue that “problematisation should be seen as integral to the critical formulation of solutions for those who choose to engage in such work”. While this proposition sounds useful, I would like to have seen some elaboration of what it entails. Specifically, I feel there is a need to clarify how “problematisation” is used in this argument. What precisely is meant by stating that “problematisation should be seen as integral to the critical formulation of solutions”?
On the place of problematization/s in critical research, I need to repeat a point I have made elsewhere (Bacchi 2012): that the term problematization/s both in Foucault and in critical literature more broadly has several meanings. To clarify this diverse and tricky terrain I draw a distinction between a verb form of problematization as a form of critical practice – i.e., scholars are involved in problematizing ways of thinking, modes of ruling, etc. For example, Webb (2014: 371) identifies those engaged in critical thinking as “policy problematizers”, those engaged in problematizing. This use of problematization lines up with Foucault’s endorsement of “thinking problematically” as a form of critical analysis (Research Hub entries 9 July and 23 July 2018). This usage is also the most common way in which the term “problematization” is deployed in everyday speech – i.e., we talk about the need to problematize something, to put it into question.
The second usage, which I designate a noun form, simply to distinguish it from the activist process of problematizing just described, refers to the ways in which governing takes place through producing problematizations (note the plural noun form) – specific forms of “problem” creation. The analytic task in this case involves identifying these “forms themselves” (Foucault 1986: 17-18) and subjecting them to critical questioning. It is precisely this critical questioning of governing problematizations that WPR facilitates. The argument here is that such interrogation is necessary because we are governed through these problematizations (“the forms themselves”), through the ways in which “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 39).
Returning to Savage et al., I suggest that they are using problematization in the first sense as a mode of critical analysis. For example, elsewhere, Savage and O’Connor (2018: 4-5) quote approvingly Ansell and Geyer (2017) who argue that “problems are themselves problematic” and are always “contested” (italics in original), making it imperative for “researchers to problematise problem-setting and definition processes” (italics added). And it is this sense of problematization as critical thinking that Savage et al. (2021) contrast to “solution construction” as an alternative mode of critical analysis.
Similarly, in Savage’s (2020) particular adaptation of “assemblage theory”, which draws on the work of Tania Li (2007), the emphasis is on the practices of policy actors. Li (2007: 264) explains that the primary focus of her assemblage theory is on “agency”, “the hard work required to draw heterogeneous elements together, forge connections between them and sustain these connections in the face of tension”. Li identifies “problematization” as one of several practices undertaken by policy actors, a practice she describes as “identifying deficiencies that need to be rectified” (Li 2016: 80).
I hope that this “activist” view of problematization can be seen to sit in contrast with the focus in WPR on the problematizations (“the forms themselves”) implicit in policy proposals. In the latter, problematizations (“the forms themselves”) are always and necessarily a part of governmental practices. Hence, interrogating problematizations constitutes a requisite part of critical analysis: “the underlying intent is to problematise the problematisations on offer” (Bacchi 2009: 12). In this approach policy is not a “response to existing conditions and problems, but more of a discourse in which both problems and solutions are created” (Goodwin 1996: 67).
This quote from Nikolas Rose’s Powers of Freedom (2000: 58; emphasis added) in my view helps clarify the different form of thinking and analysis involved in a WPR usage of problematisation. Rose explains:
If policies, arguments, analyses and prescriptions purport to provide answers, they do so only in relation to a set of questions. Their very status as answers is dependent upon the existence of such questions. If, for example, imprisonment, marketization, community care are seen as answers, to what are they answers? And, in reconstructing the problematizations which accord them intelligibility as answers, these grounds become visible, their limits and presuppositions are opened for investigation in new ways.
Rose’s “answers” are the “proposals” or “postulated solutions” in WPR. And, as Rose says, we need to start from the proposed “answers” and work backwards to see what prompted these positions, what made them possible. The task, as he describes it, is to reconstruct “the problematizations [note the plural noun form] which accord them intelligibility as answers”, including their “limits and presuppositions”. In tune with this thinking, in WPR we examine what was necessary for certain proposals (policies) to be intelligible – what meanings needed to be in place for them to make sense. The critical task, therefore, entails analysing those governmental prescriptions and their implicit problematizations (“the forms themselves”).
To be clear, I do not wish to imply that there is one proper meaning of problematization. As discussed above, the word can be and is used in various ways. My argument is that, because of this complexity in usage, it is useful to clarify how we deploy the term when we develop our arguments – in this case arguments about the meaning and purpose of critical thinking. In the next entry, therefore, I pursue further the question of whether the Foucauldian-influenced analysis of governmental problematizations (“the forms themselves”), as in a WPR approach, contributes in any way to “solutions” or “solution construction”. This discussion will entail reconsideration of the place of self-problematization (“self-reflexivity”) in critical theory (see Research Hub entries, 21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018).
Ansell, C. and Geyer, R. 2017. “Pragmatic Complexity”: a New Foundation for Moving beyond “Evidence-Based Policy Making”? Policy Studies, 38(2): 149-167.
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. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. 1986. The use of pleasure: The history of sexuality (Vol. 2). New York: Vintage.
Goodwin, N. 1996. Governmentality in the Queensland Department of Education: policies and the management of schools. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 17(1): 65-74.
Li, T. M. 2007. Practices of assemblage and community forest management. Economy and Society, 36(2): 263–293.
Li, T. M. 2016. Governing rural Indonesia: convergence on the project system. Critical Policy Studies, 10(1): 79-94.
Rose, N. 2000. Powers of Freedom: Reframing political thought.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Savage, G. C. 2018. Policy assemblages and human devices: a reflection on “Assembling Policy”. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 39(2): 309-321.
Savage, G. C. and O’Connor, K. 2018. What’s the problem with “policy alignment”? The complexities of national reform in Australia’s federal system. Journal of Education Policy, https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2018.1545050
Savage, G. C. 2020. What is policy assemblage? Territory, Politics, Governance, 8(3): 319-335.
Savage, G. C., Gerrard, J., Gale, T. and Molla, T. 2021. The evolving state of policy sociology: mobilities, moorings and elite networks. Critical Studies in Education, 62(3): 306-321. Webb, P.T. 2014. Policy problematization. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27(3): 364–376.