Given the new year is upon us, it seems timely to reflect on the possibilities and challenges involved in starting a WPR analysis from scratch.
I ask you to imagine that you have just encountered the WPR approach for the first time, and you are wondering how it can be of use to you in your selected field or with the specific topic that has attracted your interest.
I feel better able to engage with this question at the moment as I have recently been involved in exactly this exercise – asking myself what it means to apply WPR to a new field of interest. I will share more of these details in several months’ time once the project is completed.
To begin, it is necessary to reflect on whether or not WPR is suited to the project you have in mind. What kind of analysis is WPR intended to undertake and does this kind of project fit your goals?
WPR provides a means to build up an understanding of, and to interrogate, how governing takes place. Importantly, it adopts a view of governing that embraces more than conventional political institutions. The goal is to develop a fine-grained picture of the complex and intermingled factors and forces shaping lives. A particular emphasis is placed on the “knowledges” involved in governing, and hence on the role of experts and professionals. So, for example, it becomes important to think about the ways in which premises from psychology and related fields shape governing mechanisms. The place of behavioural economics in “nudge theory” (Research Hub entry, 26 Nov. 2017) offers an example. Note that WPR does not operate at the level of people’s assumptions – if this is what interests you, you need to find a different analytic framework. In WPR the goal is to identify and interrogate the epistemological and ontological assumptions required to give a specific policy (read broadly) meaning.
As we saw in the last entry (30 December 2022) it is possible to start one’s analysis from a piece of legislation or government report, and to show how it relies upon deep-seated presuppositions (“knowledges” such as behavioural economics) to make sense. I talk there about using pieces of legislation as “levers” to open up governing practices to critical questioning (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18, 20). Another way to say this is to say that WPR looks to open up and examine the “space being governed”, or the “problem-space” (Walters 2004: 247). To this end we explore governmental problematizations.
Here it is useful to remember that, for WPR, “government”, in the broad sense just described, is best approached as a “problematizing activity” (Rose and Miller 1992: 181). Osborne (1997, p. 174) concurs that “policy cannot get to work without first problematizing its territory.” That is, in order for something to be governed, or imagined as governable, it needs to be problematized (Packer, 2003, p. 136). Problematizations therefore provide a useful starting place to reflect on how governing takes place.
Your first objective therefore is to see how your selected topic of interest is being problematized. The fact that something is the target of legislation – think for example of the National Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy 1995/97 – means that the situation or condition is being problematized in a particular way. In Analysing Policy (2009: 4), I show how the approach to youth suicide as a “problem” in the Prevention Strategy encompasses psychologists, parents and researchers. You can see here how the notion of “governing” is broadened beyond the legislative instrument to include a wide-ranging array of groups, and also how it becomes useful to ask what kind of “problem” “youth suicide” is represented to be.
Once you determine that your area/topic of interest is usefully approached through the lens of problematization, you face three tasks:
- Expand your understanding of the history, background and “context” of your selected area of interest.
- Select specific proposals to gain access to the problematizations at work.
- Apply the WPR questions to your identified problematizations.
I will run through each of these tasks, outlining what they entail.
One last and important introductory point needs to be made. To say that governing takes place through problematizations does not mean that these ways of conceptualizing an issue are automatically adopted and/or effective. Miller and Rose (1990: 10) describe “government” as a “congenitally failing operation”, requiring continuous and repeated efforts to shape citizen behaviours. At the same time, it is important to consider the effects problem representations have on people and practices, undertaken in Question 5 of WPR (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). For example, we can reflect on the influence of “nudge theory” on specific policy areas and how “nudges” may shape people’s behaviours (they are certainly aimed at this outcome). This stance retains space for both resistance and contestation.
Task 1: History, background and “context”
Starting a WPR analysis from scratch entails a good deal of reading and research. Usually, you choose a topic because it interests you and you probably already have some background. Still, it is useful to approach the task of building one’s understanding of the situation systematically. I suggest developing a “web of policies”, and allied texts, to show how your selected topic fits into a larger picture or pictures. This web will involve you necessarily in thinking of the long-term development of specific policy interventions. Here, I stress the importance of a “genealogical sensibility” (Research Hub entry 30 July 2022). In genealogy we are not looking for causes but for linkages, and we are not tracing path dependence but acknowledging contingency. This task can be wide-ranging and can take you in directions you had not anticipated. It is important to keep an open mind about possible connections among particular developments. In addition, the task of “filling in” context is not a descriptive exercise; instead, it is necessary to pay attention to how “contexts” are themselves represented (Bacchi 2009: 21).
The task of exploring “context” extends in a second direction – to reflect on connections among aspects of your selected topic and wide-ranging philosophical perspectives. Why philosophical perspectives, you may ask? Because invariably stances on political issues involve views on a range of related topics – e.g., the usefulness or not of education, the purpose of migration policies, the meaning of equity in relation to equality, and so on. These topics – which are offered as examples – are grounded in competing pedagogical philosophies, conceptions of human justice, and meanings of equality.
In Analysing Policy (2009: 21, 56) I suggest that the concept of “nesting” may assist you in dealing with these complex connections. The point here is to recognize that any policy will necessarily intersect with specific views on related philosophical issues. To deal with Question 2 in WPR on epistemological and ontological assumptions requires that we reflect on these intersections and how they influence the selected topic or topic area.
In Women, Policy and Politics (Bacchi 1999: Chapter 6), for example, I show how competing approaches to reform in the area of girls and education are grounded in competing problematizations of educational practices. If one adopts a critical stance on education – seeing it as more oppressive than emancipatory – it is unlikely that a researcher will endorse proposals to increase women’s representation in higher education institutions as a means to promote “women’s equality”. “Nesting” therefore alerts you to the need to ask the WPR questions at several stages of the analysis. In this case it would be necessary to ask, “What is the ‘problem’ of ‘education’ represented to be?” and also “What is the ‘problem’ of ‘equality’ represented to be?”
In terms of “context”, it is also important to remember that WPR aims to assist us to understand patterns in forms of governmental problematization, which are described as “styles of problematization”. Basically, problematizations allow access to the “thinking” in modes of rule. They do this through a focus on the rationales (or rationalities) offered for specific modes of rule and through examining how specific governmental technologies operate – the means by which governing becomes practicable. By examining the “problem-space” in governing practices, we can identify the logics/rationalities at work and place them under scrutiny. It is important here not to enshrine a particular mode of rule, such as neo-liberalism, as some sort of ideal type or determining influence (see Larner 2000).
Finally, as you prepare yourself to see what WPR can bring to your analysis, it is important to read widely in the literature on the topic. I emphasize in particular the need to seek out critical literature. It can be difficult for researchers to perceive the impact of accepted frames of reference on their analysis and critical literature can stimulate fresh perspectives.
Task 2: Select specific proposals to gain access to the problematizations at work.
With our broadened background, the next task becomes finding proposals or proposed solutions that engage issues that you deem to be relevant. To this end we examine what Foucault calls “practical texts” or “prescriptive texts”, which provide guides to conduct (Bacchi 2009: 34).
WPR starts from the premise that what one proposes to do about something indicates what is targeted as needing to change and hence what is rendered problematic, or “the problem” (Bacchi 2009: 2-3). This simple premise provides researchers with guidance on how to approach their selected text/s. But what are proposals? And how are we to identify them?
Proposals can take several forms. Often a selected text will have recommendations within it, and it is fairly clear that recommendations for change are proposals for change (see also “aims”). But the process of problematization is much more nebulous than this example suggests. If a text, for example, praises initiatives aimed at developing (more) social cohesion, you can read this comment as a problematization, proposing the need to increase social cohesion (i.e. the “problem” is represented to be inadequate social cohesion). If you are looking for key terms that may provide assistance in identifying proposals, I find the word “should” a useful option. When a text suggests that something should be done (see also “must” and “shall”), it can often be read as a proposal to achieve a specific goal.
It needs to be remembered that you are looking for proposals simply to provide a focus for the remaining WPR questions. They are a way “in” to your text of choice. I often use the example of training programs for women as a reform targeting the goal of increasing women’s representation in positions of influence. As I say: if training programs are the proposal, the problem is represented to be women’s lack of training (Bacchi 2009: x). So, I talk about starting from the proposal/s and “working backwards” to identify the problem representation, OR about “reading off” the implicit problem representation/s from the proposal/s.
I’m asked if this sort of thinking produces WPR as necessarily negative in its thinking. In contrast, I argue that women’s “lack of training” serves only as a starting point for your analysis. It helps to open up the topic area or “problem space” in useful ways. And it does this without imposing an interpretation on the issue under consideration. The problem representation emerges from the text itself.
Task 3: Apply the WPR questions to your identified problematizations or problem representations.
The most recent version of the WPR questions is available in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, p. 20. The questions are challenging to apply primarily because they rely upon a range of theoretical perspectives, including perspectives on power, social change, conceptions of the subject, and so on. Chapter 3 in Bacchi and Goodwin offers a basic introduction to these concepts.
Question 2 brings to attention some underlying premises and presuppositions (conceptual logics) that help to make the identified problem representation/s intelligible. It’s helpful to think about the governing “knowledges” (e.g., behavioural economics) mentioned above and their pivotal contribution to governing practices. You can see here that the focus in this form of analysis is not on producing “truth” but on interrogating the mechanisms that produce something as “true” or as “in the true” (Foucault 1991: 58).
Question 3 invites a genealogy of an identified problematization. How did this representation of the “problem” come to be? In WPR there is no search for ultimate causes; rather, the emphasis is on contingency and heterogeneity.
Question 4 asks what is not problematized in this particular problem representation. The goal here is to broaden the conversation and to draw attention to aspects of the issue that have been ignored. Researchers use this question to search out critical perspectives that deserve reflection.
Question 5 targets effects, or implications. I talk about effects under three headings: discursive, subjectification and lived. Most recently I have suggested that objectification also needs to be explicitly included ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 17 August 2022).
Question 6 invites more attention to the specific practices that install particular knowledge regimes and problematizations. It also specifies the need to seek out signs of resistance.
Step 7 draws attention to the key importance of self-problematization. The point here is to recognize that every researcher is embedded in specific knowledge regimes and hence there is every likelihood that they could buy into assumptions and presuppositions that require interrogation. Whereas many research fields refer to the need for “reflexivity”, I suggest that we need to conceive of this self-questioning practice as a practice of the self – actually applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals.
Importantly, WPR is not a formula. Moreover, the questions are clearly interconnected. Still, many researchers find it useful to adopt the list of WPR questions to structure their argument. PhD and Masters’ students often find this approach helpful. However, it is also possible simply to allow the questions to operate in the background of an analysis, without addressing each question separately. I refer to this form of application as an integrated analysis. Examples of how to produce integrated analyses are available in Bacchi 2009, Chapters 5 through 10.
I am asked if some of the WPR questions can be omitted, and others targeted. I can see why this proposition may appear necessary given the complexity involved in producing a genealogy, for example. Since I have just made the point that the questions can operate in the background and may not need mentioning at all, it would appear that foregrounding certain questions is feasible. At the same time the WPR questions form part of a way of thinking, a way of thinking reliant on a range of epistemological and ontological assumptions (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, Chapter 3). Indeed, it would be possible and could be useful to apply WPR to WPR in order to open up these grounding premises to critical interrogation. I will consider such a project in the near future.
In the meantime, enjoy!
Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. London: Sage.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. 1991. Politics and the study of discourse. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Larner, W. 2000. Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality. Studies in Political Economy, 63: 5-25.
Miller, P., & Rose, N. 1990. Governing economic life. Economy and Society, 19 (1), 1–31.
Osborne, T. 2003. What is a problem? History of the Human Sciences, 16, 1–17.
Packer, J. 2003. Disciplining mobility: Governing and safety. In Z. Bratich, J. Packer, & C. McCarthy (Eds.),
Foucault, cultural studies and governmentality (pp. 135–161). New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
Rose, N., & Miller, P. 1992. Political power beyond the state: Problematics of government. British Journal of
Sociology, 43, 172–205.
Walters, W. 2004. Secure borders, safe haven, domopolitics, Citizenship Studies, 8:3, 237-260, DOI: 10.1080/1362102042000256989