In an extended version of the Keynote address I delivered at the WPR Symposium in August at Karlstad ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 17 August 2022), I framed the talk around four key WPR premises:

  1. Policies (and other practices) produce (enact or constitute) “problems” as particular sorts of problems.
  2. Problem representations (problematizations) are implicit in policies and other forms of proposal.
  3. WPR thinking needs to be extended to understand the role of policies, and other forms of proposal, in the production of “subjects”, “objects” and “places”.
  4. We are governed through the ways in which “problems” are constituted; that is, we are governed through problematizations.

Post-Symposium I can see that aspects of these premises require additional clarification. I will use this end-of-year opportunity to undertake this task. My hope is to add to what has gone before and to strengthen the likelihood that the WPR approach proves useful to you. To this end I will address specific questions I have been asked over the last few months.

  1. Since WPR often starts its analysis from pieces of legislation, does this mean that it is confined to studying conventional political institutions and practices?

The short answer to this question is “definitely not”! In the Keynote address I say: 

“It is also important to broaden our conception of governing/government beyond conventional political institutions. Governmentality thinking, following Foucault (1991), allows us to extend our understanding of ‘government’ to embrace the many groups and agencies, and their knowledges, involved in shaping and guiding behaviours.”  

So, when I say, regarding the fourth premise above, that we are governed through problematizations, the intent is to think of the multitude of groups, etc. involved in governing. The goal here is to draw attention to the ways in which conduct is influenced by a wide range of agencies, professionals and experts. When the term “governmental” is used in relation to WPR, therefore, it needs to be understood in this broad sense of societal governing. And importantly, we are talking about how conduct/behaviours are influenced but not controlled

Foucault offered us a way into this topic through what he called “practical texts” or “prescriptive texts”, “written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should” (Foucault 1986: 12-13). In the 2009 textbook introducing WPR, I suggest that policies can be treated as “prescriptive” texts since “they tell us what to do”: 

“As a result, policies and their accompanying methods of implementation provide points of entry to the problematisations and problem representations that require scrutiny. (Bacchi 2009: 34; emphasis added).”

This point is clarified in the 2016 book written with Sue Goodwin, titled Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Palgrave Macmillan): 

“… the WPR approach uses texts as ‘levers’ to open up reflections on the forms of governing, and associated effects, instituted through a particular way of constituting a ‘problem’. To deploy this ‘lever’ necessarily involves familiarity with other texts that cover the same or related topics or circumstances.” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18).

To explore these “forms of governing”, WPR directs attention to three analytic targets: 

• political rationalities (ways of thinking about what governing entails); 

• the technologies or techniques involved in governing; and

• the “subjects” of government, or the diverse forms of persons that are presupposed, and also delivered, by governmental activity. (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 9). 

In the 2009 book, I use the National Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy to illustrate how legislation or reports can offer a “lever” or “springboard” to allow us to contemplate broad governing practices (Bacchi 2009: 4, 36; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18, 20). I use the allocation of funds in the proposed budget for the Strategy to indicate the groups and knowledges involved in governing suicide: counselling services, parenting programs, the education and training of professionals, and research activities. The argument is that these groups and their knowledges (think of psychology) are involved in governing suicide and producing it as a particular sort of “problem”. Hence, we are governed through this problematisation (premise 4 above).

Question 1 in WPR provides an entry-point to these “guides to conduct”. It probes the proposals or recommendations for change in selected texts and asks – if this is what is recommended, what is being produced as problematic? What is the “problem” represented to be? I use the example of training programs for women, a common reform proposal to increase women’s representation in higher status jobs. If training programs are the proposal, it follows that women’s lack of training is produced as the “problem”. I’ve been asked if this way of thinking necessarily produces a negative target for analysis – a lack of training for example. The point of the exercise is to start from what is said or proposed and to see what these propositions rely upon in the way of knowledges. Starting from proposals means that you avoid imposing your view of the situation, by singling out “discourses” or “themes” for example, because your analysis is tied to the problematization.

In more recent writing, primarily in this Research Hub, I have pointed to the possibility of applying this way of thinking to a wide variety of sites beyond “policy” (30 April 2021; 31 May 2021; 30 June 2021). The argument is that anything that provides a guide to conduct can be interrogated using WPR. In an entry on “Buildings as Proposals” (14 Jan 2018) I suggest that, because buildings commit to particular ways of organizing the world and hence are guides as to how things ought to be, they could fruitfully be analysed using WPR. I have also argued that theories and concepts can be examined through this lens since they too are “guides to conduct” (Bacchi 2009: 101). I hope you can see that WPR paints on a large canvas in its approach to governing. 

  • How is WPR different from critical approaches that target “vested interests” or “ideology”? 

There is a strong temptation to assimilate WPR to other forms of critical policy analysis. In particular, some applications see as the goal as identifying “interest groups” responsible for problem representations that are judged to harm other groups. WPR shies away from such forms of analysis. Following Foucault, the objective is to ensure that the complexity of social relationships is recognized. This stance is associated with a quite different understanding of power from analyses that target “interest groups”. In Foucault, power is not something that is possessed but something that is exercised. Hence, WPR avoids referring to those “in power” or to those “having power”, preferring to examine the plural and diverse practices involved in the production of “things”. Moreover, in Foucault’s account (2000: 324), “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt”. There is always struggle (Larner 2000: 11).

These techniques of rule do not reduce readily to ideological positions. What we often find is that a particular form of proposal – think for example of the “active citizen” – is endorsed across ideological lines (Bacchi 2009: 171). The analytic task, therefore, becomes identifying these modes of rule and how they have come to be. This theoretical stance offers a more hopeful picture for change than analyses of “vested interests”. As John Law (2008: 637) explains:

“It is to refuse to be overawed by seemingly large systems, and the seeming ontological unity of the world enacted by large systems. It is, instead, to make the problem smaller, or better, to make it more specific.”

On this point, Wendy Larner (2000: 15) cautions against the tendency to construct “neo-liberalism as a monolithic apparatus that is completely knowable and in full control of the ‘New Right’”. As an alternative approach, it is important to emphasize neo-liberalism’s “contingent and internally contradictory aspects”. To this end, Larner (2000: 14) emphasizes the need to draw from the discourses of oppositional groups. 

  • Is WPR anti-realist or post-realist? How is it positioned in relation to the “new materialisms”? What is meant by “objectification”?  

WPR does not deny the existence of “things”; it questions their assumed fixity. In line with a relational ontology of constant movement and becoming (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 33, 85) it describes “things” as in process, as the products of practices. This position aligns with a performative analytic in which practices make “things” come to be (29 Sept. 2022; 26 Oct. 2022). As John Law (2011: 172) explains, the goal is to “shift our understanding of the relative immutability and obduracy of the world: to move these from ‘reality itself’ into the choreographies of practice”. 

In the place therefore of “the real” WPR accounts highlight the making of “the real”. Since there are many practices, there are many realities, leading to multiplicity (Mol 2002: 152). However, only some realities become “the real”, in the process hiding the means of their creation. Hence, “reality” is a political object. Pellizzoni (2015: 75) explains: 

If the ontological status of entities is an accomplishment within a state of continual flux, the temporary upshot of practices, interactions and interventions, then the constitution of reality is intrinsically political because it enacts ways of existing and of relating human and nonhuman entities to one another.

Annemarie Mol (1999) coined the term “ontological politics” to highlight the political nature of claims to reality.

Foucault then is not concerned with gaining access to how things really operate, “but with something he admits is more irritating and troubling, how our ‘finely grained pictures’ of reality are produced and the diverse realm of effects they have within certain practices”:

“He seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about and ‘name’ the real” (Dean 2015: 359; Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 176).

In a Research Hub entry (30 Nov. 2020) on the “new materialisms” I raise questions about the way in which some who adopt this stance may reinstate a simple, material reality. Though it is difficult to generalize about the authors linked to this grouping, the “new materialisms” are commonly associated with an argument about the limitations of the so-called “linguistic turn” in social theory, a limitation they associate with poststructuralism. This critique hinges on an understanding of “discourse” as language. However, in a Foucauldian analysis, such as WPR, “discourses” are knowledges rather than linguistic practices. “Discursive practices”, a key concept in Foucault’s work, refers to the practices (or operations) of those knowledge formations, not to language use:

“The focus is on how knowledge is produced through plural and contingent practices across different sites. Such an approach bridges a symbolic‐material distinction and signals the always political nature of ‘the real’.” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 173) 

This perspective is illustrated in the stance on objectification or objectivization – the making of “objects” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, Chapter 6). Seeing discourse as a practice (“a discursive practice”) de-ontologises “objects”, undermining their foundations and politicizing their formation: “the emphasis here shifts from ‘real’ things to the strategic relations that produce something as ‘real’” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 183). In the Keynote address I use the example of “traffic” and how it emerges as an object for thought in “a multitude of street activities”. The focus of analysis shifts from the “object” as a presumed essence to the practices involved in its emergence – exploring how it has come to be. The political implications of this shift in analytic focus are significant since “so long as the suggestion is that there is something ‘out there’ that can be contacted or referenced outside of politics, so long are those who claim access to ‘the real’ empowered” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 191). Pellizzoni (2015: 78) concurs that any claim to unmediated evidence is “an eminently political move”.

  • Does WPR fall short as a mode of policy analysis because it ignores practices of implementation? Don’t we need to reflect on the important role played by policy actors in negotiating the meanings assigned to policies? What is meant by “subjectification”?  

There are several points to make here. First, the expressed concern among those who wish to emphasize how policy texts are interpreted and negotiated is that there may be a tendency in governmentality approaches, such as WPR, to assume that policy texts have a direct and unmediated impact on people’s lives. In contradistinction to this suggestion, governments are seen as constantly failing in their attempts to impose certain policy visions or norms (Miller and Rose 1990: 10). Due to these failures, there are repeated attempts to shape conduct in desired directions. Hence resistance and “counter conducts” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 31) are assumed. 

At the same time WPR questions the presumption that “implementation” forms a separate process in policymaking. Instead, it wants to draw attention to how the problem representations in policies can influence the shape of any policy outcome. Rowse (2009), for example, shows how the current Australian census problematizes Indigenous people as part of a population binary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. He speculates on the sorts of political claims such a distinction facilitates or blocks. Any analysis of the way censuses are “implemented” would need, I suggest, to include attention to the impact of this problematization. Indeed, in the Keynote address I make the case that “policies can no longer be evaluated without including analysis of the implicit problem representations they contain”. 

On the question of policy actors, I have repeatedly distanced WPR from policy-actor frameworks of analysis. The decision to do so is due to a basic concern about how the “subject” is imagined in these approaches. There is a tendency to think of policy actors as self-directed agents (see 31 Jan 2020 on conceptions of agency), a position that sits uncomfortably with a WPR focus on subjectification. 

Subjectification is a tricky concept. It sits at a distance from socialisation or even interpellation (Althusser 1972). The point is to get researchers to reflect on the ways in which problem representations have potential implications for how subjects conceive of themselves and others. A particular focus is on how these effects play a role in making the population governable. 

In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 17), I offer the example of affirmative action policies. I note that many affirmative action policies target recipients as beneficiaries of “preferential treatment”. In a society that prizes initiative and frowns upon dependence, I argue, such a problem representation often deters members of targeted groups from supporting the reform, reinforcing the status quo. The political implications that accompany how subjects are constituted within problem representations, therefore, deserve a good deal of attention (see Bacchi 1996). 

  • Does WPR make truth claims? What are the benefits of its question format? Are there dangers in the format? How are self-problematization and “nesting” central components of the approach? 

The answer to the opening question about “truth claims” is that WPR invariably participates in this practice. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this issue in large part due to prompting from my collaborator and colleague Joan Eveline, with whom I co-authored several articles on gender mainstreaming in the mid 2000s. Together we drafted a chapter in our book called Mainstreaming Politics specifically on the need for reflexive research practices (Bacchi and Eveline 2010, Chapter 6). 

In that chapter Joan and I consider the proposition that “the WPR approach constructs a particular view of knowledge” (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 155). We note that it sets out its tasks (questions) in a “highly organised or ordered way”. In addition, it offers those who use it “new ways of thinking about the possible effects of the unexamined logics and assumptions” in problem representations: “In this sense, the WPR methodology must itself be recognised as a kind of intervention with power effects”. 

This characterization should come as no surprise. A key premise of a poststructural critique is that we are inside the processes we are examining (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 154). Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) makes this point forcibly when she alerts us to the fact that “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations”. In this understanding, the researcher/theorist plays an active role in constructing the very reality s/he is attempting to articulate. As Law describes:

“There is no reason to suppose we are different from those we study. We too are products. If we make pools of sense or order, then these too are local and recursive effects … our own ordering is a verb. It reminds us that (sense-making) is precarious … incomplete … that much escapes us”. (Law 1994: 17). 

This situation has prompted a “reflexive turn” in academic theorizing. In the Research Hub I have produced several entries puzzling over what I refer to as the “reflexivity quagmire” (21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018). In the Keynote address, I signalled my disquiet with the notions of reflexivity and reflectivity, and my hope that self-problematization as a practice of the self allows us to challenge our own premises while protecting against any tendency to set ourselves up as policy “experts”. 

The format in WPR – the use of questions – expresses an attempt to keep conversations open through continuous dialogue. A danger perhaps is the temptation to produce “answers” as fixed and final. Hence, I stress the importance of what I call a “self-problematizing ethic” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24). I also caution against the use of the WPR questions as a one-off exercise due to the complex layering and intermingling of problem representations – which I call “nesting” (Bacchi 2009: 21, 56). To respond to this complexity, we need to challenge the meanings we impose and to consider the incorporation of new ones, often from quarters not previously considered pertinent. In short, we need to practise scepticism about the truths we critique and produce. While this conclusion may appear to be self-defeating and limiting, it is useful to recall that a “questioning scepticism has long provided grist for the mill of feminist concerns and granules for elaborating a feminist politics” (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 159). Put simply, we always have more work to do!  So, rest up over the break!



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