Sociotechnical imaginaries and WPR: Exploring connections

INTRODUCTION

As signalled in the last entry (26 Oct 2022), today’s contribution addresses a concept that is attracting a good deal of attention in social and political theory – “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Rudek 2022). 

To deal adequately with this wide-ranging topic of “sociotechnical imaginaries”, I introduce a novel format. In the first section of this entry I offer introductory comments on “sociotechnical imaginaries” and raise several questions about its possible usefulness as a concept in tandem with WPR. The subsequent section consists of contributions from three Symposium participants who found merit in bringing WPR and “sociotechnical imaginaries” into conversation (Svea Kiesewetter, Lina Rahm, Johanna Tangnäs). I hope that opening up an exchange of views on this topic proves useful to readers.

To begin I follow the convention of offering a definition of “sociotechnical imaginaries” from Sheila Jasanoff, who is commonly associated with the development of the concept.  She describes “sociotechnical imaginaries” as

“Collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.” (Jasanoff 2015: 6). 

It is useful to note that this definition offers a reworking of an earlier definition that associated sociotechnical imaginaries with nation-states: “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009: 120; emphasis added).  

I raise this point because I want to flag my concern with tendencies for the concept (“sociotechnical imaginaries”) to homogenize belief systems. Both the earlier and later definitions refer to “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “collectively imagined”. An important question that arises, I believe, is just exactly what “collective” is at work in these “imaginings”.  

In relation to this question Jasanoff (2015: 18; emphasis added) associates her identified imaginaries with “the distinctive political and constitutional cultures … of sovereign nations and their polities”. She and Kim (2013: 190; emphasis added) refer, for example, to “the American sociotechnical imagination”. 

This invocation of “political culture” as a “source” of “sociotechnical imaginaries” requires further analysis, in my view. Elsewhere (Bacchi 1996: 35-37) I offer a genealogy of “political culture” in an attempt to disrupt this tendency to take “political cultures” for granted as ways of characterizing the belief systems of groups of people/citizens. To this end I trace references to a distinctive, univocal American political culture to the emergence of the concept “political culture” in the 1920s. The term gained appeal as a way to smooth over concerns about American’s instability in a time of strikes, riots and protests. 

Tracing this genealogy of the emergence of the concept “political culture” shows us that “political culture” is not a thing; it is a political category and a concept that has effects – here conveying the impression of national homogeneity, which Fabian (1983: 156) labels a kind of “panculturalism” homogenizing dissent. Any suggestion that “sociotechnical imaginaries” find their origins in national political cultures, therefore, raises a question about the way in which the term may suppress recognition of contestation of the assumed norms in any selected imaginary.

In the elaboration of the later definition, Jasanoff (2015: 5) identifies groups other than nation-states that can produce “sociotechnical imaginaries” – corporations, social movements and professional societies.  She spells out how an imaginary can also “originate in the visions of single individuals” but rises to the status of an imaginary “only when the originator’s vision comes to be communally adopted” (Jasanoff 2015: 5). Again, the tendency in this analysis to produce a homogenous body of beliefs needs some comment. Jasanoff acknowledges the possibility of multiple imaginaries coexisting within a society; however, tensions within any identified imaginary tend to be unexamined. 

Here it is important to reflect on theoretical connections to Charles Taylor’s work on “social imaginaries”, which Jasanoff readily acknowledges. Prefiguring Jasanoff, Taylor notes that what begins as “just an idea in the minds of some influential thinkers”, later comes to “shape the social imaginary of large strata and then eventually whole societies” (Taylor 2004: 2 in Blattberg 2006: 2). Taylor’s goal is clear – to gain access to the self-expressions of a community. This hermeneutical focus sits uncomfortably with WPR where the views or self-expressions of “subjects” are not a target of analysis (see Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982).

Jasanoff (2015) positions “sociotechnical imaginaries” between two important literatures, the construction of imaginaries in political and cultural history (referring to Taylor) on one side and of sociotechnical systems in STS (thinking of Actor Network theory) on the other side. She turns to the latter to illustrate that “sociotechnical imaginaries” do not simply target “ideas” as fantasies, but that “sociotechnical imaginaries” have material effects. 

It is in relation to this argument that a link is drawn to performativity theory. The widely used definition of “sociocultural imaginaries” (quoted above) includes, as a criterion for imaginaries, that they are publicly performed. In the last two entries in the Research Hub (29 Sept 2022, 26 Oct 2022) I have been exploring the various uses of “performativity” in contemporary social and political theory. Here I would suggest that the focus on public performance in Jasanoff and Kim marks quite a different form of intervention from the focus in WPR on “performatives” as constitutive (see Bacchi Keynote Address, 17 August 2022,  https://kauplay.kau.se/media/t/0_mdcx7ijc).

At the same time, however, Jasanoff and Kim (2013: 190) describe “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “forces” that impel social change. They note: “Though never strictly determinative of policy outcomes, sociotechnical imaginaries are powerful cultural resources that help shape social responses to innovation”. While this dynamic could be described as “performative” I remain concerned about the tendency to produce “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “things” that make things happen. To achieve this effect, as noted earlier, tensions and divisions about the content of any particular social vision tend to be bypassed. 

Please note that I am not saying that one version or meaning of performativity is correct, but that different meanings reflect different theoretical traditions. These traditions need to be mapped so that contrasts in perspective can be identified. This focus, I suggest, puts the onus on researchers to develop in some detail just what makes up a “sociotechnical imaginary” and where “it”/”they” come from. 

The three Symposium papers (Kiesewetter, Rahm, Tangnäs ) on the topic offer different ways to make “sociotechnical imaginaries” a useful part of a WPR analysis. Other authors have developed other possible conjunctures of the two approaches (Høydal and Haldar 2022; Germundssen 2022). Hagbert et al. (2020) use WPR to interrogate “sociocultural imaginaries”, raising questions about deep-seated epistemological and ontological assumptions within “imaginaries” (i.e. asking Question 2 in WPR). In this way they illustrate a point I have made elsewhere (Bacchi 2018: 7) – that it is possible and useful to apply the WPR questions to concepts (here “sociotechnical imaginaries”) since they are (in effect) proposals about how we ought to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207). In our Symposium paper, Anne Wilson and I illustrate the usefulness of applying WPR to concepts in our critical analysis of the concept of “underlying health conditions”, a phrase frequently invoked in considerations of the impact of COVID 19. Applying WPR to concepts in this way, I suggest, facilitates a much-needed critical interrogation of the concept “sociotechnical imaginaries”.

In summary I suggest that the points I raise in these brief comments ought to be addressed when considering theoretical linkages between “sociotechnical imaginaries” and WPR. Are “sociotechnical imaginaries” part of a hermeneutic philosophical tradition and, if so, how is this stance compatible with Foucault’s challenge to hermeneutics? Relatedly, how is the “subject” conceptualized in “sociotechnical imaginaries” and how does this view sit in relation to the anti-humanist stance in Foucault and WPR (Patton 1989)? Finally, is there a tendency in studies of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to homogenize belief systems in ways that may undercut resistance practices? If so, what has been done or what can be done about this potentially anti-political tendency? And finally, if we decide to employ the concept “sociotechnical imaginaries”, are there benefits to be gained through subjecting the term to a WPR analysis (see Hagbert et al 2020)?

[Should you wish a copy of my and Anne Wilson’s Symposium paper on “underlying health conditions”, please send me an email:  carol.bacchi@adelaide.edu.au] 

References

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

Bacchi, C. 2018. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 1-14.

Bacchi, C. 2022. Keynote address:  The WPR approach: Key premises and new developments. See : https://kauplay.kau.se/media/t/0_mdcx7ijc

Blattberg, C. 2006. Reason or Art? Review of Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, 45(1): 183-185.

Dreyfus, H. L. and Rabinow, P. 1982. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. NY: Routledge. 

Fabian, J. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. NY: Columbia University Press.

Germundsson, N. 2022. Promoting the digital future: the construction of digital automation in Swedish policy discourse on social assistance, Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2021.2022507

Hagbert, P., Wangel, J. and Broms, L. 2020. Exploring the Potential for Just Urban Transformations in Light of Eco-Modernist Imaginaries of Sustainability. Urban Planning, 5(4): 204-216.

Høydal, Ø. S. and Haldar, M. 2022. A tale of the digital future: Analyzing the digitalization of the Norwegian education system. Critical Policy Studies, 16(4). 

Jasanoff, S. 2015. One. Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity”. In S. Jasanoff and S-H Kim (Eds) Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015: 1-33. https://doi.org/10.7208/9780226276663-001

Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.-H. 2009. Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear 

regulation in the U.S. and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2): 119–146.

Jasanoff, S. & Kim, S-H 2013. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and National Energy Policies. Science as Culture, 22:2, 189-196, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2013.786990 

Patton, P. 1989. Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom. Political Studies, 37: 260-276. 

Rudek, T. J. 2022. Capturing the invisible. Sociotechnical imaginaries of energy. The critical overview. Science and Public Policy, 49: 219-245. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scab076

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

Taylor, C. 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.  

COMMENTARY

‘The imaginary’, as a theoretical concept, has gained a lot of attention, from a variety of disciplines, over the last decades (Anderson, 2006; Castoriadis, 1997; Flichy, 2007; Gaonkar & Povinelli, 2003; Levitas, 2013; Taylor, 2004). Perhaps not surprisingly then, its meaning has also differed (see, Strauss, 2006), from a fantasy (as for Lacan) to a cultural ethos (as for Castoriadis), to what Taylor describes as that which “enables, through making sense of, the practice of society” (2004, p. 2). 

Sociotechnical imaginaries (STI) have become an important trajectory in Science and Technology Studies (STS), often crediting Jasanoff’s definition. This definition emphasizes collective visions of desirable and attainable futures, but it is important to acknowledge that the meaning of technology is also historically embedded and contingent on time-and-culture-specific paths of development. One could also say that sociotechnical imaginaries are an integral part of any development of technical systems (Flichy, 2007). Thinking with Flichy, sociotechnical imaginaries differ from Jasanoff’s definition slightly since sociotechnical imaginaries are not only supported and attainable via technological innovation, but constitute integral parts of the materiality of technology. As such, advances in science and technology do not happen in isolation, but are always already part of sociotechnical imaginaries. In this definition, sociotechnical imaginaries resemble Winner’s (1980) argument on how technology is political – through design affordances or by being compatible with a certain political system (and not others). This does not mean that subjective intentions necessarily shape sociotechnical imaginaries, but that the design process includes working towards ‘negotiated’ solutions.

In this post we say that regardless of which of these definitions of sociotechnical imaginaries you choose, these analytical perspectives can contribute to each other. For example, STI can shed light on dimensions of future-oriented and technical-material character in problem representations identified and analyzed within the WPR approach. Working with sociotechnical imaginaries can help the researching subject in two distinct ways: firstly, by illuminating aspects of the underlying assumptions in the problem representations that could otherwise be missed. These aspects are theoretical, concerning the function of collectively imagined futures in policy making, as well as empirical due to the focus on specific technical and material dimensions that the concept includes. In this way, sociotechnical imaginaries as an analytical tool can contribute to the exploration of latent aspects in a WPR study. Secondly, we would like to stress the potential usefulness of working the other way around: applying WPR questions to (a specific) sociotechnical imaginary, interrogating its constitution and rationalities. We believe that there are several gains to be made here, that these analytical constructs can be useful together. Having said this, we also identify challenges and acknowledge the tensions exemplified by Carol Bacchi in her text above. We will start by presenting some thoughts on how sociotechnical imaginaries could be useful for a WPR-analysis, as well as the other way around. Finally, we will try to respond to, or rather engage with, some of the questions posed by Carol Bacchi in the introduction to this post.

The second question in the WPR approach, about underlying assumptions and presuppositions in problem representations, can be challenging and difficult to grasp. Here social imaginaries (Castoriadis 1975; Taylor, 2004), as well as the concept sociotechnical, can contribute to the identification and function of these latent aspects. Tangnäs argues in her conference paper on regional policy on green industrial transition for the Karlstad Symposium on WPR (2022), that the promissory character of certain imaginaries can shape and re-produce what phenomena or practice gets perceived as thinkable, necessary or natural. Due to a strong tendency within regional development policy to favour technical and innovative solutions, the sociotechnical imaginary concept has a potential to be especially helpful in this case – for example, by pointing to the imperatives and aspirations connected to industry-driven technical innovations as desirable solutions for a continuous living planet. Another field that is growing increasingly technology-oriented all over the world is education policy, and Kiesewetter in her paper for the Karlstad Symposium (2022) analyses Swedish sociotechnical imaginaries (STI) in digital education policy. By approaching STIs through problem representations, the consensus surrounding digital data flows and their role in schooling is contested and unpacked. One of the main findings presented in the paper suggests a plurality of positions with regards to data flows in schooling, that are partially in tension, and influence how possibilities, capabilities, and impacts are imagined and realized.

Lina Rahm’s studies are in the same field, but she uses problematization and genealogy in order to explore the sociotechnical imaginaries of the digital citizen. In Educational imaginaries: governance at the intersection of technology and education (2021), Rahm highlights how educational imaginaries are always central to the general use and dissemination of technology. By starting in ‘thinginess’ (instead of in policy) and subjecting it to a WPR interrogation, she argues that we can unpack the materiality itself and see the power asymmetries that hide in technology as frozen policy. If one conceptualizes imaginaries as always already sociomaterial, we can use problematizations as a way to dismantle the social in the technical, imaginaries in materialities, and materialities in imaginaries.

Addressing Carol Bacchi’s concerns about unidentified tensions within sociotechnical imaginaries, the following will outline, expand and nuance the multiplicity of STIs and their political character. Multiple imaginaries can, and oftentimes do, coexist in a society, either in tension, or, as Jasanoff and Kim state, in a “productive dialectical relationship”. Tensions also arise during each of the four stages of “shaping” STIs (origins, embedding, resistance, and extension). In each phase, there is a certain tension between stability and change which possibly allows for a closer interrogation of these processes. Connecting back to the field of Science and Technology studies, where STIs are widely used, one central aspect is to explore how aspects come to be ordered in a particular way, how human and non-human actors are brought together in a particular arrangement of continuously changing relations. Due to this contingent nature, STS scholars (e.g., Woolgar & Lezaun, 2015) also highlight: if things could have been otherwise, they might still be otherwise. From this perspective, STS could be considered highly political and at the same time speculative and hopeful, as STS does not just describe how things have come to be the way they are, but also opens up possibilities for things being ordered in other ways, specifically the rearrangement of relations of power due to ever changing relations of human and non-human actors. Following this, STIs are not just ‘out there’, objectively existing, but performed and enacted, i.e. taken up, sustained, or transformed – and could be different.

Despite these opportunities and connections to STS, Jasanoff’s concept and application, as Carol Bacchi points out, have not been explored extensively. This criticism is in line with numerous STS researchers who have highlighted the narrow applications of sociotechnical imaginaries, which primarily focus on the perspectives of politicians, policymakers and other elites with little attention to the perspectives of local actors’ experience and situated practices (Smith & Tidwell, 2016; Levidow & Raman, 2020; Mager & Katzenbach, 2021). Overall, one could say that this use of STIs potentially privileges the process of the fourth step of STIs, the extension of STIs outwards, possibly because it is challenging to explore and pay fine-grained attention to ordinary people rather than the elites that influence STIs. From this perspective, a shift from the analysis of dominant STIs and elites towards more pluralized perspectives on contested meanings and power is requested. Therefore, re-orienting the concept STI through critical and ‘fresh’/ novel approaches, as done by Smith and Tidwell (2016) and Levidow and Raman (2020), can be a way forward. Applying WPR questions to STIs can broaden and at the same time resurrect what could be seen as a political base of STIs, which is a much needed and a timely spark for future directions.

In accordance with the concerns regarding tendencies for “sociotechnical imaginaries” being applied in ways that homogenise belief systems, Carol Bacchi is asking what “collective” is at work in these “imaginings”? As pointed out by Bacchi, Jasanoff (2015) writes from a more hermeneutic tradition, and is drawn to give pre-defined actors and concepts, such as “sociotechnical imaginaries”, agency. Therefore, even though coexisting imaginaries are acknowledged by Jasanoff as well as the STS researchers mentioned above, there are ontological differences between Bacchi’s WPR approach and Jasanoff’s development and usage of the “sociotechnical imaginaries” concept that become visible here. We agree that Taylor’s, and to a certain extent also Jasanoff´s, view of “the collective” resonates more with a hermeneutic view, while we also persevere in our stance that these analytical perspectives share enough resemblances in order to be able to contribute to each other in specific studies. Here STIs open up for different approaches and the researching subject can avoid giving “the imaginary” the status of a ‘thing’ with agency by treating “collectively imagined” rather as “often represented as”, but still keeping these representations as heavily future oriented and promissory. It could be fruitful to also turn to Brian Wynne (Wynne & Rommetveit 2017) in this matter as he offers a somewhat more open and less agency-oriented usage of the concept.

Another possible, but ontologically different, path forward can be to acknowledge the ‘thinginess’ about STIs as a starting point for WPR analysis, understood in Haraway’s (2016, p 104) sense as: “imploded entities, dense material semiotic “things”—articulated string figures of ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating relatings of particular sorts, not all the time everywhere, but here, there, and in between, with consequences”. The Internet, for example, is not (only) a ‘discourse’ or a ‘description’ or a ‘concept’; it is also a sociomaterial infrastructure that could be viewed as policy. 

As mentioned previously, there is a growing ambition to take on the more sociotechnical aspects of imaginaries when also using problematizations. We think that the theorizing on how WPR and STIs can contribute to each other can be taken further. Should anyone be interested in pursuing this topic, please contact the authors or send an email to Carol. Many thanks. Should you wish to receive a copy of one of the contributors’ Symposium papers, please contact the author.

Svea Kiesewetter: svea.kiesewetter@ait.gu.se

Lina Rahm: linarahm@kth.se

Johanna Tangnäs: johanna.tangnas@kau.se


[1] “Collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.” (Jasanoff, 2015, p. 6)

Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Castoriadis, C. (1997). The imaginary institution of society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Flichy, P. (2007). Internet Imaginaire. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gaonkar, D. P., & Povinelli, E. A. (2003). Technologies of public forms: Circulation, transfiguration, recognition.Public Culture, 15(3), 385-397.

Haraway, D.J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press

Levidow, L., & Raman, S. (2020). Sociotechnical imaginaries of low-carbon waste-energy futures: UK techno-market fixes displacing public accountability. Social Studies of Science50(4), 609–641. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312720905084

Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: the imaginary reconstitution of society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mager, A., & Katzenbach, C. (2021). Future imaginaries in the making and governing of digital technology: Multiple, contested, commodified. New Media & Society23(2), 223–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820929321

Rahm, L. (2021). Educational Imaginaries: Governance at the Intersection of Technology and Education. Journal of Education Policy. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2021.1970233

Rommetveit, K., & Wynne, B. (2017). Technoscience, imagined publics and public imaginations. Public Understanding of Science26(2), 133–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662516663057

 Smith, J. M., & Tidwell, A. S. (2016). The everyday lives of energy transitions: Contested sociotechnical imaginaries in the American West. Social Studies of Science46(3), 327–350.

 Strauss, C. (2006). The imaginary. Anthropological theory, 6(3), 322-344.

 Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121-136.Woolgar, S., & Lezaun, J. (2015). Missing the (question) mark? What is a turn to ontology? Social Studies of Science, 45(3), 462–467

Performing “performativity”: debates and concerns

In the last entry I introduced some of the literature around the concept “performativity”. It is not possible to cover all the issues and theoretical controversies raised in relation to this topic. I have selected several that I hope are relevant to your work.

I mentioned in the last entry that many theorists who adopt a performative perspective (and at times the language of “performativity”) distinguish their approach from “social construction”. Social construction marks a significant development in sociological thinking that can be traced back to Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality (1967). A distinction can be drawn between constructivism that sees the person as “actively engaged in the creation of their own phenomenal world”, and social constructionism, which emphasises the extent to which our understandings of the world are the product of social forces (Burr 2003: 19-20). In past publications I have distanced WPR from constructivism because of its reliance on a foundational subject who stands outside of and shapes “reality” (Bacchi 2015), a position inconsistent with poststructural premises. I linked WPR to constructionist premises, emphasising the role of socio-political processes in shaping forms of knowledge (Bacchi 1999; 2009: 33; see also Phillips 1995: 8). 

The shift in my work from constructionism towards a performative perspective, mentioned in the “Kick-off” presentation (Bacchi 2021) and in my Keynote address at the Symposium (Bacchi 2022), indicates a disquiet with the presumption in social constructionism that the world (as we know it) is constructed once and for all. The concern therefore is that social constructionism appears to fix “reality”, as is suggested in the “construction” metaphor. John Law, an important “performative” theorist, clarifies the issue: 

“We are no longer dealing with construction, social or otherwise; there is no stable prime-mover, social or individual, to construct anything, no builder, no puppeteer. … Rather we are dealing with enactment or performance. The metaphor of construction – and social construction – will no longer serve. Buyers, sellers, notice boards, strawberries, spatial arrangements, economic theories, and rules of conduct, all of these assemble and together enact a set of practices that make a more or less precarious reality.” (Law 2007; emphasis in original)

Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997), whom we met in the last entry, also favours performativity over constructionism. In Butler, sex and gender are “neither essences nor pure constructions” but “the contingent outcomes of the manner in which they are performed and reiterated” (Cochoy et al. 2010). Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 89) explains the shift to a performative perspective in relation to the “object” of “addiction”: 

“For some time sociologists have drawn attention to the cultural construction of the concept [“addiction”] (Room 1983; Gusfield 1996). A poststructural approach moves beyond social constructionism to focus on the practices involved in the production of ‘addiction’ as a particular kind of condition or disease in specific contexts. A prominent place is assigned to the role of governmental practices and technologies in this production … .” 

The next question is whether a performativity perspective delivers on this promise to move beyond cultural “fixity”. And, it seems – no surprise here – that the answer to this question depends on how performativity is conceptualised. This point is best illustrated in an exchange between Butler and Callon.

You may recall from the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022) that Callon’s (1998, 2009) position is that the discipline (or practice) of economics constitutes (or shapes) the economy. Butler (2010: 152) expresses reservations about Callon’s interpretation of this point. Her concern is the presumption in Callon that “performativity works” and “that we only trace the ways in which economic life is ‘made’”, which, in her view, assimilates performativity to “the notion of cultural construction”. By contrast, Butler (2010: 152) emphasises that “it is only under certain conditions, and with no degree of predictability that theoretical models successfully bring into being the phenomenon they describe”. Hence, there is space for “misfires” and “counterperformatives” (2010: 151). This debate between Callon and Butler is raised again later in relation to the kind of politics associated with a performative perspective.

A key issue here is what it means to say that something constitutes something else. For Butler (2010: 147) “performativity starts to describe a set of processes that produce ontological effects, that is, that work to bring into being certain kinds of realities”. In poststructural discourse theory, “a performative is that which enacts or brings about what it names” (de Goede 2006: 10). According to Brisset (2017) economists, such as Callon, do not use performative in this constitutive sense, despite their adoption of the terminology. Recall from the previous entry that Callon (2009) dismisses the idea in some interpretations of Austin that “language creates the world from scratch”. In his view, the analytic separation in Austin between illocutionary effects, which produce ontological effects and result in the constitution ex nihilo of new realities, and perlocutionary effects, the alteration of on-going situations, is “a difference of degree and not of nature” (Callon 2010: 165; see Austin 1962). To say that economics constitutes the economy, then, as Callon argues (1998, 2009), means something very different from poststructural arguments about how practices constitute “realities”.

Callon comes closer to a constitutive position when he discusses the production (or performance) of “economic agents”. As Lee (2014: 901) describes: “Because all actions are calculative, economics creates calculated actors (Callon 1998). Therefore, the economic man [homo economicus] is not a myth.” There are useful connections here with the focus in governmentality studies on subjectification processes – the “diverse techniques from multiple sources” that act on the body, the mind, and the will to make individuals, families, and collectivities “governable” (Ong 2003: 89; see Question 5 in WPR).

The place of the “subject” in performative theories is complicated by the common usage of “performance” in ways that describe conventional subject-actors as the originators of practices (think for example of theatre actors as “performers” and as “performing”). To avoid confusion on this point John Law (2004: 159) and Annemarie Mol (2002: 33), both associated with actor-network theory, have replaced the language of “performance” with the language of “enactment”. In their view, “enactment” removes the presumption of subject-actors and better captures the plurality of factors, human and non-human, involved in producing “realities”: 

“Events are made to happen by several people and lots of things. Words participate too. Paperwork, rooms, buildings, the insurance system. An endless list of heterogeneous elements that can either be highlighted or left in the background.” (Mol 2002: 25-26; see Schwertl 2016)

In performativity accounts, as Butler (2010: 151) describes them, “subjects” are constituted in practices and “the assumption of a ‘sovereign’ speaker is lost”. She follows Derrida in removing Austin’s focus on the speaking subject and “the authentic intentions of the speaker” (Gond et al. 2016: 10):

“performativity implies a certain critique of the subject, especially once it is severed from the Austinian presumption that there is always someone who is delegated to speak or that performative discourse has to take the form of discrete verbal enunciation.” (Butler 2010: 150; emphasis in original)

Given the proliferation of practices well beyond verbal utterances, the formation of one’s subjectivity is an ongoing and always incomplete process: “the doer/subject/person is never fixed, finally as a girl or a woman or whatever, but always becoming or being” (Jones 1997: 267).

These various incarnations of performativity and enactment lead to contrasting understandings of politics. On this topic, in a 2002 interview, Callon (Barry & Slater 2002: 301) made a claim that has provoked much debate: “What is very important is to abandon the critical position, and to stop denouncing economists and capitalists and so on. Instead, we need to engage with debates on specific markets” (see discussion in Brisset 2017).

Butler (2010: 153) expressed her misgivings: 

“But as much as I admire his breathtaking contributions to the field, I am hesitant to accept Michel Callon’s view that ‘it is very important to abandon the critical position’.”

She put the case that “the thesis of the performativity of economics and the embeddedness of the economy in economics” has “the effect of depoliticizing the question of the economy”. Callon (2010) replied that there are two ways in which his version of performativity is political: first, he identifies plural theoretical frameworks, allowing for democratic debate about which is preferable; second, he allows for failures and “misfires” that need addressing (Lee 2014). 

These allowances are deemed inadequate by Butler and others (see discussion in Lezaun 2017), because they appear to restrict critique to existing economic structures. Paul du Gay (2010), for example, questions the grounds for determining a “failure”. Schroter (2017: 252) asks: “When ‘a world is put in motion by the formula describing it’ (Callon 1998: 320), how then can “unexpected events” (Callon 1998: 326) appear?” Butler (2010: 153) asks pointedly if Callon’s position 

“means abandoning any effort to evaluate and oppose those multivalent operations of capitalism that augment income disparities, presume the functional necessity of poverty, and thwart efforts to establish just forms for the redistribution of wealth”.

Butler’s comment highlights a key area of concern around performativity and indeed around other constitutive approaches. Is it possible in these accounts to adopt a normative position and/or to promote a specific reform agenda? According to Schwertl (2016) a shift has occurred among actor-network theorists from looking at “stabilizing and closing processes” (cf Callon 1986) to focusing on “transformative, fluid aspects of actor-networks” (Verran 2001; Mol 2002). Lezaun (2017) also detects evidence of a shift towards normativity and the positive identification of values in at least some actor-network accounts. He mentions as an example Annemarie Mol’s (2013) elaboration of the concept of the “ontonorm” in her studies of diet and eating.

I have discussed the issue of normativity in WPR in a previous entry (30 April 2019). There I draw on Kelly’s (2018: 2; emphasis added) helpful distinction between an “inflationary” understanding of normativity as broad value commitments, and a “much stricter definition of the ‘normative’ … which takes it as merely a by-word for prescription, which is to say for ‘oughts’”. While a broad or “inflationary” normativity is clearly at work in Question 5 of WPR, as an analytic strategy, WPR does not prescribe specific reforms. This refusal to engage in telling people “what is to be done” (Foucault 1991: 84) reflects a concern that reform programs, our own included, often buy into problematic premises that need highlighting and questioning. As Wendy Brown (1998: 44) explains, the kind of poststructural approach offered here: 

“aims to make visible why particular positions and visions of the future occur to us, and especially to reveal when and where those positions work in the same register of ‘political rationality’ as that which they purport to criticize.”

The commitment in WPR to engage in self-problematization (Step 7) aims to contribute to this task, to render “problematic, difficult, dangerous” those acts, gestures, discourses “which up until then [they] had seemed to go without saying” (Foucault 1991: 84).

To return to the task set in the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022), what do I mean when I say that policies produce (or enactconstitute, or even perform) “problems” as particular sorts of problems? This way of describing this key premise in WPR (see Bacchi 2022) can be set in opposition to accounts that focus on people’s competing views or interpretations of the “problem”. The point is to draw attention to the shaping impact of problem representations, to emphasize how policies create rules that play a part in shaping people’s lives. They thus change the existing order in important ways and hence are constitutive: they (help to) form the “realities” through which we are governed (see Bacchi 2012). 

In this view, “representations do not imitate reality but are the practices through which things take on meaning and value …” (Shapiro 1988: xi). They form part of an “active, technical process” of governing (Rose and Miller 1992: 185). A problem representation therefore is not some image of “reality”; it is the way in which a particular policy “problem” is constituted as the real (Bacchi 2012: 151). 

These processes are ongoing and contestable rather than determined. Miller and Rose (1990: 1) describe “government” as a “congenitally failing operation”, which means that there have to be continuous and repeated efforts to shape citizen behaviours. Aitken (2006) makes the same point in relation to “the economy”: 

“Instead of some monolith—the economy —understood to ‘drive’ social conditions and lives, a myriad of micropractices requires repetition on a regular basis to ‘enact’ social relations. The need for repetition confirms the contingency of those relations and opens up the possibility of challenge and change.” 

Rose-Redwood and Glass (2015: 12) make this point succinctly:

“Representations are performative – they are interventions, doings, happenings, events, embodied forms of conduct, all of which may have effects beyond the meaning of what is said: yet none of which is guaranteed from the outset. The act of representation is inextricably bound up with competing claims to social and political authority.”

In this understanding, while governmental practices might elicit specific types of subjects (Introna 2016), refusal is commonplace (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 50). Because discourses are plural, complex, and inconsistent practices, “subject positions” are neither mandatory nor determinative. As Inda (2005: 10-11) remarks, “Individuals can and do negotiate the processes to which they are subjected”. Subjectification effects therefore are neither determined nor predictable (Bacchi 2017). 

This and the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022) on “performativity” highlight the challenges involved in choosing a language to capture our political visions and assessments. Concepts come into vogue and slip from favour. It becomes useful therefore to notice the concepts we use, to be aware of their origins and associations, and to subject them to critical analysis. Because concepts are proposals about how to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207) it is possible to apply the WPR questions to those concepts – that is, to ask of our concepts just what they propose, what assumptions underlie those aims/goals, where they come from, what they consider relevant, what is left out of the analysis, and the implications that follow from a particular way of conceptualizing socio-political relations. Hopefully it is possible to see that these questions have guided my preliminary forays into reflecting on the contested topic of “performativity”.  

Along these lines, Rose-Redwood and Glass (2015) produce a helpful genealogical account of performativity theory.  Carlson (2008) also offers a useful genealogy of “performance”.  (My thanks to Matthieu Floret for these references). 

Next time I hope to pick up the thread of “performativity” in relation to a concept that attracted a good deal of attention at the recent (17-18 August 2022) Symposium in Karlstad, “sociotechnical imaginaries” (SIs). 

REFERENCES

Aitken, R. 2006. Performativity, popular finance and security in the global political economy. In M. de Goede (Ed.), International political economy and poststructural politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems.London: Sage.

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

Bacchi, C. 2012. Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice. In A. Bletsas & C. Beasley (Eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 141-156.

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. 2017. Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions. Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, 38(1): 20-41.  

Bacchi, C. 2021. Introducing WPR: A work in progress. At: https://www.kau.se/files/2021-10/BACCHI%20KICKOFF%20PRESENTATION_1.pdf.

Bacchi, C. 2022. The WPR approach: Key premises and new developments. Keynote address at International Symposium in Karlstad (17-18 August). At:  https://kauplay.kau.se/media/t/0_mdcx7ijc

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

Barry, A. & Slater, D. 2002. Technology, politics and the market: an interview with Michel Callon. Economy and Society, 31(2): 285-306. 

Berger, P. L. and Luckman, T. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books.

Brisset, N. 2017. The Future of Performativity. Œconomia 

History, Methodology, Philosophy, 7(3).  

Brown, W. 1998. Genealogical Politics. In J. Moss (ed.) The Later Foucault: Politics and Philosophy. London: Sage. pp. 33-49.  

Burr, V. 2003. Social Constructionism, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, London, Routledge. 

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that matter. London, Routledge.


Butler, J. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. NewYork: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2010. Performative Agency. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2): 147-161.

Callon, M. 1986. Some Elements For A Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St-Brieuc Bay.” In J. Law (Ed.) Power, action and belief: a new sociology of knowledge? London: Routledge. pp. 196-223.  

Callon, M. 1998. The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell.

Callon, M. 2009. Elaborating the notion of performativity. Le Libellio d’AEGIS, 5 (1): 18-29. hal-00460877

Callon, M. 2010. Performativity, Misfires and Politics. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2): 163-169.

Carlson, M. 2008. Introduction: Perspectives on performance: Germany and America. In E. Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A new aesthetics. NY: Routledge. 

Cochoy, F., Giraudeau, M. and McFall, L. 2010. Performativity, economics and politics: an overview. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2): 139-146.

de Goede, M. 2006. Introduction: International Political Economy and the Promises of Poststructuralism. In M. de Goede (Ed.) International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1-20.

du Gay, P. 2010. Performativities: Butler, Callon and the Moment of Theory. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2): 171-179.

Foucault, M. 1991. Questions of Method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 73-86.

Gond, J-P., Cabantous, L., Harding, N. and Learmonth, M. 2016. What Do We Mean by Performativity in Organizational and Management Theory? The Uses and Abuses of Performativity. International Journal of Management Reviews, 18(4), pp. 440-463. doi: 10.1111/ijmr.12074  

Gusfield, J. 1996. Contested meanings: The construction of alcohol problems.Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Inda, J. 2005. Analytics of the modern: An introduction. In J. Inda (Ed.), Anthropologies of modernity: Foucault, governmentality and life politics. Malden: Blackwell.

Introna, L. D. 2016. Algorithms, Governance, and Governmentality: On Governing Academic Writing. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41(1): 17-49. 

Jones, Alison. 1997. Teaching Post-structuralist Feminist Theory in Education: Student Resistances. Gender and Education, 9 (3): 261–69. 

Kelly, M. 2018. For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.  

Law, J. 2004. After Method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge. 

Law, J. 2007. Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics, version of 25 April 2007, available at http://www. heterogeneities. net/publications/Law2007ANTandMaterialSemiotics.pdf.

Lee, M. 2014. On Becoming an Exchange: Translating Michel Callon into a Political Economy of Communication. tripleC, 12(2): 891-908. 

Lezaun, J. 2017. Actor-Network Theory. In C. Benzecry, M. Krause and I. Reed (Eds) Social Theory Now. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mäki, U. 2013. Performativity: Saving Austin from MacKenzie. In 

V. Karakostas and D. Dieks (eds), EPSA11 Perspectives and Foundational Problems in Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Springer, 443–453. 

Miller, P., & Rose, N. 1990. Governing economic life. Economy and Society, 19 (1), 1–31.

Mol, A. 2002. The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Mol, A. 2013. “Mind Your Plate! The Ontonorms of Dutch Dieting.” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 379–96.

Ong, A. 2003. Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Phillips, D. C. 1995. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The many faces of constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7): 5-12. 

Room, R. 1983. Sociological aspects of the disease concept of alcoholism. In R. Smart (Ed.), Research advances in alcohol and drug problems. New York and London: Plenum Press.

Rose, N. & Miller, P. 1992. Political power beyond the state: Problematics of government. The British Journal of Sociology, 43(2): 173-205.

Rose-Redwood, R. and Glass, M. R. 2015. “Introduction: Geographies of Performativity”. In M. R. Glass and R. Rose-Redwood (Eds) Performativity, Politics and the Production of Social Space. NY: Routledge. 

Schröter, J. 2017. Performing the economy, digital media & crisis. A Critique of Michel Callon. In M. Leeker, I. Schipper & T. Beyes (Eds) Performing the Digital: Performance Studies and Performances in Digital Cultures. Bielefeld: transcript 2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/1159. 

Schwertl, M. 2016. “We have a situation here!”: On Enactment as a Middle Ground between Practice and Performance. Cultural Analysis, 15(1): 168-177.

Shapiro, M. J. 1988. The Politics of Representation: Writing Practices in Biography, Photography and Policy Analysis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 

Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon & M. Whitford (Eds), Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. NY: Routledge. Verran, H. 2001. Science and an African Logic. Chicago: University Press.

Performing “performativity”: What is at stake?

In my “kick off” presentation in October 2021, I mentioned briefly a shift in my theoretical elaboration of the WPR approach, over the last decade or so, from a constructionist to a performative emphasis (https://www.kau.se/files/2021-10/BACCHI%20KICKOFF%20PRESENTATION_1.pdf).

I explained that “In a performative understanding, problem representations are not (simply) competing conceptions or understandings of a “problem”; rather, they form the “realities” through which we are governed (see Bacchi 2012).” 

It is time to explore in more detail what this shift entails. To undertake this task, this and the subsequent entry will review the extensive literature on “performativity” and introduce some of the debates the topic has generated. I should note that, generally, I do not use the language of performativity in my work and prefer other terms, such as “produce”, “enact”, “constitute”, “create”, “make (and unmake)” and, of course, “represented” – for reasons explained later. Our interest in this entry is in what this cluster of terms is intended to convey, which I’m happy to describe as a performative perspective, rather than in the words themselves.

As a starting point I wish to recall Tanesini’s (1994) argument that concepts have no fixed meaning but rather are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here. The terminologies we adopt, therefore, represent attempts to capture and to reflect our political visions and assessments, and to offer useful understandings of our current predicaments. Elsewhere, I describe these terminologies as “conceptual strategic interventions” (Bacchi 2012: 152). 

I see this entry and the subsequent one, therefore, as efforts to explain more clearly what I mean when I say that “policies produce ‘problems” as particular sorts of problems”, and what it means to say that policies make (or enact) “subjects”, “objects” and “places” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). What political visions and assessments are these statements and key terms intended to convey? To forecast the argument, policies and other practices are seen to embrace or incorporate a specific approach and meaning that translate into and play a part in shaping people’s lives. They give substance and credibility to certain “objects”. They interrupt and interfere with subject formation. They put certain “places” on the map. These effects can best be traced through analysing how policies are implicitly problematizing technologies, which is the purpose of a WPR analysis.

It is important to note that the language of performativity appears in different disciplines, including anthropology and literary theory, with different meanings (Breljak & Kersting 2017). The term is also commonly associated with a mode of state regulation that “requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluation” (Ball 2003), and with developments in management practices, such as “performance reviews” (see Research Hub entry 31 May 2022). Our particular focus here is the theoretical interest in the topic among poststructural researchers in cultural and social studies, including economics and actor-network theory. In this broad field, at the risk of oversimplification, I identify two general meanings of “performativity”: first, to refer to the effects of a subject’s “utterances”; second, to refer to the effects of a broad range of practices, including research practices. 

The first of these meanings takes us to the linguist J. L. Austin, who is frequently referenced in writing on “performativity”. The proposition most commonly associated with Austin is that language is not purely descriptive of “reality”; rather, language does things (with links to “speech act” theory; Searle 1979). To quote Austin (1962: 12), “the issuing of an utterance is the performing of an action”. For example, when I say, “I promise to finish my work”, I am doing something – I am making a promise. Jackson indicates how this thinking poses a challenge to common conceptions of language and “reality” – “that linguistic acts don’t simply reflect a world but that speech actually has the power to make a world” (Jackson 2004: 2; emphasis in original).

Post-Austin, this form of thinking has been broadened to embrace a wide array of practices – that is, beyond verbal utterances: “Performativity started to become connected to every kind of act, that, when being committed, changes the existing order to a certain degree” (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 435). MacKenzie (2004: 305) describes this position as “generic performativity” because it has become “all pervasive”. In this account, performativity 

“… points to the fact that the categories of social life (gender is the prototype) are not self-standing, ‘natural’ or to be taken as given, but are the result of endless performances by human beings”.

In such practice accounts, “performativity” can be seen to counter a certain sort of positivism and essentialism. It invokes “the diverse materials involved in the putting together of various categories, objects, and persons” (du Gay 2010: 171). Reality becomes a product or effect of (repeated) acts (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 435). 

This position reflects an ontology of becoming, countering assumptions about the being of “things” that simply exist (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 15). An ontology of becoming is associated with what is referred to as “process thought” (Whitehead 1978), in which “relations do not connect (causally or otherwise) preexisting entities (or actors); rather, relations enact entities in the flow of becoming” (Introna 2016: 23; emphasis in original). As Law and Lien (2013: 366) describe, “There is no ordered ground separate from practices and their relations”. 

The question of what constitutes a practice is fraught, as discussed in previous entries on the “turn to practice” (30 Nov. 2019; 31 Dec. 2019). For our purposes, it is adequate to think of practices as ways of “intervening in the world and thereby of enacting one of its versions – up to bringing it into being” (Mol and Law 2006: 19).

Performativity scholars are particularly interested in the forms of intervention associated with research practices. Annemarie Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) signals this interest in her statement that “[M]ethods 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”. For Mol, knowledge is no longer treated primarily as referential, as a set of statements about reality, but as a practice that interferes with other practices to create realities (note the plural). You can recognize here the ontology of becoming described above, leading Mol to assert that researchers are inevitably involved in “ontological politics” (Mol 1999), i.e. the shaping of worlds. This clear challenge to the common view that research involves a search for (objective) knowledge about a pre-existing and singular reality calls for a rethinking of the purposes and goals of what we study and what we write. Aligned with this thinking, Fraser (2020) invites scholars to engage in “ontologically-oriented research”, setting out with a purpose to interfere with and shape realities in particular directions. 

The discipline (or practice) of economics features prominently in performativity studies, due largely to the contributions of Michel Callon. Callon (1998: 2; emphasis added) developed the “performativity of economics thesis”, which stated that “economics, broadly defined, performs, shapes and formats the economy, rather than observing how it functions”. He emphasized the multiple processes whereby economic formulae and tools take part in shaping the economy. In this account, economics does not explain the economy; it constitutes it.

With Latour, Callon is associated with actor-network theory, which emphasizes the place of non-human entities and artefacts, alongside human beings, in performative practices. As Law and Singleton (2000: 771; emphasis in original) describe, 

“the new performative approach tries to understand the role of everything in a performance, people and objects alike. Thus, actor-network theory says that humans and nonhumans perform together to produce effects.”

Callon (2009) dismisses the idea in some interpretations of Austin that “language creates the world from scratch”. Instead, he argues that “the signification and effectiveness of scientific statements cannot be dissociated from the socio-technical arrangements or agencements involved in the production of the facts that those same statements refer to”. This position signals some of the complexities involved in deciphering the variety of positions on performativity and what is at stake in different versions. We revisit Callon’s argument in the subsequent entry to highlight some of the issues that need to be considered.

In the remainder of this entry I offer several examples to illustrate how a performative perspective can be marshalled to examine the production of the “categories of social life” (MacKenzie 2004: 305). Following the chapters in Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016), I look briefly at the “making” of “subjects”, “objects” and “places”. In some instances (e.g. Butler to follow and Öjehag-Pettersson 2019) the language of performativity features prominently, while in others (Azbel et al. 2021) the term “performance” may not be paramount though the message is the same – that practices constitute “realities”. The ways in which a constitutive (performative) perspective is linked to studies of governing practices and governmentality will also be considered.

In Poststructural Policy Analysis (2016: Chapter 5), together with Sue Goodwin, I dedicate a chapter to analysing how policies make “subjects”. We draw on Judith Butler’s work on the performance of gender (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 29-30). We can see Austin at work in Butler’s analysis of the announcement at birth (in the old days!) that “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”.  By being called a name, Butler (1997: 2) explains, “one is also, paradoxically, given a certain possibility for social existence” (de Goede 2006: 9): “This very speech act is one of thousands of similar acts constituting our gender and thus our self-becoming, or what Butler has called subjectivity” (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 438 fn 1). 

To capture the focus on process and becoming in this production of “the subject”, Eveline and Bacchi (2010: 95; emphasis added) suggest referring to gender as a verb rather than as a noun, making gender an “inescapably gendering process” (see Research Hub 11 Feb. 2018; 30 June 2019; 31 July 2019; see also Bacchi 2017). To quote Butler (1990: 24), “gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be”. Challenging the presumed fixity of gender categories in this way opens up the possibility of gender fluid understandings and experiences. Whether or not constituted “subjects” are able to find space to challenge gendering processes is tackled in the next entry. 

“Objects” and “places” are commonly understood to be fixed entities. Such a view has important consequences for how governing takes place. Policies that presume the existence of “things” ignore or downplay the practices involved in their production. By contrast, focussing on how “things” are “made”, or “performed” into existence, opens up new opportunities for challenge and change. 

Azbel et al. (2021) analyse how methadone is produced as different objects in different sites and contexts in Kyrgyz prisons. Drawing on WPR the authors approach the “Government Program”, which provides the legislative basis for opioid addiction treatment administration in the Kyrgyz Republic, as a practical text (see Bacchi 2009: 34). In the Program, methadone is produced (or constituted) as a medicalized object for the prevention of HIV infection spread (Azbel et al. 2021: 4).  Looking further, the authors find in other government documents (a power point presentation) that methadone is constituted a form of governance, undermining informal prisoner governance mechanisms and restoring formal governance. It is this production of methadone-as-governance which the authors maintain explains the lack of uptake of methadone treatment due to prisoner opposition. 

Azbel et al. (2021) use the language of “enactment” and “constitute” more often than they do the language of “performance”. The terms work together to illustrate what I have chosen to call a “performative perspective” – a perspective that focuses on how “things” are produced in processes as opposed to approaching “things” or “problems” as simply waiting to be discovered. In this account, methadone is “not a pre-existing object being described” (Azbel et al. 2021: 5). Rather it is produced as a particular kind of object in specific sites through a combination of mechanisms and policy discourses. Given these different possible “objectivizations” (Azbel et al. 2021: 2), the critical task becomes deciding which “object” you may wish to encourage. This proposition raises political and normative questions, pursued in the next entry. 

Öjehag-Pettersson (2019) brings a performative perspective to his study of the governing of innovation spaces in sub-national regions in Sweden. The target of his analysis is numbers or, more precisely, “numerical devices”, including rankings and indices, and their role in “making such domains governable” (2019: 2). Drawing on the literatures of governmentality and the sociology of quantification, Öjehag-Pettersson argues that numerical devices, as “governmental technologies”, play a pivotal role in installing innovation spaces “that can be set up and governed according to the rationalities of global competition”.  

Öjehag-Pettersson’s analysis assists us in understanding the connection between what I have called the first meaning of performativity, which focuses on a subject’s “utterances”, and the second meaning, which attaches performative effects to a broad range of practices. Öjehag-Pettersson describes how, in his account, numerical devices operate like “speech acts” (Öjehag-Pettersson 2019: 7), and here he references Austin (1976; see Austin 1962). “Speech acts”, therefore, serve as a metaphor to explain other constitutive practices. As Öjehag-Pettersson describes, numerical devices are performative because they “do something to the context in which they are articulated”. Rather than inscribing a “pre-existing reality”, they help to shape “the object that is to be governed” (2019: 5):

“They are not exact representations of reality, nor neutral ways of classifying and grouping social phenomena. Rather, they are a part of the iterative practices that brings objects and subjects into being in what we call ‘the real’ (Butler, 1993)”. (Öjehag-Pettersson 2019: 7)

Whether numbers and statistics are simply hard facts arouses considerable debate. In this ongoing discussion, Öjehag-Pettersson (2019: 7) leans to the side of performativity, “where reality is understood to be produced through our social relations, among them measurement and ranking”. This argument resonates with the position Sue Goodwin and I develop in Poststructural Policy Analysis (2016: 96) that we need to consider how complex spatial relations are “made” into “entities”, such as “Europe” or “special economic zones”, and the effects that accompany the “creation” of these “entities”. 

A number of important themes have been left hanging in this entry and I intend to pursue them in the next entry: 

  1. How does a performative perspective relate to constructionism/constructivism?
  2. Is a performative perspective determinist? Does it close off the possibility of change and intervention?
  3. What kinds of politics are enabled through a performative perspective? Does normativity have a place in these forms of politics?

Each of these questions is directly relevant to WPR since the approach, as I have argued, adopts a performative or constitutive perspective. 

I’ll conclude the next entry with some reflections on language use, specifically on the selection of key terms, in political theory. 

References

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

Azbel, L., Bromberg, D. J., Dvoryak, S. and Altice, F. L. 2021. Addiction Treatment as Prison Governance: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Methadone Delivery in Kyrgyz Prisons. Contemporary Drug Problems, DOI: 10.1177/00914509211060723. 

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

Bacchi, C. 2012. Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (Eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 141-156.

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

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

Ball, S. J. 2003. The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity, Journal of Education Policy, 18 

(2), 215–228.

Breljak, A. & Kersting, F. 2017. Performativity: moving economics further?, Journal of Economic Methodology, 24:4, 434-440, DOI: 10.1080/1350178X.2017.1369652

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of ‘sex’. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1997. Excitable Speech: Contemporary Scenes of Politics. London: Routledge. 

Callon, M. 1998. The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell.

Callon, M. 2009. Elaborating the notion of performativity. Le Libellio d’AEGIS, 5 (1): 18-29. hal-00460877

de Goede, M. 2006. Introduction: International Political Economy and the Promises of Poststructuralism. In M. de Goede (Ed.) International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1-20.

du Gay, P. 2010. Performativities: Butler, Callon and the Moment of Theory. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2): 171-179.

Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. What are we mainstreaming when we mainstream gender? In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline, Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 87-109. 

Fraser, S. 2020. Doing ontopolitically-oriented research: Synthesising concepts from the ontological turn for alcohol and other drug research and other social sciences. International Journal of Drug Research, 82, August, 102610. 

Introna, L. D. 2016. Algorithms, Governance, and Governmentality: On Governing Academic Writing. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41(1): 17-49.

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Law, J. and Lien, M. E. 2013. Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology. Social Studies of Science, 43(3):363-378.

Law, J. and Singleton, V. 2000. Performing Technology’s Stories: On Social Constructivism, Performance, and Performativity. Technology and Culture, 41(4): 765-775. 

MacKenzie, D. 2004. The big, bad wolf and the rational market: portfolio insurance, the 1987 crash and the performativity of economics. Economy and Society, 33(3): 303-334.

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A Genealogy of “Data”

Several months ago, I took some time to reflect on important debates about the place of “data” in research and in governing practices (29 April 2022, 30 May 2022, 29 June 2022). While updating my research for the previous entry on genealogy (30 July 2022), I encountered Colin Koopman’s 2019 book, entitled: How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. The timing could not have been better! Therefore, allow me to introduce Koopman’s argument to you as a way of illustrating the contribution that a genealogical sensibility makes to political thinking. 

I was happy to find clear links between Koopman’s argument and the position I developed in the previous entries on data: first, that data is produced and second, that data is productive. The first theme refers not to how specific bits of “data” are identified and agglomerated, but rather to how “data” become conceptualized as inert bits of information. The second theme highlights how “data” produce us as particular kinds of subject. Both themes are central to Koopman’s book. 

At the same time Koopman’s book offers an extremely useful example of genealogy at work. The key principles of a genealogical sensibility are clearly laid out, and I will use them as a guide to my comments in this entry. First, start your analysis from a problem or concern in the present. Second, consider that everything has a history. Third, identity the practices involved in the production of key concepts and the emergence of the particular concern. Fourth, consider the consequences. Fifth, consider the openings for change. 

Thinking back to the previous entry on genealogy, you may recall that by a “problem in the present” Foucault means some concern animating the researcher’s analysis. So, what are Koopman’s concerns about “data”? These are clearly laid out in the blurb describing How We Became Our Data (2019). 

Koopman asks: 

“How did information come to be so integral to what we can do? How did we become people who effortlessly present our lives in social media profiles and who are meticulously recorded in state surveillance dossiers and online marketing databases? What is the story behind data coming to matter so much to who we are?” 

Koopman then is concerned by the plain fact that we find ourselves enrolled in a thousand databases. He asks: “Who could you be without your data points? What could you do?” (Koopman 2019: Preface).

Recalling that a prime purpose of genealogy is to encourage political subjects to reflect on what it means to be human (see previous entry) Koopman develops the notion of “the informational person”. His book relates the story of the becoming of this form of subject.

Importantly, Koopman’s focus is on how this “informational subject” is constituted. That is, the argument is not that data are mere externalia 

“from which we might detach our truer selves as we please, but are rather constitutive parts of who we can be. Who we are is therefore deeply interactive with data. We are cyborgs who extend into our data”. (Koopman 2019: 8) 

In a review of Koopman, McWhorter (2020) elaborates:

“We are population and census data, certainly, but more intimately, we are our vital statistics, our credit reports, our personality inventories, our insurance policies, our educational records, our fitbit badges, our Facebook and dating app profiles”. 

 In a Symposium on Koopman’s book (https://syndicate.network/symposia/philosophy/how-we-became-our-data/), Smith drives home the point:

“Depending on our data, a financial transaction will be approved or blocked, a college admission will be accepted or rejected, entrance to a building will be granted or denied, a job application will be successful or unsuccessful, a border will be crossed or not”.

 Now, this “informational subject”, like all political subjects, has a history (see previous entry), and the genealogist’s task is to trace this history. The focus becomes the practices that led to the production of the “informational person”. These practices form the substance of Koopman’s book. To produce a genealogy of the “informational person” Koopman brings his “historical sense” to some selected early moments of the trends that disturb him.

Koopman locates the emergence of informational personhood in the period from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s. He carefully selects examples to illustrate the “informationalization” of three aspects of identity:

first, documentary identity, illustrated in the development of birth certificates (1913); second, psychological identity, linked to the new data techniques for categorizing personality traits and measuring intelligence (1917); and third, racial identity, connected to new data techniques for real estate appraisal, such as redlining (1923).  

The informational subject thus was formed within a disparate array of administrative and technical practices of data collection, formatting, storage, and application. These practices, which highlight how governing takes place through numbers (Research Hub entry 30 May 2022), illustrate important links between genealogy and governmentality (Walters 2012). 

Koopman emphasizes the importance of providing “information” with a history. He explains that “accepting information as ahistorical facilitates our tendency to take information technologies as closed, locked and unchangeable”. Through his careful delineation of the development of birth certificates, personality tests and racial profiles he considers what could have been done differently: “we can find in that history a set of moments when data was not closed, but rather glaringly open to contestation and recomposition” (Koopman 2019: ix). 

Koopman proceeds to provide a history of “personality”, a term that is often taken-for-granted as revealing the “truth” about human development. He shows that “personality” was a new concept in the period he studies and how it came to be defined as a finite collection of measurable traits, which could be processed as data through algorithms. As McWhorter (2020) describes, according to Koopman, “personalities” are artifacts of information technology as much as they are the truths of ourselves: “they are both, simultaneously”, a point Koopman drives home forcefully.  

In terms of consequences, Koopman argues that our data have not defined us all in the same ways. “In those differences”, he says, “lies a whole terrain of power and politics” (Koopman 2019: 9). As an illustration of the costs associated with being “un-datified”, Koopman mentions the precarious position of the paperless, the undocumented, the sans papiers (Jørgensen 2012; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 104) – in his words, “the exception that proves the rule” (Koopman 2019: 9). 

In relation to openings for change, genealogical accounts such as Koopman’s show that the conditions which limit the present are contingently formed by extraordinarily complex historical processes (Koopman 2010: 119). The point of identifying this complexity is to eliminate overly simple causal explanations and to alert us to the multitude of factors impacting our lives – how we have got “here” from “there”. At the same time identifying the plural conditions shaping the present creates the possibility of thinking about what intervention in those processes could look like and what needs to be re-thought should change be desired. 

In the Symposium on his book (https://syndicate.network/symposia/philosophy/how-we-became-our-data/) Koopman raises the difficult question of how to resist “infopower”. He endorses Jennifer Forestal’s concern, expressed in the Symposium, that our complicity in the operations of infopolitical injustices poses the greatest challenge when it comes to the politics of data. Koopman expresses the hope that refocussing data politics around techniques of formatting would make those politics more tractable. This critique, in his view, should be largely aimed at experts and elites working in technocratic spaces, those who “build the information systems that form the basements beneath our lives” (Koopman 2019: 194). 

In terms of our research practices, Tamboukou and Ball (2003) offer some general comments on how the writing up of or writing about/around data may be deeply influenced by a genealogical sensibility. They emphasize that researchers have to become more critical about what counts as data and what does not. Specifically, they need to become more skeptical about how they locate the field of investigation and about how they choose key informants. 

To repeat a point made in the preceding entry, at some level, genealogical criticism is always self-criticism. And so, we can see how a genealogical sensibility, invoked in Question 3 of WPR, prompts a commitment to self-problematization (Step 7; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). It follows that, instead of approaching WPR as a collection of separate and separable questions, it becomes important to reflect on the ways in which its several forms of analysis constitute a way of thinking about how governing takes place. Exploring the purpose and intent of genealogy provides a useful starting point for such reflection.

REFERENCES

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

Jørgensen, M.B. (2012). Legitimizing policies: How policy approaches to irregu- lar migrants are formulated and legitimized in Scandinavia. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, 6 (2), 46–53.

Koopman, C. 2010. Historical Critique or Transcendental Critique in Foucault: Two Kantian Lineages. Foucault Studies, 8: 100-121.  

Koopman, C. 2019. How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

McWhorter, L. 2020. Colin KoopmanHow We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational PersonUniversity of Chicago Press, 2019, 269pp., $30.00 (pbk), ISBN 9780226626581.Philosophical Reviews.

Tamboukou, M. and Ball, S. J. 2003. Introduction: Genealogy and Ethnography: Fruitful Encounters or Dangerous Liaisons? In M. Tamboukou and S. J. Ball (Eds) Dangerous Encounters: Genealogy and Ethnography. NY: Peter Lang. pp 1-36.Walters, W. 2012. Governmentality: Critical Encounters. NY: Routledge

What is the place of genealogy in WPR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

Bacchi, C. 2015. Problematizations in Alcohol Policy: WHO’s “Alcohol Problems”. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42(2): 130-147. 

Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 13-26.

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

Foucault, M. (1977) [1971]. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 139-164.

Foucault, M. 1979. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (trans: Sheridan, A.). New York: Vintage/Random House.

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Tamboukou, M. 1999. Writing Genealogies: an exploration of Foucault’s strategies for doing research. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 20(2): 201-207. 

Tamboukou, M. and Ball, S. J. 2003. Introduction: Genealogy and Ethnography: Fruitful Encounters or Dangerous Liaisons? In M. Tamboukou and S. J. Ball (Eds) Dangerous Encounters: Genealogy and Ethnography. NY: Peter Lang. pp 1-36.

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