WPR: Starting from scratch

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:

  1. Expand your understanding of the history, background and “context” of your selected area of interest.
  2. Select specific proposals to gain access to the problematizations at work.
  3. 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!

References

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 

WPR: Clarifying key premises

In an extended version of the Keynote address I delivered at the WPR Symposium in August at Karlstad ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 17 August 2022), I framed the talk around four key WPR premises:

  1. Policies (and other practices) produce (enact or constitute) “problems” as particular sorts of problems.
  2. Problem representations (problematizations) are implicit in policies and other forms of proposal.
  3. WPR thinking needs to be extended to understand the role of policies, and other forms of proposal, in the production of “subjects”, “objects” and “places”.
  4. We are governed through the ways in which “problems” are constituted; that is, we are governed through problematizations.

Post-Symposium I can see that aspects of these premises require additional clarification. I will use this end-of-year opportunity to undertake this task. My hope is to add to what has gone before and to strengthen the likelihood that the WPR approach proves useful to you. To this end I will address specific questions I have been asked over the last few months.

  1. Since WPR often starts its analysis from pieces of legislation, does this mean that it is confined to studying conventional political institutions and practices?

The short answer to this question is “definitely not”! In the Keynote address I say: 

“It is also important to broaden our conception of governing/government beyond conventional political institutions. Governmentality thinking, following Foucault (1991), allows us to extend our understanding of ‘government’ to embrace the many groups and agencies, and their knowledges, involved in shaping and guiding behaviours.”  

So, when I say, regarding the fourth premise above, that we are governed through problematizations, the intent is to think of the multitude of groups, etc. involved in governing. The goal here is to draw attention to the ways in which conduct is influenced by a wide range of agencies, professionals and experts. When the term “governmental” is used in relation to WPR, therefore, it needs to be understood in this broad sense of societal governing. And importantly, we are talking about how conduct/behaviours are influenced but not controlled

Foucault offered us a way into this topic through what he called “practical texts” or “prescriptive texts”, “written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should” (Foucault 1986: 12-13). In the 2009 textbook introducing WPR, I suggest that policies can be treated as “prescriptive” texts since “they tell us what to do”: 

“As a result, policies and their accompanying methods of implementation provide points of entry to the problematisations and problem representations that require scrutiny. (Bacchi 2009: 34; emphasis added).”

This point is clarified in the 2016 book written with Sue Goodwin, titled Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Palgrave Macmillan): 

“… the WPR approach uses texts as ‘levers’ to open up reflections on the forms of governing, and associated effects, instituted through a particular way of constituting a ‘problem’. To deploy this ‘lever’ necessarily involves familiarity with other texts that cover the same or related topics or circumstances.” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18).

To explore these “forms of governing”, WPR directs attention to three analytic targets: 

• political rationalities (ways of thinking about what governing entails); 

• the technologies or techniques involved in governing; and

• the “subjects” of government, or the diverse forms of persons that are presupposed, and also delivered, by governmental activity. (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 9). 

In the 2009 book, I use the National Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy to illustrate how legislation or reports can offer a “lever” or “springboard” to allow us to contemplate broad governing practices (Bacchi 2009: 4, 36; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18, 20). I use the allocation of funds in the proposed budget for the Strategy to indicate the groups and knowledges involved in governing suicide: counselling services, parenting programs, the education and training of professionals, and research activities. The argument is that these groups and their knowledges (think of psychology) are involved in governing suicide and producing it as a particular sort of “problem”. Hence, we are governed through this problematisation (premise 4 above).

Question 1 in WPR provides an entry-point to these “guides to conduct”. It probes the proposals or recommendations for change in selected texts and asks – if this is what is recommended, what is being produced as problematic? What is the “problem” represented to be? I use the example of training programs for women, a common reform proposal to increase women’s representation in higher status jobs. If training programs are the proposal, it follows that women’s lack of training is produced as the “problem”. I’ve been asked if this way of thinking necessarily produces a negative target for analysis – a lack of training for example. The point of the exercise is to start from what is said or proposed and to see what these propositions rely upon in the way of knowledges. Starting from proposals means that you avoid imposing your view of the situation, by singling out “discourses” or “themes” for example, because your analysis is tied to the problematization.

In more recent writing, primarily in this Research Hub, I have pointed to the possibility of applying this way of thinking to a wide variety of sites beyond “policy” (30 April 2021; 31 May 2021; 30 June 2021). The argument is that anything that provides a guide to conduct can be interrogated using WPR. In an entry on “Buildings as Proposals” (14 Jan 2018) I suggest that, because buildings commit to particular ways of organizing the world and hence are guides as to how things ought to be, they could fruitfully be analysed using WPR. I have also argued that theories and concepts can be examined through this lens since they too are “guides to conduct” (Bacchi 2009: 101). I hope you can see that WPR paints on a large canvas in its approach to governing. 

  • How is WPR different from critical approaches that target “vested interests” or “ideology”? 

There is a strong temptation to assimilate WPR to other forms of critical policy analysis. In particular, some applications see as the goal as identifying “interest groups” responsible for problem representations that are judged to harm other groups. WPR shies away from such forms of analysis. Following Foucault, the objective is to ensure that the complexity of social relationships is recognized. This stance is associated with a quite different understanding of power from analyses that target “interest groups”. In Foucault, power is not something that is possessed but something that is exercised. Hence, WPR avoids referring to those “in power” or to those “having power”, preferring to examine the plural and diverse practices involved in the production of “things”. Moreover, in Foucault’s account (2000: 324), “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt”. There is always struggle (Larner 2000: 11).

These techniques of rule do not reduce readily to ideological positions. What we often find is that a particular form of proposal – think for example of the “active citizen” – is endorsed across ideological lines (Bacchi 2009: 171). The analytic task, therefore, becomes identifying these modes of rule and how they have come to be. This theoretical stance offers a more hopeful picture for change than analyses of “vested interests”. As John Law (2008: 637) explains:

“It is to refuse to be overawed by seemingly large systems, and the seeming ontological unity of the world enacted by large systems. It is, instead, to make the problem smaller, or better, to make it more specific.”

On this point, Wendy Larner (2000: 15) cautions against the tendency to construct “neo-liberalism as a monolithic apparatus that is completely knowable and in full control of the ‘New Right’”. As an alternative approach, it is important to emphasize neo-liberalism’s “contingent and internally contradictory aspects”. To this end, Larner (2000: 14) emphasizes the need to draw from the discourses of oppositional groups. 

  • Is WPR anti-realist or post-realist? How is it positioned in relation to the “new materialisms”? What is meant by “objectification”?  

WPR does not deny the existence of “things”; it questions their assumed fixity. In line with a relational ontology of constant movement and becoming (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 33, 85) it describes “things” as in process, as the products of practices. This position aligns with a performative analytic in which practices make “things” come to be (29 Sept. 2022; 26 Oct. 2022). As John Law (2011: 172) explains, the goal is to “shift our understanding of the relative immutability and obduracy of the world: to move these from ‘reality itself’ into the choreographies of practice”. 

In the place therefore of “the real” WPR accounts highlight the making of “the real”. Since there are many practices, there are many realities, leading to multiplicity (Mol 2002: 152). However, only some realities become “the real”, in the process hiding the means of their creation. Hence, “reality” is a political object. Pellizzoni (2015: 75) explains: 

If the ontological status of entities is an accomplishment within a state of continual flux, the temporary upshot of practices, interactions and interventions, then the constitution of reality is intrinsically political because it enacts ways of existing and of relating human and nonhuman entities to one another.

Annemarie Mol (1999) coined the term “ontological politics” to highlight the political nature of claims to reality.

Foucault then is not concerned with gaining access to how things really operate, “but with something he admits is more irritating and troubling, how our ‘finely grained pictures’ of reality are produced and the diverse realm of effects they have within certain practices”:

“He seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about and ‘name’ the real” (Dean 2015: 359; Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 176).

In a Research Hub entry (30 Nov. 2020) on the “new materialisms” I raise questions about the way in which some who adopt this stance may reinstate a simple, material reality. Though it is difficult to generalize about the authors linked to this grouping, the “new materialisms” are commonly associated with an argument about the limitations of the so-called “linguistic turn” in social theory, a limitation they associate with poststructuralism. This critique hinges on an understanding of “discourse” as language. However, in a Foucauldian analysis, such as WPR, “discourses” are knowledges rather than linguistic practices. “Discursive practices”, a key concept in Foucault’s work, refers to the practices (or operations) of those knowledge formations, not to language use:

“The focus is on how knowledge is produced through plural and contingent practices across different sites. Such an approach bridges a symbolic‐material distinction and signals the always political nature of ‘the real’.” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 173) 

This perspective is illustrated in the stance on objectification or objectivization – the making of “objects” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, Chapter 6). Seeing discourse as a practice (“a discursive practice”) de-ontologises “objects”, undermining their foundations and politicizing their formation: “the emphasis here shifts from ‘real’ things to the strategic relations that produce something as ‘real’” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 183). In the Keynote address I use the example of “traffic” and how it emerges as an object for thought in “a multitude of street activities”. The focus of analysis shifts from the “object” as a presumed essence to the practices involved in its emergence – exploring how it has come to be. The political implications of this shift in analytic focus are significant since “so long as the suggestion is that there is something ‘out there’ that can be contacted or referenced outside of politics, so long are those who claim access to ‘the real’ empowered” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 191). Pellizzoni (2015: 78) concurs that any claim to unmediated evidence is “an eminently political move”.

  • Does WPR fall short as a mode of policy analysis because it ignores practices of implementation? Don’t we need to reflect on the important role played by policy actors in negotiating the meanings assigned to policies? What is meant by “subjectification”?  

There are several points to make here. First, the expressed concern among those who wish to emphasize how policy texts are interpreted and negotiated is that there may be a tendency in governmentality approaches, such as WPR, to assume that policy texts have a direct and unmediated impact on people’s lives. In contradistinction to this suggestion, governments are seen as constantly failing in their attempts to impose certain policy visions or norms (Miller and Rose 1990: 10). Due to these failures, there are repeated attempts to shape conduct in desired directions. Hence resistance and “counter conducts” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 31) are assumed. 

At the same time WPR questions the presumption that “implementation” forms a separate process in policymaking. Instead, it wants to draw attention to how the problem representations in policies can influence the shape of any policy outcome. Rowse (2009), for example, shows how the current Australian census problematizes Indigenous people as part of a population binary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. He speculates on the sorts of political claims such a distinction facilitates or blocks. Any analysis of the way censuses are “implemented” would need, I suggest, to include attention to the impact of this problematization. Indeed, in the Keynote address I make the case that “policies can no longer be evaluated without including analysis of the implicit problem representations they contain”. 

On the question of policy actors, I have repeatedly distanced WPR from policy-actor frameworks of analysis. The decision to do so is due to a basic concern about how the “subject” is imagined in these approaches. There is a tendency to think of policy actors as self-directed agents (see 31 Jan 2020 on conceptions of agency), a position that sits uncomfortably with a WPR focus on subjectification. 

Subjectification is a tricky concept. It sits at a distance from socialisation or even interpellation (Althusser 1972). The point is to get researchers to reflect on the ways in which problem representations have potential implications for how subjects conceive of themselves and others. A particular focus is on how these effects play a role in making the population governable. 

In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 17), I offer the example of affirmative action policies. I note that many affirmative action policies target recipients as beneficiaries of “preferential treatment”. In a society that prizes initiative and frowns upon dependence, I argue, such a problem representation often deters members of targeted groups from supporting the reform, reinforcing the status quo. The political implications that accompany how subjects are constituted within problem representations, therefore, deserve a good deal of attention (see Bacchi 1996). 

  • Does WPR make truth claims? What are the benefits of its question format? Are there dangers in the format? How are self-problematization and “nesting” central components of the approach? 

The answer to the opening question about “truth claims” is that WPR invariably participates in this practice. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this issue in large part due to prompting from my collaborator and colleague Joan Eveline, with whom I co-authored several articles on gender mainstreaming in the mid 2000s. Together we drafted a chapter in our book called Mainstreaming Politics specifically on the need for reflexive research practices (Bacchi and Eveline 2010, Chapter 6). 

In that chapter Joan and I consider the proposition that “the WPR approach constructs a particular view of knowledge” (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 155). We note that it sets out its tasks (questions) in a “highly organised or ordered way”. In addition, it offers those who use it “new ways of thinking about the possible effects of the unexamined logics and assumptions” in problem representations: “In this sense, the WPR methodology must itself be recognised as a kind of intervention with power effects”. 

This characterization should come as no surprise. A key premise of a poststructural critique is that we are inside the processes we are examining (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 154). Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) makes this point forcibly when she alerts us to the fact that “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”. In this understanding, the researcher/theorist plays an active role in constructing the very reality s/he is attempting to articulate. As Law describes:

“There is no reason to suppose we are different from those we study. We too are products. If we make pools of sense or order, then these too are local and recursive effects … our own ordering is a verb. It reminds us that (sense-making) is precarious … incomplete … that much escapes us”. (Law 1994: 17). 

This situation has prompted a “reflexive turn” in academic theorizing. In the Research Hub I have produced several entries puzzling over what I refer to as the “reflexivity quagmire” (21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018). In the Keynote address, I signalled my disquiet with the notions of reflexivity and reflectivity, and my hope that self-problematization as a practice of the self allows us to challenge our own premises while protecting against any tendency to set ourselves up as policy “experts”. 

The format in WPR – the use of questions – expresses an attempt to keep conversations open through continuous dialogue. A danger perhaps is the temptation to produce “answers” as fixed and final. Hence, I stress the importance of what I call a “self-problematizing ethic” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24). I also caution against the use of the WPR questions as a one-off exercise due to the complex layering and intermingling of problem representations – which I call “nesting” (Bacchi 2009: 21, 56). To respond to this complexity, we need to challenge the meanings we impose and to consider the incorporation of new ones, often from quarters not previously considered pertinent. In short, we need to practise scepticism about the truths we critique and produce. While this conclusion may appear to be self-defeating and limiting, it is useful to recall that a “questioning scepticism has long provided grist for the mill of feminist concerns and granules for elaborating a feminist politics” (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 159). Put simply, we always have more work to do!  So, rest up over the break!

HAVE A HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON!  

References

Althusser, L. 1972. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press.

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

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

Bacchi, C. and Eveline, J. 2010. Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.  

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

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

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

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

Foucault, M. 1986 [1984]. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality. Vol 2. Trans. R. Hurley. London: Viking Press. 

Foucault, M. 1991. [1978]. Governmentality. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. 2000. “Omnes et singulatum”: Toward a critique of political reason. In J. d. Faubion (Ed.) Michel Foucault/power. Trans. R. Hurley and others. New York: The New Press. pp. 298-325. 

Larner, W. 2000. Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality. Studies in Political Economy, 63: 5-25. 

Law, J. 1994. Organizing modernity. Oxford: Blackwell. 

Law, J. 2008. On sociology and STS. The Sociological Review, 56(4): 623-649.

Law, J. 2011. Collateral realities. In F. D. Rubio & P. Baert (Eds.). The Politics of knowledge (pp. 156-178). London: Routledge. 

Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1990. Governing economic life. Economy and Society, 19:1, 1-31, DOI: 10.1080/03085149000000001

Mol, A. 1999. Ontological politics: A word and some questions. In J. Law, & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell. 

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

Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey, England: Ashgate. Rowse, T. 2009. The ontological politics of “closing the gaps”. Journal of Cultural Economy, 2 (1&2): 33–48. 

Sociotechnical imaginaries and WPR: Exploring connections

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMMENTARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lina Rahm: linarahm@kth.se

Johanna Tangnäs: johanna.tangnas@kau.se


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performing “performativity”: debates and concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butler (2010: 153) expressed her misgivings: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

Bacchi, C. 2015. The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science, 5: 1-12. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performing “performativity”: What is at stake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performativity scholars are particularly interested in the forms of intervention associated with research practices. Annemarie Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) signals this interest in her statement that “[M]ethods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations”. For Mol, knowledge is no longer treated primarily as referential, as a set of statements about reality, but as a practice that interferes with other practices to create realities (note the plural). You can recognize here the ontology of becoming described above, leading Mol to assert that researchers are inevitably involved in “ontological politics” (Mol 1999), i.e. the shaping of worlds. This clear challenge to the common view that research involves a search for (objective) knowledge about a pre-existing and singular reality calls for a rethinking of the purposes and goals of what we study and what we write. Aligned with this thinking, Fraser (2020) invites scholars to engage in “ontologically-oriented research”, setting out with a purpose to interfere with and shape realities in particular directions. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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