Conceptions of “practices”: Part 2


In this entry I intend to pursue what it means to say that “subjects” are constituted in practices. Practices here are understood as Foucault conceptualized them, as legal “codes”, loosely defined, that are “in the true”.

Foucault made clear that one of his major purposes in examining such practices was to come to understand how we emerge as “subjects” of particular kinds. As he stated:

What I wanted to try to show was how the subject constituted itself in one specific form or another, as a mad or healthy subject, as a delinquent or nondelinquent subject, through certain practices that were also games of truth, practices of power and so on. (Foucault 1994)

In the previous entry we looked more closely at how “the mad” emerge in practices that problematize “subjects” in specific ways. Foucault refers to “games of truth” to emphasize that, as in a game, the rules of truth-making are internal to the game – there is no external arbiter. The reference to “practices of power” highlights that the “subject” in Foucault is always a political subject, enmeshed in practices, rather than an a priori subject. To study how “subjects” are produced, therefore, “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge” (Foucault 1988: 15). “Fields of knowledge” in Foucault generally refer to the “human sciences”, highlighting the role that research in such fields plays in producing the “subjects” it assumes (e.g. as rational or self-directed or, as in nudge theory, as needing guidance. See Research Hub entry, 26 Nov. 2017).

As Butler (1990) elaborates, the subject of law does not exist prior to the law but is produced within judicial processes. The repetition of these judicial processes operates to naturalize the “subject” along with the qualities, capacities and statuses that constitute the “subject” (Butler 1990: 2). Further, as “subjects” perform the qualities, capacities and statuses attributed to them, they reinforce the naturalization of these attributes, leading to the characterization of this theoretical perspective as “performativity”. As a simple example, think of how ticking the box “male” or “female” on administration forms reinforces the existence of sexed/gendered “subjects”.

In poststructural discourse theory, “a performative is that which enacts or brings about what it names” (de Goede 2006: 10). The language of “enactment” has come to replace “performativity” in many accounts, because the latter could be seen to support a view of conventional subject-actors as the originators of practices – when the intent is quite the opposite (see Mol 2002: 33; see also Netz et al. 2019). Most commonly, the word “constitute” is used by post-structuralists to capture this sense of “subjects” being produced or constituted in practices. As Jones (1997: 265) explains, the term “constitute” or “produce” means something like “comes into existence” rather than “shaped” or “made” (out of something else). With this understanding, there is “no doer behind the deed; rather, the “doer is invariably constructed in and through the deed” (Butler 1990: 142). People’s identities “do not precede their performances, but are constituted in and through them” (Mol 2002: 38): “The pervasive and mundane acts in which this is done make people what they are” (Mol 2002: 39).

None of these processes are predictable or straight-forward. The plural and contradictory characterizations (subject positions) available for “subjects” to perform means that the “subject” is always in process, always provisional (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688). Recalling that governmental mechanisms of power are not always successful (see Research Hub entry, 30 September 2019), practices (such as ticking the box) need to be repeated. In the repetition emerges the space for challenge and change (consider how administrative forms now often offer “other” as an option) (see Stern 2000: 113). Within this space we can locate the possibilities of “counter-conduct” (see Research Hub entry 31 October 2019) and “practices from below”. For example, Death (2010: 245) emphasizes how, through the embodied practices of protest, such as hunger strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, “new identities and subjectivities are performatively constituted”.

The reference to Annemarie Mol above signals a linkage between “performative” or “enactment” theory and STS (Science and Technology Studies), including Actor-Network theory. The points of connection include a shared relational ontology, seen in the language of “assemblages” and “networks”, and a constitutive approach to social “actors” and to “objects”. As Woolgar and Lezaun (2013: 322) describe, the field of STS “has long advanced an analytical programme that foregrounds the instrumental, performative and material dimensions implied in the making of facts and artefacts”. There is a particular emphasis on the way “objects” are “enacted” in practices, as described by Annemarie Mol and John Law:

knowing, the words of knowing, and texts do not describe a pre-existing world [but] are part of a practice of handling, intervening in the world and thereby of enacting one of its versions – up to bringing it into being. (Mol and Law 2006: 19 in Pellizoni 2015: 74).

The focus on “objects” as “actants” produces an emphasis on the place of non-humans in political relations. In line with this position, ANT offers a dispersed understanding of “agency”, a topic I pursue in a subsequent Research Blog entry.

I believe that there is a good deal more to be said about “practices”. With Pellizoni (2015: 77) I share disquiet with the tendency to appeal simply to the “generative power of the practices involved in the constitution of reality” (Woolgar and Lezaun 2013: 324; see entry 12 Nov. 2017), without elaborating on what “practices” are taken to be and how they are presumed to function politically. Perhaps the same could be said about a wide range of concepts, such as “processes” or “agency”, the topic I pursue next. As with “the subject”, it has become imperative to think through just what we mean by “practices” and to engage critically with research in the field.


Bonham, J. and Bacchi, C. 2017. Cycling “subjects” in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis. Journal of Sociology, 53(3): 687-703.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Death, C. 2010. Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian analytics of protest. Social Movement Studies, 9(3): 235–251.

de Goede, M. 2006. International political economy and the promises of post-structuralism. In M. de Goede (Ed.), International political economy and poststructural politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, M. 1977/1971. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1994/1984. The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom. In P. Rabinow and N. Rose (Eds) The Essential Foucault. NY: the New Press.

Jones, A. (1997). Teaching Post-structuralist Feminist Theory in Education: Student resistances. Gender and Education, 9(3): 261-269.

Mol, A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mol, A. and Law, J. 2006. Complexities: An introduction. In J. Law and A. Mol (Eds) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. NC: Duke University Press.

Netz, S., Lempp, S., Krause, K. and Schramm, K. 2019. Claiming citizenship rights through the body multiple. Citizenship Studies,

Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.

Stern, D. 2000. The return of the subject? Power, reflexivity and agency. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(5): 109-122.

Woolgar, S. and Lezaun, J. 2013. The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies? Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 321-40.

Conceptions of “practices”: Part I

Content:  I want to forecast at the outset that the topics taken up recently, including this one, appear to be getting more and more difficult and abstract. It is daunting to attempt to summarize briefly the extensive literatures on questions of “the subject”, “practices” and “agency”. Please consider my comments, therefore, as introductions or first attempts to bring together aspects of the debates around these topics that seem to require more reflection.

Everyone is talking about practices recently, indicated in the references to the “turn to practice” in contemporary social theory (for example, Postill 2010; Shatzki 2001). However, not everyone means the same thing when they use the term. As Pellizoni (2015: 77) says, “the definition of practice itself … is anything but straightforward”. He offers a much-quoted definition: a practice

is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge. (Reckwitz 2002: 249 in Pellizoni 215: 77)

But, as Pellizoni goes on to say, this definition does not really take us far since “each of the elements is semantically dense and empirically opaque”.

If indeed this is the case, it seems fair to say that “a practice is the opposite of a self-evident phenomenon”: “One has no more direct access to practices, in any analytically useful sense of the word … that one has to anything else” (Pellizoni 2015: 78). Therefore, taking up Tanesini’s (1994: 207) point that concepts are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here, the task becomes recognizing the connections between how we describe practices and the political implications of particular usages. Again, quoting Pellizoni (2015: 77), “ontological assertions inevitably work as justifications of particular accounts of politics” (Barnett 2007: 57).

Gherardi offers a useful way to begin reflections on this topic.  She (2009: 118) makes a distinction between conceptualizing practices “from the outside”, which directs attention to how people (in context) “do” practices, and conceptualizing practices “from the inside”, which rests on a posthumanist analytic in which practices “do” (constitute) “subjects”. Here, we can see that discussions of practices draw us back almost immediately to the competing conceptions of “the subject” considered in the previous two Research Hub entries. In accounts of practices “from the outside”, “the subject” is assumed to be an a priori, acting “individual”, engaged in doing things (“practices”). In the latter account of practices “from the inside”, we can observe how “subjects” are produced as particular kinds of “being” through examining what they do. It is this latter meaning that I intend to pursue here, hoping to make some sense of “practices” in Foucault and in those who draw upon his approach to practices. This will involve brief consideration, in a subsequent entry, of theories of performativity/enactment in STS studies (Science and Technology Studies) and Actor-Network Theory.

In the last two entries (30 Sept. 2019 and 31 Oct. 2019) we observed how Foucault challenged a priori stances on “the subject” and causality. I ended the last of these entries noting that in the place of “universals” he offered “practices”. The move here is from the general to the specific. “Micro-practices” replace generalized speculation about assumed “forces” shaping history. The goal is to make “visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all” (Foucault 1991: 76; emphasis in original). To make these singularities visible requires detailed records of discontinuity, provided through genealogies that trace “an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers” (Foucault 1977: 82).

To this end attention is directed precisely to “what is done” rather than to the motives or intentions of people, which would invoke the interior consciousness Foucault was challenging (see Research Hub, “Conceptions of the ‘subject’: Part 1”, 30 Sept. 2019). The analytic task becomes examining how it is possible for those things to be done, “constructing their external relations of intelligibility” and the knowledges (discourses) upon which they rely (Foucault 1991: 77). And the analytic target becomes “the connections, encounters, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on” in order “to show that things ‘weren’t as necessary as all that” (Foucault 1991: 76), demonstrating a clear challenge to deterministic views of social relations.

So, what are these practices that provide starting places for this analysis? Foucault (1991: 75) describes practices as “places” where “what is said and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned and the taken for granted meet and interconnect”. “Place” here is to be understood metaphorically to envisage a “point of linkage” between what one says and what one does (Flynn 2006: 31), an ensemble of ways of doing things “understood simultaneously as a mode of thinking and acting” (Foucault 1988: 15). Flynn explains that a practice in Foucault has a two-fold character as judicative and “veridicative” (Flynn 2006: 31; italics in original): “on the one hand, practices establish and apply norms, controls, and exclusions; on the other, they render true/false discourse possible”. For example, the practice of legal punishment “entails the interplay between a [judicial] ‘code’ that regulates ways of acting – such as how to discipline an inmate – and the production of true discourse that legitimates [verifies] these ways of acting” (Flynn 2006: 31).

This understanding of practices helps to explain why Foucault turned to what he called “practical texts” as points of entry for his analyses, and why he found the concept of problematization a useful theoretical intervention. On “practical texts” he noted:

The domain I will be analysing is made up of texts written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should: “practical” texts, which are themselves objects of a “practice” in that they are designed to be read, learned, reflected upon, and tested out, and they were intended to constitute the eventual framework of everyday conduct. (Foucault 1984: 12-13)

In a WPR approach, policies are “practical texts” since they tell us what to do, usefully challenging the view that “practices” and “texts” are somehow in opposition [see Research Hub entry: “WPR and Ethnography, Part II, 31 March 2019]

Late in his life Foucault suggested the usefulness of a focus on problematizations as a way to bridge the conventional divide between thought and practice. Using the example of the history of “madness”, he pointed out that, if you looked at how “the mad” were treated – how they were characterized and analysed (in practices) – you would observe how they were problematized (made into “a problem”). You would then have pointers towards “determining the role of politics and ethics in the establishment of madness as a particular domain of scientific knowledge [connaissance], and also of analysing the effects of the latter on political and ethical practices” (Foucault 1984: 8). To this end, in WPR, policies as “practical texts” provide a point of entry for identifying specific problematizing practices.

The question – what do these practices do? – will be pursued in the next entry, along with some examples of contemporary applications of this theoretical perspective.


Flynn, T. 2006. Foucault’s Mapping of History. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge Collections Online: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. 1988a. (Auto)biography MICHEL FOUCAULT 1926-1984, History of the Present, 4: 13-17.

Foucault, M. 1991. Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gherardi, S. 2009. Introduction: The critical power of the “practice lens”. Management Learning, 40 (2), 115–128.

Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.

Postill, J. 2010. Introduction: Theorizing media and practice. In B. Bräuchler, & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices. A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243-63.

Schatzki, T. 2001. Introduction: Practice theory. In T. Schatzki, K.K. Cetina, E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory. London and New York: Routledge.

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

Conceptions of “the subject”: Part 2

Content: I ended the last entry asking about the “subject” in Foucault’s strategy of “counter-conduct”. Importantly, Foucault does not wish to posit a “counter subject” to the humanist subject. Rather, he wants to show what is gained analytically and politically by putting common assumptions about the humanist subject or “human nature” into question. As Butler (1992: 9 in St Pierre 2000: 502-503) explains, “The critique of the subject is not a negation or repudiation of the subject, but, rather, a way of interrogating its construction as a pregiven or foundationalist premise”.

To this end, Foucault (1977: 87) “places within a process of development everything considered immortal to man”, including “feelings”, “instincts” and “the body”. Contra “human nature” he emphasizes the possibility of a changing subject, a subject in process, “a thoroughly contingent human, ‘one’ ever open to (juridical) reinscription” (Golder 2009; see also Golder 2010).

In a recent entry on “Gendering” (30 June 2019) I explain how this view leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “woman” by nature; rather we are constantly becoming “woman”. This proposition lies at the centre of the feminist debates introduced in the previous Research Hub entry (1 September 2019). On one side, the argument is that we need a concept of “woman” to ground political claims, that a Foucauldian stance leaves us with no actors to initiate political projects and drive change. On the other side, following Butler, the argument is that political claims are actually facilitated if one works with a “subject in process” because talking about “woman” as a natural category of existence locks us into particular, limited ways of thinking change.

An example may help explain this proposition. In a recent article on “women returning to cycling”, Jennifer Bonham and I (2017) note that research that focusses on cycling as a predominantly masculine activity can inadvertently naturalize certain characteristics as “feminine”, e.g. that “women” are naturally risk averse, or naturally inclined to perform domestic labour. Assuming an a priori subject (“woman”) in this way, we suggest, bypasses questions about the politics involved in the production of “subjects”.  In this sense, a pre-given subject can be described as “anti-political” (Brown 1995: 37), closing off “questions about the ways in which the assignment of subjectivity and agency can work to include some and exclude others, authorizing some to speak and act in ways that bind others, while denying the same privileges to others” (Stern 2000: 113).

Bringing this critical interrogation of “the subject” to research involves new questions. Instead of asking “what do I know?” there is a need to ask, “how have my questions been produced?“ (Olssen 2003) and “what assumptions do I make about the categories of analysis I deploy?”, with clear links to the practice of self-problematization (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 52).

Think, for example, of how we treat research subjects in interview situations. Is there an assumption that we can access the “truth” of what happened through their accounts of their experiences (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688; Atkinson and Silverman 1997)? This question becomes particularly important when we recognize that research plays a central role in producing “reality” (see Research Hub entry on “ontological politics”, 10 Dec. 2017). In Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA), Bonham and I (2016) suggest as an alternative analytic strategy locating interview “subjects” within discursive practices.

As with conventional uses of interview material, actor-centred models of political change tend to treat “subjects” as self-authoring (Krott et al.2014). For example, research on deliberative democracy can appear to posit a “self-authoring subject” who can “unproblematically enter into dialogical democratic discourse with others to achieve consensus” (Eagan 2009: 149). Similarly, interpretive research on framing focusses on “how actors create meaning in the policy process and how they package those meanings for instrumental and expressive purposes” (Koon et al. 2016: 7). In other work I use the example of the interpretivist proposal to train policy actors to shape problematizations effectively to indicate the political implications of such a focus on policy actors as self-directed “subjects”. The commitment to use political theory to guide and facilitate reform initiatives, I argue, neglects the need to critically interrogate governmental problematizations (2015 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).

To query the dialogical and interpretive perspectives outlined here does not mean that actors cannot act. The question becomes how to theorize or think about those actors as always “subjects” in ongoing-formation (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). In earlier work I suggest the possibility of a “dual-focus agenda”, attending “both to the ways in which we are all in discourses, understood as institutionally supported and culturally influenced interpretive and conceptual schemas and signs, and to the active deployment of language, including concepts and categories, for political purposes” (Bacchi 2005: 207). I emphasized at the time that these two analytical perspectives need to be combined so that it becomes possible to recognize the contributions of policy actors while hanging on to the insights into subjectification. If, as occasionally happens, the projects are separated, there is a danger that “important insights into limitations imposed by our own subject positionings are lost” (see 2011: 6-7 RonnblomBacchiBudapest ).

Question 6 in WPR (see Bacchi WPR CHART) creates space for charting and analysing the actions of individuals and groups. It invokes the spirit of “counter-conduct” and reads: “How and where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How has it been and/or can it be disrupted and replaced?” As with the “dual agenda” (above), it is important to remember that the seven forms of questioning and analysis that constitute WPR form an integrated analytical strategy. Therefore, Question 6 needs to be considered together with the insights into subjectification (Question 5) and self-problematization (Step 7; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2). In these complex interrelationships, the humanist subject, described in the previous Research Hub entry, is decentred.

Mansfield (2000: 10) reminds us of how difficult it is to shift our thinking on this question of “the subject”. The major vehicle of constraint, he argues, is language, “which petrifies the illusion that for every action there is a pre-existing subject responsible for it”. Think, for example, of the commonly used terms such as “self”, “subject”, “individual”, “consciousness”, and “agency” (the last pursed in a subsequent entry). Jones (1997: 268) explains that, through language – her examples are the pronouns “I” and “me” – , we produce ourselves as “rational choosing actors”. As she describes, “we behave as though we are, we run whole social systems on that premise”.  The task becomes interrogating these taken-for-granted usages and to consider how they close off certain avenues for thought. Consider, for example, how assumptions about human nature commonly underpin policy proposals, limiting the factors considered relevant (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49). A step towards broadening our conceptions of politics and policy, therefore, involves politicizing “personhood” (Bacchi and Bonham 2016).

To replace a priori subjects and a priori structures, Foucault turns to practices – in his words, to “what happens” (Foucault 1982: 786), to “how things work at the level of on-going subjugation” (Foucault 1980). In the next entry I pursue what this position entails and how “practices” are deployed in several theoretical traditions – e.g. performativity theory and Actor-Network theory.


Atkinson, P. and Silverman, D. 1997. Kundera’s Immortality: the interview society and the invention of the self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3): 304–25.

Bacchi, C. 2005. Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject “Agency” in Feminist Discourse Methodology. NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3): 198-209.

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 Bonham, J. 2016. Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bonham, J. and Bacchi, C. 2017. Cycling “subjects” in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis. Journal of Sociology, 53(3): 687-703.

Brown, W. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Butler, J. 1992. Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of “postmodernism”. In J. Butler & J. W. Scott (Eds) Feminists theorize the political (pp. 3-21). NY: Routledge.

Eagan, J. 2009. The Deformation of Decentered Subjects: Foucault and Postmodern Public Administration. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 12(1): 141-162.

Foucault, M. 1977. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews.Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1980. Two lectures (lecture one: 7 January 1976). In C. Gordon (Ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977. Translated by C Gordon, L Marshall, J Mepham, K Soper. NY: Vintage, pp 78–108.

Foucault, M. 1982. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4): 777-795.

Golder, B. 2009. Foucault, Anti-Humanism and Human Rights. UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2009-39. Available at SSRN:

Golder, B. 2010. Foucault and the Unfinished Human of Rights. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 6(3): 354-374.

Hoppe, R. 2002. Cultures of Public Policy Problems. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practise, 4: 305-326.

Jones, A. 1997. Teaching Post-structuralist Feminist Theory in Education: Student resistances. Gender and Education, 9(3): 261-269.

Koon, A. D., Hawkins, B. and Mayhew, S. H. 2016. Framing and the health policy process: a scoping review. Health Policy and Planning, 31(6): 801-816.

Krott, M. et al. 2014. Actor-centred power: The driving force in decentralised community based forest governance. Forest Policy and Economics, 49: 34-42.

Mansfield, N. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. NY: New York University Press.

Olssen, M. 2003. Foucault & Critique: Kant, Humanism and the Human Sciences. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003. Also: in M. A. Peters, M. Olssen & C. Lankshear (Eds) Futures of Critical Theory: Dreams of Difference. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rönnblom, M. and Bacchi, C. 2011. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – What’s Discursive About It? Limitations of conventional political studies paradigms.
Presented at the 2nd European Conference on Politics and Gender, Budapest: 13 – 15 January 2011, in section 4: Research Methodologies and Methods.

Stern, D. 2000. The return of the subject? Power, reflexivity and agency. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(5): 109-122.

St Pierre, E. A. 2000. Poststructural feminism in education: An overview, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5): 477-515.

Conceptions of “the subject”: Part 1


A few months ago, I received an email requesting some discussion of Foucauldian poststructural conceptions of “the subject”, agency and practices. A concern was expressed that the “decentred subject” left little space to reflect on actors’ motivations or behaviours. I intend to pursue these topics over several entries, which hopefully will complement each other. Subsequent entries will pick up the topics of bodies and affect/“emotions”.

The question of “the subject” became central to feminist debates from the 1990s, making a link to the previous Research Hub entry on “WPR and feminism”. In Feminist Contentions, Selya Benhabib and Judith Butler set out clearly what is at stake in these debates. Benhabib argued that there are weak and strong versions of the poststructuralist position on “the subject”. The former she described as a “situated subject”, one where the environmental, social and discursive influences on subject formation are acknowledged. In the latter, stronger version, according to Benhabib (1995: 20), “The subject … disappears in the chain of signification of which it was supposed to be the initiator”. In her view the stronger version denies the possibility of rational agency and construes us as what David Hoy has dubbed “cultural dopes”. The self, Benhabib argues, becomes nothing but the roles assigned to it (in Stern 2000: 111-112), a position I go on to dispute.

The concern for some (self-identified) feminists is that this “stronger version” of “the subject” is incapable of emancipatory action as is required for feminist projects committed to defending “woman” and “women”. Butler (1995a: 46; emphasis in original) responds that we need not, nor should not, appeal to a “pregiven subject or agent”, that we do not need to assume “theoretically from the start a subject with agency before we can articulate the terms of a significant social and political task of transformation, resistance and meaningful political practice”. [A few references worth pursuing on this debate include: London Feminist Salon Collective, 2004; Clegg 2006; Heyes 2007; and Gammage et al., 2016.] The topic of “agency” is pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry.

It may help at this point to consider just what is intended by a “decentred” subject. To “decentre” something means to move it from the centre. The question becomes, therefore, what is this subject “at the centre” that is challenged in Foucauldian poststructuralism? Butler (above; emphasis added) assists us on this point, questioning the need for a “pregiven subject or agent” as a starting point for thinking about social relations and change. It is this pregiven or a priori subject that provides the foundation of much Western philosophy and that becomes the target of Foucault’s critique. This “subject”, often referred to as “the Enlightenment subject” or “the humanist subject”, is characterized as rational, autonomous, asocial and ahistorical. Fraser (1994: 191) describes the humanist project as “making the subject pole triumph over the object pole”, representing man (see Lloyd 1984) as constitutor, as free, as all knowing, and as master of their fate and destiny. This a priori subject serves as a foundation anchoring objectivity and truth (Olssen 2003: 80).

Freud, of course, decentred this rational subject with his investigation of the subconscious. However, as Mansfield (2000: 8) points out, there is still an assumption that a “subject” is a real thing, with a fixed structure, operating in knowable and predictable patterns.

Foucault makes a different move, putting in question the whole idea of a separate interior consciousness, a director directing the show (so to speak) (see Blanco 2018). Foucault argues that the view of “the subject” as autonomous, rational, etc. is only one possible way to think about “the subject”. Supporting this point, he insists that “the subject” has a history (Foucault 1990: 23) and a good deal of his work involved tracing the history or genealogy of “the subject” (Foucault 1977).

This Foucauldian approach enables us to see that what we understand by “being human” has “shifted radically over the ages” (Davies 1997: 272). If we accept this claim that there are other ways to think about “the subject”, it follows that “subjectivity” is not the “free and spontaneous expression of our interior truth” but rather “the way we are led to think about ourselves” (Mansfield 2000: 10). In this view we shouldn’t take for granted that we are particular kinds of actors; rather, we should consider how we envisage ourselves as actors.

The task therefore becomes to explore “the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts” rather than to accept them as “given” and “true” (Foucault 1977: 86). In effect, what we refer to as “subjectivity” and “consciousness” are creations “produced by techniques of power-knowledge, such as the human sciences” (Simons 1995: 47); think here of psychology. Likewise, the concepts of “attitude”, “behaviour”, “perception” and “motivation” assume that the individual has an interior consciousness that “processes and produces true meanings of the world” (Bonham et al. 2015: 184). Therefore, says Foucault (1988a: 15), we need to study how this “subject” has been produced: “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge”; think again of psychology (topic pursued in next Research Hub entry). It follows that, instead of assuming a subject “at the start”, we need to ask about the assumptions that inform the particular position on “the subject” we decide to adopt.

Foucault goes on to question the assumptions underpinning the sovereign subject of Enlightenment thinking, especially the assumption that this “subject” can access “truth” (Taylor 2013: 90). As Olssen (2003) explains, for Foucault, “the unresolved tension of Kant’s philosophical project is that he fails to appreciate the contingent and historically contextualized character of all truth-claims”.

To understand this position, we need to say a few things about conceptions of power and of government in Foucault.

For our purposes it is sufficient to register that Foucault did not see power as something people possessed. He challenged the humanist view where power is generally considered to be the product of agency (see forthcoming Research Hub entry for discussion), a “universal resource to which all humans qua humans have access” (Butler, 1995b). Nor did he believe it possible to define a priori the “acceptable conditions of power” by locating some underlying structure, e.g. class. In place of universals he sees power as the complex working out of heterogeneous relations in which “subjects” and “objects” are produced (Foucault 1988b: 11).

Foucault is particularly concerned with how “governmental mechanisms of power” try to impose on groups of individuals a specific form of conduct deemed desirable for governing purposes, captured in the term “governmentality”. The objective of government, thus understood, is to “build subjects who are voluntarily subjugated (assujettis) – subjects who want what the other wills, who want not to will anything different from the other, and who want not to will” (Lorenzini 2016: 17: emphasis in original). As Dean (2010: 43, 83) explains, following this proposition, “governing is concerned with the fabrication of certain kinds of subjectivity and identity”, or rather identification. He offers the examples of “the consumer”, “the active job seeker” and “the poor”. It is these forms of subjectivity and identification that are considered in Question 5 of the WPR approach on the subjectification effects of governmental problematizations (see Chart Bacchi WPR CHART).

This mode of governing, through the creation of “subjects”, derives its strength “from the fact that it does not impose itself upon individuals through constraint or threat” (Lorenzini 2016: 16). In Foucault’s understanding, by definition we speak of “government (instead of constraint, domination and so on) if and only if the individual is free to choose to be governed or not to be governed like that” (Lorenzini 2016: 7-8; emphasis in original). Dean elaborates:

Regimes of government do not determine forms of subjectivity. They elicit, promote, facilitate, foster and attribute various capacities, qualities and statuses to particular agents. They are successful to the extent that these agents come to experience themselves through such capacities (e.g. rational decision-making), qualities (e.g. as having a sexuality) and statuses (as being an active citizen). (Dean 2010: 43).

By definition, therefore, in Foucault’s account (2000: 324), “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt”.

A critical point that often gets missed here is that a Foucauldian analysis considers governmental attempts to create certain kinds of subjects. While governmental mechanisms of power are “extremely efficient” (Lorenzini 2016: 16), there is no assumption that they are always successful. [The word “attempts” does not imply intentionality or deliberate manipulation.] To make this point Foucault developed the notion of counter-conduct, which is specifically to do with refusing governmental shaping of conduct (see Lorenzini 2016). Counter-conduct entails “the endless questioning of constituted experience” (see Rajchman 1985: 7 in St Pierre 2000: 493).

So, who or what is this “subject” deemed to be capable of counter-conduct? I will take up this topic in the next entry.


Benhabib, S. 1995. Feminism and Postmodernism. In S. Benhabib, J. Butler, D. Cornell & N. Fraser (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Blanco, A. G. 2018. Processes of Subjectivation: The Biopolitics and Politics of Literature in the Later Foucault. Comparative Literature and Culture, 20(4): Article 1.

Bonham, J., Bacchi, C. and Wanner, T. 2015. Gender and cycling: Gendering cycling subjects and forming bikes, practices and spaces as gendered objects. In J. Bonham and M. Johnson (Eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Butler, J. 1995a. Contingent Foundations. In S. Benhabib et al. (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1995b. For a Careful Reading. In S. Benhabib et al. (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Clegg, S. 2006. The problem of agency in feminism: a critical realist approach. Gender and Education, 18(3): 309-324.

Davies, B. 1997. The Subject of Post-structuralism: A reply to Alison Jones. Gender and Education, 9(3): 271-283.

Dean, M. 2010. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. 1977. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1988a. (Auto)biography MICHEL FOUCAULT 1926-1984, History of the Present, 4: 13-17.

Foucault, M. 1988b. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault, conducted by Michael Bess, San Francisco, 3 November 1980. History of the Present, 4: 1-2; 11- 13.

Foucault, M. 1990. Critical theory/intellectual history. In L. Kritzman (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews & other writings 1977–1984, 1st edition 1988, Sheridan, A. (trans.). London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. 2000. “Omnes et singulatum”: Toward a critique of political reason. In J. d. Faubion (Ed.) Michel Foucault/power, trans. R. Hurley and others, 298–325. New York: The New Press.

Fraser, N. 1994. Michel Foucault: A “Young Conservative”?. In Michael Kelly (Ed.) Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

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Lloyd, G. 1984. The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lorenzini, D. 2016. From Counter-Conduct to Critical Attitude: Michel Foucault and the Art of Not Being Governed Quite so Much. Foucault Studies, 21: 7-21.

Mansfield, N. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the self from Freud to Haraway. NY: New York University Press.

Olssen, M. 2003. Foucault & Critique: Kant, Humanism and the Human Sciences. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003. Also: in M. A. Peters, M. Olssen & C. Lankshear (Eds) 2003. Futures of Critical Theory: Dreams of Difference. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rajchman, J. 1985. Michel Foucault: The freedom of philosophy. NY: Columbia University Press.

Simons, J. 1995. Foucault & the political. NY: Routledge.

Stern, D. 2000. The return of the subject? Power, reflexivity and agency. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(5): 109-122.

Taylor, D. 2013. Resisting the Subject: A Feminist-Foucauldian Approach to Countering Sexual Violence. Foucault Studies, 16: 88-103.

WPR and feminism

I have been asked on occasion if WPR is a feminist theory. I am commonly referred to as a “feminist researcher”, an attribution I am happy to accept. However, I would not characterize WPR as “feminist” in any clear and obvious sense. This is because I do not believe that feminism has a clear or obvious meaning. I start from the premise that I can only attribute the descriptor “feminist” to someone who so identifies. Otherwise, the effect is to impose an agenda on people who might well support alternative views. As just one example, there are many self-identified feminists who would take issue with the concept of gendering, as introduced in the previous two entries, and the associated project of questioning gender binarism (man/woman, etc.)

I have long engaged with debates among (self-identified) feminists on a range of issues. My early work in the area considered how different groups of feminists developed contrasting positions on the question of sexual difference due to their specific socio-political locations (Bacchi 1990). More recently, I have applied the WPR (“What’s the Problem Represented to be?”) approach to divergent views among gender mainstreaming advocates about the meaning of “equality” (Bacchi and Eveline 2010). As a result, I have always considered feminism to be a contested space embracing diverse objectives and methodologies.

The WPR approach emerged from my engagement with the work of those (self-identified) feminist theorists who stressed the urgency of asking a particular form of question about epistemological and ontological assumptions (Harding, Haraway and Young, with many others). It made sense to me to apply those questions to various (self-identified) feminist positions on a range of policy issues, positions commonly associated with a project of “equality” for “women”. These analyses form the basis of Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems (Bacchi 1999), which offers an early version of WPR.

In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009), where the WPR approach is developed more fully, I note that the approach should not be restricted to so-called “women’s issues”. At the same time, I insist that “women” need to remain a focus of study in any account. Relatedly, in my recent work (Bacchi 2017) I describe gendering as a dynamic that needs to be considered alongside other political dynamics, including racializing, heteronorming, third-worldizing, disabling, classing, etc.

There is no doubt that there exists in the (self-identified) feminist research community a heightened sensitivity to what, for simplicity’s sake, can be described as “differences among women”. What surprises, and dismays, me is that, alongside this sensitivity, there are references to feminism as if it represents a singular political stance. I find this tendency even among some researchers who associate themselves with poststructuralism, where we would expect acknowledgement of plurality and contingency.

I do not wish to single out particular researchers but need to provide a few examples. Gherardi (2019: 45) suggests that one can “think like a feminist”, a rather surprising reference to a singular political stance or ethic. Usefully, Kantola and Lombardo (2017a: 11) emphasize the need to acknowledge a “diversity of approaches to feminist political analysis”. They (2017a: 16) mention the inspiration they draw from Breny Mendoza’s (2012) “critique about the epistemic violence of Anglo-American political science on Latin American disciplines of gender and politics”. They also mention my work on contested meanings of equality among (self-identified) feminists (2017a: 9). However, they then conclude that examples of discursive politics analyses have shown “how the meaning of gender equality is reproduced in political debates in ways that can take it far from feminist aims”, as if those aims are readily identifiable and agreed upon (Kantola and Lombardo 2017b: 329).

What I detect here is a moving backward and forward between recognizing the contestation around meanings of feminism and a tendency to refer to feminism as if its meaning is clear and generally supported – an example, perhaps, of what I described in the previous entry as “fixing” and “unfixing” meanings. There I suggested that the decision to engage in such practices – i.e. when to “fix” meanings and when to “unfix” meanings – is tied to reflexive thinking about political goals.

Given the current widely shared commitment among self-identified feminist researchers to recognize the diversity of political views held by “women”, I suggest that efforts ought to be made to avoid language that produces feminism as an “it”. Currently I am wrestling with ways to amend this tendency. With St Pierre (2000: 493) I hope to resist the tendency to impose “one grand vision of liberation for all women” and to recognize that “though many different women do organize at critical times to fight for certain issues, others resist those agendas and do not desire others’ particular brand of liberation”. St Pierre’s examples include African American feminists who have been “clear about the very different projects and goals of feminists of color and white feminists”, and feminists who work in the area of “postcolonial theory”.  In line with this thinking I endorse the practice of using, wherever possible, a plural form, such as “feminisms”, “to indicate that those who call themselves feminists do not necessarily see the world in the same way” (Bacchi 2017: 36 fn 1). In this same spirit I now refer to “feminists’ theories” rather than to “feminist theory”.

Hence, I would conclude that WPR reflects the thinking of some (self-identified) feminist theorists. However, it is not a feminist theory if that designation is taken to mean an agreed upon political vision of “gender equality” – since there is no such shared vision. Rather, WPR is associated with a normative commitment to an egalitarian politics that is subject to “a work of problematisation and of perpetual reproblematisation” (Foucault 2001: 1431; see Research Hub entry on normativity, 30 April 2019).


Bacchi, C. 1990. Same difference: Feminism and sexual difference. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

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.  2017. Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy.  18(1): 20-41.

Bacchi, C. and Eveline, J. 2010. Approaches to gender mainstreaming: What’s the problem represented to be?  In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline, Eds.  Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 111-138. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.

Foucault, M. (2001) [1984]. À propos de la généalogie de l’éthique: Un aperçu du travail en cours (rewritten version). In D. Defert, & F. Ewald (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Dits et Écrits, tome II. Paris: Gallimard.

Gherardi, S. 2019. If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer? Gender, Work and Organization  26: 40-53

Kantola, J. and Lombardo, E. 2017a. Gender and Political Analysis. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kantola, J. and Lombardo, E. 2017b. Feminist political analysis: Exploring strengths, hegemonies and limitations. Feminist Theory18(3): 323-341.

Mendoza, B. 2012. The Geopolitics of Political Science and Gender Studies in Latin America. In Jane H. Bayes (ed.) Gender and Politics: The State of the Discipline. Opladen: Barbara Budrich, pp. 33–58.

Prügl, E. 2016. How to Wield Feminist Power. In M. Bustelo, L. Ferguson and M. Forest (eds) The Politics of Feminist Knowledge Transfer: Gender Training and Gender Expertise. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

St. Pierre, E. 2000. Poststructural feminism in education: An overview. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5): 477-515.

Gendering: A dilemma for researchers

Following on from the last entry, the poststructural stance on the production of gender categories (e.g. “woman” and “man”) produces huge difficulties for those involved in policy development and for researchers generally. There is no denying the fact that most research in the field uses such a binary logic, as does most policy.

Confronting this situation Carol Chetkovich (2019) offers several strategies to include non-binary thinking in policy research and design. However, her analysis is limited by the way in which policy is conceptualized as a response to a gendered world, rather than considering how policy practices are involved in the production of such a world.

Still, as Chetkovich points out, a binary logic proves politically useful in specific instances – e.g. discussion of pay equity. What are we to do, then, when we recognize that research and policies intended to alter social practices that impact negatively on those marked as “women” necessarily reinforce the very binaries we have been questioning (e.g. man/woman, male/female)?

Westbrook and Schilt (2014: 46) give the example of “women-only spaces”, often set up to provide “safe” environments for those marked as “female”. Such spaces, the authors argue, naturalize presumed differences between “vulnerable” women and “predatory” men, reinforcing a binary logic. And, since such spaces rely on biological factors rather than on identity factors, they create difficulties for transgender people. Furthermore, the sense of “male” threat is linked to sexuality so that gender-segregated spaces “can be conceived of as both homophobic and heterophobic” (Westbrook and Schilt 2014: 49).

I and my colleagues (Bonham et al. 2015) were directly involved in research that, similarly, illustrates this tension between trying to destabilize the categories “man” and “woman” while attempting to disrupt hierarchical relationships between those marked as “man” and “woman”. In a study of women returning to cycling, we undertook to illustrate the wide range of practices and relations that together work to produce “women bike riders” as distinct from “men bike riders”. For example, we identify how the designation of “women’s jerseys” and “men’s jerseys” operate to reinforce the categories of “woman” and “man”.

At the same time, we acknowledge that, in the very act or practice of advertising and setting up interviews for women cyclists, the project itself participated in gendering – that is, in reinforcing a gender binary. Now, our purpose in advertising for “women who cycle” was to interrupt the tendency in some studies to explicitly link women to (and consequently risk normalising women as) “not cycling”. Clearly, a tension exists between these two political goals.

Our research also highlighted places where the interviewees accepted and endorsed their location in a particular category “women”. One of the interviewees, for example, speaks of her way of cycling as cautious and genders herself by relating this way of moving to women in general. At the same time, we identified places in the interviews where categories were less fixed or settled, such as where the same interviewee distinguished a group she calls “Alpha women”, who are described as being “more like men in their willingness to be more aggressive on the road” (note that this description retains an assumed “man”/”woman” distinction).

This research illustrates the challenge faced in attempting to destabilize gender binarism. Laying out this challenge is a first and important step to confronting it. Identifying tensions in positions, as we do with the interviewees, opens up a kind of flux that enables what Joan Eveline and I call “a politics of movement” (Bacchi and Eveline 2010: 335).

In Mainstreaming politics, we describe how, at times in the text, we use quotation marks around “women” and “men”, raising questions about their status as essential categories; at other times the quotation marks disappear and the terms are treated as unproblematic (Bacchi and Eveline 2010: 13). You may have noticed the same thing happening in this entry. Such a practice, we argue, envisions and allows a “politics of movement”, which starts from the premise that “knowledge” is always political. This stance relies upon willingness to self-identify as critical researchers, with the decisions about when to fix or stipulate meanings and when to unfix meanings dependent upon reflexive judgement about the political exigencies of the particular situation.

The question, in our view, is not whether to fix meaning – since for a range of reasons fixing must occur – but when to fix meaning and who to involve in the “fixing” exercise. The task, as we describe it, is to formulate guiding principles for this inevitably political process. This suggestion resonates with Elisabeth Prügl’s (2016) call to formulate “feminist ethical principles” concerning “How to Wield Feminist Power”, with a particular emphasis on reflexivity (which I prefer to describe as self-problematisation; see Research Blog entries 21 October and 5 November 2018).

While engaging with these debates, I have been struck by the way in which the term “feminist” is used, often with an assumption that its meaning is clear and indeed fixed (settled). I pursue this topic in a subsequent entry.


Bacchi, C. and Eveline, J. 2010. Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory.Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.

Bonham, J., Bacchi, C. and Wanner, T. 2015. Gender and Cycling: Gendering cycling subjects and forming bikes, practices and spaces as gendered objects. In J. Bonham and M. Johnson (eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, pp. 179-202. (Available as a free download from publisher’s website).

Chetkovich, C. 2019. How non-binary gender definitions confound (already complex) thinking about gender and public policy, Journal of Public Affairs Education, DOI: 10.1080/15236803.2018.1565050

Prügl, E. 2016. How to Wield Feminist Power. In M. Bustelo, L. Ferguson and M. Forest (eds) The Politics of Feminist Knowledge Transfer: Gender Training and Gender Expertise. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Westbrook, L. and Schilt, K. 2014. Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System. Gender & Society.  28(1): 32-57.

Why “gendering”?

In the previous entry (31 May 2019) I suggested the usefulness of gendering as a concept. An earlier entry (11 February 2018) introduced this topic. In this brief contribution I summarize the intent of this conceptual intervention (as I use it), preparing the ground for two subsequent entries on dilemmas associated with this position: first, how to operationalize a gendering concept in research; and, second, the relationship between gendering and claims about feminism.

In a recent article (Bacchi 2017) I make a first attempt to clarify the many ways in which feminist researchers deploy the concept “gendering”. I have found additional uses since that article. For simplicity’s sake it is useful to identify two trends in this literature: first, interventions by researchers to insist that a particular phenomenon needs to be understood as displaying “gendered” characteristics (as an example, see Staudt, “Gendering development”, 2008); and, second, interventions that use gendering to refer to how social practices, including policy practices, produce “women” and “men”. I use the term in this second sense.

To repeat a point I have made on several occasions, my comments on “gendering” as a concept do not reflect a conviction that I am offering the one, correct definition of gendering. Rather, I think it is important to be clear about the political intent of specific adaptations of the term. To talk about “gendering” to refer to how social practices produce “women” and “men” offers a political attempt to challenge gender binaries, including male/female, man/woman, boy/girl, masculine/feminine. The grounds for this challenge are that such binaries impose unacceptable and harmful boundaries on forms of human interacting.

This stance is associated with a poststructural view that political subjects are beings in process rather than fixed or essential types/entities – described as an ontology of becoming rather than an ontology of being. Many poststructuralists find it helpful to replace nouns with verb forms as a strategy for displacing essences. Gerunds, produced by adding “ing” to a noun, constitute one such verb form.  Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, p. 100) offers the example of “bordering” (van Houtum 2005). When one talks about bordering rather than borders one draws attention to the practices involved in producing things called borders. In this way it becomes possible to highlight or make visible the politics – the heterogeneous relations – involved in producing geopolitical entities.

To apply this thinking to “women” and “men” through the concept of gendering is a challenging exercise since the common distinction between male and female biological entities is longstanding and ingrained in many cultures. In The Politics of Affirmative Action (Bacchi 1996, p.4) I make the simple point that, if these categories are common-sensical, one needs to wonder at the amount of effort expended in reinforcing them. More significantly, of course, transgender and intersex positions pose important challenges to conventional gender distinctions.

Brought to the policy domain, a gendering analysis examines policies as productive of gender. Policies are treated as social practices involved in the production of the categories of “women” and “men”.  Westbrook and Saperstein (2015) make a useful contribution on this point.  They show how social surveys are “gendering” in the ways in which sex/gender categories are applied to respondents, both directly and indirectly, through the forms of question asked (about grandsons and granddaughters, for example) and through gendered pronouns. The poststructural position makes the case that in these instances gender is not only attributed to subjects; rather, such practices take part in the ongoing constitution of “women” and “men”. This position is developed in the WPR argument that policies produce “subjects”, alongside “problems”, “objects” and “places” (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016).

As an example, according to a 2017 OECD Report, women at home looking after their children represent “the greatest untapped potential” in Australia’s workforce ( The Report concluded that the Australian economy might continue to suffer unless “stay-at-home mothers are encouraged back to work”.  Encouraging “stay-at-home mothers” into paid labour appears to challenge conventional gendered domestic roles. However, because the Report pays no attention to how caring responsibilities will be carried out (a silence), the presumption is that those marked as “women” will continue to perform these responsibilities. The Report therefore almost counter-intuitively constitutes “women” as carers; it impels those marked as “women” to fulfill expected obligations and so genders [verb] them.

The political implications of this stance are far-reaching. Such an argument means that, instead of asking how particular policies impact on women and men, as assumed categories, we, as researchers, ask what I call the “gendering question” – how policies and policy research produce “women” and “men” as particular sorts of being. For a helpful illustration of how research and policy are gendering practices that take part in the co-constitution of gender binaries, see Moore et al., 2017.

Such a focus on the constitutive effects of policies entails the need to also ask questions about policies as racializing, heteronorming, third-worldizing, disabling, classing, etc. (Bacchi 2017). In each case the emphasis is on how policies produce realities rather than the conventional view of policies as reactions to assumed “problems”, creating a whole new agenda for policy research.

The next entry considers the challenges such a theoretical position poses for policy development and research.


Bacchi, C. 1996. The Politics of Affirmative Action: “Women”, Equality and Category Politics.London: Sage.

Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bacchi, C. 2017. Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions, Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 38:1, 20-41.

Moore, D., Fraser, S., Keane, H., Seear, K. & Valentine, K. 2017. Missing Masculinities: Gendering Practices in Australian Alcohol Research and Policy”. Australian Feminist Studies, 32(93): 309-324.

Staudt, Kathleen. 2008. “Gendering Development.” In Politics, Gender, and Concepts: Theory and Methodology, eds. G. Goertz and A. Mazur. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 136–56.

van Houtum, H. 2005. The geopolitics of borders and boundaries. Geopolitics, 10: 672-679.

Westbrook, L. and Saperstein, A. 2015. New Categories are Not Enough: Rethinking the Measurement of Sex and Gender in Social Surveys. Gender & Society. 29(4): 534-560.