WPR, theory and politics


I ended the last entry with several important political issues that arise in the theoretical debates around the “ontological turn”. I noted, for example, that claiming that one’s research practices produce “realities” raises critical questions about how one decides on a particular research project. Just how does a researcher select a particular reality to create? There are links here to consideration of almost inevitable connections between researchers and governmental projects through funding processes (discussed in a subsequent Research Hub entry). According to Suzanne Fraser (2020: 8), “Here we have nothing but politics and ethics to guide us: we must ask which realities expand respect, understanding and inclusion, and which do not”. At the same time, some researchers express concern about the limitations of turning to ethics to answer always political questions (see Lemke 2018; Pellizzoni 2015: 9-10).

Relatedly, broad questions arise about the nature of critical inquiry. These questions can be traced back to Latour’s (2004) seminal article “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”. He wrote this article in the wake of the 1990s “science wars” that broke out over the questioning and de-realizing of scientific knowledges in early Actor-Network theory. Putting the legitimacy of scientific knowledge into question came to be seen as a deeply dangerous political project in the light of climate change and the claims of climate change deniers. Could we really afford to challenge the “truth” of science?

In response to this disquiet Latour denounced forms of radical critique that, in his view, tended to “totalize” and “demonize” proponents of scientific “truth”. With “matters of concern” Latour intended to “replace excessive critique and the suspicion of socio-political interests with a balanced articulation of the involved concerns” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 91). Latour targets for criticism a particular style of critique, which he describes as a purely deconstructive and hence “negative” form of criticism (see Coole 2000). In his view, rather than (simply) deconstructing or “debunking”, researchers need to be involved in assembling – i.e., in bringing together collective “concerns” in a “Parliament of things” (Latour 1993: 142-145):

“The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rug from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.” (Latour 2004: 246)

Munk and Abrahamsson (2012) offer a simplified history of Actor-Network theory to distinguish between these two styles of critique as strategic alternatives, associated with John Law on one side and with Latour on the other. Recalling Law’s position on “reality making” (Research Hub entry 30 Nov 2020), the critical task becomes to undo “the singularity of the real” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54).  On the other side, for Latour (2003), researchers need to do more than “dismantle” (or “debunk”) this singular “reality”. He suggests they take up a “compositionist” aim, “to craft new and comprehensive common worlds supported by notions of due process and parliamentary procedure” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54). Critical scholars are invited, it seems, either to “unite under the compositionist banner, or join the guerrilla of ontological interferences”, to “choose” between “crafting commonality or enacting disparity” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54; see Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020). 

Suzanne Fraser (2020) insists on the need to explore options between these two positions, a stance with which I am sympathetic. Here, I wish to consider how these two positions, when set in opposition, relate to the opening question about how to decide upon the realities we wish our research practices to help create (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020). Borrowing from Fraser, I wish to ask – can critical research expand “respect, understanding and inclusion” and, more pointedly, should it do so?

I am taking up this question because it appears to me to be at the centre of much theoretical disquiet at the moment. To risk an over-simplification, there appear to be intractable disagreements between researchers who fear that moving towards “compositionism” (see Latour above) is dangerous politically because it ignores the operations of power, while adherents of the “compositionist” view are worried by the breakdown in communication between researchers and scientists caused by research that appears to target “science” as unitary and engaged in world-threatening practices. 

We saw this division of opinion in the previous Research Hub entry (30 Nov 2020) where I discussed Lemke’s assessment of Bennett. There I note that Lemke describes Bennett (2010: 37 in Lemke 2018: 43) as intent on ending the “blame game” in politics, rendering obsolete any idea of a “strong responsibility” – i.e. holding any particular group [e.g. scientists] or subject responsible for outcomes we consider dangerous or deleterious. He offers Bennett’s comments on the famous power blackout in North America in 2003 as an example of her recommended mode of political analysis. By focusing on the “heterogeneous actants that in one way or another contributed to the blackout”, says Lemke, Bennett “disturbs linear concepts of causality” and suggests “there is no simple answer to questions of responsibility and accountability”. Lemke expresses dissatisfaction with this assessment: 

“While it is certainly necessary to address the composition of the collective and open up the ‘demos’ for more-than-human encounters, this theoretical move is not sufficient to account for the political. It still remains to be seen how exactly forces come to be determined in one way rather than another.”

We return in Lemke to the argument, introduced in the last entry, that instead of attempting to see “matter” (simply) as having “agency”, we need to attend to “the relationality of how materialities work in concert” (Lemke 2018: 42).  

The position that there is a need to stop “blaming” science and scientists is developed in Latour’s staged dialogue with a concerned environmentalist who is angry with sport utility vehicle (SUV) drivers. Puig de la Bellacasa summarizes Latour’s position on the encounter:

“if we really want to affect their [SUV] use we must also engage with the concerns that animate those who support them [SUVs]. This means that to effectively care for a thing we cannot cut off those with whom we disagree from the thing’s political ecology.”

According to Latour, when such oppositions become “fundamentalist” – expressed, for example, in the ire of “SUV haters” – it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to “give them [SUV drivers] a say in an assembly of representative democracy” (Latour 2005 in Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 91). 

In tune with Latour, Isabelle Stengers (2005, 2011, 2018) encourages “a more respectful way of making knowledge and realities” (Fraser 2020: 4), which she describes as “symbiotic research”. The objective here is to incorporate “interested parties into the process of research, and articulating findings and conclusions without undue attention to the State’s preferences” (Fraser 2020: 4) – a topic pursued in the next Research Hub entry. 

Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) debates how “the problem” is presented in Latour, and how “respect for concerns” – or for “matters of concern” – becomes an argument to moderate a critical standpoint.  Specifically, she argues, Latour’s labelling of criticisms as “fundamentalist” exhibits “mistrust regarding minoritarian and radical ways of politicizing things that tend to focus on exposing relations of power and exclusion”. Many useful applications of WPR illustrate that such ways of politicizing do not necessarily totalize or demonize – as Latour speculates – but rather open up specific assemblages to critical scrutiny and questioning (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 96). 

It is useful to see Latour’s position as an attempt to challenge some of the divisions and oppositional standoffs that characterize a good deal of contemporary political discussion. However, in the desire to move beyond polarization, we need to retain an ability to interrogate specific positions critically. Keller (2017: 62), for example, is concerned that in Latour’s “Parliament of things”, echoing Habermas, social actors, assembled around a table, decide in a setting “free of domination” upon “hierarchies of concerns”.  Countering this claim, Keller (2017: 62; emphasis in original) notes that:

“Social relationships of knowledge are asymmetric relationships of power. Material and symbolic resources for politics of knowledge are anything but equally distributed throughout society.”

It follows, says Keller, that we need modes of empirical analysis and of genealogical and reconstructive discourse research to “make visible these asymmetric relationships of knowledge and the work of knowledge politics” (Keller 2017: 62). 

As Lemke (2018: 42) suggests, there is a need to analyze what comes to matter and what does not. Van Wyk (2012: 135) makes the same point:

“A politics of the future which is a sustainable politics must account not only for the force of life, of the vibrancy of matter, but the force of the negative as well, the forces that demarcate the field of becoming into the possible and impossible, determining what matter can come to matter.”

WPR is designed to facilitate such an endeavour. It interrogates all assumed starting points for analysis – including “matters of concern”, “knowledge controversies” (Whatmore 2009) and “emergencies” (Lancaster et al. 2020). With Keller (2017: 62) it asks about the criteria designating a “matter of concern”. Indeed, I would want to ask: “What is the specified matter of concern represented to be?” (see Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 92). To engage critically with this question, I would apply the WPR analytic “template”: start from “proposals”, work backwards to problem representations that require interrogation, and ensure that one’s own proposals receive the same treatment through self-problematization (on “knowledge controversies” see Addendum in Research Hub entry, “Troubling ‘wicked problems’”, 16 April 2018).

The last point on self-problematization is critical. WPR is not a “finger pointing” exercise. It does not demonize. Researchers ought to be cautious therefore when they enlist WPR to assist them in forms of “ideology critique”. There is a distinction here therefore between WPR and the “Essex School of Hegemonics” (Keller 2017: 59), which emphasises “the antagonisms that emerge through the radical contingency of discourse” (Howarth et al. 2020: 1). By contrast, self-problematization offers an “immanent critique” in which “‘we’ … do not pre-exist the entangled movements out of which subject and objects, agents and patients, emerge” (MacLure 2015). 

For this reason, in WPR, researchers have an obligation to subject their own proposals and analyses to the same critical analysis they apply to others, protecting against “finger pointing”. In fact, many of the most useful applications of WPR call upon those who express intentions to redress power imbalances to engage in self-scrutiny. This uncomfortable position – an “ethics of discomfort” (Foucault 2000) – indicates the strength, not the weakness, of the kind of questioning Foucault-influenced theories encourage. Wendy Brown (1998: 44) explains that the kind of poststructural approach offered here does not prescribe political positions nor does it describe desirable futures:

“Rather, it 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 promise of deconstruction, therefore, lies in the commitment to apply its philosophical premises to one’s own work (Bacchi 1999: 42; MacLure 1994: 285; Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 3). Complementing this analysis, Question 4 in WPR (see Chart, p. 20 in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016) opens up the opportunity to be inventive, to imagine worlds in which a specific confluence of circumstances is either not problematized or problematized differently (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 22). 

The question as to the political usefulness of such poststructural interventions has attracted renewed attention in a recent exchange of views on critical realism versus ontopolitically-oriented research (Stevens 2020; Howarth et al. 2020; valentine and Seear 2020), a topic I pursue next time.  How self-problematization complicates the question of “valid” research is also pursued.  


Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems.London: Sage.

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

Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

Coole, D. 2000. Negativity and Politics: Dionysus and Dialectics from Kant to Poststructuralism. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. 2000. For an Ethics of Discomfort. In J. D. Faubion (ed.) Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (Volume III, pp. 443-448). NY: The New Press.  

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 Policy, 82, Article 102610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.102610

Howarth, D., Standring, A. and Huntly, S. 2020. Contingent, contested and constructed: a poststructuralist response to Sevens’ ontological politics of drug policy. International Journal of Drug Policy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102965 

Keller, R. 2017. Has Critique Run Out of Steam? – On Discourse Research as Critical Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(1): 58-68.

Lancaster, K. and Rhodes, T. 2020. Towards an ontological politics of drug policy: Intervening through policy, evidence and method. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102932

Lancaster, K., Rhodes, T. and Rosengarten, M. 2020. Making evidence and policy in public health emergencies: lessons from COVID-19 for adaptive evidence-making and intervention. Evidence & Policy, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/174426420X15913559981103

Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Latour, B. 2003. The Promises of constructivism. In I. Don and S. Evan (Eds) Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality. Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 27-46.  

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2): 225-248.

Latour, B. 2005. From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or how to make things public. In B. Latour and P. Weibel (Eds) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 14-43. 

Lemke, T. 2018. An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and Problems of Jane Bennett’s Vital MaterialismTheory, Culture & Society, 35(6): 31-54.

Lorenzini, D. and Tazzioli, M. 2020. Critique without ontology: Genealogy, collective subjects and the deadlocks of evidence. Radical Philosophy 2.07, Spring. 

MacLure, M. 1994. Review Essay: Language and Discourse: the embrace of uncertainty. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 15(2): 283-300.

MacLure, M. 2015. The “new materialisms”:  a thorn in the flesh of critical qualitative inquiry? In G. Cannella, M. S. Perez & P. Pasque (Eds) Critical Qualitative Inquiry: Foundations and Futures. California: Left Coast Press. 

Munk, A. & Abrahamsson, S. 2012. Empiricist interventions: Strategy and tactics on the ontopolitical battlefield. Science Studies, 25(1): 52-70. 

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

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. 2011. Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 85-106.

Stengers, I. 2005. Introductory notes on an ecology of practices. Cultural Studies Reviewhttps://doi.org/10.5130/csr.v11i1.3459.

Stengers, I. 2011. Comparison as a matter of concern. Common Knowledge, 17(1), 48–63. 

Stengers, I. 2018. Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Stevens, A. 2020. Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102723 

valentine, k. and Seear, K. 2020. Commentary on Alex Stevens (2020) Critical realism and “ontological politics of drug policy”. International Journal of Drug Policy,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102879

Van Wyk, A. R. 2012. What Matters Now? Review of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, Duke University Press, 2010. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 8(2): 130-135. Whatmore, S. J. 2009. Mapping knowledge controversies: science, democracy and the redistribution of expertise. Progress in Human Geography, 33(5): 587-598. 

Title: WPR, “new materialism” and onto politically-oriented research

In this entry I return to a topic that has arisen in several previous entries (10 Dec. 2017; 31 Jan. 2020; 30 April 2020) – the place of ontology in research that draws upon WPR and related approaches (e.g. governmentality). For a couple of decades at least social theorists have expressed concern about the “linguistic turn”, described as the over-reliance on language as the key to meaning making. In its place, there has been an “ontological turn”, re-emphasizing the importance of materiality. 

However, just what is intended by a “turn to ontology” is contested. A broad range of theories, described as the “new materialisms” (Gamble et al. 2019), contend that it is important politically to recognize the “agency” of “objects” as “actants” – how “matter” is “lively”, how it makes things happen. A key point in these arguments is the need to bring more-than-human activity into political analysis. In this and the subsequent entry I consider what is at stake in these “new materialisms” – why they are proving so popular and how WPR engages these perspectives. At the heart of the discussion are disagreements about ways of being political and the nature of critique. 

Put briefly, WPR accepts a relational ontology that emphasizes how “things” are produced in practices. A basic proposition is that “problems” do not simply exist, waiting to be solved, but that they are produced in policies. Policies, it is argued, are problematizing practices. They produce “problems” as specific sorts of problems. These produced “problems” are not simply representations of what is “real”; rather they are “real” because they shape how lives are lived. Other languages adopted to describe this process include “performativity” and “enactment”. This reference to production of “the real” indicates a particular ontological stance.  The focus is on the political generation of the “real” – a position captured in the phrase “ontological politics” (Mol 1999; Pellizzoni 2015). The argument here is that, since “the real” is produced in practices, it could be different. And since it could be different, it is always political.  

Annemarie Mol usefully explains the implications of this perspective for researchers. She points out that such a view challenges the common sense understanding of research as “throwing light” upon social processes and activities, assumed to be stable and examinable. Rather, in line with the focus on the productivity of practices, the argument follows that our research practices produce realities: “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations” (Mol 2002: 154; emphasis in original).

The question becomes – does this argument constitute a “new materialist” perspective? If not, how does it differ? Mol (2012: 380) clearly indicates that in her understanding there is a critical distance between what she intends in her references to “ontological politics” and the “new materialists” who are garnering so much attention. She explains that her position starts from the proposition that questions about ontology are not philosophical questions but political ones – hence the coined phrase “ontological politics”. In this stance, researchers are not engaged in debates about “what is real” or “what is unreal”. Rather, it is a matter of how different realities are produced and how different versions of reality ought to be valued – “Which version might be better to live with? Which worse? How, and for whom?” (Mol 2012: 381).

Mol’s concern about the “new materialisms” is that, in her view, they tend to treat “matter” as a stable and singular entity (Mol 2012: 381). By contrast, she emphasizes that “matter never is ‘itself’ all by itself”:

“Even when it is not being interpreted, matter is never alone. For it may well be that matter acts, but what it is able to do inevitably depends on adjacent matter that it may do something with.” (Mol 2012: 380; emphasis in original)

According to Mol, “the new materialism forgets these relational engagements and affordances”, and ends up “naively echoing natural science textbooks and journal articles” about the “existence” of “matter”. As a result, argues Mol (2012: 381), “Decades of work in STS [Science and Technology Studies] is being disdainfully discarded”.

Mol proceeds to characterise the STS position as “relational materialism”, a phrase that also appears in the work of Thomas Lemke (2015: 16). Lemke (2018) finds the focus on the “vitality of matter” in many new materialist accounts inadequate. His particular target is Jane Bennett (2001, 2004) and her “vibrant materialism” (Bennett 2015). To describe matter as “vibrant”, as “active, forceful and plural rather than passive, inactive and unitary”, says Lemke (2015: 4), is insufficient to explain the relationality of matter. Instead of attempting to see “matter” as having “agency”, we need, in Lemke’s (2018: 42) words, to attend to “the relationality of how materialities work in concert”. Instead of asserting that “matter” can be separated from interpretation, meaning and discourse, we need to recognize “a dynamic ensemble of matter and meaning” (Lemke 2015: 14). For example, there is a need to look at how “material artefacts have progressively been subject to monitoring, assessment, regulation and management” (Barry 2013: 6 in Lemke 2018: 48: fn 10). We need, in other words, to examine how certain “things” come to matter. I take up this argument in the next entry where I discuss Latour’s “matters of concern”. Importantly, while Lemke (2015) acknowledges the usefulness of the new materialist challenge to the anthropocentrism of much governmentality theory, he argues that Foucault can be used to analyse the “government of things”, embracing the human and non-human.

Given Mol’s and Lemke’s arguments, it seems important not to lump together all theoretical contributions that engage with questions of “ontology” under some general rubric of “new materialism”.  Indeed, if one follows Mol (2012: 380-381) – and I am tempted to do so – it seems to have become dangerous politically even to mention the word “ontology” due to the way in which the “new materialisms” have marked out and claimed the “ontological” terrain. However, with Lemke (2015, 2018), I think it is possible to lay out my concerns and hesitations about much of the “new materialism” while retaining the argument that practices produce realities, including “problems”, “objects”, “subjects” and “places” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

At the risk of over-simplification, several intertwined propositions underpin this argument. Allow me to list them before I elaborate:

First, reality is produced in repeated practices.

Second, reality is multiple.

Third, reality as singular is an accomplishment; it is “done”. 

In the first proposition reality does not precede the mundane practices through which we “interact” with “it”. Rather, it is shaped within those practices. Reality is produced through repeated practices, through reiteration and “performance”. In other language, “reality” is described as “emergent” or “in process”, “shaped in ongoing interactions with discourses and other practices” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 4, 85; see also Fraser 2020, and Lancaster and Rhodes 2020).

The second proposition follows. Because practices are multiple, so too are the realities they produce: “if reality is done, if it is historically, culturally and materially located, then it is also multiple. Realities have become multiple” (Mol 1999: 75, emphases in original). For instance, Mol talks about “different atheroscleroses” as different enactments of atherosclerosis, one performed in the clinic and a second performed in the pathology laboratory. The former builds its understanding on patient symptoms and the latter on blood tests. Says Mol (1999: 77) these two atheroscleroses are “different versions of the objects, versions that the tools help to enact”.

Accepting realities as multiple, the question becomes – how is “reality” experienced as singular? How do we come to talk about “reality” as if it is obvious and uncontested? The third proposition, therefore, is that the singularity of reality is an accomplished “fact” – it is something that is “done”. Law (2004) refers to this activity of producing a singular reality as “reality work”, describing how the world is made (performed, enacted). Part of this “reality work” involves the installing of “collateral realities”, background assumptions that shore up a particular version of reality (Law 2011). This active production of “reality” signals its political character. Basically, “reality” could be otherwise. 

Recognizing that our research practices actively produce specific “realities” – that they are not “windows” on the world, but that they interfere with it (see Mol, above) – produces the obligation to reflect on the realities we as researchers create. For example, referring to “nation-states” as a part of a study on “international relations” – a seemingly innocuous research practice – reinforces the “reality” of “nation-states”, firming up their existence and accompanying geopolitical power relations (Bacchi and Ronnblom 2014: 179). The terms we adopt, therefore, are not innocent “explanatory” devices; instead, they play a central role in “world making” (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 4). 

The flipside of this insight is the possibility of designing research projects that create new realities, which Lancaster and Rhodes (2020: 4) describe as “the inventive possibilities of method”. It is this proposition that Fraser (2020) explores in her work on “ontopolitically-oriented research”, which “sees reality as fundamentally iteratively produced in spatio-temporally specific encounters”.  Fraser emphasizes how new research practices – that is, practices that differ in character from positivist practices – are required to produce new realities. She offers the example of her research on designing a new safe injecting fitpack “to better serve couples who inject together” that employed “videotaped sitdown practice encounters with couples (rather than, say, through short opinion surveys” (Fraser 2020: 8).

In Fraser and in my own work, references to “ontology” refer to “reality work” as in Law, not to “the vibrancy of matter”, as in Bennett. “Reality work” or “world-making” research recognizes “a dynamic ensemble of matter and meaning” (Lemke 2015: 14) and explores “the relationality of how materialities work in concert” (Lemke 2018: 42).

I am suggesting here that there are starkly different trajectories within a broad “ontological turn” – i.e., the focus on “reality work” in STS and the emphasis on “vibrant matter” in “new materialisms” – and that these distinctions raise a host of important questions about the relationship between theoretical stances and politics. Fraser (2020: 4) notes that seeing all inquiry as constitutive of its objects of study leads to the need to consider “whose realities count”.  Lemke argues that the “new materialist” focus on “vibrant matter” is associated with a conciliatory approach to political disputes. He describes Bennett as intent on ending the “blame game” in politics, rendering obsolete any idea of a “strong responsibility” (2010: 37 in Lemke 2018: 43) – i.e. holding any particular group or subject responsible for outcomes we consider dangerous or deleterious. There are links here to a long-standing tension in the relationship between critical theory and scientific “truth”, a tension explored in the next entry.


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

Bacchi, C. and Rönnblom, M. 2014. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – A Poststructural Alternative. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 22(3): 170-188.

Barry, A. 2013. Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline. Malden: Wiley Blackwell. 

Bennett, J. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke 

University Press.

Bennett, J. 2015. Systems and things: On vital materialism and object-oriented 

philosophy. In: Grusin R (ed) The Nonhuman Turn. Minneapolis: University 

of Minnesota Press.

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 Policy, 82, Article 102610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.102610

Gamble, C. N., Hanan, J. S. and Nail, T. 2019. What is new materialism? Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 24(4): 111-134.

Lancaster, K. and Rhodes, T. 2020. Towards an ontological politics of drug policy: Intervening through policy, evidence and method. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102932 

Law, J. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Research. London: Routledge.

Law, J. 2011. Collateral realities. In P. Baert and F. Rubio, F. (Eds), The Politics of 

Knowledge. London: Routledge, pp.156-178.

Lemke, T. 2015. New Materialisms: Foucault and the “Government of Things”. Theory, Culture & Society, 32(4): 3-25.

Lemke, T. 2018. An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and Problems of Jane Bennett’s Vital MaterialismTheory, Culture & Society, 35(6): 31-54.    

Mol, A. 1999. Ontological Politics: A word and some questions. In J. Law and J. Hassard (Eds) Actor Network Theory and After. Sociological Review Monograph, Oxford: Blackwell.

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

Mol, A. 2012. Mind your plate! The ontonorms of Dutch dieting. Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 379-396.   Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate

WPR, Foucault and Nominalist Critique, Part 2


In the last entry I introduced a way to think about the operation of Foucault’s nominalist critique as a political stratagem for producing a particular kind of analysis. As Rajchman (1983-84) points out, once you put the existence of “universals” (or “constants”) into question, it becomes necessary to focus on the multitude of factors and practices that lead “things” to “become something” (“devenir quelque chose” (Senellart 2008: 19). Genealogy describes the history of that multitude of factors and practices. 

In this entry, I’d like to show how Foucault’s nominalism leads to his focus on practices and on problematization. Afterwards, I’ll examine briefly the implications of this stance for conceptions of “power”, “the state” and “man”. In each case it is useful to think in terms of challenging these “things” as simply existing (“exister”), focusing instead on how they have come to be something (“devenir quelque chose”). I emphasize how Foucault’s efforts to displace unitary conceptions of “the State” are linked to his development of the concept of governmentality.

As seen in the last entry Foucault clearly connects his challenge to the existence of universals to practices. He highlights the “conjunctions” made by “a whole set of practices”, “real practices” (Senellart 2008: 19). But what are these practices? In two previous Research Hub entries (30 Nov 2019, 31 Dec 2019) I pursued this topic, indicating the need, at the very least, to consider the plurality of approaches in the “turn to practice” which continues to characterize contemporary social theory. I mention there that Foucault evades the temptation to start from a definition of practices by referring to practices as “places” (see previous Research Hub entry on the refusal of definitions in poststructuralism). As he explains, practices are places where “what is said and what is done … meet and interconnect” (Foucault 1991: 75). This starting point allows Foucault to focus on what he calls the juridicative and veridicative components of practices – how they establish and apply norms and render them as “true” or “false”. It follows that practices are not simply the “actions” of individuals, as can appear to be the case in some developments in the “turn to practice”. The distance between thinking of practices as simply what people do and what Foucault has in mind is clear in the examples of practices that he mentions – i.e. “the sequestration of the insane, or clinical medicine, or the organization of the empirical sciences, or legal punishment” (Foucault 1991: 79)

To see how practices are involved in making “things” come to be something, requires a focus on the ways in which they problematize those “things”. For example, it is through examining how “the mad” are dealt with (the practices involved in their “sequestration”) – “how madmen were recognized, set aside, excluded from society, interned, and treated” (Foucault 1969 in Eribon 1991: 214) – that we can see how they were “problematized” and conceptualized, and “trace how they have come to be translated into specific kinds of ‘problems’ and objects of government” (Pienaar et al. 2018: 188). 

In “Why study problematizations?” I (2012: 1) consider how the term “problematization” has two meanings in Foucault. One meaning uses “problematization” as a verb to refer to the mode of critical analysis Foucault calls “thinking problematically” (Research Hub entries 9 July 2018, 23 July 2018). The second meaning, a noun form, is tied to the “historical process of producing objects for thought”, which we need to remember do not simply exist (exister). Here “problematizations” are the “somethings” produced through this historical process, captured in Foucault’s nominalist genealogies – “the forms of problematization themselves” (Foucault 1986: 17-18).  In WPR I call these “objects for thought” or forms of problematization “problem representations” (Research Hub entry 11 June 2018). Through the study of problematizations, therefore, it is possible to reflect critically on the multitude of factors and practices that lead “things” to “become something” (“devenir quelque chose”) (Bacchi 2017).

I now comment briefly on three universals that Foucault sets out to displace – “power”, “the state” and “man” – to illustrate where his nominalist critique takes us. This trio of concepts formed the basis of much theoretical discussion in the middle to latter half of the twentieth century when Foucault wrote. They also, of course, continue to feature prominently in contemporary theoretical speculation. 

The tendency to think about “power” as something people possess is ubiquitous. We continue to talk about people “having” power – often understood as having power over others. To challenge this position, Foucault at times writes “Power” in scare quotes, a nominalist strategy deployed to take distance from analytical concepts (Alasuuarti 2010: 407). “Power”, he specifies, is “not an institution, and not a structure”. Rather, it is (simply) “the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (Foucault, 1980[1978]: 93; emphasis added).

Importantly, Foucault’s notion of strategy, as in “a complex strategical situation”, does not require a conscious strategist (Alasuuarti 2010: 406). The analytic focus shifts therefore from “actors” intentionally deploying power to the “strategic situations” in which power “is produced from one moment to the next, at every point” – a “micro-physics of power” (Foucault 1980: 93). Rather than “actors” having“power”, subjects are constituted in and through power relations (see comment on “man” below), a process described as “subjectification” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-51). 

Foucault brought this same nominalist focus on “complex strategic situations” to his study of governing (Alasuuarti 2010: 411-412). His primary objective is to point to the limitations of thinking about governing in terms of a grand theory of something called “the State”.  

“The State” in Foucault is a “mythical abstraction” (Rose and Miller 1992: 173), an anchor point for myriad strategic relations that merge in specific political forms, rather than an entity with a presumed essential necessity or functionality. Rather than talking about “the State” as a “thing”, we need to see the term (simply) as a way to talk about a particular form of governing. “The State”, therefore, needs to be decomposed into practices and relations.

Foucault coins the term “governmentality” to mark out this research agenda. Governmentality studies investigate the minutiae of routine and mundane practices of governing. Categories and concepts are “denaturalised, made specific and their governmental implications revealed” (Larner 2008: 23).

This intervention has important political effects. It broadens the focus of our studies from political institutions (“The State”) to encompass numerous sites, agencies and “ways of knowing” that interrelate to shape social rules (Bacchi 2017: 7). In tune with the poststructural refusal to offer definitions of “things” (see previous Research Hub entry) “governmentality” is not given a firm definition. As Valverde (2010: 52) explains, governmentality is not a concept; it is a “dynamic abstraction deployed strategically”. 

“Man”, of course, is another presumed universal in much contemporary social theory and political analysis. There are repeated references to “human nature” and to “man’s” instincts. Consider for example behavioural economics, nudge theory (Haydock 2014) and situational crime prevention (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49). In two previous Research Hub entries (30 Sept. 2019, 31 Oct 2019), I explored Foucault’s challenge to the humanist, Enlightenment subject who is presumed to be fixed, autonomous and a reliable source of knowledge (Scott 1991: 782). Here, I wish only to emphasise how nominalism disrupts established categories of thought and analysis, including “man”, opening up new avenues of research and thinking. 

What does all this mean for our research practices? First and foremost, there is the obligation to examine the categories of analysis we adopt as presumably fixed and meaningful. As Barbehon (2020) notes, the classifications we use to describe “reality” (including “reality” itself of course) are social artifacts. It does not serve us well, therefore, to treat our categories of analysis as simply existing (“exister”), as fixed and hence useful “things”; rather, it is incumbent on us to consider how these categories have “come to be” something (“devenir quelque chose”). Moreover, since research practices, alongside other practices, produce “realities” (see previous entry), there is an obligation to consider the “realities” our analytic categories produce (elaborated below). 

This stance points to an important distinction between Foucauldian poststructuralism and much realist sociology. Foucault (Senellart: 2) made this clear in the Birth of Bioethics where he listed some of the concepts put into question through his nominalist starting point: “notions such as the sovereign, sovereignty, the people, subjects, the state, and civil society, that is to say, all those universals employed by sociological analysis, historical analysis and political philosophy in order to account for real governmental practice”. On these grounds the postrstructuralist scholar, Wendy Larner (2008), questions the “realist governmentality” produced by Stenson (2008), pointing out how his analysis treats terms such as “knowledge economy”, “welfare dependency”, “white flight” and “communities at risk” as “self-evident descriptors of the terrain being analysed”, instead of the “names” bestowed on “things”. I suggest similar objections can be made to the reliance on presumed fixed categories of social analysis in critical realism (Research Hub 1 Feb 2019) and in uncritical ethnography (Research Hub 28 Feb 2019, 31 March 2019).

In line with this position, the Foucauldian scholar, William Walters (2009: 495) cautions against the tendency to ontologize our spatial concepts. He asks: what is a region? a zone? a territory? a network? an area? With Larner, he suggests that policy analysts need to become “much more nominalistic about the diversity of global spaces” (Larner and Walters 2004: 16). Remembering that research practices produce “realities”, the use of common spatial concepts needs to be seen in political terms as reinforcing the “existence” of those things that do not exist (as essences). For example, when analysts and researchers deploy concepts such as “nation-state” unproblematically, they actively support and entrench the “reality” of “nation-states”, reinforcing current geopolitical power relations (Law 2004: 144; Mol 2002: 136). 

A number of WPR applications usefully interrogate commonly accepted analytic categories, which feature prominently in governing practices. In a recent critical commentary on the NDIS (Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme), Horsell (2020) opens to contestation “fixed concepts and categories (such as fixed and homogeneous conceptualisations of disability) that shape policy formulation”. In tune with this analysis, Barry Allan (2018) puts in question the notion of “impairment” and its reliance on a “medical perception of normality”. Along related lines Marley (2018) uses WPR to investigate the conditions fundamental to the “existence” of ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). 

Step 7 in WPR emphasizes the importance of self-problematization as part of any WPR analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24). This Research Hub entry helps to explain its importance. The undertaking to apply the WPR questions to one’s own proposals (which is what Step 7 entails) is intended to alert researchers to the danger in simply accepting and deploying common analytic categories such as “nation-state”, “impairment” and so many others, and to the benefit of becoming more nominalistic about such terms. 

My hope in this entry and the previous one is to indicate the usefulness of bringing a nominalist lens to our research. In my view, it accomplishes several important things. First, it encourages the kind of critical deconstruction of established categories that WPR is commonly used to achieve. And second, it reminds us of the need to apply this same critical approach to our own categories of analysis. Finally, by highlighting that “things” are created in practices, it opens up the possibility for researchers to create new “things”, to engage in ontopolitically-oriented research practices (Fraser 2019), a topic pursued next time.


Alasuutari, P. 2010. The nominalist turn in theorizing power. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(4): 403-417.

Allan, B. 2018. Foucault’s nominalism. In S. Tremain (ed.) Foucault and the government of disability (first published in 2005). University of Michigan Press.

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why study problematizations? Making politics visible. Open Journal of Political Science, 2(1): 1-8. 

Bacchi, C. 2017. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 3-14.

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

Barbehon, M. 2020. Reclaiming constructivism: towards an interpretive reading of the “Social Construction Framework”. Policy Sciences, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-020-09370-7 

Foucault, M. 1969. Pamphlet submitted to Professors of the Collège de France. Cited in D. Eribon (1991) Michel Foucault. Trans., B. Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, M. 1980 [1978]. This History of Sexuality Vol 1: An Introduction. NY: Vintage Books.  

Foucault, M. 1986 [1984]. The use of pleasure. The history of sexuality. Trans. R. Hurley. London: Viking Press.

Foucault, M. 1991 [1981]. Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fraser, S. 2019. Doing ontopolitically-oriented research: Synthesising concepts from the ontological turn for alcohol and other drug research and other social sciences. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.102610 

Haydock, W. (2014). The rise and fall of the ‘‘nudge’’ of minimum unit pricing: The continuity of neoliberalism in alcohol policy in England. Critical Social Policy, 34, 260–279.

Horsell, C. 2020. Problematising Disability: A Critical Policy Analysis of the Australian National Disability Insurance Scheme, Australian Social Work, DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2020.1784969  

Larner, W. 2008. Comments on Kevin Stenson’s “Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety”, Social Work & Society: International Online Journal, 6(1).

Larner, W. and Walters, W. 2004. Introduction: Global governmentality. In W. Larner & W. Walters (Eds) Global governmentality: Governing international spaces. NY: Routledge. 

Law, J. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. NY: Routledge.

Marley, C. 2018. A Foucauldian-inspired ethnographic investigation: The emergence of the everyday social practice of ADHD. PhD thesis, University of Queensland, School of Education. 

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

Pienaar, K., Murphy, D. A., Race, K. and Lea, T. 2018. Problematising LGBTIQ drug use, governing sexuality and gender: A critical analysis of LGBTIQ health policy in Australia. International Journal of Drug Policy, 55: 187-194. 

Rajchman, J. 1983-84. The Story of Foucault’s History. Social Text, 8: 2-24.

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

Scott, J. 1991. The Evidence of Experience. Critical Inquiry, 17(4): 773-797.   

Senellart, M. (ed.) 2008. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79. Trans., Graham Burchell. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Valverde, M. 2010. Specters of Foucault in Law and Society Scholarship. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 6: 45-59.

Walters, W. 2009. Europe’s borders. In C. Rumford (Ed.) The Sage Handbook of European Studies. London: Sage

WPR, Foucault and Nominalist Critique Part I


This entry and the one to follow are prompted by a question I received about the place of nominalism in Foucault’s thinking. In Part 1 I describe how nominalism informs Foucault’s critical analysis. In Part 2 (entry in a month’s time) I illustrate how starting from Foucault’s nominalism opens up his work in useful and accessible ways, considering topics such as “power”, “the state”, “man”, “sexuality”, “madness”, etc. Starting from nominalism helps explain important connections among several concepts that feature prominently in Foucault’s political analyses, e.g. practices, genealogy, “a history of the present”, objectivizations, governmentality, and problematization. Throughout I will signal how WPR engages with these understandings.

“Nominalism” comes from the Latin word nominalis meaning “of or pertaining to names”. As a philosophical position it has a long history. Debates about the relationship between nominalism and realism go back to the Middle Ages (Rodriguez-Pereyra 2015). Distinctions have been drawn between nominalists who wished to challenge the existence of universals, as in Plato’s “forms”, and those who questioned the existence of abstract objects (as opposed to concrete objects). For our purposes it is adequate to think of nominalism in Foucault as an analytic intervention designed to disrupt assumptions about general categories of “things” (“objects” and “subjects”) through a focus on what we “call” (or name) them.

A good place to start is Foucault’s comment in the Birth of Biopolitics (Senellart 2008: 3): “Let’s suppose that universals do not exist”. I suggest that we need to focus on the words: “Let’s suppose”. In my view, such wording indicates that Foucault is not interested in engaging in philosophical debates about the meaning of nominalism; rather, he wants to suggest that assuming there are no universals opens up political analysis in useful ways – that taking such a position allows us “to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known” (Foucault 1990: 9).  My hope is, in this and the subsequent Research Hub entry, to illustrate just what he intends to accomplish through this analytic strategy. To illustrate my argument, I draw upon a number of theorists who have made useful contributions on the topic of Foucault and nominalism. 

Oksala (2012: 28) helps us to draw a clear distinction between nominalism and natural realism.  She explains how, in Foucault, there is a need to see “things” not simply as “existing” (“exister”) – the realist position – but as “becoming something” (“devenir quelque chose”) – the nominalist position. In the latter the focus of study becomes how specific “things”, such as “the domains we call sexuality”, “have been formed”, how they come to be something (Foucault in Mort and Peters 2005: 12-13; emphasis added). 

In the Birth of Biopolitics (Senellart 2008: 19), Foucault elaborates this position, indicating how his nominalist starting point shapes his studies of madness, disease, delinquency and sexuality. He distinguishes his stance from accounts that speak of these “things” as “hidden before finally being discovered” or as “wicked illusions or ideological products to be dispelled in the [light] of reason”. Rather, in his account, 

“It was a matter of showing by what conjunctions a whole set of practices – from the moment they become coordinated with a regime of truth – was able to make what does not exist (madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, etcetera), nonetheless become something, something however that continues not to exist.” (Senellart 2008: 19; emphasis added)

The last point here is important and needs to be read through the distinction between “exister” (as essences) and “devenir” (becoming). Foucault clarifies that this position is not anti-realist: “It [e.g. sexuality] is not an illusion since it is precisely a set of practices, real practices, which established it and thus imperiously marks it out in reality” (Senellart 2008: 19). As Dean (2015: 359; emphasis added) explains, Foucault “seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about or ‘name’ the real”.  

Returning to Oksala we can describe the two positions, “exister” and “devenir” (existing and becoming), as contrasting ontologies (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 15). Recognizing that “all thinking necessarily relies on ontological commitments of some kind”, Oksala (2012: 18-19) emphasizes the need to reflect upon the political implications of the ontology one adopts – how for example seeing “things” simply as “existing” tends to install them as “truth”, making it difficult to initiate change.  By contrast, in an ontology of becoming (the nominalist stance), one tends to stress the practices and processes that shape “subjects”, “objects”, “places” and “problems”, opening up opportunities for modifications (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

For example, as seen in a previous Research Hub entry (10 Dec. 2017), starting from a nominalist ontology of becoming, Annemarie Mol (1999; 2002: 155) stresses how research practices shape specific realities, a proposition she describes as “ontological politics”. Pellizzoni (2015: 75 ff) elaborates the distinction between “political ontology” – the argument that all ontological stances are political, as in Oksala – and “ontological politics” – the argument that researchers are involved in shaping realities through their research practices, as in Mol (see also Fraser 2019).

Above, I suggest that Foucault is less interested in philosophical debates about nominalism than in what such a stance can do in terms of political analysis. This stance is clear in his claim that “knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting” (Foucault 1977: 88). As Rose (2000: 58) explains, the goal is “to disturb that which forms the very groundwork of our present, to make the given once more strange and to cause us to wonder at how it came to appear so natural” (see also Osberg 2010). To this end, as Valverde (2010: 45) describes, concepts (in Foucault) have no fixed meaning; rather, they are “tactical weapons” or tools for political change. Nominalism frees us up to use concepts in this way since they are not presumed to describe “essences” while it encourages critical interrogation of accepted “universals” or “constants” in valorised knowledges. 

It is often noted that Foucault uses several concepts in different ways at different times. In other work, together with co-authors, I point out how he uses “discourse” in at least three ways (Bacchi and Bonhan 2014: 178), and both “problematization” (Bacchi 2012) and “governmentality” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 41) with two different meanings. The point to make here is that this practice is not an indication of fuzzy thinking; rather, it illustrates the political usefulness of a nominalist way of thinking – how nominalism frees up the researcher’s ability to mobilise concepts for political effect. 

This stance explains why it is inappropriate, in poststructuralist analysis, to give precise definitions of “things”. “Words are just that: words. They do not capture, reflect, mirror or correspond to an external reality” (Merlingen 2013). Mol, Moser and Pols (in Mol et al. 2010: 84) assist here. They point out that, if you offer a definition of an apple, you will proceed to see as “apples” only those things that match that definition. To open up thinking in useful ways we need to refuse assigned and assumed categories. In Care in Practice (Mol, Moser and Pols 2010) Mol and her co-editors refuse to stipulate what “care” is. Relatedly, they point out the stumbling block created by trying to specify the precise meaning of “practices”: 

“… the quintessence of the practice turn is to study practices – not to define the term. It is to follow objects and/or processes, like autonomy, subjectivity, respect, killing, tagging, buying, tasting, filling in forms, using a webcam, and so on, without beforehand fixing what these things and activities are.” (Mol et al. 2010: 85)

In this view, “words are tools within a practice rather than labels that can be firmly circumscribed” (Mol et al. 2010: 85; see also Bacchi 2005: 198-199).

To repeat the key argument developed in this entry, nominalism (as used by Foucault) accomplishes two things: first, it opens up a critical strategy to interrogate commonly assumed “things”, including “subjects” and “objects”; and second, it allows us to think in terms of deploying concepts for political purposes – in other words, to engage in “ontopolitically-oriented research” (see Fraser 2019). If “things” do not simply “exist” (as the nominalist contends), attention must be paid to how they have “come to be” and how they function politically. On these grounds it becomes crucial to interrogate the assumed categories (or “field assumptions”; see Research Hub entries 31 May 2020, 30 June 2020) in the “methods” we adopt for social analysis. This point will be pursued in the next entry.

For now, let us see how Foucault’s nominalism – the view that “things” do not simply “exist” but “come to be” – flows through into Foucault’s political analysis. Lemke (2011: 31) describes Foucault’s “nominalist critique” as a two-step process: first, questioning universals; second, investigating the “system of acceptability” that allows these “things” to “come to be” acceptable.

The latter goal requires us to reconstruct the “conditions of possibility for the presence of phenomena” (Keller 2017: 59). To this end we analyse the multiplicity of factors and practices involved in the coming to be of “things” – the network of “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” (Foucault 1991: 76). 

Foucault adopts several terms to capture this sense of multiplicity – including “assemblage”, “dispositif” and “discursive practices” (see Bacchi and Bonham 2014). In this way Foucault (1991: 33) effects “a sort of multiplication or pluralization of causes” that illustrates “a micro-physics of power” (Foucault 1979: 26; see next entry).  This stance helps makes sense of Veyne’s (1997: 160) contention that “There are no natural objects. … There are only multiple objectivisations (‘population’, ‘fauna’, ‘subjects under law’), correlatives of heterogeneous practices”: “The object is only the correlative of the practice: prior to the practice there exists no eternal governed that could be targeted more or less accurately.” (Veyne 1997: 155-156). Correlatives are terms paired to perform a single function (e.g. “both/and”, “either/or”). 

Foucault describes himself as a “historical nominalist” (Foucault 1980: 56; see also Flynn 1989). He sets out to trace the history, or genealogy, of “things”, to show precisely how they have “come to be”. “The role of genealogy”, he tells us, is to record “the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts, the history of the concept of liberty or of the ascetic life” (Foucault 1977: 1). He describes the specific form of history he produces as a “history of the present” and an “effective history”:

“Instead of criticising the past in terms of the present, the Foucauldian histories criticise the present by reflecting upon the ways the discursive and institutional practices of the past still affect the constitution of the present.” (Tamboukou 1999: 205)

Rajchman (1983-84: 10-14) elaborates four nominalist arguments or tropes developed in Foucault’s writings. The first, “argument by dispersal”, refers to the emphasis in Foucault on multiplicity and heterogeneity (see above). His goal is “to ‘disperse’ what is presumed to be essentially whole”, accomplished in his nominalist genealogies.  

The second trope – “argument by reversal” – sets out to trace the “objectification” (or objectivization; see above) of those “things” historians take as “objectively given” (Foucault 1980: 55). For example, in his work on the history of madness, Foucault (2006) rebukes historians for using psychiatric categories to understand, for example, witchcraft or magic in pre-psychiatric societies. He reverses this approach and asks about how the object “mental illness” was produced. This thinking highlights the need to interrogate the assumed categories of analysis in our research and writing (pursued in the next entry). Rajchman (1983-84: 12) emphasises that this practice of reversal is meant to be “politically consequential”. It operates as a form of criticism “of the preconditions and foundations of our own present’s intellectual habits” (Valverde 2010: Abstract).

Rajchman (1983-84: 12) characterizes the third nominalist trope as “argument by critical exposure of current practice”. This argument refers to Foucault’s style of nominalist history, his “history of the present” described above.  As Rajchman elaborates, Foucault uses the past to criticize the present “under the assumption that the past still informs the present in ways and with consequences we don’t recognize”. These influences need to be exposed and questioned. Importantly, there is no assumption that “our situation is the lawlike outcome of previous ones”. Rather, Foucault “tries to make our situation seem less ‘necessitated’’ by history, and more peculiar, unique, or arbitrary” (Rajchman 1983-84: 12). 

Rendering our current practices “arbitrary or contingent” opens them to criticism and change. The emphasis on contingency produces the fourth nominalist trope – “argument to singular enlightenment”. This trope provides a link to Foucault’s well-known scepticism concerning the “universalism of the Enlightenment” (see next entry). On this point, Rajchman (1983-84: 5) emphasises that, while Foucault uses these arguments to open up consideration of alternative social arrangements, his nominalist history is not about the alternatives themselves. As Foucault (1988: 197) explains: 

“My position is that it is not up to us to propose. As soon as one “proposes” – one proposes a vocabulary, an ideology, which can only have effects of domination. What we have to present are instruments or tools that people might find useful.”

WPR is offered as one such instrument (Bacchi WPR CHART). It deploys the four nominalist arguments outlined above. Embracing Foucault’s nominalist genealogies, it emphasizes the pluralizing (or dispersal) of factors producing “realities” (Questions 3 and 6) alongside a critical analysis of current practices (Question 5). WPR also encourages the continual questioning of governmental categories and of our categories of analysis, or “field assumptions” (Question 2). And while encouraging consideration of alternative problematizations (Question 4), it insists on continual reappraisal of those alternatives (Step 7 on self-problematization). 

The next entry offers some examples of how Foucault’s nominalism helps to explain his positions on “power”, “the state” and “man”. 


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. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible. Open Journal of Political Science, 2: 1-8.

Bacchi, C. and Bonham, J. 2014. Reclaiming discursive practices as an analytic focus: Political implications. Foucault Studies, 17: 173-192. 

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

Dean, M. 2015. Neoliberalism, Governmentality, Ethnography: A Response to Michelle Brady. Foucault Studies, 20: 356-366.

Flynn, T. 1989. Foucault and Historical Nominalism. In H. A. Durfee and D. F. T. Rodier (Eds) Phenomenology and Beyond: The Self and its Language. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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. 1979. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Trans., A. Sheridan. NY: Vintage/Random House. 

Foucault, M. 1980. L’impossible prison. Paris: Seuil. 

Foucault, M. 1988 [1977]. Confinement, Psychiatry, Prison. In L. D. Kritzman (ed.) Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. NY: Routledge. 

Foucault, M. 1990 [1984]. The use of pleasure. Volume 2 of  The History of Sexuality. Trans. R. Hurley. NY: Vintage Books. 

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Foucault, M. 2006 [1961]. History of Madness. Ed. J. Khalfa. Trans., J. Murphy. NY: Routledge. 

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WPR and “social flesh”


This entry is prompted by an article which applies WPR to the UK’s “Safeguarding Strategy: Unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children” (Rigby et al. 2019), a policy produced by the Home Office in 2017 (see ref. below). I have selected this article because it provides a useful illustration of what can be accomplished in terms of critical analysis through exploring problematizations, a task facilitated through applying WPR. The article also shows the potential of adopting “social flesh” as a new ethico-political imaginary to reflect on important political issues (though the article by Rigby et al. does not adopt the term “social flesh”).

I have mentioned “social flesh” in two previous Research Hub entries (30 June, 31 July 2020). Together, Chris Beasley and I have produced several articles offering “social flesh” as a critical analytic concept to rethink the ways in which governmental practices conceptualize bodies (Bacchi and Beasley 2002, 2005; Beasley and Bacchi 2000, 2005, 2007, 2012). Specifically, we wish to challenge a dominant conceptualization which sets “vulnerable” bodies against other bodies. “Vulnerable” bodies, we argue, reflect a view that people are controlled by their biology, that they are (so to speak) at the mercy of their bodies. This view is contrasted to a perceived autonomous rational actor who keeps the body in line (see Horsell 2020 in relation to conceptions of “disability”). While this dichotomy may appear to be familiar, mapping onto fleshly women versus cerebral men, we show that these conceptualisations do not always map directly onto gender categories (Bacchi and Beasley 2002). To our minds, it follows that there is a need to consider the politics that produces these contrasting ontologies. Our hope is that “social flesh” might serve to disrupt the current dominant neoliberal ethic that privileges autonomous, rational actors who are held responsible for their lives and health. It does this by drawing attention to shared embodied reliance, mutual reliance, of people across the globe on social space, infrastructure and resources (Beasley and Bacchi 2007).

Beasley and I also developed “social flesh” in order to engage with the expansive feminist literature on care, vulnerability and precarity, and the attempts in these developments to contest neoliberal premises about “atomistic individualism” (see McCormack and Salmenniemi 2016, and Koivunen et al. 2018). Our concern with these literatures highlights two points: first, the tendency in some accounts to fall back on presumed individual characteristics (generosity); and second, the often, inadvertent acceptance of a hierarchical relationship between those who can care versus those who need care (e.g. “the vulnerable”).

The article by Rigby et al. provides a useful illustration of our thinking. I will firstly outline how they apply WPR and then focus directly on their contribution to debates around care and caring. Of particular interest is the way in which care enters the analysis through the application of WPR.

Rigby et al. start by discussing how unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are represented and hence produced in specific ways in media reports. They then explain the focus of their analysis: “how the issue is discursively constructed within the policies that have been proposed to ‘address children’s needs’” (Rigby et al. 2019: 3-5; emphasis in original).

Accepting that WPR is “not a formula per se”, a point I have made previously (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24; Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 155), the authors decide to focus on Questions 1 and 4 of a WPR analysis “as a conceptual checklist for our critical reading of the policy document” (see Bacchi WPR CHART). They adopt Keller’s (2013) term “statement-events” as their starting point, which in their careful analysis works well to identify what I call “proposals” and “proposed solutions”. In my view, the latter terms are preferable starting points for two reasons: first, a focus on “proposed solutions” turns the analysis immediately to problematizations – the key to a Foucauldian analysis of governing practices (by seeing what is proposed it is possible to understand what is produced as the “problem”); and second, such a focus also indicates that what is of interest are underlying knowledges rather than language (see Bacchi and Bonham 2014). Rigby et al. (2019: 8) make this very point: “With the ‘refugee crisis’ continuing to evolve, the WPR approach provides a way to open up the knowledges surrounding it and the effects of knowledge production by considering how UASC are constructed and represented in a key policy document”.

The authors begin by identifying problem representations within the “Safeguarding Strategy” (Home Office 2017). They note several underlying assumptions (“field assumptions”; see Research Hub entry 31 May 2020), specifically the distinction drawn between “legal” and “safe” routes of arrival on one side, and “clandestine” and “dangerous” routes on the other. They note how this distinction operates to “make up” (see Hacking 2007) categories of children as less or more deserving of “assistance”, at the same time producing the children as “responsibilised subjects with agency” (Rigby et al. 2019: 8):

‘By emphasising the different routes of arrival, the policy effectively creates an ontological register for the children who are portrayed as exercising their agency in “choosing” to either enter the country legally or illegally’. (Rigby et al. 2019: 13)

The article proceeds to apply the concept of nesting from WPR (Bacchi 2009: 21) to explore how the issues are characterized in relationship to notions of risk. Specifically, the authors argue that a “dividing practice” (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53) operates in the “Safeguarding Strategy” “with profound implications for how children are governed”: “When they face risks, they are just children, but when they embody risk, they are UASC” (Rigby et al. 2019: 10). Those who “embody risk” are associated with clandestine routes of entry and potential radicalization. In terms of governing, to be labelled “at high risk” compared with others “is to be singled out as requiring expert advice, surveillance and self-regulation” (Lupton 1993: 61 in Rigby et al. 2019: 15).

It is through considerations of risk that care enters the analysis. As Rigby et al. (2019: 12) elaborate: “Within this context of embodied risk, care is arguably constituted inter alia as charity and generosity provided by benevolent British individuals”. Emphasis is placed on one-to-one caring relationships, “on micro levels, rather than on care as a macro social practice with institutional and governing implications”.

To the extent that governmental practices are deemed relevant, care of UASC is constituted a moral responsibility of the Government, rather than a human right. This “call to morality” ascribes “safeguarding UASC” to “voluntary moral norms, rather than to its [the Government’s] formal and legal obligations”. In terms of effects (Question 5 in WPR; seeBacchi WPR CHART),

“Representing the Government’s responsibility on the grounds of morality, rather than on the grounds of human rights and international conventions delimits the question of the obligations towards unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children to resettlement.”

It also silences (Question 4 in WPR Bacchi WPR CHART) what happens to the refugees “who will remain unsettled”: “The government’s moral responsibility disappears as soon as the unsettled children are beyond the UK border” (Rigby et al. 2019: 12).

Within these practices, “asymmetrical and hierarchical power relationships are discursively formed between the carer and the beneficiary, the ‘needy’ and those attending to their needs, who are depicted as generous and beneficent” (Rigby et al. 2019: 13). Beasley and I (2007: 293) characterize this relationship as displaying “the residues of noblesse oblige”, effectively denying the socio-political relations that constitute this hierarchy. Rigby et al. (2019: 15 check) drive home the point: “prescriptive understandings of altruism within already hierarchical societies hide alternative, more expansive conceptions of a just and interconnected community, either national or international”. Beasley and I (2007: 279) offer “social flesh” as one such expansive conception, underpinning a profoundly levelling perspective, a radical politics.

The analysis here of how UASC are produced as particular kinds of subjects in the distinction drawn between “legal” and “clandestine” routes of entry maps onto worldwide debates about the legality of adult refugees (Rigby et al. 2019: 13; see Jörgensen 2012, and Wikström and Sténs 2019). In this problematization, care is constituted beneficence, and hence made voluntary and reversible.

In a recognition of social flesh, the shared reliance of embodied humans on social space, infrastructure and resources challenges this characterisation. The “problem” of “care” is recast in ways that raise important questions about the “political responsibility that governments have globally to help this group of children” (Rigby et al. 2019: 15; emphasis added) and other refugees. At a time when governments worldwide are narrowing their purview of political obligations to their “local citizens” (see Gibson and Moran 2020), a call to recognize “social flesh” offers a timely intervention. As Georgia Tacey (Adelaide Advertiser 22 August 2020), consortium director for Save the Children, argues:

‘… if COVID has taught us anything, it’s how interdependent we are on one another both nationally and globally … It’s a false choice to think we can concentrate on Australia’s health. … As our borders will open up sooner rather than later, we need to ensure that the Australian Government continues to strengthen the health systems and livelihoods of other countries.’


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Gibson, J. and Moran, A. 2020. As coronavirus spreads, “it’s time to go home” Scott Morrison tells visitors and international students. ABC News, 4 April. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-03/coronavirus-pm-tells-international-students-time-to-go-to-home/12119568

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