Over the last three entries I have developed the argument that WPR, and its sister strategy, PIA (Poststructural Policy Analysis), can be applied productively to a wide range of materials, including some forms of media texts, interviews, legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (I use upper case “G” to refer to conventional State institutions). I’ve also indicated in articles and Research Hub entries that WPR can usefully be drawn upon to probe the ways in which buildings, ceremonies, maps, governmental technologies, theoretical propositions and concepts constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems.
With all these suggestions to expand the ambit of WPR, it may appear, I fear, that I am on some sort of crusade for world domination! In this entry I intend to elaborate why I find a WPR form of thinking so useful and to examine how it can most effectively be applied.
The basic insight, or theory of interpretation, of WPR thinking is that what we propose to do about something indicates what we “think” needs to change and hence what is deemed to be problematic. It is necessary to start my reflections on the usefulness of WPR by working through just what this statement means and how it can serve as a “template” for critical analysis, dramatically altering the ways we approach “words and things” (Foucault 1966).
I ask you to reflect on some change that you would like to make in some field of policy reform – say, for example, domestic violence or Indigenous affairs. What you propose will necessarily involve some form of change in practices and/or procedures. Your proposal is intended to improve the situation in some way. And, so, your “proposal” (or your “proposed solution”) indicates what you believe needs to change and hence what you consider to be problematic or “a problem”, though you may not use that wording. WPR takes this insight and applies it to governmental (read broadly) interventions.
Foucault captured this form of thinking in his references to the “conduct of conduct” (Gordon 1991: 2). He argued that we need to think about how we are governed in a wide range of practices that attempt to shape our behaviours. We need to remember that in this understanding the term “government” (lower case) has a broader meaning than conventional uses of the term that target specific State institutions. Reflecting a governmentality perspective (see Research Hub 19 Nov. 2018) it involves how order is maintained and how society is administered. Hence, we focus on factors that include the activities of “the State” but that also operate “behind” or “outside” the State (Foucault 2007: 162-163). This focus of analysis embraces the plurality of authorities and professionals that seek to govern conduct.
In WPR, proposals – in an expansive sense – are governmental guides to conduct. Proposed solutions – a term I use as synonymous with proposals – are intended to provide guidance on how to behave. WPR adds the crucial point that we can best understand how governing (understood broadly) takes place by looking at how those proposals (or proposed solutions) problematize an issue and hence produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems (e.g. the introduction of a cashless welfare card produces the “problem” as an inability to manage one’s finances; (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/cashless-welfare-card-expansion-parliament-two-years/12962684).
This argument is captured in the claim that proposals (or proposed solutions) contain implicit problem representations. The goal of a WPR analysis is to explore these problematizations (or “problem representations”; see Research Hub 11 June 2018), considering their presuppositions, limits and effects.
Instead of seeing objects (buildings, maps, etc.) and practices (technologies such as census taking, creating league tables) as (simply) benign and inert, we begin to see them as proposals to shape “conduct”. I repeat the example of school buildings offered by Bottrell and Goodwin (2011: 4) because it makes the point so clearly. They describe how modern schools with their “uni-purpose facilities located on enclosed land, fenced and gated” reflect a “hidden curriculum” that problematizes the moral and cognitive training of young people. That is, the design of the building is a proposal shaping conduct; it problematizes behaviours in specific ways. As another example, Rowse (2009) shows how the current Australian census problematizes Indigenous peoples as part of a population binary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, influencing the shape of possible political claims.
In WPR we proceed to analyse at some depth how these proposals (buildings, censuses) produce “problems” as problems of particular sorts. To perform this analysis, WPR offers several forms of questioning and analysis to use in opening up “words and things” to critical analysis (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).
Where did these questions and forms of analysis come from?
Question 2 involves a form of Foucauldian archaeology, looking to identify the deep-seated knowledges and logics that make particular forms of thought possible. Question 3 turns to Foucauldian genealogy to help grasp the numerous twists and turns that eventuate in a particular problem representation. Question 4 zooms in on the need to think about the silences in specific problem representations and about other possible problematizations. Question 5 highlights the implications or “effects” (discursive, subjectification, lived) of a particular problem representation, while Question 6 draws attention to the specific practices that install and authorize particular problem representations and to the possibility of contestation. Step 7 (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20) emphasizes the importance of applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals or proposed solutions.
Rigby et al. (2021: 507) helpfully refer to the questions in WPR as a “conceptual checklist”. Hence, it is to be expected that there will be overlap and repetition. Question 4, for example, on silences clearly overlaps with the attention directed to “discursive effects” in Question 5. Similarly, Step 7 ought to be seen, not as some simple add-on to the analysis, but as integral to the WPR analytic project.
This emphasis on overlap and interconnection among the WPR questions signals the need to examine possible forms of application. I refer readers here to the 2009 book, Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? There I outlined two forms of application, which I described as either systematic – addressing each WPR question separately and in order (see Chapters 3 and 4 in Analysing Policy) – or integrated, in which the WPR questions do not appear in the text. In the latter, the analysis integrates the WPR questions into a carefully argued whole. To illustrate that the WPR questions are at work in the Chapters where I developed this idea of an integrated analysis, I inserted notations, e.g. Q1, Q2, etc., to signal when a particular question is being applied (see Chapters 5 through 10 in Analysing Policy). My article on “alcohol problems” illustrates how an integrated analysis can be produced (Bacchi 2015).
I explain, in Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 92), that Chapters 3 and 4 systematically address each question in the approach separately and sequentially for two reasons: first, to ensure that every question gets raised; and second, to show how the same material can look slightly different through a different lens (question). I also note, however, that “separation of the questions in a WPR approach is not always necessary or even advisable”.
Indeed, the WPR approach offers a form of critical analysis that is commonly performed by poststructural researchers who have never heard of WPR. I “soaked up” the insights produced by these researchers and “packaged” what I perceived to be the key foci that were addressed. WPR emerged as a prompt to perform poststructural critical analysis. Unsurprisingly, then, researchers may indicate in their methodology section that they are adopting (or adapting) WPR but without listing the WPR questions. They simply proceed to produce the analysis.
I offer Oscar Larsson’s 2021 article as an example (also mentioned in Research Hub entry 30 April 2021). Larsson examines the “preemptive logic of contemporary security and crisis management” to show how “civil and war preparedness are merged into an ever-present dimension of everyday existence”. He offers a “genealogical analysis of this development in Sweden since the end of the Cold War”. His particular interest is the “role now assigned to citizens within social and national security planning”, which he describes as “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject”.
Larsson (2021: 5) opens his “Method and Material” section noting that:
“An analysis concerned with problem and/or subject descriptions – which in this case are descriptions of the characteristics and responsibilities of citizens in respect to crises and war – can fruitfully utilize Carol Bacchi’s unique approach to policy analysis that she terms “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” This method, which is based upon the premise that policy approaches contain implicit representations of what a problem is considered to be, provides a framework for examining security programmes as specific forms of governmentality. (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 28-29)”
Importantly, Larsson does not list or mention the WPR questions. Nor does he refer to the WPR approach other than in the quote I have just reproduced. However, the analysis in his article clearly raises questions associated with the WPR “template” – in particular, the commitment to produce a genealogy of approaches to civil and war preparedness (Question 3 in WPR), and the particular focus on how subjects are produced as resilient (subjectification effects: Question 5 in WPR). Larsson thus provides an example of an integrated analysis where the WPR questions operate in the background, and do not need to be listed.
Does the list of WPR questions remain useful? Are there times when reproducing the Chart from Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2) assists or strengthens an argument? Researchers often adopt the list of questions in total, or choose certain questions from the list, to help structure their analysis. This form of application of the approach can work to ensure that readers are better able to follow the argument that is being developed. The list of questions has also proved popular with postgraduate students to help structure a thesis. The wide acceptance of WPR as an analytic device allows these students and other researchers to put forward the list of WPR questions as a “method”, which can be useful in a number of situations, such as making grant applications.
At times, only some of the WPR questions are selected as the focus for an article or chapter. In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 100-101) I stated that “every question need not always be addressed in every analysis”. I am now more wary of this suggestion because of the tendency, at times, to neglect the interconnected mode of thinking at work in WPR. For example, Step 7 requiring self-problematization commonly disappears from these “tailored” analyses. To guard against this practice, I now state: “In terms of practical application of WPR, it is possible to draw selectively upon the forms of questioning and analysis just described [as part of the approach], so long as a self-problematizing ethic is maintained” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24; emphasis added).
Still, researchers may wish to foreground aspects of their analysis. As an example, a researcher may be particularly interested in the subjectification effects (Question 5 in WPR) of a selected policy or policy proposal. They may not be immediately interested in its genealogy (Question 3). Hence, they can signal this emphasis by stipulating which WPR questions they draw upon. However, it is important to keep in mind how a genealogical focus shapes the argument – how the focus in the analysis is on the ways in which present practices emerged but were not determined. Moreover, while I tread warily the path of imposing aspects of WPR, I have found myself increasingly emphasizing the need to undertake Step 7, to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought” (Stengers 2008: 41-42).
In the end, then, researchers do not need the WPR questions, but they may find them useful. Moreover, I speculate that the mode of questioning associated with WPR offers a way of thinking that can dramatically alter how we approach all sorts of topics – our school buildings above provide an example. The approach produces a new lens for questioning how socio-material relations are organized. It challenges any and all assumed “endpoints”, conceiving them instead as problematizations. As examples, consider the targeting of “issues” in Marres’ work (2007) and “matters of concern” in Latour (2004). Applying a WPR lens, there are no “issues” or “matters of concern” that exist outside contestation. Indeed, as explained in an earlier entry (Research Hub 31 Dec. 2020), I would want to ask: “What is the specified matter of concern represented to be?”. To engage critically with that question, I would apply the WPR analytic “template”: start from proposals (or proposed solutions), work backwards to problem representations that require interrogation, and ensure that one’s own proposals receive the same treatment through self-problematization.
The world looks quite different when we start from proposals in this way and work backwards to see how “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems. It means, of course, that there are no “problems” per se; the term becomes meaningless. I have had students who tell me that they can no longer read a newspaper or go to a film without considering how what is stated produces a “problem” as a particular sort of problem. My hope continues to be that this novel way of thinking provides a counterpoint to the mindset in the policy world and in many other fields of practice that presumes “problems” are obvious and uncontroversial, and that the only required task is “solving” them. The overarching goal, therefore, is to facilitate critical interrogation of the problem-solving knowledge that shapes and dominates the current intellectual and policy landscape (Bacchi 2020).
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. 2015. Problematizations in Alcohol Policy: WHO’s “Alcohol Problems”. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42(2): 130-147.
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.
Bottrell, D., & Goodwin, S. 2011. Contextualising schools and communities. In D. Bottrell, & S. Goodwin (Eds.), Schools, communities and social inclusion. South Yarra: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. 1966. Les mots y les choses. Paris: Gallimard.
Foucault, M. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977‐78, Senellart, M. (ed.), Burchell, G. (trans). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gordon, C. 1991. Governmental Rationality: An Introduction. In Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 1-51.
Larsson, O. L. 2021. The connections between crisis and war preparedness in Sweden. Security Dialogue, 1-19.
Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2): 225-248.
Marres, N. 2007. The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 759-780.
Rowse, T. 2009. The ontological politics of “closing the gaps”. Journal of Cultural Economy, 2 (1&2), 33–48. Stengers, I. (2008) ‘Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism’, Subjectivity, 22, pp. 38-59.