In a 2016 chapter introducing the WPR approach I explain that Question 2 in the approach undertakes a form of analysis associated with Foucauldian archaeology, while Foucauldian-style genealogy appears as Question 3 (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 13-26). Question 2 undertakes the task of critically analysing the “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault 1994: 456) that underlie problem representations. Question 3 asks how a specific representation of the “problem” has come about. 

In that chapter I also draw attention to the challenges involved in adopting genealogy as an analytic intervention. Foucault (1977: 139) describes genealogy as “gray, meticulous and patiently documentary”: “it must record the singularity of events outside any monotonous finality”. Hence, it is perhaps hardly surprising that many researchers who apply WPR tend to bypass Question 3 and to concentrate on the other questions. While, on occasion, I have said that researchers can draw selectively upon the forms of questioning and analysis in WPR, I find it increasingly important to stress the interconnected character of the WPR questions. For example, in 2016 I stressed the need to maintain a self-problematizing ethic in WPR applications, indicated in Step 7 of the approach (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). I would now encourage researchers to also include a genealogical sensibility or awareness (see Tamboukou and Ball 2003: 18-19). 

In this entry I elaborate what I mean by a “genealogical sensibility”. I also want to consider if an “abbreviated genealogy”, which I attempted in my study of “alcohol problems”, is indeed feasible (Bacchi 2015: 139-141). The subsequent entry draws upon Colin Koopman’s (2019) genealogy of the “informational person” to illustrate the usefulness of bringing a genealogical awareness to critical reflections on “data” (see Research Hub entries 29 April 2022, 30 May 2022, 29 June 2022).

As Tamboukou (1999: 201) describes, Foucault used the term “genealogy” to describe his work, but he insisted on not following any certain methodology. Hence, there is no “how to” guide available to direct the writing of genealogies. Rather, genealogy provokes a commitment to a set of broad principles rather than a strict set of methods (Foucault 1979: 139). These principles can be detected through examining how Foucault distinguishes what he produces as “genealogy” from what he calls “traditional history”. He draws the key distinctions in his 1971 essay entitled “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (Foucault 1977). 

It is important to note that, in this discussion of history, Foucault is referring to the craft of history – to historiography, how history is written – rather than to “history” as some assumed record of events. Foucault uses several different terms to clarify the kind of history writing he wishes to encourage. He talks, for example, about writing a “history of the present” and the need to produce “effective histories”. 

The phrase – “history of the present” – requires clarification. Foucault does not mean to imply that we should understand the present in terms of the past, a rather common view of history captured in aphorisms such as “history repeats itself”. Rather, Foucault says that one needs to start from a problem in the present. By problem, he means some concern animating the researcher’s analysis. The goal then becomes understanding the heterogeneous factors that contribute to the emergence of this particular way of organising and governing society, “attending to the plural and hybrid constitution of all things” (Walters 2006: 167). Where a traditional historian might be concerned with “what happened and why?”, a genealogist asks: “how did X get here?” or “how did Y become possible?” (Vucetic 2011: 1303).

Foucault explains his intentions in writing his genealogy of the modern penal system, Discipline and Punish (1979), thus: 

I didn’t aim to do a work of criticism, at least not directly, if what is meant by criticism in this case is denunciation of the negative aspects of the current penal system. … I attempted to define another problem. I wanted to uncover the system of thought, the form of rationality that, since the end of the eighteenth century, has supported the notion that the prison is really the best means of punishing offences in a society. … In bringing out the system of rationality underlying punitive practices, I wanted to indicate what the postulates of thought were that need to be re-examined if one intended to transform the penal system. … It’s the same thing that I tried to do with respect to the history of psychiatric institutions [in History of Madness 2006]. (Foucault 2020) 

I have highlighted the words “if one intended to transform the penal system” because I think they help us understand what Foucault meant by starting one’s analysis from a problem in the present – he means starting from a development or issue that in your view needs questioning or challenging. The perspective of the analyst is thus decisive in selecting a topic for investigation, as is the case in choosing particular policies for critical analysis in WPR (see Bacchi 2009: 20). 

On this point it is useful to recall that, in 1971, Foucault co-founded the Information Group on Prisons, a group dedicated to heightening public intolerance towards the prison system by facilitating the voices of prisoners themselves (Hoffman 2012). According to Tamboukou (1999: 213), this clear involvement of researchers in picking a starting point for critical scrutiny is not a limitation but a strength of the analysis: it “should be admitted and used by the analyst in an attempt to deconstruct possible arbitrary personal feelings and stances with regard to his/her project”.

In a genealogical study of the selected issue, the task is to understand how we have got here from there, “how this problem turned out to be the way we perceive it today” (Tamboukou 1999: 213). Importantly, the road from “there” to “here” is uneven. There is no “path dependence” in Foucault’s genealogies (Mahoney 2000). Rather, there are side-tracks, roadblocks, detours. 

By tracing out the historical conditions of possibility of our present ways of doing, being, and thinking, genealogy “couples the contingency of historical formations with their specific emergence, thereby enabling their possible transformation” (Shea 2014: 264). As Saar describes, such a stance necessarily entails “a structural reflexivity”, since it involves telling the subject “the story of its own becoming”. Genealogical criticism is always therefore self-criticism, acknowledged in Step 7 of WPR which calls upon researchers to adopt a self-problematizing ethic. Such self-interrogation assists in identifying “complicity and Implicatedness with your ‘own’ culture and its power” (Saar 2002: 236).

“Effective histories” are those that draw attention to the side-roads and detours in past and present forms of governance. They are histories that unsettle commonly accepted views and assumptions. Genealogy, following Foucault, is a work of rediscovering the “connections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces, strategies, and so on” that, at a given moment, establish what subsequently counts as being self-evident, universal and necessary. Such a form of history shows that things “weren’t as necessary as all that” (Foucault 1991: 76). Such histories are effective because they demonstrate “how and why some subjects and social items were brought about and not others, what became forgotten and with what consequences for the present” (Vucetic 2011: 1302). 

Foucault settles on the notion of “historical sense” in Nietzsche as a “privileged instrument of genealogy” that operates without “the certainty of absolutes” (Tamboukou 1999: 210; Foucault in Rabinow 1986: 87). This “historical sense” evokes a kind of sensibility, or awareness, committed to “disturbing the legends of the past” and to opening up “paths for its subjects to set out for new, improbable identities” (Tamboukou 1999: 210). It achieves this effect through “the retrieval of forgotten struggles and subjugated knowledges” (Walters 2012), those minor knowledges that challenge the scientific consensus and that survive at the margins (Foucault 1980b: 83). 

It is important to remember that the conception of the subject is a primary focus of Foucault’s work, discussed in earlier Research Hub entries (30 Sept 2019; 31 Oct. 2019). There, I drew attention to the way in which Foucault emphasized that the subject has a history. If the subject is recognized as having a history, it becomes possible to see that what we understand by “being human” has “shifted radically over the ages” (Davies 1997: 22). It follows that what it means to be human is contingent and changeable, not fixed and/or transcendent (see Saar 2002: 232). As Walters (2012: 115) describes,

“Whatever its style, emphasis or source, genealogy uses historical knowledge to reveal that who and what we are is not fixed or eternal, not a matter of destiny or grand design, but a series of contingent becomings. Dis-inevitable-izing our selves: a ugly term but perhaps it captures the kind of politics genealogy shows up.”

Following from this insight a genealogical sensibility extends the commitment to historicization to a wide range of objects and subjects, indicating that they could be otherwise. 

Problematizations offer a way to access the “postulates for thought” (see above Foucault 2020) that need to be re-examined as part of this historicizing or genealogical project. For example, in his History of Sexuality, Foucault (1980a) asks how different eras have problematized sexuality and thus made sexuality a particular kind of object for thought in different sites. It follows that it is important to recognize the interconnections among Foucault’s analytic strategies. Specifically, archaeology, genealogy and problematization form a trio of interventions that prompt critical reflection on governing practices. 

“The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms of problematization themselves, its genealogical dimension enabled me to analyze the formation out of the practices and their modifications” (Foucault 1986: 17-18). 

In WPR, Question 2 targets the “forms of problematization themselves”, while Question 3 alerts us to the place of these problematizations in the production of “truth”. Question 3, therefore, forms an integral part of the analysis. 

If, as stated at the outset, there is no genealogical methodology, how is one to proceed? Tamboukou (1999: 208) describes Foucault as an “archive-addict” and I dare to suggest that few of us aspire to such a vocation. But Tamboukou also holds open a more promising development. She makes the case that the “polymorphous and diverse map of documents and sources” consulted by Foucault provides “future genealogists” with an important legacy: 

“that of going on ‘inventing’ new sources and areas of research not yet thought of by the so-called humanist sciences, so as continually to rethink and call into question the given truths of our world.” 

It is in this spirit that I continue to explore the possibility of “widening the ambit” of sources available to WPR analysis (see Research Hub entries 30 April 2021, 31 May 2021, 30 June 2021). I also believe that it is possible to consider producing abbreviated genealogies as research tools so long as a genealogical sensibility is maintained. In each case, the analysis needs to focus on disrupting taken-for-granted assumptions, to consider the types of knowledge that have been disqualified, and to reflect on the heterogeneous factors leading to a situation that, in the view of the researcher, demands rethinking. In the next entry I use Colin Koopman’s 2019 genealogy of the “informational person” to illustrate the usefulness of this form of analysis in rethinking the place of “data” in our lives. 


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