In the last entry I made the case that, in Foucauldian-influenced critical approaches, including WPR, problematizations (“the forms themselves”) constitute a necessary part of critical analysis. This position sits in contrast to that developed in Savage et al. (2021) where “problematisation” as a critical practice is contrasted to “solution-construction”. They argue that, in poststructural approaches, too much emphasis is placed on problematization, and solution-construction ought to be recognized as equally capable of critical insights. I suggest in the last entry that two different meanings of problematization explain this difference in interpretation and that there is a need to keep these distinctions clear in order to better understand the contrasting forms of critical analysis associated with each meaning.
In this entry I address the question I often receive about the practical usefulness of WPR: if WPR does not provide guidance on designing “optimal” reforms, why should policymakers be interested in it? To address this question, I take up a second theme prominent in Savage et al. (2021: 309), the place of “self-reflexivity” in critical analysis.
The ways in which these topics are connected is made clear if one starts by asking why poststructural scholars are reluctant to endorse specific reform proposals. Put briefly, the hesitancy to endorse specific reforms stems from the concern that those reforms may inadvertently buy into established ways of thinking that need questioning. That is, there is a concern that researchers are necessarily implicated in those ways of thinking – hence the need for “self-reflexivity” or “self-problematization”, my preferred term as explained below.
As Savage et al. (2021: 308) note, poststructural scholars shy away from prescribing specific courses of action because such a stance presumes a “capacity to step outside of the dominant technologies of governance that contour the lives of research participants and academic labour to determine what is ‘good’ and ‘just’”. That is, the hesitation about advancing “solutions” is tied to the poststructural stance that “‘liberatory’ or ‘emancipatory’ impulses” may well be “implicated in the constitution of governing practices” (Teghtsoonian 2016: 341). Wendy Brown (1998: 44) makes this point clearly in her elaboration of “genealogical politics”:
“It aims to make visible why particular positions and visions of the future occur to us, and especially to reveal when and where those positions work in the same register of ‘political rationality’ as that which they purport to criticize”.
This stance also helps us to understand the debate and contestation over meanings of the “subject” in critical theory. I mentioned in the last entry the focus in some versions of assemblage theory (Savage 2020: 331; Li 2007a) on “actors” and “agency”. Li (2007a: 287 fn 3) explains that, with Barry (2001), she “stresses agency, process and emergence over the kind of completed order suggested by Foucault’s term dispositif”. She (287 fn 4) elaborates that her argument “builds upon those of Clarke (2004) and O’Malley et al. (1997) who critique the neglect of practice and instability in studies of government”. Again, I hope that readers of earlier entries will recognize some well-rehearsed debates about the role of “actors” in policy processes and Foucault’s conception of the “subject” (Research Hub entries 30 Sept. 2019; 31 Oct. 2019).
The questioning of the humanist “subject” in poststructural theory explains the tension between these positions. It also helps explain the priority placed upon self-problematisation in poststructural analysis. The level of questioning of grounding presuppositions, prompted by Question 2 of WPR and reinforced in Step 7, is intended to assist researchers to probe precisely this point – how they themselves may well accept premises that ought to be questioned (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).
Now, Savage et al. clearly recognize the importance of what they call “self-reflexivity”. In fact, they “question whether research that lacks such reflexivity can be considered ‘critical’ at all” (Savage et al. 2021: 309). However, as with the notion of problematization (see previous entry 30 Dec 2021). I would have liked some clarification about how the term is understood. To say that one needs to be “reflexive”, I suggest, is the beginning not the end of the matter (see Rasmussen 2015). For example, there is a need to consider the kind of subject who is deemed to be capable of “reflexivity”. There is a tendency for the notion of reflexivity to rely on a political subject who appears to be able to draw upon inner resources of insight and judgement, a subject reminiscent of the humanist subject questioned in poststructural arguments (see Research Hub entries 21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018).
Stengers (2008: 46) explains that “reflexivity” is vulnerable to “capture” in terms of knowledge: “it can easily mean paying attention to defects and biases to be avoided, and for instance to the way our own discrimination patterns and habits negatively affect the knowledge we produce”. Think here of the tendency for some authors to acknowledge their location in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, class, (dis)ability or sexuality. Recognizing the importance of such interventions, Stengers (2008: 41-42) explains that this stance does not “overcome the ‘subjective’ attachments that situate us” whereas there is a need to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought”.
Foucault spoke about his quest to “se deprendre de soi” – to detach oneself from oneself (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 17). He describes this position as an “ethic of discomfort”, a ceaseless discomfort with one’s own presumptions:
“never to consent to being completely comfortable with one’s own presuppositions. Never to let them fall peacefully asleep, but also never to believe that a new fact will suffice to overturn them; never to imagine that one can change them like arbitrary axioms”. (Foucault 2000: 448).
Clifford (2001: 134; emphasis in original) describes this proposition as akin to Nietzsche’s “active forgetting” –
“Counter-memory consists of essentially forgetting who we are. It is a forgetfulness of essence … Counter-memory holds us at a remove, a distance from ourselves: not in the traditional sense of self-reflection, but of wrenching the self – this identity – apart, through an incision, a cutting that makes the self stand naked and strange before us across an unbridgeable divide, a gap of difference”.
The question that arises is how to achieve this “distance from ourselves”. Foucault’s argument that the self is produced in practices leads to the proposition in WPR that researchers need to institute a practice of active self-problematization (Gherardi 2009: 118). This practice of the self involves applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals (Step 7 in Chart, Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). To self-problematize, we ask: if this is my problematization, where does it come from and how is it possible? What meanings and presuppositions do I accept that render it possible?
Clearly, a question arises here about the feasibility of policy workers and researchers engaging such questions. Li pays close attention to the ways in which policy workers become implicated in specific governmental agendas. In her study of community forest management in Indonesia, she emphasizes how policy workers are constrained to “frame problems in terms amenable to technical solutions” (Li 2007b: 2), a practice she describes as “rendering technical”. This task, explains Li, means that policy workers, whom she designates “programmers”, cannot be critics: “Under pressure to program better, they are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis”. In contrast, Sue Goodwin and I (2016: 9) avoid fixing the role of policy workers as “technicians”. In our 2016 book, Poststructual Policy Analysis, we offer numerous examples of “policy workers cum analysts” who deploy WPR to assist in the practices of interrogating, criticizing and evaluating policies.
At the same time I would query the implication in Li (2007b: 2) that “critics” are somehow freer than “programmers” from the practice of “rendering technical”, that they can “take a broader view”. Researchers (“critics”), I suggest, are frequently asked to analyse “problems” pre-set by those who fund the research, often governments (Bacchi 2008; Research Hub entry 20 August 2018). Evidence-based policy provides an example where this occurs – the task assigned researchers is to provide “evidence” for questions (“problems”) set for them by others (Bacchi 2009: 252-255; Bacchi 2012). Along related lines, Savage et al. (2021) describe how current education policy researchers “follow the policy”, a practice that risks producing “research of elites, by elites and for elites” (2021: 313; emphasis in original).
Hence, “critics”, like “programmers”, are in a sense constrained in the terrain they can explore. This situation highlights the need for a “tool” such as WPR to interrogate all governmental problematizations, including those that lodge within our own proposals. Bringing attention to governmental problematizations, which I see as the task of a WPR analysis, can assist policy workers and researchers to question the parameters within which their work is cast.
Linking back to the discussion of postcritique (Research Hub 29 Nov 2021) I see this encouragement to policy workers and researchers to engage with the problematizations in policies and in their own proposals as a positive research contribution. Applying the WPR questions in these ways, I suggest, makes it easier to recognize the full range of issues that need to be included in any “reform” design. They also alert researchers and policy workers to facets of the issues that may well have escaped their/our attention. While poststructuralist analysis, therefore, does not put forward a blueprint for political change, which people are expected to adopt, it opens a space to think differently and creatively about the relations and rules through which governing takes place. In the next and last entry on this topic, I revisit the example of pay equity initiatives, first broached in my 1999 book Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems (Sage), to consider more precisely how WPR can play a role in reform design.
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