“Ideology critique” and its discontents

This and the subsequent entry examine the theoretical development referred to as “ideology critique”. I need to make it clear that the target for analysis is this particular phrase “ideology critique”, though I will also discuss briefly the various meanings of “ideology” and indeed of “critique”. Let me explain why I think this focus on “ideology critique” is justified.

The phrase “ideology critique” most obviously refers to the critique of ideology and many analysts happily describe what they do as “ideology critique”. The phrase, however, is commonly used by researchers who wish to distance themselves from the forms of analysis associated with this term. As Freeden (2020: 15) describes, the term “ideology critique” is used in the “context of a sphere of mainly hostile intellectual and scholarly activity”. That is, the term “ideology critique” is often used by those who wish to criticise it – those who wish to critique “ideology critique”. For example, you are likely to encounter the term in the work of analysts who specify that they offer a form of critical analysis that goes beyond “ideology critique”, with the distinct implication that “ideology critique” is limited in its ability to analyse sociopolitical relations (Sum and Jessop 2015). 

To indicate the target of their critique, these researchers put the phrase in quotation marks (“ideology critique”), use a hyphen (“ideology-critique”; Markus 1995) or use the German word ideologiekritik, which combines the two terms in one concept. Poststructuralists are most likely to use these shorthands to signal a theoretical position they consider to be limited. Indeed, I have done so myself on occasion. Unfortunately, just what the phrase refers to often goes unspecified. There are, as we shall see, many forms of ideology critique (Strickland 2012: 56). I hope in this entry to clarify what it is about “ideology critique” that concerns poststructuralists, why they feel the need to go beyondit. Put briefly, poststructuralists resist interpretations that describe “ideology” as a distorted view of the world imposed on subjects by powerful “interests” (elaboration below). 

Why is this topic relevant and, specifically, why is it relevant to engagement with WPR? I felt the need to explore this topic because it seemed to me that many analysts who offer applications of WPR accept the premises of a form of “ideology critique” that sits uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian-influenced analysis such as WPR. Specifically, there is the tendency to want to use the WPR questions to explain the ways in which “vested interests” control social arrangements, often through the manipulation of “ideas” and “beliefs”. For Foucauldian-influenced forms of analysis, such as WPR, such arguments oversimplify the ways in which governing takes place and paint an overly bleak picture of whether or how social change may be possible. In the subsequent Research Hub entry I will discuss the new wave of theoretical interest in “ideology” and will consider if the “new ideology critics” (Sankaran 2020) offer a form of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 

Readers may recall that on other occasions I have adopted Tanesini’s (1994: 207) approach to concepts that places an emphasis on their political implications. That is, Tanesini insists that concepts have no intrinsic meaning but that they are “proposals about how we are to proceed from here”. Elsewhere I have suggested that WPR can be applied to theoretical premises and to concepts since in both cases they put forward forms of proposal (Bacchi 2018: 7). Hence, it would be possible to apply WPR to various forms of ideology critique. I do some of this analysis in this and the subsequent entry, with the WPR questions integrated into the analysis. I focus in particular on Question 5 and the political effects or implications that accompany specific understandings of ideology and ideology critique (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

In effect, then, this entry follows the argument in the previous entry on “mixed methods” (31 August 2021), where I suggest that it is necessary to reflect on the paradigmatic distinctions in our research approaches (see Bacchi 2016). I contend that it is possible to do this without being obstructionist and that it is useful to open up conversations about the political implications that accompany specific theoretical positions. 

To begin, the term “ideology” features in political theory is two quite different ways. Nowicka-Franczak (2021) helpfully distinguishes between a descriptive and a normative usage (see also Geuss 1981). Approached descriptively, ideology refers to clusters of ideas or political positions/views. These can be associated with particular groups, such as liberals, conservatives or neo-liberals. Or, more expansively, ideology is seen as the “general sphere of consciousness of all humans” (Strickland 2012: 48).

The second, normative meaning carries a pejorative connotation. Ideology is used to refer to false ideas, misleading perceptions, a mask that distorts our views of the world. In classical Marxist theory, these ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes. They are the product of material economic arrangements, specifically the “modes of production” (Herzog 2018: 402). The phrase “false consciousness” is commonly adopted to refer to these “distorted” views. 

These two meanings of ideology, the normative and the descriptive, fit the distinction Eagleton (1994) draws between what he calls “two lineages of ideology”, one “preoccupied with ideas of true and false cognition” (the pejorative meaning), and the other “concerned more with the function of ideas within social life rather than with their reality or unreality” (the more descriptive meaning). Whereas in the first lineage the focus is on ideology as “necessarily repressive and as an instrument of a ruling class or group to uphold a status quo to its advantage”, in the second, ideology is a “phenomenon that exists in marginalised as well as hegemonic groups” (Sarkowsky and Stein 2020). In this more general meaning, ideology is not just negative; rather, it serves an integrative function. As Nowicka-Franczak (2020: 173) points out, however, all statements about ideology usually have a normative character (and I would say pejorative), “which the speaker may not be aware of, but which may still be identified by a critically-minded addressee”. When we say that someone is spouting “ideology”, it is hardly intended to be a compliment! 

The pejorative meaning of ideology is associated with classical Marxist ideology critique. This negative sense of ideology as “false consciousness” was “the most common usage in the Marxist tradition until the last part of the twentieth century” (Strickland 2012: 112). Each society, in this account, develops only one ideology that “serves the interests of dominant classes and capital” (Luke 2017: 177). 

The focus on “false consciousness” was, among other things, an attempt to “understand how relations of domination or subordination are reproduced with only minimal resort to direct coercion” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 474). However, “false consciousness” is interpreted in a variety of ways. Marx and Engels target the “distorted beliefs intellectuals held about society and the power of their own ideas” (Eyerman 1981: 43). By contrast, post-Marxists, including Gramsci, Althusser and the early Frankfurt School (Daldal 2014: 157) are more concerned with the “false consciousness” of the working class. In the latter explanation, “false consciousness” served as a convenient explanation “for the reluctance of oppressed workers to rise in revolt” (Strickland 2012: 48).  Ideology, in this account, hampers the capacity of subjects to detect relations of domination and induces them to “cooperate in their own subjection” (Bianchin 2020: 314).

The role of the researcher in classical Marxist accounts is to find a way through “false consciousness” with “rational, scientific inquiry” (Simons and Billig 1994: 1).  Relatedly, in his dream of “some kind of power-free analysis of society”, Althusser insisted that Marxism is a science, “able to function through the relative autonomous scientific rationality that breaks with ordinary and ideological knowledge” (Simons 2015: 70-71). In Gramsci “organic” intellectuals had to work to “re-educate and transform the false consciousness that makes hegemonic rule possible” (Eyerman 1981: 47). In each case Intellectuals are presumed able to see through the mask of ideology. 

Let us turn now to those who engage in the critique of “ideology critique”. They have two main objections to classical Marxist ideology critique and to the early post-Marxists: first, that the notion of “false consciousness” presumes the existence of a “true consciousness”; and second that certain analysts are presumed to occupy a privileged epistemic position from which they are able to identify “true consciousness” and “a smarter take on what’s really going on” (MacLure 2015: 6).

Both these concerns about “ideology critique” are relevant to WPR applications. If at some level there is the impression that the researcher has access to a better “truth” and indeed is located such that access to “truth” is possible, these contentions sit uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian approach. The pivotal place of self-problematization in WPR, indicated in Step 7 of the approach, counters any such impression of epistemic privilege: “Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).

In the remainder of this entry I will elaborate the qualms that postructuralists harbor about ideology critique, as articulated in the examples above. In the discussion I will touch on the following themes: conceptions of power, conceptions of the subject, governmentality, the question of epistemic privilege, and the political implications of specific theoretical stances. 

At the risk of oversimplification, I’d like to suggest that Marxist uses of ideology critique and Foucauldian analyses start from different questions – the first is primarily concerned with why there was no proletarian revolution (which had been predicted by Marx); the second, Foucauldian perspective is concerned with how governing takes place. While it would be useful to discuss possible overlaps in these starting points, I will be emphasizing the importance of the distinctions between them. 

Coté (2007: 52) suggests that a contrast can be drawn between the Marxist emphasis on the “false” – that is, on the practice of distortion by powerful groups – whereas in Foucault the emphasis is on “fabrication”, referring to the processes by which the “real” is produced. Fabrication is a tricky word given its common understanding as a form of invention. For Foucault, fabrication (borrowing Coté’s term) means solely “production”, how something is made, or how something comes to be. 

These two stances conceive of power quite differently. Classical Marxist ideology critics conceptualise power as “control over a given group of people by bodies that have certain moral norms as well as legal, institutional and material resources at their disposal, thanks to which they can exercise power and influence social sentiments” (Nowicka-Franczak 2021: 174). By contrast, the poststructuralist concept of power is understood as “dispersed constellations of technologies and practices which are correlated with knowledge and which help produce specific models of subjectivity”, commonly described as “governmentality” (Nowicka-Franzak 2021: 174). Whereas the focus in classical Marxist accounts is on power as repressive, in Foucault one examines how power relations produce “the real”. In a paper with Malin Rönnblom (2011: 9), I elaborate this point:

“What Foucault wants to show is that things we take to be ‘real’ and ‘true’ (hence ‘knowledge’) is not something transcendental but the product of human practices. The specific practices he identifies as forming ‘a discursive practice’ are the set of historically contingent and specific rules that produce forms of knowledge. He (1972: 102) explains that what is going on here is not a matter of manipulation or distortion, and hence is ‘both much more and much less than ideology’. What is going on is that ‘the real’ is produced through ‘technologies of truth’ (de Goede 2006: 7).

In these different accounts, the subject is conceptualized in sharply contrasted ways. The focus in classical Marxism is on the ways in which subjects are misled by those in power so that they end up, unknowingly, supporting regimes that oppress them. By contrast, in Foucault, subjects are not dupes of repressive power; rather, they are produced as particular kinds of subjects through processes of subjectification. For example, Miller and Rose (1997: 2) argue that “making up the subject of consumption” has been a complex technical process: 

“… less a matter of dominating or manipulating consumers than of ‘mobilising’ them by forming connections between human passions, hopes and anxieties, and very specific features of goods enmeshed in particular consumption practices”.

The role of researchers in the two approaches is also sharply contrasted. Whereas in classical Marxism researchers deploy scientific methods to discover suppressed “truths”, in Foucault (2000) researchers display an “ethic of discomfort”, always prepared to put in question their own analyses.  Recognizing their location within governing practices, they display heightened sensitivity to the ways in which emancipatory programs can be involved in oppression (Popkewitz 1998). McLeod (2011) contrasts this stance with those “critical pedagogists” who are trapped within a model in which they are the leaders and students are the followers. As Lather (1991: 15) explains:

The suspicion of the intellectual who both objectifies and speaks for others inveighs us to develop a kind of self-reflexivity that will enable us to look closely at our own practice in terms of how we contribute to dominance in spite of our liberatory intentions. 

In Foucauldian-influenced analyses, such as WPR, there is a shift in focus from the grand theorizing of a force called ideology to the minutiae of routine and mundane practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). Returning to the question of how governing takes place, government (read broadly) is seen as “a practical and technical domain not reducible to philosophy or ideology” (Dean 2002: 119-120). The suggestion here is that, while conceptualizing power as the distortion of truth and focussing on the deformation of subjectivity can provide important insights into the working of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and the like, these perspectives are less helpful “in visualizing the detailed workings of the forms of thought and practice that shaped our contemporary existence and experience” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 3). Marxist explanations, it is argued, could not address the new forms of liberal governmentality, their associated technologies of power, and new forms of subjectivation – hence, the determination to move beyond “ideology critique” (Jessop 2010: 4). At a minimum, Rose and Miller (2008) feel essential the need to go beyond the economic reductionism of Marxism signalled in the focus on the accumulation and distribution of capital to “explore the accumulation and distribution of persons and their capacities” (in Jessop 2010: 18). 

 As I signalled at the outset, I believe it is important to consider these contrasting perspectives on forms of rule in terms of their political implications (Question 5 of WPR). By this I mean how particular theoretical positions “shape our readings of the scope and content of possible political interventions” (Larner 2000: 6). The major point here is that poststructuralists offer a more hopeful picture for change. In an evaluation of the poststructural theoretical position described as “performativity”, John Law (2008: 637) explains how this happens:

“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.”

While Foucault “espouses a clear commitment to unravelling domination”, he is “concerned to avoid any homogenization of domination” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 487), creating room to move. To this end Foucault practices a style of research in which the “grand complexes” of conventional sociology – classes, institutions, cultures, beliefs, ideologies – are studied through the “mundane practices of the prison, the hospital, the school, the courtroom, the household, the town planner and colonial governor”: “The new problems and connections that come into view, precisely because of the level of detail at which they are described, seem to become more amenable to action and transformation” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 9-10).

In the following entry I consider the relationship between conceptions of ideology and the notion of discourse. I also comment on a wave of “new ideology critics” to see just what is new in their accounts and if these accounts offer a version of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 


Bacchi, C. 2016. Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning how “Problems” are Constituted in Policies. Sage Open, April-June: 1-16. DOI: 10.11771/21582440/6653986

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

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

Bianchin, M. 2020. Explaining Ideology: Mechanisms and Metaphysics. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 50(4): 313-337.

Billig, M. and Simons, H. W. 1994. Introduction. In H. W. Simons and M. Billig (Eds) After Postmodernism: Reconstructing Ideology Critique. London: Sage. pp. 1-11.

Coté, M. 2007. The Italian Foucault: Communication, Networks, and the Dispositif. PhD thesis, Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Daldal, A. 2014. Power and Ideology in Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci: A Comparative Analysis. Review of History and Political Science, 2(2): 149-167.

Dean, M. 2002. Powers of Life and Death Beyond Governmentality, Cultural Values, 6(1-2): 119-138. 

de Goede, Marieke 2006. ‘International Political Economy and the Promises of Poststructuralism’ in M. de Goede (ed.) International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1-20. 

Eagleton, T. 1994. Ideology: An Introduction. NY: Routledge.

Eyerman, R. 1981. False Consciousness and Ideology in Marxist Theory. Acta Sociologica, 24(1-2): 43-56. 

Foucault, Michel 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault M.2000. For an ethics of discomfort. In: Faubion JD, ed. Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Volume III. New York, NY: The New Press; 2000: 443–448. 

Freeden, M. 2020. Ideologiekritik – a Critique. In K. Sarkowsky and M. U. Stein (Eds) Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts. Brill. pp. 15-29.

Geuss, R. 1981. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Herzog, B. 2018. Marx’s critique of ideology for discourse analysis: from analysis of ideologies to social critique, Critical Discourse Studies, 15(4): 402-413.

Jessop, B. 2010. Constituting Another Foucault Effect. Foucault on States and Statecraft. Preprint version, published in: U. Bröckling, S. Krasmann, T. Lemke, eds, Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges. NY: Routledge. pp. 56-73. 

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

Lather, P. 1991. Getting Smart: Feminist Research and PedagogyWith/In the Postmodern. New York: Routledge.

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

Luke, A. 2017. No Grand Narrative in Sight: On Double Consciousness and Critical Literacy. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice, 66: 157-182. 

MacLure, M. 2016. The “new materialisms”: a thorn in the flesh of critical qualitative inquiry? Author pre-publication copy. In G. Cannella, M.S. Perez & P. Pasque (eds) Critical Qualitative Inquiry: Foundations and Futures. California: Left Coast Press. (30 May 2015) ISBN: 9781629580128 

Markus, G. 1995. On Ideology-critique: Critically. Thesis Eleven, 43: 66-99.

McLeod, J. 2011. Student Voice and the politics of listening in higher education. Critical Studies in Education, 52(2): 179-189.

Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1997. Mobilizing the Consumer: Assembling the Subject of Consumption. Theory, Culture & Society, 14(1): 1-36. 

Nowicka-Franczak, M. 2021. Between the right-wing and the left-wing: the retelling of the Polish systemic transition as a discursive and ideological practice, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 16:2, 171-187, DOI:10.1080/17447143.2021.1941063

Popkewitz, T. 1998. The Culture of Redemption and the Administration of Freedom as Research. Review of Educational Research, 68(1): 1-34.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … The British Journal of Sociology, 44(3): 473-499. 

Rabinow, P. and Rose, N. 2003. Introduction: Foucault Today. In P. Rabinow and N. Rose (Eds) The Essential Foucault: Selections from the Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984. NY: New Press. pp. 1-30. 

Rönnblom, M. and Bacchi, C. 2011. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – What’s Discursive About It? Limitations of conventional political studies paradigms. 2nd European Conference on Politics and Gender, Budapest, 13-15 January. 

Sankaran, K. 2020. What’s new in the new ideology critique? Philosophical Studies, 177: 1441-1462.

Sarkowsky, K. and Stein, M. U. 2020. Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts – an Introduction. In K. Sarkowsky and M. U. Stein (Eds) Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts. Brill. pp. 1-12.

Simons, M. 2015. Beyond Ideology: Althusser, Foucault and French Epistemology, Pulse: A Journal of History, Sociology and Philosophy of Science, 3: 62-77.

Strickland, R. 2012. The Western Marxist Concept of Ideology Critique. VNU Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 28 (5E): 47-56.  

Sum, N-L. and Jessop, B. 2015. Cultural Political Economy and Critical Policy Studies: Developing a Critique of Domination. In F. Fischer, D. Torgerson, A. Durnová, and M. Orsini (Eds) Handbook of Critical Policy Studies. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. pp. 128-150.Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon and M. Whitford (Eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology.  NY: Routledge


What about “hybrids” and “mixed methods”? Is WPR the “bad cop”?

In approaching today’s topic, I spent the morning reading earlier entries to the Research Hub on related themes. I was amazed at the range of topics I have broached over the past three years. Someone really ought to advise me to get a life! 

My goal in re-reading the selected contributions was two-fold: first, to see if I have developed a consistent position on the topic of mixed methods and hybrids; and second, to see if there was any point in revisiting the topic. On the first point, I found that I have more-or-less developed my position in relation to some wonderful material I engaged over these years – thinking here of Primdahl et al. (2018),Roseneil (2011), St Pierre (2014), Mol (1999, 2002), Law (2004), Jackson and Mazzei (2012), and many others. Today I report on my current stance on these issues, leaving open the possibility that down the track I will read something that causes me to modify my position. That is what intellectual exchange is all about!

Many researchers propose blending WPR with other research approaches as an explicit strategy. In this entry I aim to look at one such proposal by Van Aswegan et al. (2019) because it helps me to reflect on the suggestion that useful research requires theoretical “hybrids” or “mixed methods”. In their exposition of CDPR (critical discourse problematization framework), the authors defend the need for a “good cop/bad cop” approach to research methods, with WPR characterized as the “bad cop” while a form of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 1995; Hyatt 2013a) serves as the “good cop”. I wish to explain and challenge the grounds for this characterization of WPR because I am concerned that others may find its simplicity attractive. However, first, I need to review some of the long-standing debates about method, methodological pluralism and “eclecticism”.

As a starting point, I find helpful Van Aswegan et al.’s distinction between, on the one hand, theoretical lenses, such as Critical Disability Studies, Post-Colonial Studies or feminist studies and, on the other hand, theoretical tools, such as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA; Fairclough 1995) or critical higher education policy discourse analysis (CHEPDA; Hyatt 2013a). In my understanding “tools” provide analytic techniques whereas “lenses” can be said to refer to selected aspects of social relations (topic areas). I would add that “tools” reflect contrasting paradigms whereas “lenses” can and do cross paradigmatic lines. For example, both disability studies (Meekosha and Shuttleworth 2009) and feminist studies (Davis, 2008; Scott 2005) are characterized by intense internal debates about paradigmatic assumptions. Paradigms are understood to reflect competing worldviews due to contrasting ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions (Alvesson and Sandberg 2011: 255). In a paper on problematizations in health policy, I identify four dominant paradigms in health policy research: positivism, interpretivism, critical realism and poststructuralism (Bacchi 2016).

In terms of the heuristic distinction between “lenses” and “tools”, WPR provides a “tool” for critical analysis that can be applied using a variety of “lenses” – e.g., disability studies (see Apelmo 2021), post-colonial studies (see Gordon 2011), feminist studies (see O’Hagan 2020). As a “tool”, WPR reflects a particular theoretical stance and paradigm, Foucault-influenced poststructuralism (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). Hence, it does not sit easily alongside theoretical interventions that dispute poststructural premises and posit quite different ways of seeing the world. Elsewhere, for example, I reflect on the epistemological and ontological tensions between a poststructuralist and a critical realist perspective (see Bacchi 2016; Research Hub entries 30 Nov. 2020; 28 Feb. 2021). Hence, I would question the ways in which Windle et al. (2018) and Holding et al. (2021) combine WPR with Critical Realism in their analyses. And for the same reason, I suggest that WPR cannot serve on Van Aswegan et al.’s research team as the “bad cop” to Fairclough’s “good cop”. Fairclough (2013: p. 185) declares himself committed to “(critical) realism” and a “moderate constructivism”, in which the point of critique is to ask “what the problems really are”. Given the paradigmatic tensions between poststructuralism and Fairclough’s CDA (see Research Hub entry 14 May 2018), therefore, WPR and CDA do not work “in harmony with each other” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 195) and the political implications of the paradigmatic tensions between them need to be carefully considered (see below). 

The mention of paradigms as important in this context is contentious. There are expressed fears about “line drawing” and claims to theoretical purity. Going further, to suggest that paradigms are significant in shaping research approaches can appear to be obstructionist, preventing constructive dialogue among researchers. I would, in fact, like to claim the opposite – that saying that paradigms matter (Bacchi 2016) produces the grounds for constructive dialogue. This dialogue would involve researchers in interrogating the deep-seated ontological and epistemological premises that shape their work and in considering how those premises matter to the arguments they craft and the propositions they advance. 

Readers will recognize here a theme that has appeared in previous entries (e.g., 10 Dec. 2017 on ontological politics) – the claim that methods are not innocent and that they shape realities (see Mol 1999, 2002; Law 2004). Approaches to political studies are not simply forms of analysis; rather, they are techniques of “truth” production and forms of political intervention. John Law provides this useful example: by deploying concepts such as “nation-state” unproblematically, analysts actually reinforce them. Hence, they produce a reality of nation-states. This “performativity of method” (Law 2004: 149-150) creates a responsibility to reflect on the “realities” one’s methods create. 

For example, as I argued with Malin Rönnblom some years ago (Bacchi and Rönnblom 2014), it is important to initiate a conversation that examines theoretical stances in terms of the politics they make possible. There we made the case that poststructural theoretical approaches make an important political contribution by pluralising the relations that constitute “the real” and refusing the temptation to freeze these relations. Borrowing from Michael Shapiro (1992: 12), the objective is to challenge what “is” as what “must be”, to loosen “the grip” of the assumed “facticity” of established institutions and power relations. This position leads to Fraser’s (2020) argument that what is needed is “ontopolitically-oriented research”, research that produces alternative socio-political relations. 

The issue of “mixed methods” in political studies (and in other fields) has a long history. A Sage Journal of Mixed Methods Research commenced in 2007, signalling a trend towards “methodological eclecticism”. This trend was prompted by impatience with “rigid paradigm adherence” and “endless disputation regarding qualitative and quantitative forms of inquiry” (Yanchar and Williams 1989: 3). Countering an “incompatibility thesis” which “suggests that methods based on contradictory theoretical assumptions cannot be coherently mixed in a single study or set of studies”, Howe (1988) put forward a “compatibility thesis” that held the opposite – that “methods are essentially disengaged from paradigms and able to be mixed any way that researchers desire without theoretical incompatibility, contradiction, or implication”. There were also links between the call for “methodological eclecticism” and American pragmatism, advising researchers to pursue “what works” in context (see Research Hub entry 30 April 2018). 

In reaction to this position, Yanchar and Williams (1989: 3) insisted on the need to “take seriously the inescapable assumptions and values that accompany the use of a method and the pursuit of practically useful results”. They opted, therefore, for a “softer version of the incompatibility thesis” that allows for “methodological flexibility”. They put forward five guidelines for method use to move beyond both “methodological eclecticism and paradigm rigidity”: contextual sensitivity, creativity, conceptual awareness, coherence and critical reflection. Under “conceptual awareness” they noted that “researchers and evaluators would appropriately emphasize the theoretical nature of their methods and their work by identifying assumptions, values and moral commitments that have practical and theoretical consequences”. The criteria of critical reflection would entail researchers acknowledging “the assumptive framework” they adopt as “fallible, alterable and, in need of critical examination” (Yanchar and Williams 1989: 9).

These suggestions signal a perspective close to the stance I take at the outset of this entry – that constructive dialogue among researchers would involve researchers in interrogating the deep-seated ontological and epistemological premises that shape their work and in considering how those premises matter to the arguments they craft and the propositions they advance. Yanchar and Williams (1989: 9) also usefully qualify the proposition that “method choices should be driven by questions”, insisting on the need for “continued reflection on the fundamental nature of research questions”. 

Two decades after Yanchar and Williams’ (1989) important contribution, Wolf (2010) examined the trend towards triangulation and mixing methods in comparative public policy research. Wolf’s contribution is made interesting by his admission in an opening footnote that his analysis reflects his position as “some kind of realist” alongside his claim that it is possible to 

“subscribe to a pluralist view that welcomes different basic assumptions as at least potentially enriching in certain research contexts (cf Moses & Knutsen 2007: 289) – notwithstanding the need to discuss possible incompatibilities within every concrete research design” (Wolf 2010: 160-161 note 1). 

It is this last proposition that is the most difficult to enact and unfortunately Wolf fails to test his own analytic assumptions in the way he recommends. For example, he starts his article with a mainstream, realist view of the topic for analysis, describing comparative public policy as “mainly concerned with ‘what governments do, why they do it, and what difference it makes’ (Dye, 1976)”. Moreover, his criteria for assessing method use include the need for robustness, rigour and “validity checking” (Wolf 2010: 146) – all concepts that fit comfortably within his self-declared realist premises. Paradigms are clearly at work in Wolf’s evaluation of research approaches despite his defence of “pluralism”.

Similarly, contrasting paradigmatic assumptions sharply distinguish WPR from CDA, challenging Van Aswegan et al.’s (2019: 186, 195) description of the approaches as “complementary”, “in harmony” and forming a “good cop/bad cop” research team. Applying the criteria of conceptual awareness and critical reflection endorsed by Yanchar and Williams (1989), I proceed to list areas and topics where paradigmatic distinctions between the approaches need to be acknowledged. 

  1. At the most basic level the research task Van Aswegan et al. (2019) undertake is markedly different from that pursued in WPR. They (2019: 192) explain that their goal is “examining the ways in which the policy ideas are advanced and justified”. By contrast WPR directs attention to the conceptual logics embedded in policy and other proposals. Van Aswegan et al. (2019: 188; emphasis added) mistakenly describe WPR as targeting “the way in which an issue is represented or put forward by policy makers as the ‘problem’ to be addressed” – which might explain some of the confusion involved in their attempt to “marry” WPR and CDA (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 186). WPR directs attention to problematizations located in governmental texts, not to the understandings or interpretations of policy makers (Bacchi 2015).
  2. Given their expressed interest in “how the policy is legitimated”, unsurprisingly, Van Aswegan et al. target rhetorical devices (“warrants”) and the “power of language” (p. 187) as their primary concerns. On the latter they specify that CDA draws on a systemic functional linguistics approach to language. In WPR by contrast the interest is in discourses as knowledges, not as language use. The authors correctly note that the aim of WPR is “unearthing the conceptual logic operating behind the text” but then suggest that such logics are located in “linguistic paraphernalia” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 191-192). 
  3. There is unevenness in the treatment of intentionality. Whereas the authors acknowledge that a problematization approach does not suggest “misrepresentation or malign intent” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 188), elsewhere Hyatt (2013b: 837) describes policies as “the outcomes of struggles ‘between contenders of competing objectives, where language – or, more specifically, discourse – is used tactically’ (Fulcher 1989:7), suggesting intentionality.
  4. This stance on intentionality is linked to a form of “ideology critique” (see Hyatt 2013b: 839; Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 187) which sits uncomfortably with WPR’s poststructural premises (this topic will be pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry).
  5. Context is emphasized in both WPR and CDA. However, the latter ascribes to a realist perspective in which “context” is an uncontested domain which can simply be described. Linked to this view, CDPR (critical discourse problematization framework) describes genealogy as an exercise involving the “mapping” of CES (Comprehensive Employment Strategy) to “context” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 194). By contrast, genealogy in WPR involves tracing the detailed practices that produce specific governmental problematizations (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 22). In WPR, “contexts” are not uncontested spaces to be “filled in” since reflections on context are themselves interpretive (Bacchi 2009: 21).
  6. While there is acknowledgement that in WPR, policy subjects “are not considered individuals with fixed identities formed through self-directed agency” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 187), it is unclear how this perspective is compatible with the focus on policy actors and their rhetoric. The topic of subjectification – how subjects are constituted in policies – which is a central theme in WPR, goes unmentioned. There is only a passing reference to “reflexive problematization” in Table 1 (p. 191) and reliance on the behavioural psychology theory of “conditioning” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 188). 

The overall argument in Van Aswegan et al. (2019: 190) is that WPR provides questions while CDPR, which they describe as a “structural” and “problem-oriented” approach” (pp. 187, 195), provides “evidence” for, or answers to, those questions. It is difficult to see how the two approaches can be “married” given the poststructural premises underpinning WPR and its explicit challenge to “problem-oriented” analyses. 

In WPR, there is no way to think or research outside epistemological and ontological premises. The best way to proceed, therefore, is to acknowledge the tensions among approaches that exist at the paradigmatic level and to discuss them. As signalled above, this discussion ought to focus on the political implications of the methods we adopt and on the “realities” those methods create. The challenge becomes developing arguments to convince researchers committed to alternative paradigms to reflect on the possible usefulness of this proposition, which may prove to be difficult given that it reflects the very poststructural premises those researchers may dispute. Pursuing the possibility of “ontopolitically-oriented research” (Fraser 2020) and illustrating its usefulness as a political intervention may offer a way forward.


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Title: Do we really need WPR?


Over the last three entries I have developed the argument that WPR, and its sister strategy, PIA (Poststructural Policy Analysis), can be applied productively to a wide range of materials, including some forms of media texts, interviews, legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (I use upper case “G” to refer to conventional State institutions). I’ve also indicated in articles and Research Hub entries that WPR can usefully be drawn upon to probe the ways in which buildings, ceremonies, maps, governmental technologies, theoretical propositions and concepts constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems. 

With all these suggestions to expand the ambit of WPR, it may appear, I fear, that I am on some sort of crusade for world domination!  In this entry I intend to elaborate why I find a WPR form of thinking so useful and to examine how it can most effectively be applied. 

The basic insight, or theory of interpretation, of WPR thinking is that what we propose to do about something indicates what we “think” needs to change and hence what is deemed to be problematic. It is necessary to start my reflections on the usefulness of WPR by working through just what this statement means and how it can serve as a “template” for critical analysis, dramatically altering the ways we approach “words and things” (Foucault 1966). 

I ask you to reflect on some change that you would like to make in some field of policy reform – say, for example, domestic violence or Indigenous affairs. What you propose will necessarily involve some form of change in practices and/or procedures. Your proposal is intended to improve the situation in some way. And, so, your “proposal” (or your “proposed solution”) indicates what you believe needs to change and hence what you consider to be problematic or “a problem”, though you may not use that wording. WPR takes this insight and applies it to governmental (read broadly) interventions.

Foucault captured this form of thinking in his references to the “conduct of conduct” (Gordon 1991: 2). He argued that we need to think about how we are governed in a wide range of practices that attempt to shape our behaviours. We need to remember that in this understanding the term “government” (lower case) has a broader meaning than conventional uses of the term that target specific State institutions. Reflecting a governmentality perspective (see Research Hub 19 Nov. 2018) it involves how order is maintained and how society is administered. Hence, we focus on factors that include the activities of “the State” but that also operate “behind” or “outside” the State (Foucault 2007: 162-163). This focus of analysis embraces the plurality of authorities and professionals that seek to govern conduct.  

In WPR, proposals – in an expansive sense – are governmental guides to conduct. Proposed solutions – a term I use as synonymous with proposals – are intended to provide guidance on how to behave. WPR adds the crucial point that we can best understand how governing (understood broadly) takes place by looking at how those proposals (or proposed solutions) problematize an issue and hence produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems (e.g. the introduction of a cashless welfare card produces the “problem” as an inability to manage one’s finances; (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/cashless-welfare-card-expansion-parliament-two-years/12962684).

This argument is captured in the claim that proposals (or proposed solutions) contain implicit problem representations. The goal of a WPR analysis is to explore these problematizations (or “problem representations”; see Research Hub 11 June 2018), considering their presuppositions, limits and effects. 

Instead of seeing objects (buildings, maps, etc.) and practices (technologies such as census taking, creating league tables) as (simply) benign and inert, we begin to see them as proposals to shape “conduct”. I repeat the example of school buildings offered by Bottrell and Goodwin (2011: 4) because it makes the point so clearly. They describe how modern schools with their “uni-purpose facilities located on enclosed land, fenced and gated” reflect a “hidden curriculum” that problematizes the moral and cognitive training of young people. That is, the design of the building is a proposal shaping conduct; it problematizes behaviours in specific ways. As another example, Rowse (2009) shows how the current Australian census problematizes Indigenous peoples as part of a population binary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, influencing the shape of possible political claims. 

In WPR we proceed to analyse at some depth how these proposals (buildings, censuses) produce “problems” as problems of particular sorts. To perform this analysis, WPR offers several forms of questioning and analysis to use in opening up “words and things” to critical analysis (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

Where did these questions and forms of analysis come from? 

Question 2 involves a form of Foucauldian archaeology, looking to identify the deep-seated knowledges and logics that make particular forms of thought possible. Question 3 turns to Foucauldian genealogy to help grasp the numerous twists and turns that eventuate in a particular problem representation. Question 4 zooms in on the need to think about the silences in specific problem representations and about other possible problematizations. Question 5 highlights the implications or “effects” (discursive, subjectification, lived) of a particular problem representation, while Question 6 draws attention to the specific practices that install and authorize particular problem representations and to the possibility of contestation. Step 7 (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20) emphasizes the importance of applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals or proposed solutions. 

Rigby et al. (2021: 507) helpfully refer to the questions in WPR as a “conceptual checklist”. Hence, it is to be expected that there will be overlap and repetition. Question 4, for example, on silences clearly overlaps with the attention directed to “discursive effects” in Question 5. Similarly, Step 7 ought to be seen, not as some simple add-on to the analysis, but as integral to the WPR analytic project.

This emphasis on overlap and interconnection among the WPR questions signals the need to examine possible forms of application. I refer readers here to the 2009 book, Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? There I outlined two forms of application, which I described as either systematic – addressing each WPR question separately and in order (see Chapters 3 and 4 in Analysing Policy) – or integrated, in which the WPR questions do not appear in the text. In the latter, the analysis integrates the WPR questions into a carefully argued whole. To illustrate that the WPR questions are at work in the Chapters where I developed this idea of an integrated analysis, I inserted notations, e.g. Q1, Q2, etc., to signal when a particular question is being applied (see Chapters 5 through 10 in Analysing Policy). My article on “alcohol problems” illustrates how an integrated analysis can be produced (Bacchi 2015).

I explain, in Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 92), that Chapters 3 and 4 systematically address each question in the approach separately and sequentially for two reasons: first, to ensure that every question gets raised; and second, to show how the same material can look slightly different through a different lens (question). I also note, however, that “separation of the questions in a WPR approach is not always necessary or even advisable”.

Indeed, the WPR approach offers a form of critical analysis that is commonly performed by poststructural researchers who have never heard of WPR. I “soaked up” the insights produced by these researchers and “packaged” what I perceived to be the key foci that were addressed. WPR emerged as a prompt to perform poststructural critical analysis. Unsurprisingly, then, researchers may indicate in their methodology section that they are adopting (or adapting) WPR but without listing the WPR questions. They simply proceed to produce the analysis. 

I offer Oscar Larsson’s 2021 article as an example (also mentioned in Research Hub entry 30 April 2021). Larsson examines the “preemptive logic of contemporary security and crisis management” to show how “civil and war preparedness are merged into an ever-present dimension of everyday existence”. He offers a “genealogical analysis of this development in Sweden since the end of the Cold War”. His particular interest is the “role now assigned to citizens within social and national security planning”, which he describes as “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject”. 

Larsson (2021: 5) opens his “Method and Material” section noting that:

“An analysis concerned with problem and/or subject descriptions – which in this case are descriptions of the characteristics and responsibilities of citizens in respect to crises and war – can fruitfully utilize Carol Bacchi’s unique approach to policy analysis that she terms “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” This method, which is based upon the premise that policy approaches contain implicit representations of what a problem is considered to be, provides a framework for examining security programmes as specific forms of governmentality. (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 28-29)”

Importantly, Larsson does not list or mention the WPR questions. Nor does he refer to the WPR approach other than in the quote I have just reproduced. However, the analysis in his article clearly raises questions associated with the WPR “template” – in particular, the commitment to produce a genealogy of approaches to civil and war preparedness (Question 3 in WPR), and the particular focus on how subjects are produced as resilient (subjectification effects: Question 5 in WPR). Larsson thus provides an example of an integrated analysis where the WPR questions operate in the background, and do not need to be listed.  

Does the list of WPR questions remain useful? Are there times when reproducing the Chart from Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2) assists or strengthens an argument? Researchers often adopt the list of questions in total, or choose certain questions from the list, to help structure their analysis. This form of application of the approach can work to ensure that readers are better able to follow the argument that is being developed. The list of questions has also proved popular with postgraduate students to help structure a thesis. The wide acceptance of WPR as an analytic device allows these students and other researchers to put forward the list of WPR questions as a “method”, which can be useful in a number of situations, such as making grant applications. 

At times, only some of the WPR questions are selected as the focus for an article or chapter. In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 100-101) I stated that “every question need not always be addressed in every analysis”. I am now more wary of this suggestion because of the tendency, at times, to neglect the interconnected mode of thinking at work in WPR. For example, Step 7 requiring self-problematization commonly disappears from these “tailored” analyses. To guard against this practice, I now state: “In terms of practical application of WPR, it is possible to draw selectively upon the forms of questioning and analysis just described [as part of the approach], so long as a self-problematizing ethic is maintained” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24; emphasis added).

Still, researchers may wish to foreground aspects of their analysis.  As an example, a researcher may be particularly interested in the subjectification effects (Question 5 in WPR) of a selected policy or policy proposal. They may not be immediately interested in its genealogy (Question 3). Hence, they can signal this emphasis by stipulating which WPR questions they draw upon. However, it is important to keep in mind how a genealogical focus shapes the argument – how the focus in the analysis is on the ways in which present practices emerged but were not determined. Moreover, while I tread warily the path of imposing aspects of WPR, I have found myself increasingly emphasizing the need to undertake Step 7, to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought” (Stengers 2008: 41-42).

In the end, then, researchers do not need the WPR questions, but they may find them useful. Moreover, I speculate that the mode of questioning associated with WPR offers a way of thinking that can dramatically alter how we approach all sorts of topics – our school buildings above provide an example. The approach produces a new lens for questioning how socio-material relations are organized. It challenges any and all assumed “endpoints”, conceiving them instead as problematizations. As examples, consider the targeting of “issues” in Marres’ work (2007) and “matters of concern” in Latour (2004). Applying a WPR lens, there are no “issues” or “matters of concern” that exist outside contestation. Indeed, as explained in an earlier entry (Research Hub 31 Dec. 2020), I would want to ask: “What is the specified matter of concern represented to be?”. To engage critically with that question, I would apply the WPR analytic “template”: start from proposals (or proposed solutions), work backwards to problem representations that require interrogation, and ensure that one’s own proposals receive the same treatment through self-problematization. 

The world looks quite different when we start from proposals in this way and work backwards to see how “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems. It means, of course, that there are no “problems” per se; the term becomes meaningless. I have had students who tell me that they can no longer read a newspaper or go to a film without considering how what is stated produces a “problem” as a particular sort of problem. My hope continues to be that this novel way of thinking provides a counterpoint to the mindset in the policy world and in many other fields of practice that presumes “problems” are obvious and uncontroversial, and that the only required task is “solving” them. The overarching goal, therefore, is to facilitate critical interrogation of the problem-solving knowledge that shapes and dominates the current intellectual and policy landscape (Bacchi 2020). 


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

Bacchi, C. 2015. Problematizations in Alcohol Policy: WHO’s “Alcohol Problems”. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42(2): 130-147. 

Bacchi, C. 2020. Problem-Solving as a Governing Knowledge: “Skills”-Testing in PISA and PIAAC. Open Journal of Political Science, 10: 82-105.

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

Bottrell, D., & Goodwin, S. 2011. Contextualising schools and communities. In D. Bottrell, & S. Goodwin (Eds.), Schools, communities and social inclusion. South Yarra: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Foucault, M. 1966. Les mots y les choses. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, M. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977‐78, Senellart, M. (ed.), Burchell, G. (trans). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gordon, C. 1991. Governmental Rationality: An Introduction. In Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 1-51.

Larsson, O. L. 2021. The connections between crisis and war preparedness in Sweden. Security Dialogue, 1-19.

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

Marres, N. 2007. The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 759-780.

Rowse, T. 2009. The ontological politics of “closing the gaps”. Journal of Cultural Economy, 2 (1&2), 33–48. Stengers, I. (2008) ‘Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism’, Subjectivity, 22, pp. 38-59.

Widening the Ambit of WPR: Legislative debates and official pronouncements


In the two previous entries I have considered the possibility of adapting WPR for use in analysing media texts and interview material. On media texts (30 April 2021), I caution against adopting WPR to (simply) canvas opinions, expressed in a media post of some sort, on an issue or “problem”. At the same time, it is possible to read certain media texts as proposals regarding conduct and hence as governing strategies, making a WPR form of analysis possible (Manlik 2020). In the latter case, the target is the conceptual logics within governmental (read broadly) proposals, not opinions. 

In relation to interview material (31 May 2021), there are two levels of challenge regarding attempts to apply WPR. The first involves the kind of subject assumed in the use of research interviews. As WPR puts in question the notion of an “authentic” or sovereign self, the use of interviews to provide “true” meaning conflicts with this premise. The second challenge is that interviews do not, in my view, appear to offer “guides to conduct”. They are not “practical” or “prescriptive texts” in the sense developed by Foucault (1986: 12-13) and adopted in WPR (Bacchi 2009: 34). Therefore, I, with Jennifer Bonham, developed Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA) as a “sister strategy” to WPR in order to tease out conceptual logics within interview material (see Bacchi and Bonham 2016). 

The query in this entry is whether it is possible to use WPR to analyse legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (upper-case “G” signals official institutions). I ask: can the words of politicians and legislators be drawn upon to build a WPR-style analysis? I offer as exemplars three WPR applications that use either legislative debates (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, and Johnson et al. 2021) or the official pronouncements of heads of state and heads of Government (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020). All three studies are stimulating and challenging analyses that have assisted me to sort through my thinking on these issues. Given space limitations I introduce these articles only briefly and recommend that those interested in the topic read them in their entirety. To preview my argument, I suggest that it is possible to bring a poststructural analytic to such debates and pronouncements but, depending on the specific character of the material analysed, sometimes WPR can be applied and sometimes PIA is a more promising strategy.

Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) analyse “how two Australian problem-solving courts – Victoria’s Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list for people with cognitive impairments or mental illness – have been conceptualized by Victoria’s Parliament” (Abstract). With the appellation of “problem-solving court” the topic appears to invite a WPR analysis. And the authors offer useful insights into how the very existence of courts described as “problem-solving” represents the “problem” of crime prevention. They note for example that such courts derive from the “therapeutic jurisprudence movement of the United States” and “operate on the premise that law, its personnel and processes can have therapeutic effects on participants’ wellbeing” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 459). There is rich material here that could be pursued further.

The authors turn their attention to “the legislative processes through which these courts came about”. And, to that end, they examine “what is said” in parliamentary debates “pertaining to the development of both the Victorian Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 460). Their targets are the “pervasive cultural logics” or “imaginaries” underpinning “what was said”. For example, they note how the subject in the Victorian Court is produced as “agentive, responsive, responsible and capable of change”.  They also identify the “dominant cultural imaginary of the addict as a lesser citizen” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463).  In relation to the Assessment and Referral Court list, they point out that “members of the Legislative Assembly appear to rely on a medicalized and protectionist discourse of disability and mental health” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463). They conclude that such “dominant cultural imaginaries” shape “the ways by which ‘problems’ are constituted” and foreclose “other possible problematizations” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 467).

The focus on “what is said” in the selected Parliamentary debates, in my view, invites a PIA analysis rather than a WPR study. This is mainly because WPR relies on proposals in “prescriptive texts” for its starting point and the statements of legislators do not, in my view, constitute prescriptive texts in any straight-forward manner. Moreover, the authors state clearly that their goal is to bring attention to “the limits on what can be said” about a range of topics, which is the stated goal in PIA – to consider how precisely “what is said” could be said (how it is “sayable”) (Bacchi and Bonham 2016: 116). 

However, it is possible to apply WPR in the ways Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) recommend if one approaches the legislative statements as governing technologies. An article by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al.(2020) illustrates how this can be done. In this article the focus is on a collection of speeches given by “heads of state and heads of government” in Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden to frame “the problems and solutions to the spread of the [COVID-19] virus during the pandemic’s initial phase”. The authors specify that they adopt a “Foucauldian-inspired method of problematization”, alongside narrative analysis, governmentality, risk communication and taskscape theories (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract). On problematization, referring to my work (Bacchi 2009, 2012), they ask: “What are the ‘problem(s)”’ and the ‘solution(s)’ to the spread of the virus represented to be in the communication of the heads of state and heads of government in the four countries included in the study?”.  

The authors (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: 9) develop the argument that, because the speeches explained the restrictions and interventions planned and implemented by the state, they formed part of “the strategy implementation”. It follows, they say, that the speeches “can be understood as governance technologies” in the Foucauldian sense of mechanisms of rule. A particular interest is how these mechanisms, such as the spatial distancing and self-governance demanded by the regimes, “create subject positions for individuals or groups” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 1). The point that individuals and groups are rendered “governable” through “the communication between the state and the public [i.e. through the speeches of heads of state] as well as through the technologies and rationalities employed by the state” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 3) seems well taken. Along similar lines, the governmentality scholars Miller and Rose (1990: 1) describe language as an “intellectual technology” that “renders aspects of existence amenable to inscription and calculation”.

In terms of WPR, the authors focus on the “solutions presented” (e.g. social distancing, hand-washing, etc) and how these produce a “problem-solution complex”. With “postulated solutions” read as proposals, it becomes possible to explore how these “solutions” produce the “problem” of contagion. As explained in my article on problematizations in health policy (Bacchi 2016: 10-11) WPR begins with a “postulated solution” (or proposal) and “identifies the problem representations within it”.  Furthermore, it is clear that the official pronouncements collected by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al.  target the “conduct of conduct” and allow the authors to raise questions about the effects of such interventions: 

“Through invoking a sense of responsibility, sacrifice, and current life during the pandemic as a difficult time, the speeches allude to how people through changed behavior can/should, contribute to the greater good. The individual is positioned as a key cause of, and solution to the problem; however, construing the individual as an indispensable actor to overcoming the crisis also means that the individual is laid open for reprehension.” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract)

 There is one issue that requires more discussion in using WPR to apply to legislative debates. This is the issue of intentionality. As Manlik (2020) reminds us, in relation to media texts (see Research Hub 30 April 2021), in a WPR analysis, there is no suggestion that blame should be assigned to particular individuals. The level of analysis targets underlying governmental presuppositions not individual intentions. And yet it seems to me that the heads of state and heads of government in Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. set out with the clear intentionof altering citizen behaviours. As with media texts and interviews, then, in applying WPR, there is a need to ensure that the focus is on governmental problematizations and not on individual opinions or intentions.

A 2021 piece by Johnson et al. wants to blend these tasks. They set out to critically interrogate and compare legislation in Louisiana and Maryland that restricts and regulates how and when public colleges can ask applicants about their criminal history. The debates around this topic link to campaigns to “ban the box” on employment applications that ask if a candidate does or does not have a criminal history. The authors describe how they approach the issue, using WPR, in these terms: that, while the policies they examine “appear similar on the surface, they vary in the solutions they pose, reflecting different understandings of the problem they aim to address”.  

Here I would suggest altering the wording to read – “they vary in the solutions they pose, and hence produce[or enact, or constitute] the “problem” of prior convictions (or criminal history) as a particular sort of problem”. Those readers who have followed the entries in the Research Hub will recognize the distinction I am drawing here between an interpretive approach that focuses on competing understandings, or interpretations, of an issue and a poststructural analysis that looks at how specific interventions produce different realities. Johnson et al. (2021: 6; emphasis added) proceed to base their analysis largely on the comments of legislators in “legislative hearings”. They explain that their focus is “on how various actors – state legislators, representatives from advocacy organizations, public citizens – shape the policy discussion and how the problem is defined”, illustrating that they are working within an interpretive tradition. 

From my early work on WPR in Women, Policy and Politics (Bacchi 1999) I have endeavoured to draw a distinction between “problem definitions”, as described here, and “problem representations”, as I first develop in that book. There (1999: 34) I note that those interested in “problem definition” tend to focus on the people (e.g., policymakers, researchers, etc) involved in setting the norms that determine when certain conditions are to be regarded as policy problems  and, hence, on the values and interpretations of those people (Bacchi 1999: 28; see also Bacchi 2015). By contrast, the focus of analysis in WPR is not the competing interpretations of policy actors but the deep-seated conceptual logics in governmental problematizations. To gain access to the conceptual logics in legislative debates or government pronouncements, they need to be interrogated through identifying “proposed solutions” and their implicit problem representations – ensuring that the “proposed solutions” are not simply the opinions of select social actors. 

Next time I look more closely at the analytic formats available for WPR-inspired analyses, either question-by-question or as an “integrated analysis”. In relation to the latter, I will ask a question that some of you might have been pondering – do we really need WPR?  


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. Why Study Problematizations? Making politics visible. Open Journal of Political Science, 2(1): 1-8.

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. 2016. Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning how “Problems” are Constituted in Policies. Sage Open, April-June: 1-16. DOI: 10.11771/21582440/6653986.

Bacchi, C. & Bonham, J. 2016. Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi & S. Goodwin, Poststructural policy analysis: A guide to practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 113-121. 

Foucault, M. 1986. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality. Volume 2. Trans. R. Hurley. London: Viking Press. 

Manlik, K. 2020. Allies or at-risk subjects? sexual minority women and the “problem” of HIV in Lesbians on the Loose, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1837907

Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1990. Governing Economic Life, Economy and Society, 19(1): 1-31.

Johnson, R. M., Alvarado, R. E. and Rosinger, K. O. 2021. What’s the “Problem” of Considering Criminal History in College Admissions? A Critical Analysis of “Ban the Box” Policies in Louisiana and Maryland. The Journal of Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2020.1870849. 

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

Spivakovsky, C. and Seear, K. 2017. Making the abject: problem- solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment, Continuum, 31(3): 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1275152 

Widening the ambit of WPR: interviews


Interviews are a highly popular research method. In fact, people who adopt WPR frequently offer interviews, often with “key informants”, to supplement the analysis. There are difficulties with this approach. As I’ve argued elsewhere, with Jennifer Bonham (Bacchi and Bonham 2016; Bonham and Bacchi 2017), since WPR challenges any sense of a sovereign subject who stands outside power and who can access “true” meaning, researchers who use interviews as a source of “truth” about an event or an individual’s “experience” face a major theoretical challenge. Atkinson and Stillwell (1997: 306) argue that we live in an “interview society”, where interviews represent a “technology of biographical construction” (think of Oprah Winfrey, ABC’s “One on One”, news reports etc, etc). They put the poststructuralist perspective that such “personal narratives” are not “any more authentic or pure a reflection of the self than any other socially organized set of practices” (Atkinson and Stillwell 1997: 322). It follows that, as St Pierre (2011: 620) notes, if poststructuralists “no longer believe in a disentangled humanist self, individual, person, we have to rethink qualitative methods (interviewing and observation) grounded in that human being as well as humanist representation”.

There are at least four areas where conventional interviewing analytic techniques prove problematic for poststructural researchers:

  1. The “status” of “the subject” as “authentic self”; 
  2. The “status” of “data”, in the sense of accessible “information”; 
  3. The “status” of “experience” as a static and accessible category (see Scott 1992);
  4. Assumptions about “memory” as (again) accessible and “truthful”. By contrast, Smith and Watson (2010: 22 in Moon 2016: 37) postulate that remembering is meaning-making by “a reinterpretation of the past in the present”. 

Clearly all these areas are interconnected, and none is straightforward.

Several recent contributions explore the possibility of poststructural interview analysis(Niemi and Jahnukainen, 2019; Renedo et al. 2019; Bay et al. 2019). A major challenge in these analyses is the need to avoid lapsing into language use that reinstalls a “choosing” and hence autonomous subject – for example, by talking about “subjects” negotiating among or “drawing upon” (Scharff 2016: 108) competing discourses, or about “subjects” as choosing a particular subject position. There is a need also to be wary of appealing to a subject’s “experience” or “perceptions” as if these stand outside discourse. 

Alvesson (2002) offers something he calls “discursive pragmatism” to assist poststructuralists who wish to draw on interview material in their research. This framework allows the use of a post-structuralist framework alongside an interpretive approach: 

“where it seems reasonable, interview findings are indeed interpreted as reflections of social practices or the ‘inner life’ of interviewees. In other instances, interviews are seen as a combination of localist influences (such as the position/role of the interviewer/interviewee, location of interviews, gender, age, professional background) and the drawing upon dominant discourses, ‘operating behind and on the subject’ (Alvesson, 2002: 114)”. (Swirak 2013: 55). 

The question I broach in this entry is whether or not WPR can be adapted to analyse interview material. I suggest that a “sister strategy” to WPR, which Bonham and I call Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA; Bacchi and Bonham 2016), provides a useful alternative to Alvesson’s “discursive pragmatism” and illustrates how postructuralists can include interviews among other research materials. Put simply, this approach (PIA) examines precisely “what is said” in interviews and looks to explain how it was/is possible to say those things – what meanings and practices need to be in place for “what is said” to be “sayable” (Rhodes and Lancaster 2021: 7). I describe such meanings and practices as reflecting “conceptual logics” or “cultural logics” (see also “cultural imaginaries” in Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, next Research Hub entry).

In a PIA account, as in WPR, “objects” and “subjects” are not essences but are in “ongoing formation”. Interviews are drawn upon to provide insights into how “subjects” are produced in discourse. This analytic task is accomplished through examining how interviewees “interact” with “subject positions”. Note that I have problematized “interact” (and below “encounter”) to signal how difficult it is to find language that does not reproduce the implication that “subjects” stand outside discourse (see above re the need to be careful with the languages of “negotiating” or “drawing upon” which in my view are more problematic since they clearly situate the subject outside the discourse/s).

The concept of “subject position” is widely used in policy analysis to refer to the “identity categories” made available to “subjects”, categories that reflect specific cultural logics. Think, for example, of some of the common categories “subjects” need to “take up” in order to live and work in Western industrialized democracies – e. g.  “citizen”, “migrant”, “welfare recipient”, “single parent”, “male” and “female”. PIA directs attention to how interviewees “encounter” subject positions, where they accept and reinforce them, and at times where they disrupt them. Importantly, there is no implication that acceptance or disruption are intentional interventions, a stance that would reinstall a sovereign subject. 

An example best illustrates the dynamic I describe here. The example comes from the 2017 article written with Bonham, and I refer you to that piece for additional context and detail (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). The issue we examine is how some women interviewed for a project studying their return to cycling spoke about themselves as “cyclists”. When asked explicitly if she considered herself a “cyclist”, one interviewee replied that she did not see herself as fitting that category because she doesn’t cycle much on weekends or join groups of people cycling. At another point in the interview, the same interviewee describes some traffic conditions that disturb her: 

“The other thing I don’t like is if you’re getting [pause] if you’re stuck at traffic lights a lot, I don’t like getting exhaust in my face. Sometimes it feels a bit unsafe ’cos you’ve got big buses in your bike lane and you’ve got them parked very close to cars [in the adjacent lane]. So as a cyclist you can’t go up the middle … so you have to think so ‘what am I going to do now?’ … I really feel unsafe in this circumstance; there is not provision here for cyclists”. (from Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 697; emphasis added)

In this extract, the interviewee identifies herself as a “cyclist”.

The point in drawing attention to the contrast in the two references to “cyclist” is not to suggest that the interviewee is being inconsistent. Rather, the two uses of the term indicate that the subject position of “cyclist” is fluid and relational. It follows that “subject positions” are not determinative; nor are they fixed. They are not imposed on people but delimit possible ways of being. Furthermore, they are in “ongoing-formation” and hence susceptible to variation, signalling the ever-present possibilities for change.

As illustrated in the case of “cyclist” just discussed, interviews can provide one research site where it is possible to study the production and mutation of subject positions and hence of “subjects”. What becomes important are the factors that lead different meanings to emerge. In the first case the interviewee adopts a normative understanding of “cyclist” as defined by group membership and certain kinds of performance; in the latter case “cyclist” is defined in relation to and in reaction to automobile and bus road occupancy. The two uses of “cyclist” also clearly have important political implications. In the first case, a conventional understanding of “cyclist” as recreational road user (weekends, clubs) is reinforced; in the second case, “cyclists” are located in “traffic”, demanding a space as road users. 

The question that arises is – what are researchers to do with the kinds of insight provided in this analysis? In contrast to “discursive pragmatism” (see Alvesson above), PIA highlights the role played by researchers in interpreting and disseminating the “findings” they “extract” from interviews. Instead of seeing researchers as (simply) reiterating and conveying the presumably transparent views of interviewees, Poststructural Interview Analysis emphasizes the political role of interviewers, given the significant political implications of what they distribute and how it is distributed in terms of interpretation and format (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 698).

Annemarie Mol (2002: 154) reminds us that research methods “are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it”. Researchers, in this view, are necessarily involved in “ontological politics”, making different or multiple versions of reality (Mol 1999: 74; see Research Hub entry, 10 Dec 2017). In Rhodes and Lancaster’s (2021: 5) terms, “science does not observe a reality, as if ‘from a bridge’, but is ‘immersed’ in its making”. As we have just seen in relation to “cyclists”, how interviewers/researchers approach the material collected in interviews can produce quite different realities – in this case, either reinforcing conventional road usage or, by contrast, developing a potentially transformative alternative.

With Bonham, I conclude that, if interviews are approached solely in terms of providing “access” to “information” or “experiences”, the opportunities for observing and detecting disruptions to dominant narratives are minimized. Poststructural Interview Analysis opens up interviews in new ways to make it possible to consider their transformative potential. Such a stance necessarily alerts researchers to the need to reflect on their own views on issues and how they might easily miss the kinds of “creative tensions” we discover through approaching interviews as political resources rather than as transparent scripts. 

Why, I’m asked, did I feel it necessary to develop PIA? Why not simply call it WPR? My decision to develop PIA hinged on the conviction that interviews do not usually provide “guides to conduct” in the ways in which materials adopted for a WPR analysis do. They are not “prescriptive” or “practical texts” (Bacchi 2009: 34). Hence, the basic precept in WPR that proposals contain implicit problem representations (because what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change) would not form a part of these analyses. If “proposals” (to alter conduct) do appear in interviews, these proposals tend to reflect the opinions of interviewees. Hence, the analysis would become an interpretive study of competing understandings (opinions) or perceptions of a “problem” (Bastian and Coveney 2013: 162) rather than a critical analysis of governmental problematizations, as in WPR. At the same time, PIA replicates the poststructural analytic perspective deployed in WPR – a relational ontology based on “how possible” questions (how certain things are “sayable”) and a productive view of power that prescribes to the primacy of politics – which is why I describe it as a “sister strategy” to WPR. 

In the next entry I look at some novel applications of WPR to legislative debates and other statements by politicians and legislators. 


Alvesson, M. 2002. Postmodernism and Social Research. Buckingham: Open University Press. 

Atkinson, P. and Silverman, D. 1997. Kundera’s Immortality: the interview society and the invention of the self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3): 304–25.

Bacchi, C. and Bonham, J. 2016. Appendix: Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin (Eds) Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 113-121.

Bastian, A. and Coveney, J. 2013. The responsibilisation of food security: What is the problem represented to be? Health Sociology Review, 22(2): 162-173.

Bay, U., Haynes, A. & Western, D. 2019. Thinking what
we do: reflexively testing post-structural theoretical concepts with social work practitioners and fieldwork educators. Social Work Education, 38(7): 941-953, DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2019.1586868 

Bonham, J. and Bacchi, C. 2017. Cycling ‘subjects’ in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis. Journal of Sociology, 53(3): 687-703.

Mol, A. 1999. Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions. In J. Law and J. Hassard (Eds) Actor Network Theory and After, Sociological Review Monograph. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 74-89.

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

Moon, S. 2016. Poststructural Theorizing of “Experiences”: Implications for Qualitative Research and Curriculum Inquiries. Journal of Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1): 33-65. Retrieved from Loyola eCommons, School of Education: Faculty Publications and Other Works. 

Niemi, A-M. and Jahnukainen, M. 2019. Educating self-governing learners and employees: studying, learning and pedagogical practices in the context of vocational education and its reform. Journal of Youth Studies,https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2019.1656329

 Renedo, A., Miles, S. and Marston, C. 2019. Transitions to adulthood: self-governance and disciplining in the making of patient citizens. Sociology of Health and Illness, doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.13019

Rhodes, T. and Lancaster, K. 2021. Excitable models: Projections, targets, and the making of futures without disease. Sociology of Health & Illness, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.13263 

St Pierre, E. 2011. Post Qualitative Research: The Critique and the Coming After. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (Eds) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 611-625.

Scharff, C. 2016. The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(6): 107-122.  

Scott, J. W. 1992. Experience. In J. Butler & J. W. Scott (Eds.), Feminists theorize the political. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 22-40.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. 2010. Reading autobiographyA guide for interpreting life narratives (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Spivakovsky, C. and Seear, K. 2017. Making the abject: problem- solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment, Continuum, 31(3): 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1275152 Swirak, K. 2013. A post-structuralist analysis of Irish youth crime prevention policy with specific emphasis on the Garda youth diversion projects, PhD thesis, University College Cork