In a paper that Anne Wilson and I delivered to the International Symposium held in Karlstad in August 2022, we introduce a way to apply WPR to concepts. The specific concept targeted is “underlying health conditions”. I have suggested in several places that it is possible to apply WPR to concepts (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 17). In the Symposium paper Anne and I show the usefulness of this form of application (Bacchi and Wilson 2022). 

Applying WPR to concepts involves approaching concepts as governmental problematizations. Such a theoretical stratagem shifts the focus from what concepts mean to how they are constituted and how they operate in governing practices. Recalling that the point and purpose of WPR is to interrogate how governing takes place – how we are governed (Bacchi 2009) – it is necessary, I argue below, to examine the role of concepts as governmental mechanisms. This position follows Dean’s (1999: 44-45) characterization of political language as a governmental technology. 

The Symposium paper emphasizes how the concept of “underlying health conditions” functions to shape political outcomes in specific circumstances. As examples, it examines the ways in which “underlying health conditions” as a concept, or category, impacts on consideration of COVID-19 death rates in several countries, and on health care options in the United States. In this way the example of “underlying health conditions” illustrates the WPR key premise that we are governed through problematizations ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 18 August 2022). It also highlights an important theoretical point – and one that causes endless confusion around WPR – that approaching concepts as governmental problematizations, in the manner just described, does not involve reflection on people’s assumptions or on people’s problematizations. We are working at a level of analysis distinct from considerations of intentionality. 

This Research Hub entry elaborates what WPR thinking adds to theoretical conversations about “concepts”, including Gallie’s (1955-56) “essentially contested concepts” and Koselleck’s (1982) “conceptual history”. It makes the case that applying WPR to concepts raises a wide range of issues about how governing takes place that do not appear in these other approaches to concepts. Through this discussion I take the opportunity to clarify the place of Foucault’s historical nominalism in WPR. In the next entry I consider how this discussion of “concepts” provides useful insights into how WPR differs from forms of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), specifically Discourse-Historical Analysis (DHA) (Wodak 2015; Reisigl and Wodak 2009; Krzyzanowski 2010). To forecast this argument, WPR is best described as offering an analysis of discourses (or knowledges) rather than as a form of discourse (language) analysis (Bacchi 2005). In the third entry in this series I use the concept of “crisis” to illustrate these arguments.

Thinking about concepts

What is a concept? How are we to identify concepts? There are numerous contributions to this topic. Despite the varied theoretical stances, there is some agreement that concepts are ambiguous in meaning and hence that attempts at definition are fraught. There are contrasting views about the meaning of ambiguity, however. The position that concepts are contested and/or contestable draws attention to the diverse interpretations associated with concepts such as “equality” or “agency” (Gallie 1955-56). As Hall (1998: 80) points out, this thesis does not take us “very far in any analytically useful direction”:

“For to claim that a particular concept is essentially contested, is to take an a-historical view of the character and function of political concepts. Not all concepts have been, or could be, contested at all times.”

Meanwhile, those who work in the field of “conceptual history” stress that concepts are ambiguous because they change meaning over time, again making definition a fraught exercise (Koselleck 1982). 

The Foucault-influenced poststructural stance adopted in WPR is a nominalist position where the terms used (e.g., “state”, “urban”) are simply the names assigned to “things” (Research Hub, 1 Oct 2020, 31 Oct 2020). Definition therefore is not simply a fraught exercise; it is an inappropriate one. The point of a poststructural analysis is not to defend one meaning over another but to consider how different meanings rely on contrasting presuppositions and lead to diverse effects. In tune with an ontology of becoming ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 18 August 2022) the focus is on the practices that produce concepts as “objects for thought”. You will hopefully recognize WPR thinking at work here. 

By turning to practices, Foucault looks to carve out a space between realism and idealism (Bacchi 2012: 3). In particular, he wishes to dislodge the impression of ideas or attitudes as some sort of objects whose history could be traced, a view sometimes expressed by those involved in “conceptual history” (Richter 1987).  Foucault sidesteps “ideas” and offers problematizations as a way to get inside “thinking”: 

“For a long time, I have been trying to see if it would be possible to describe the history of thought as distinct both from the history of ideas (by which I mean the analysis of systems of representation) and from the history of mentalities (by which I mean the analysis of attitudes and types of action [schemas de comportement]). It seemed to me that there was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought— this was what one could call the problems, or more exactly, problematizations”. (Foucault 1984)

Clearly, in WPR, a good deal of attention is paid to concepts and categories, which are themselves concepts, as outlined in the 2009 book (Bacchi 2009: 8-9). There it is mentioned that governing practices rely upon assumed categories, including people categories such as “youth”, “the homeless” and “citizens”, and conceptual categories such as “equality”, “discrimination” and many others. It follows that it is critically important to trace how these concepts and categories emerge and how they operate to shape political outcomes and people’s lives. In a previous entry I elaborate how this stance contrasts with “realist governmentality” (Stenson 2008) and with Critical Realism, where categories of analysis are taken to be markers of “real conditions” (Research Hub, 1 Feb 2019, 28 Feb 2021).

 In the broad area of “conceptual history” it is possible to draw distinctions between a Cambridge school and a German tradition described as Begriffsgeschichte (Conceptual History or, more precisely, The History of Concepts), associated with Koselleck (1982). Van Gelderen (1998: 230) outlines the differences in the two approaches. The Cambridge school embraces Pocock (1971) and Skinner (1989). It focuses on the history of political languages and originated in the Anglo-Saxon traditions of Collingwood (1946/1994), the philosophy of language, and J. L. Austin’s (1962) theory of speech acts. This “new history of political languages”, argues Van Gelderen (1998: 231), emphasizes “human agency as the prime mover of history, instead of the structures and processes floating through Begriffsgeschichte”. In the next Research Hub entry I show how this contrast can be overdrawn and how Begriffsgeschichte at times stresses the pronouncements of political actors, showing some affinity with the Cambridge school. 

The Begriffsgeschichte approach, overseen by Koselleck with his two co-editors Conze and Brunner, charts the “career of political and social concepts in German-speaking Europe between 1750 and 1850” (Richter 1986: 605). In the eight volumes that eventually were published (Koselleck 2011) and in other articles, Koselleck (1982) outlines the purpose and goal of this mammoth project, named the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe [Historical Basics]. He argues that over the time period 1750 to 1850, which he calls the “Saddle period” or “Threshold period”, concepts became more abstracted, tending towards the form of what he calls “collective singulars”. Think here of concepts such as “liberty” or “equality”. As collective singulars, says Koselleck, these terms are available to be picked up and deployed to support ideologies and forms of propaganda (Richter 1986: 617). 

To make this argument, Koselleck (1998: 26) emphasizes the importance of social history, which he describes as “occurring history” and “what ‘actually’ – and not just linguistically – happened”. In this realist view, the “structures” and “processes” of social history exist separate from the linguistic structures of Begriffsgeschichte: “A history does not occur without speech, but it is never identical to speech and cannot be reduced to it” (Koselleck 1998: 26).  According to Van Gelderen (1998: 232), this ontological distinction between language and society “is in need of serious qualification”. I pursue this point in the next entry where I raise questions about the ontological status of “context”, which operates as “background” in much contemporary sociopolitical theory.

Following Foucault’s desire to carve out a space between realism and idealism, I borrow from the work of Tanesini to offer a poststructural approach to concepts – an approach that stands at a distance from both Koselleck’s “structures” and the emphasis on human agency at Cambridge. Tanesini (1994: 207) argues that concepts are not descriptive of anything; rather, they “are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here”. Their purpose is to “influence the evolution of ongoing practices”. Concepts do things; they are productive and can be described as performative ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 18 August 2022). In a sense then concepts are analogous to Austin’s (1962) illocutionary performatives that do not describe “reality” but that (help to) make worlds (Jackson 2004: 2). I emphasize “analogous” to avoid any confusion with the “speech act” position assumed by the Cambridge school (above).

Tanesini’s description of concepts as “proposals” provides a key link with WPR. In my work on WPR I argue that it is helpful to begin one’s analysis from proposals. This analytic strategy finds its rationale in the premise that what one proposes to do about something indicates what is targeted as needing to change and hence what is produced as “the problem”. Analytically, therefore, it is possible to start from proposals in texts and to work backwards to identify problem representations. In the previous two entries (30 Dec. 2022; 30 Jan. 2023) I provide pointers to how to identify “proposals” in governmental texts and other sources, including as examples buildings and political theories. Conceiving of “concepts” as “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” provides the rationale for applying WPR to concepts.  

I offer several recent studies that illustrate the usefulness of treating concepts as problematizations.

  1. Sporer et al. (2018) explore the concept of “aspiration” as a technology of government in the UK and other OECD countries since the early 2000s – “Raising young people’s aspirations has been portrayed as a solution to persisting social and educational inequalities”. The authors ask how “aspiration” is constructed as a policy problem, paying particular attention to the genesis (genealogy) of the concept and how “youth” as a category is constituted both in terms of “deficit” and “potential”.
  2.  Lappalainen et al. (2019) analyze the “fluctuating” “conceptualisation of equality” in a cross-cultural analysis of Finnish and Swedish upper secondary curricula from 1970 to 2010s. They apply the WPR questions to selected policy texts, paying particular attention to the “problem of equality” and “the presuppositions that underlie the problem as presented”. 
  3. Miranda-Molina (2023) examines how the “problem” of “leveling” is represented in Latin American higher education policy documents. He offers useful insights into how the concept of “leveling” (nivelación) creates the “problem” of the lower retention rates of underrepresented social groups as “a consequence of their insufficient preparation”.

In each of these three cases the authors effectively probe the specific uses of concepts to identify their governing effects. In each case they approach concepts, not as taken-for-granted “truths”, but as “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here”. 

This discussion takes us to the critical issue raised earlier where I noted that approaching concepts as governmental problematizations does not involve reflecting on people’s assumptions or on people’s problematizations. Rather, the problematizations found in the proposals associated with any particular concept ought to be viewed as governmental mechanisms not as the products of political manipulation or rhetorical deployment. I hope that these three examples illustrate this point clearly. This theme is pursued in the next entry. 


As I suggested at the outset, I believe that bringing WPR to concepts allows us to raise questions that do not get raised in other approaches to concepts. Specifically, through asking how a particular concept problematizes an issue, we can bypass the question of intentionality and get inside thinking. Considering the effects of specific problematizations, meanwhile, allows us to see how concepts operate as governing mechanisms.

Returning to where we started, while preparing our paper, Anne Wilson and I reflected on the way in which “underlying health conditions” could be seen to support a particular political agenda. On the one side the designation of some COVID-19 deaths as associated with “underlying health conditions” seemed to suggest almost deliberate malfeasance on the part of our politicians and public health spokespeople who sought a rationale to reduce restrictions on public movements and trade. On the other side the determination of the WHO to “name” all COVID-19 related deaths as due to COVID-19 appeared to suit their political goal of insisting on the urgency of increased public health restrictions. 

However, the point of our Symposium paper is not to identify the place of problem representations in political manoeuvring of this sort. Rather, we wanted to understand how this category of “underlying health conditions” became a taken-for-granted way of thinking among health officials and the general public – and how it sets the scene for how we were/are governed. This story involves the long historical process of “making” distinctions in health/illness categorization – e.g., “acute” versus “chronic” illness – and the development of the concept of “co-morbidity”. Such categories emerged from the introduction of public health records and monitoring of population trends. 

The issues we face around the uses of “underlying health conditions”, therefore, emerge from multiple heterogeneous practices rather than from explicit manipulation for political ends. They are issues to do with how we conceive of “health” and “illness”, and how these shape “the evolution of ongoing practices” (Tanesini 1994: 2007). It is this broad governing agenda that WPR targets through the analysis of “concepts” as problematizations. The importance of distinguishing this position from the popular view in much political and policy analysis that our analytic focus should be people’s problematizations provides the starting point for the next entry.


Austin, J. L. 1962. How to do things with words. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Bacchi, C. 2005. Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject “Agency” in Feminist Discourse Methodology’. NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3): 198-209. Reproduced in C. Hughes (Ed.) (2012). Researching Gender. Sage Fundamentals of Applied Research Series. 

Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education. 

Bacchi, C. 2010. 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. 

Bacchi, C. and Wilson, A. 2022. Governing through “underlying (preexisting) health conditions”: “chronic illness”, “race-ism” and COVID-19. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Critical Policy Studies, Karlstad University, 17-19 August 2022. Paper available on request from C. Bacchi –

Collingwood, R. G. 1994. The Idea of History. Oxford: OUP. First published in 1946. 

Dean, M. 1999. Governmentality: Power and rule in modern society. London: Sage. 

Foucault, M. 1984. Polemics, Politics and Problematizations; based on an interview conducted by Paul Rabinow. Translated by Lydia Davis. Appears in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol 1: Ethics. New Press.

Gallie, W. B. (1955-56) Essentially Contested Concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56: 167-98.

Hall, T. 1998. Conceptual History and the History of Political Thought. In I. Hampsher-Monk, K. Tilmans and F. van Vree (Eds) History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 75-86.

Jackson, S. 2004. Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Koselleck, R. 1982. Begriffsgeschichte and social history, Economy and Society, 11:4, 409-427, DOI: 10.1080/03085148200000015 

Koselleck, R. 1998. Begriffsgeschichte and social history. In I. Hampsher-Monk, K. Tilmans and F. van Vree (Eds) History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 23-36.

Koselleck, R. 2011. Prefaces to volumes 3, 6, 7, and 8 of the Geschichtliche GrundbegriffeContributions to the History of Concepts, 6(1). pp. 25+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 5 Jan. 2023.

Krzyzanowski, M. 2010. Discourses and Concepts: Interfaces and Synergies between Begriffsgeschichte and the Discourse-Historical Approach in CDA.  In R. de Cillia, H. Gruber, Krzyzanowski, M. and F. Menz (Eds) Diskurs-Politik-Identitaet / Discourse-Politics-Identity. Tuebingen: Stauffenburg Verlag. 

Lappalainen, S., Nylund, M. and Rosvall, P. 2019. Imagining societies through discourses on educational equality: A cross-cultural analysis of Finnish and Swedish upper secondary curricula from 1970 to the 2010s. European Educational Research Journal 2019, 18(3) 335–354 

Miranda-Molina, R. 2023. Preuniversitarios, ciclos iniciales y apoyos suplementarios: políticas latinoamericanas de “nivelación” y sus problemas representados. Revista Dilemas Contemporáneos: Educación, Política y Valores, 2(4).

Pocock, J. G. A 1971. Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Reisigl, M. and Wodak, R. 2009. The Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA). In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (Eds) Methods for Critical Discourse Analysis.  London: Sage, pp. 87-121.

Richter, M. 1986. Conceptual History (Begriffsgeschichte) and Political Theory. Political Theory, 14(4). 604-637. 

Richter, M. 1987. Begriffsgeschichte and the History of Ideas. Journal of the History of Ideas, 48(2): 247-263.  

Skinner, Q. 1989. Language and political change. In T. Ball, J. Farr and R. L. Hanson (Eds) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 6-23.  

Spohrer, K., Stahl, G. & Bowers-Brown, T. 2018. Constituting neoliberal subjects? ‘Aspiration’ as technology of government in UK policy discourse, Journal of Education Policy, 33:3, 327-342, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1336573 

Stenson, K. 2008. Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety. Social Work & Society, 6(1).

Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon, & M. Whitford (Eds.), Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. New York: Routledge. 

Van Gelderen, M. 1998. Between Cambridge and Heidelberg. Concepts, Languages and Images in Intellectual History.

In I. Hampsher-Monk, K. Tilmans and F. van Vree (Eds) History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 227-238.Wodak, R. 2015. Critical Discourse Analysis, Discourse-Historical Approach. The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, First Edition. Karen Tracy (General Editor), Cornelia Ilie and Todd Sandel (Associate Editors). © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118611463/wbielsi116