See 30 Dec. 2021 for Part 1 and 30 Jan. 2022 for Part 2.
In 1999 I wrote the first book, entitled: Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems (London: Sage), that explored the propositions that became WPR (a “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” approach). in that book I introduced an approach I referred to as: “What’s the problem?”, with a parenthetical reference: “(represented to be)”. I realized shortly after publication that the abbreviated question – “What’s the problem?” – was misleading, since people tended to interpret it to mean that the goal was finding the real problem. My friend and colleague, Angie Bletsas, suggested the acronym WPR to ensure that those who adopted the analytic strategy I was developing kept the focus on how “problems” were represented in policy proposals.
The subtitle of the 1999 book – “The construction of policy problems” – signals my engagement at that time with social construction theory. Reflecting a constructionist perspective, I often referred to competing interpretations of “problems” (e.g., see pages 9-10). Alongside these references, I developed the position that I went on to endorse in later work (Bacchi 2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016) – that policies “enact” or produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems: “every policy proposal contains within it an explicit or implicit diagnosis of the problem, which I call its problem representation” (Bacchi 1999: 1).
It is important to recognize that researchers can modify their theoretical positions as they encounter fresh perspectives. Over the last twenty years, I have worked more closely with the performative approach as developed in the work of John Law (2004; Law and Urry 2005) and Annemarie Mol (1999; 2002). I now regret the way in which the language of “interpretation” crept into the 1999 analysis. Indeed, I have struggled ever since Women, Policy and Politics to distinguish WPR frominterpretive approaches to policy analysis (Bacchi 2015). While some researchers express the view that it is quite acceptable to use the label “interpretive” in a broad sense that could encompass WPR (Barbehon 2020: 143 fn 5), I draw a contrast between the focus in interpretivism on people’s understandings of issues and a WPR analysis of the implicit problem representations in governmental problematizations. The point in drawing this contrast is to emphasize that WPR is not geared to study what goes on in people’s heads but directs attention to mechanisms of rule and how they function.
In Women, Policy and Politics, then, I was experimenting with a particular way of thinking that has since been elaborated and clarified. The 1999 volume represents the initial steps in an intellectual journey that remains ongoing. In this entry I revisit Women, Policy and Politics to consider how I dealt with the question of “solutions”, to see what might be of value in my first thoughts on the matter and to indicate what I would now wish to revise.
The question of “solutions” is dealt with most directly in the chapter on pay equity (Bacchi 1999: Chapter 4). This chapter offers, I believe, some tentative guidance on how to use WPR to think differently about reform efforts. I use the chapter on pay equity to introduce Part 2 of Women, Policy and Politics, which deals with the major legislative attempts to produce what was described as “women’s equality”. Alongside pay equity, I examine education reform, childcare policy, affirmative action and anti-discrimination, abortion reform, domestic violence and sexual harassment reform.
In the chapter on pay equity I start from specific proposals (as in my later publications on WPR; Bacchi 2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). I then show how each proposed reform represented the “problem” of pay inequity quite differently. The topic of pay equity is complicated and I can recall being daunted by the technicalities in specific attempts to establish fairer pay scales for women. I recommend those interested in the topic to read all of Chapter 4 (Bacchi 1999, pp. 72-92).
Put briefly, I distinguish among several ways of “framing” the “problem” of pay inequity: equal pay for equal work, equal pay for work of equal value (otherwise known as “comparable worth”) and wage solidarity. In “equal pay for equal work” the target of critique is employer discrimination. In comparable worth approaches, the “problem” is represented to be the wage gap between women’s and men’s wages due to women’s location in specific undervalued jobs (e.g., the “caring” professions). In wage solidarity, the proposal to raise women’s wages by raising wages across the board creates the “problem” as worker exploitation.
In close approximation to my present position, I note that “a focus on proposals” permits “the elaboration of problem representations which in turn provides insights into the kinds of claims being made and the effects these claims tend to produce” (Bacchi 1999: 72). The “elaboration of problem representations” involves the identification of deep-seated presuppositions (Question 2 in WPR; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). The focus on effects points to the need to consider how specific problem representations affect people’s lives. In later work this focus becomes Question 5, which insists it is possible to “assess” problem representations in terms of their discursive, subjectification and lived effects (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).
The insistence that “assessment” of problem representations is possible raises the question about the purpose of this intervention. Surely, it could be argued, the point of assessment is to assist in the determination of which reforms are most “useful”. In Women, Policy and Politics (Bacchi 1999:90) I describe the goal of assessment as encouraging “reformers to make proposals which reduce or obviate some of the regressive effects which have been identified in some problem representations”.
I would now describe this comment as insufficiently critical on my part. I would no longer refer to “regressive effects” as if it is clear and transparent what such effects look like. For similar reasons, I am unhappy with my claim regarding pay equity that it is possible to work “carefully within constraints to frame problems in ways that maximize gains and minimize losses” (Bacchi 1999: 91), as if “gains” and “losses” can easily be identified. Rather, I would now insist that any such assessment needs to remain open to discussion and contestation.
At the same time, I think it is possible to make the case that the kind of interrogation of policy proposals encouraged by WPR assists reformers/activists “in pinpointing what it is about particular proposals that disturbs us” (Bacchi 1999: 90). I use the remainder of this entry to explain the grounds for this argument, in the process clarifying the ways in which WPR can assist at the coalface of legislative reform.
My example is Burton et al.’s (1987: 90-94) pay equity intervention and how it produced the “problem”. The Burton intervention avoided the tendency to speak about women’s “caring” work and “caring skills” in job evaluation, concerned that such a designation tended to essentialize women as carers. Instead, it offered a reworking of the category “Human Relations”, highlighting how current practices tended to value responsibility for people if those practices involved “pursuit of organisational objectives” but not if they involved “contributing to the quality of working relationships in other ways”. So, “working through and down the hierarchy” is valued over working “laterally and up”. This careful reframing of the “problem” problematizes hierarchy at the same time as it targets the need to rethink the roles played by those designated “women” and “men” in organizations.
In this instance applying WPR to specific pay equity initiatives encourages reflection on factors (here, job hierarchy) that may not be identified as problematic in conventional pay equity evaluations. In other words, it serves to broaden the parameters of what ought to be considered relevant to a specific area of reform.
Similarly, applying WPR to pay equity strategies highlights their reliance on a conventional understanding of “skills”, a category that requires critical analysis. As Bastalich (2002) argues, the felt need to justify women’s “skills” as “learned”, as opposed to “natural”, buys into a particular version of human beings as “skill-acquiring” animals. WPR encourages us to ask where this concept comes from and how our assumptions about its existence shape our thinking and reform proposals. Campaigns for “skills” recognition can no longer be treated as obviously appropriate and worthwhile; rather, reformers are challenged to reflect on the effects of the categories of thought they adopt.
Women, Policy and Politics is filled with examples that highlight the need for feminists to question their own underlying premises. In fact, it takes its inspiration from the numerous feminist interventions that have undertaken precisely this task (Bacchi 1999: 11). In this sense, Women, Policy and Politics (1999) can be seen to be an exercise in feminist self-problematization. I offer one more example of this dynamic – the introduction by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board of guidelines on gender-related persecution (Bacchi 1999: 177-178). The Guidelines cover two types of cases: first, “women fleeing severely abusive spouses, who can show that their countries of origin are unwilling or unable to protect them”, and second, “women living in countries where they encounter severe state-sanctioned discrimination” (Immigration and Refugee Board 1993, cited in Razack 1995: 47).
Razack (1995: 47) notes that the Guidelines are “the culmination of intensive lobbying by women’s groups and various Canadian and international efforts to address the issue of domestic violence as a form of persecution”. At the same time, she is concerned about some of the effects that flow from the way in which the “problem” tends to be represented. She notes (1995: 46, 49), for example, that refugee hearings are always “profoundly racialized” events in which the “outwardly compassionate process of granting asylum” creates “First World countries as benefactors”, while the people of the Third World are created as “supplicants asking to be relieved of the disorder of their world and to be admitted to the rational calm of ours”. This representation of the “problem” ignores and belies the role of the First World in creating, through economic exploitation, the circumstances of the distress suffered by refugees.
Now, importantly, Razack does not argue that feminist reformers ought to stop using “gender persecution” to advance the cause of women refugees. But she does want feminist reformers to “explore ways in which we might talk about women and the violence they experience” that acknowledge the operation of power relations between First and Third Worlds. She suggests that a way forward here is to produce gender persecution legislation “as one element of a multi-pronged strategy in which the goal would be to change social structures that propel men to be violent and condone their excesses” (Razack 1995: 71). WPR, I suggest, provides assistance in thinking through precisely what this task entails.
In a WPR approach to policy development, context plays a critical part. Returning to the example of pay equity, there is a hesitancy to make sweeping generalizations about reform approaches – e.g., preferring wage solidarity over comparable worth (or vice versa) in every instance. Rather, it encourages a sensitivity to specific contexts where particular forms of engagement may or may not be possible. For example, Acker (1989: 196) shows that, in Oregon in the 1980s, constructing the problem as poverty relief (wage solidarity) proved to be a more successful reform strategy than equity agreements which, given the specific labor relations context, appeared to set worker against worker. In tune with Foucault’s own “version of emancipation”, universals are replaced with “specific transformations” that minimize domination (Moss 1998: 9).
Lest this example seem to herald a pragmatic approach to policy development, I question the pragmatist’s claim that skepticism (questioning or problematizing) “forms an obstacle to a creative handling of problems”: “Anyone who puts everything up for discussion will simply have no time left for the real problems of the moment” (Keulartz 2002: 15; emphasis added). It is of course the very presumption in these statements that “real problems” exist as self-evident “things” or conditions that WPR sets out to challenge.
The objective in WPR is to tease out the implications of different problem representations. It sharpens an awareness of the effects of the frameworks we adopt and encourages us to find proposals that “diminish effects we want to discourage” (Bacchi 1999: 90). Importantly, the question of what ought to be discouraged remains an open question – one that needs to be on the table – not one that is assumed beforehand.
Acker, J. 1989. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity.Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
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. 2015. The turn to problematization: Political implications of contrasting interpretive and poststructural adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science, 5, 1–12.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Barbehon, M. 2020. Reclaiming constructivism: towards an interpretive reading of the “Social Construction Framework”. Policy Sciences, 53: 139-160.
Bastalich, W. 2002. Politicising the productive: subjectivity, feminist labour thought and Foucault. PhD thesis, University of Adelaide, Departments of Politics and Social Inquiry.
Burton, C., with Hag, R. and Thompson, G. 1987. Women’s Worth: Pay Equity and Job Evaluation in Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
Hacking, I. 2007. On Not Being a Pragmatist. In C. J. Misak (ed.) New Pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Immigration and Refugee Board 1993. Guidelines Issued by the Chairperson Pursuant to Section 65(3) of the Immigration Act. Immigration and Refugee Board.
Keulartz, J., Korthals, M., Schermer, M. and Swierstra, T. 2002). Ethics in a Technological Culture: A Proposal for a Pragmatist Approach. In J. Keulartz et al, (eds) Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture. Dordrecht: Springer-Science+Business Media.
Law, J. 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. London and New York: Routledge.
Law, J. and Urry, J. 2005. Enacting the social. Economy and Society, 33(3): 390-410.
Mol, A. 1999. Ontological politics: A word and some questions. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell.
Mol, A. 2002. The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Moss, J. (1998). Introduction: The later Foucault. In J. Moss (Ed.), The later Foucault: Politics and philosophy. London: Sage. Razack, S. 1995. Domestic Violence as Gender Persecution: Policing the Borders of Nation, Race and Gender. Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 8: 45-88.