Governing during COVID-19: Normalizing experimentation

COMMENTS:

Almost a year has passed since Jennifer Bonham and I reflected on the early interventions of the Morrison Government in Australia to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic (Research Hub entry 30 April 2020). There we expressed disquiet at the way in which certain populations were treated as “ciphers in a scientific experiment”. Our specific example was the decision to allow child care centres to continue to operate despite the “risks” facing staff and the children in their care. The comment of one child care worker that “They are treating my childcare centre like a petri dish” sparked our concerns. Morrison’s mantra of “No guarantees” signalled, in our view, an experimental ethic we found troubling (Melbourne Age, Saturday 4 April 2020, p. 6).  

I thought it time to consider to what extent our thoughts on “governing through experimenting” may or may not remain relevant a year into the pandemic. The argument I develop below is that over this time experimenting has become increasingly normalized as a mode of governing. That is, it has been generated as a legitimate way to govern, as a kind of “truth” of governing. This entry explains how this has happened and considers how to reflect critically on this development. 

This topic is usefully approached through applying a governmentality perspective. Such a perspective encourages us to step back from the immediate focus on “crisis management” (Curtis 2020) – how to “manage” the pandemic, how to reduce the number of “cases”, how to “flatten curves”, how to get people to “socially distance” – to reflect on the broader issues of how governing is taking place and our location within these governing stratagems. Approaching the question of governing during COVID-19 from a governmentality perspective means attending to the specific practices involved in that governing and how these constitute a certain “mode of governing”, a certain rationality or rationale that Bonham and I characterize as “experimenting”, and how these practices produce us as particular kinds of subjects.

As discussed in the earlier entry (30 April 2020) it is necessary to put these reflections within a broader frame of reference – to consider how experimenting has become increasingly legitimized and recognized as a form of government intervention but, even more than this, to consider how experimenting could be used to describe just about any policy. On the former point Sabel and Zeitlin (2008) describe how “experimentalist governance” has become a popular system of governance in the EU and the US. The latter for example saw the development of formal policy experiments to test the effectiveness of various welfare-to-work and job training schemes, as well as education initiatives (John 2013). The recent “trials” of a Cashless Welfare Card in Australia indicate something approximating this “experimentalist” mode of governing, though there is no explicit description of the program in such terms (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/cashless-welfare-card-expansion-parliament-two-years/12962684).

The broader claim – that all policy is experimentation – reflects on the guiding premise in evidence-based approaches that efforts to “improve” society need to consider “what works”. Elsewhere I (2020) have described how this way of thinking about policy fits a “problem-solving” logic where interventions are tested to assess effectiveness in “fixing” pre-set and taken-for-granted “problems”. We can recognize here the scientific model of setting and evaluating hypotheses. As a critical intervention I highlight the need to question the existence of pre-set “problems” and to show how these are actually products of specific policy formulations (Bacchi 2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

If all policy, as argued here, is experimenting, what is different about the COVID-19 situation? Why is it useful to draw attention to the ways in which governing becomes experimenting in this specific case? First, in the current situation, there are no overt claims that experimenting is going on. So, we are not talking about the kind of “experimentalist governance” described by Sabel and Zeitlen (2008). In fact, to the contrary, there are increasing attempts to assert a more authoritative approach to governing. We now hear about how governments are dealing with “an evolving situation”, how they must in certain instances “hold their nerve” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-22/nsw-premier-gladys-berejiklian-faces-test-coronavirus-christmas/13006984)and how they are getting to know the virus better (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020: 8). In relation to COVID-19 interventions the Morrison mantra “no guarantees” (see above) hasn’t been heard in months and is unlikely to be used again. My suggestion here is that the impression that governments are simply trying out different policy interventions until something works would not sit comfortably with the assumed character of government decision-making as well-informed and authoritative. 

At the same time an experimental approach, while not described as such, becomes understandable given the “uncertainty” of the “evolving” situation. COVID-19 is characterized as a “crisis”, an “emergency”, driven by “uncertainty”. Hence, specific intrusive policy interventions (think of mandatory mask-wearing, curfews, etc.) are described as out of character, as something that will go away when the crisis abates. In these “crisis” conditions “citizens” are asked to allow the government a certain leeway. As Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 10) point out: “it is important to build individual willingness to engage in preventive or emergency behaviours proposed by an authoritative agent (Jasanoff 2007; Cairns et al., 2013)”.

O’Malley (2004) usefully reminds us that “uncertainty” and “risk” are constructs rather than natural states of things. He describes these “neo-liberal concepts” as complementary techniques for governing diverse aspects of life. Pellizzoni (2011) agrees. Pre-COVID he made the case that uncertainty has become a way of governing, a technology of governing: “Uncertainty, thus, is seen no more as a circumscribed situation on which to build a few strategic decisions, but as an empowering everyday condition”. Describing the orientation as neoliberal, he notes: “proper calculations of risk are seen as an exception, while reasoned bets over unpredictable futures are regarded as the rule”. The invoking of “uncertainty” also works paradoxically to “reinforce the authority of expertise” (Demeritt 2001: 327), clearly illustrated in the current reliance on the (often contradictory) messages of epidemiologists.

It would be difficult to question the characterization of current world COVID-19 experiences as “crisis”. Still, Cordero (2016: 129) provides a timely caution. He notes: “For if there is something true about crisis, it is precisely that in such moments of distress truth becomes a political problem and therefore an open site of struggles”. I see the question of “truth” as relevant at two levels: first, in asserting the existence of crisis, and second, in producing ways of understanding the “crisis”. Here, I am particularly interested in how an understanding of COVID-19 as crisis encourages experimenting as a mode of governing. 

It may appear that by questioning experimentation I am positing the need for a firmer, more authoritarian style of rule. Such is not my intention especially as, in the case of COVID-19, questions about which experiments to undertake are precisely to do with which forms of authoritarian intervention are justified (restrictions on movement, tracking devices, electronic bracelets on quarantined subjects, prison, curfews, etc.). The logics of experimentation and authoritarianism are not opposed to each other; they are in effect complementary. As Petersen (1996: 56) noted, some time ago, 

“In a context of uncertainty, all manner of interventions, which at other times or in other circumstances might be considered intrusive, oppressive, discriminatory or paternalistic, can be justified as being for the protection of the ‘at risk’ individual and ultimately of benefit to ‘society’ as a whole; for example, forms of public surveillance and mass screening.”

In line with a governmentality approach, this Research Hub entry aims neither at endorsing nor condemning specific courses of action; rather, the point of the exercise is to highlight the array of interventions as governing techniques and to subject them to critical interrogation. To this end, it is important to see what they include within, and exclude from, their terms of reference, to examine their underlying presuppositions and to consider how subjects are constituted within them (see WPR questions in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). On the last point O’Malley (2004) elaborates: 

“These analyses would include examining the diverse ways in which risk and uncertainty might shape the kinds of subjects we are to be made into, the practices through which we will be expected to govern ourselves, and the ways we will be expected to imagine the world and prepare for the future”.

As an example, I think it worth exploring the emergence and development of tracking devices, specifically the widespread use of QR [Quick Response] codes in South Australia (and increasingly in other parts of Australia) (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-covid-qr-codes-in-south-australia/12937756). Almost overnight South Australians have faced the obligation to scan a kind of bar code that conveys their whereabouts to SA Health. This scanning practice occurs at numerous types of venue, including shops selling food and apparel, gymnasiums, hairdressers (and the list goes on). 

Public officials have asserted that information will be discarded after 28 days but there has been little public discussion about privacy considerations or about the need for legislation to protect privacy (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-03/privacy-concerns-with-qr-code-contact-tracing-in-south-australia/12844050).  Public health officials have suggested that QR codes be retained post-pandemic (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-01/thought-bubble-to-retain-qr-codes-draw-fire-in-south-australia/13108786); however, the Police Commission, Grant Stevens, rejected the notion (https://indaily.com.au/news/2021/02/01/qr-codes-are-for-covid-only-stevens-rejects-spurriers-extension-call/).

How are subjects constituted within this practice? Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 9) point out that the full range of approaches to controlling COVID-19 include an aspect of “responsibilization” – the implication that citizen subjects are responsible for the outcomes of the pandemic. Such is the case with QR codes. While customers are instructed to “check in” using the SA Government QR app, the public has been encouraged to take on this task as a kind of civic duty. They have responded enthusiastically. I am reminded of Bigo’s (2010: 20) study of the uptake of “regulated mobility” in “smart borders”:

“Not only do large groups of those travelling accept new technologies of surveillance and strong intrusive techniques concerning their privacy, but so also are such groups happy, considering themselves more safe and more free now that they can move with ease and safety” (my emphases)”.

Likewise in Sweden, Larsson (2020: 1) shows how crisis management interventions promoted by the Swedish government produce “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject who is willing to accept uncertainty and shoulder greater individual responsibility for her own security”.  

QR codes, I suggest, offer an experimental mode for contact tracing . At the same time, they indicate a willingness to experiment with authoritarian oversight of citizen behaviours. In my view they are a perfect illustration of how experimenting has become normalized, how it has become acceptable to govern through experimenting. 

But surely, I’ve been asked, isn’t such an approach required in these times of crisis and change? I am not disputing the need for such interventions. Rather I am suggesting that a range of important questions goes unasked in their all too enthusiastic adoption. Schroth (2016) makes the important point that experiments reduce the “enigmatic world” to what are deemed to be manageable proportions. Illustrating how this happens, the focus on experimental interventions (such as QR codes) to “control the spread” of the virus produces a tendency to concentrate on what Waleed Aly (2020) calls “the symptoms” of a crisis. We are encouraged to see such “technologies” as “solving” (albeit in a piecemeal fashion) the “problem” of contagion. There is no space in this reactive approach to consider how we have got here – how pandemics, for example, are an increasing likelihood due to a range of practices such as deforestation (Zimmer 2011). In this post-hoc mode of thought, experimenting, as it is practised in current responses to COVID-19 – and one could consider including “climate change” (Lidskog et al. 2020) –, amounts to tinkering, to fiddling while Rome burns.  

References

Aly, W. 2020. Get to the root of mess. The Melbourne Age, Saturday 26 Dec., p. 48.

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

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

Bigo, D. 2010. Freedom and Speed in Enlarged Borderzones.

 In V. Squire 2010. The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. Routledge.

Cairns, G., de Andrade, M., and MacDonald, L. (2013). Reputation, relationships, risk communication, and the role of trust in the prevention and control of communicable disease: a review. J. Health Com. 18, 1550–1565. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2013.840696 

Cordero, R. 2016 Making Things More Fragile: The Persistence of Crisis and the Neoliberal Disorder of Things – Michel Foucault. In R. Cordero, Crisis and Critique: On the Fragile Foundations of Social Life.  NY: Routledge.  

Curtis, K. 2020. Out of the pan and into an election? Australians may need time to recuperate in 2021 after a year of crisis management by the federal government. The Melbourne Age, Saturday 26 Dec., p. 42.

Demeritt, D. 2001. The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(2): 307-337.

Jasanoff, S. (2007). Technologies of humility: citizen participation in governing science. Nature 450:33. doi: 10.1038/450033a

John, P. 2013. Policy entrepreneurship in UK central government: The behavioural insights team and the use of randomized controlled trials. Public Policy and Administration 29: 257–267.

Larsson, O. 2020. The connections between crisis and war preparedness in Sweden. Security Dialogue, 1-19.

Lidskog, R., Elander, J. and Standring, A. 2020. COVID-19, the Climate, and Transformative Change: Comparing the Social Anatomies of Crises and their Regulatory Responses. Sustainability, 12, 633; doi:10.3390/su12166337 

O’Malley, P. 2004. Risk, Uncertainty and Government. NY: Routledge. 

Petersen, A. 1996. Risk and the regulated self: the discourse of health promotion as politics of uncertainty. ANZJS, 32(1): 44-57.

Sabel, C. F. and Zeitlin, J. 2008. Learning from difference: The new architecture of experimentalist governance in the EU. European Law Journal 14: 271–327.

Schroth, F. 2016.The Politics of Governance Experiments: Constructing the Clean Development Mechanism. PhD thesis, Berlin Institute of Technology. 

Sjölander-Lindqvist, S., Larsson, S., Fava, N., Gillberg, N., Marcianò, C. and Cinque, S. 2020. Communicating About COVID-19 in Four European Countries: Similarities and Differences in National Discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Frontiers in Communication, Volume 5, Article 593325. Zimmer, C. 2011. A Planet of Viruses. University of Chicago Press.

Poststructuralism and Critical Realism: Revisited

Content

The issue of the status assigned conceptual categories, considered in the last entry, marks a clear distinction between poststructuralism and critical realism (see also Research Hub 1 Feb. 2019). Wendy Larner (2008: 23), for example, points out that Stenson’s (2008) “realist governmentality” takes key terms such as “white flight”, the “knowledge economy” and “social capital” as “self-evident descriptors of the terrain being analysed” in his study of “community safety” in the UK Thames Valley region. As Larner explains, in treating these “entities” as “real”, the politics involved in their formation disappears from the analysis.  

But how useful is this form of poststructural questioning of key concepts? In a recent defence of critical realism Alex Stevens (2020: 2) argues that ontologically oriented research, which he calls “radical constructionism”, leads to political paralysis. In his view, the argument that “scientific processes produce their objects” (Moore 2011: 82 in Stevens 2020: 2) cannot provide a sound basis for analysis: “All it can do is throw up a ‘multiplicity’ of competing ‘forms of reality’ (Moore 2011: 85)” (Stevens 2020: 2). Rather, says Stevens (2020: 2), researchers have to embrace a “conceptual framework” that accepts an external reality (such as Stenson’s self-evident descriptors) as a backdrop to their analyses. Critical realism, he argues, provides such a framework. 

valentine and Seear (2020) offer a robust commentary on Stevens’ article and I recommend reading it in its entirety (see also Howarth et al. 2020). For my purposes, I am interested in valentine’s and Seear’s insights into the impact of STS (Science and Technology Studies) research on policy developments in alcohol and other drug research. They elaborate the point made by Larner about the need to make visible the “made-in-practice status of realities” by opening up these categories to critical analsyis. Their examples of such “made-in-practice realities” include: “knowledge”, “evidence”, “data”, and “drug effects” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2). They also emphasize that ontopolitical research of this sort is not intended simply to “highlight the multiplicity of realities”: “It is rather a political response to particular realities, those that produce and reproduce social injustices” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2). 

The point I am making in this entry complements this analysis. If, as I and others argue, researchers need to interrogate their own categories of analysis in order to offer “useful knowledge”, then poststructuralism becomes an essential research tool. It alerts researchers to the ways in which their views of what is real are contingent and provisional. It is not an optional extra or an annoying detour – it is a necessary part of useful political reflection. This mode of critical analysis seems particularly important to those embarking on “ontopolitically-oriented research”. To repeat a point made in an earlier Research Hub entry (30 Nov 2020), the terms we adopt are not innocent “explanatory” devices; instead, they play a central role in “world making” (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 4). 

In several places Stevens attempts to lay bare what he sees as clear inconsistencies in poststructural argumentation. He offers a version of the commonly made argument that the challenge of poststructuralism to notions of “truth” is itself a truth claim (see fn 2 regarding Law’s [2004: 155] statement that “there are no general rules”, which Stevens identifies as itself a general maxim, or rule.). This rather tired argument neglects a key point. Poststructuralism is not an epistemological theory; it is a political stance. It does not offer a “god’s eye” or a “we know better” (Stengers 2008) view. Rather, its claims and arguments are developed in the name of political commitments to progressive change, with “progressive” open to discussion and debate. To repeat Mol’s (2002: 151) contention, quoted in the last Research Hub entry, “veracity is not the point. Instead it is interference”.

There is a good deal at stake in these discussions. We are talking about key decisions to do with directions in research strategy. With Joan Eveline (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 157) I have argued against the conclusion that the best poststructuralism can offer researchers are “throw-away explanations” (Chia 1996: 49). By contrast, poststructuralism prompts an interrogation of all taken-for-granted concepts and precepts, including our own such precepts, leading to a practice of self-problematization (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 38-41). I see such a critical intervention as bridging tensions between “compositionism” and “the guerrilla of ontological interferences” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54; see previous Research Hub entry).

Next time I hope to offer a much-needed update on my reflections with Jennifer Bonham on governing through experimentation in a time of COVID-19 (see Research Hub entry, 30 April 2020).

References

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

Chia, R. 1996. The problem of reflexivity in organisational research. Organization, 3(1): 31-59.

Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. Power, resistance and reflexive practice. In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline (Eds) Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

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

Larner, W. 2008. Comments on Kevin Stenson’s “Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety”, Social Work & Society   6(1): 21-25.

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

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

Moore, D. 2011. The ontological politics of knowledge production: Qualitative research in the multidisciplinary drug field. In S. Fraser and D. Moore (Eds) The drug effect: Health, crime and society (pp. 73-90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Stengers, I. 2008. Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism. Subjectivity, 22: 38-59.

Stenson, K. (2008). Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety.  Social Work & Society  6(1): 1-14.

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

valentine, K. and Seear, K. 2020. Commentary on Alex Stevens (2020) Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 84: 102879. 

Critical interventions: What’s a researcher to do?

Content:

Given the suggestion in the two previous Research Hub entries (30 Nov 2020; 31 Dec. 2020) that researchers ought to engage in ontopolitically-oriented research, in this entry I ask – what is the feasibility of this proposal? How “free” are researchers to determine the subject matter of their research? How “free” are they/we to select the reality they wish to create or “to care for the realities we bring into being through our sociomaterial research practices” (Dennis 2020: 82)? What constraints do they/we face? For heuristic purposes, I suggest we consider this topic from three interconnected directions – first, considering overt constraints on access to material; next, reflecting on the pressures imposed on researchers by the need for funding; and finally, examining the extent to which researcher subjectivities are influenced by external factors such as funding, affecting their research topics and methods, illustrating subjectification processes (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53). 

Considering the first form of constraint, some analysts address the challenges facing researchers who have to negotiate with and “service” groups with specific agendas and abundant resources. In a provocative and deeply troubling article on education policy in the Russian Federation, Aydarova (2020) describes how:

“The pursuit of truth in policy proposals for reform designs entails navigating contentious spaces of fiction-making, fakery, and duplicitous performances, sometimes involving researchers themselves.” 

She draws on Bakhtin’s (1984) writing on jokers’ pursuit of truth to “reimagine the possibilities of navigating research with the powerful”. As Aydarova explains, assuming the stance of the “joker” raises unavoidable questions about researcher ethics “in the post-truth era”.  

Concerning the second area of “constraint”, some researchers are particularly sensitive to the often-nepotistic relationship between researchers and “the State”, due to funding arrangements. Skilbrei (2020), for example, notes the pressure placed on researchers to be “relevant” in terms defined by government funders. Writing on her experience of researching migration policy in Norway, she notes: 

“What is researched about migration at any given time, and thus what is known about migrants, is political in the sense that the research is directly or indirectly influenced by the priorities of politicians, bureaucrats, and NGOs.” (Skilbrei 2020: 3)

In response, Skilbrie calls upon researchers to develop “reflexivity … as they take part in producing the realities they seek to describe”:

“By investigating the relationship between research and the context of knowledge, I seek to perform what Loïc Wacquant (2011) calls ‘epistemic reflection’.” (Skilbrei 2020: 3)

Isabelle Stengers issues a more generalized plea not to allow one’s research to be captured by a “State agenda” or by the narrow kind of “relevance” she associates with the “Knowledge Economy” (Muecke 2018). As noted in the last Research Hub entry (31 Dec 2020), Stengers’ proposal to develop a “symbiotic” relationship between researchers and those researched necessitates that “State’s preferences” not receive “undue attention” (Fraser 2020: 4). In her view the call for researcher “reflexivity” is limited in its usefulness: “it can easily mean paying attention to defects and biases to be avoided, and for instance to the way our own discrimination patterns and habits negatively affect the knowledge we produce” (Stengers 2008: 46). According to Stengers (2008: 41-42) there is a need to go further, to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought”. This proposition takes us beyond any suggestion that researchers can simply ignore or limit attention to “State’s preferences”. More complex dynamics, captured in the notion of subjectification (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53), are involved in shaping exactly the kinds of research undertaken. 

Tania Li, for example, investigates how researchers, of necessity, play a role in “rendering technical” their projects and proposals. She (2014) describes the compromised role of anthropologists who “have to translate our dense, situated knowledge of people, places, and processes into a technical matrix of a manageable, fundable kind.” I consider this form of “constraint” as relevant to the topic of subjectivity since our theoretical training encourages the almost automatic triggering of this perspective. We do not necessarily consciously design research to fit a technical matrix; we (simply) understand research in those terms due to the pervasiveness of “problem-solving knowledge” (Bacchi 2020). As Pienaar et al. (2018: 17) put it:

“… policy is driven by an imperative to construct problems as soluble, i.e. in terms amenable to technical solutions (Murray Li, 2007; see Li, T. 2007). This imperative shapes the perceived need to press forward with policy proposals and recommendations, even where much remains unknown about the character and extent of the ‘problem’.” 

Tracing a related dynamic, I have written about how researchers become invested in “problems” set by the State, simply because of the way funding operations function (Bacchi 2008; see also Research Hub entry, 6 August 2018, on “The Investment in Problems”). Stephen Ball (2001: 266) highlights the way in which funding-driven research makes researchers “think about ourselves as individuals who calculate about ourselves”. De Shalit et al. (2020) describe how resources for anti-human trafficking initiatives can de facto encourage organisations to develop new, or re-purpose existing, programming under a trafficking rubric. It is this dynamic – the imperative to marshal “evidence” to indicate “what works” in relation to pre-set “problems” of “the State” – that most convincingly exposes the tragic limitation of so-called “evidence-based policy”, and the pressing need for WPR forms of intervention (see Lancaster 2014; Lancaster and Rhodes 2020a).  

In this situation, what does it mean to say that researchers can select a reality to create? I recall here Mol’s and Messman’s (1996: 422) advice to PhD students who wish to formulate a research project, to consider not “what we want to know”, but “what we want to do”. As Mol (2002: 151) puts it, “veracity is not the point. Instead it is interference”. I would argue that the most challenging dimension of the dilemma facing researchers who wish to make such a critical intervention is devising some way to check or examine their own premises – to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought” (see Stengers 2008: 41-42, above). To reflect on this issue, I turn to self-problematization. 

In two earlier Research Hub entries (21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018), titled “The Reflexivity Quagmire”, I distinguish between reflexivity and self-problematization. There I stress that self-problematization is a practice of the self, an exercise in which one subjects one’s own recommendations and proposals to a WPR analysis (see Bacchi 2018: 10). Self-problematization is a key component in a WPR analysis – now identified as Step 7 (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20) in order hopefully to ensure that it is included by researchers who adopt or adapt WPR. It involves a practice of applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals. Its clear and obvious goal is to assist in alerting researchers to the extent to which their own worldviews shape their analyses. 

In the Research Hub entry titled “WPR, Foucault and Nominalist Critique Part 2” (31 October 2020) I explain how self-problematization leads researchers to interrogate their own and other categories of analysis. For example, I note how Horsell (2020), in his critical commentary on Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), deploys WPR to contest the “fixed concepts and categories (such as fixed and homogeneous conceptualisations of disability) that shape policy formulation”.  As stated in that entry, “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.”

I pursue the issue of the status of conceptual categories in research next time in a renewed reflection on Critical Realism. 

References

Aydarova, E. 2020. Joker’s pursuit of truth: critical policy analysis in the age of spectacle and post-truth politics. Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2020.1831566 

Bacchi, C. 2008. The politics of research management: Reflections on the gap between what we “know” [about SDH] and what we do. Health Sociology Review, 27(2): 165-176. 

Bacchi, C. 2018. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 3-14.

Bacchi, C. 2020. Problem-solving as a governing knowledge: “Skills”-testing in PISA and PIAAC. Open Journal of Political Science, 10: 82-105. 

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

Ball, S. J. 2001. “You’ve been NERFed!” Dumbing down the academy: National Educational Research Forum: “A national strategy – consultation paper”. A brief and bilious response. Journal of Education Policy, 16(3): 265-268. 

Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and his world. Indiana University Press.

Dennis, F. 2020. Mapping the Drugged Body: Telling Different Kinds of Drug-using Stories. Body & Society, 26(3): 61-93.  

De Shalit, A., van der Meulen, E. and Guta, A. 2020. Social service responses to human trafficking: the making of a public health problems. Culture, Health and Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2020.1802670 

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 Policyhttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.102610

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

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

Lancaster, K. 2014. Social construction and the evidence-based drug policy endeavour. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25: 948-951. 

Lancaster, K. and Rhodes, T. 2020a. What prevents health policy being “evidence-based”? New ways to think about evidence, policy and interventions in health. British Medical Bulletin, 1-12. doi: 10.1093/bmb/ldaa026 

Li, T. 2007. The will to improve: Governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Li, T. 2014. Anthropological Engagements with Development », Anthropologie & dévelopment [Online], https://journals.openedition.org/anthropodev/495

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

Mol, A. and Messman, J. 1996. Neonatal Food and the Politics of Theory: Some questions of method. Social Studies of Science, 26: 419-444.

Muecke, S. 2018. Why “slow science” can improve the way we do and interpret research. The Conversation, 29 January 2018.

Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-slow-science-can-improve-the-way-we-do-and-interpret-research-90168

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

Pienaar, K., Murphy, D., Race, K. & 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.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.01.008.

Skilbrei, M. 2020. Taking on the categories, terms and worldviews of the powerful: the pitfalls of trying to be relevant, Identities, DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1805884

Stengers, I. 2008. Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism. Subjectivity, 22: 38-59.Wacquant, L. 2011. From “Public Criminology” to the Reflexive Sociology of Criminological Production and Consumption: A Review of Public Criminology? Ian Loader and Richard Sparks. British Journal of Criminology, 51 (2): 438–448. doi:10.1093/bjc/azr002.

WPR, theory and politics

Content

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.  

References

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.

References 

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