“Theoretical Frameworks for Policy Analysis”

Comment: The title for this entry refers to the third chapter, by Jon Yorke and Lesley Vidovich, in Learning Standards and the Assessment of Quality in Higher Education: Contested Policy Trajectories (2016: 69-87). This book appears as Volume 7 of the series: Policy Implications of Research in Education. Yorke and Vidovich develop the concept of a “policy trajectory” framework, underpinned by what they describe as a “hybridized approach” between critical theory and post-structuralism. Such a project offers a useful perspective on the challenges posed by attempting to blend theoretical perspectives (see FAQ 2) – a topic that has been raised in earlier entries (10 Dec. 2017, 18 Feb. 2018, 4 March 2018).

Perhaps we need different ways to think about our entanglement in theory. If “no theoretical frame is self-sufficient or all-encompassing, and each can be useful to reveal what the others elide” (Chagani, 2014; emphasis added; see below for references), we require a form of inquiry that encourages comparisons along these lines. I believe that the WPR approach offers such a form of inquiry.

In Analysing Policy (2009: 249) I explain that all theories are forms of proposal and therefore contain problem representations. Hence, they can be subjected, productively, to the questions in the “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” approach. I follow up this suggestion in my analyses of health policy (pp. 128-136), criminal justice policy (pp. 103-105) and gambling policy (pp. 249-251). Other authors have pursued the suggestion that WPR can be applied to forms of academic text and argument. See for example Månsson, J., & Ekendahl, M. (2015). Most recently, Skovhus and Thomsen (2017) have used WPR to conduct a critical review of Danish career guidance research, indicating the potential of using WPR to conduct a critical literature review. The goal in this suggestion to apply WPR to varieties of theory and knowledge production is to focus attention on what is at stake in different perspectives (Question 5) and to help identify critical “sticking points” (Question 2) (Bacchi WPR CHART).


Chagani, F. (2014) Critical political ecology and the seductions of posthumanism, Journal of Political Ecology, 21.

Månsson, J., & Ekendahl, M. (2015). Protecting prohibition: The role of Swedish information symposia in keeping cannabis a high-profile problem. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42, 209–225.

Skovhus, R. B. & Thomsen, R. (2017). Popular problems, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 45(1): 112-131.

Comparing interpretivism and poststructuralism

Comment: This entry is prompted by the publication of The Handbook of European Policies: Interpretive Approaches to the EU, edited by Hubert Heinelt and Sybille Münch (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018).

A book on interpretive approaches to European politics is most welcome. The Introduction, written by the editors, suggests the breadth and complexity of the field. The stance they develop is that the term “interpretivism” serves as an “umbrella” that “embraces both hermeneutical as well as post-structuralist approaches” (p. 4).

I would like to reflect briefly on the labels we attach to our theoretical perspectives and whether or not they matter. I would suggest that they matter if there are important discrepancies among approaches and if these discrepancies affect the kind of political analysis produced. I would not, for example, include the poststructural analytic strategy, known as WPR, under a broad umbrella of “interpretivism”. Briefly I’ll explain why not.

The editors acknowledge the importance of the distinction I draw elsewhere (see Bacchi The Turn to Problematization) between a Foucauldian poststructural analytic strategy and varieties of interpretivism. As they say: “Whereas interpretivists in the hermeneutical tradition regard political subjects as agentic, ‘that is, as sovereign or foundational subjects, who stand outside of and shape “reality”’, authors in the tradition of “discursive meaning” see subjects themselves as constituted in discourses and therefore as ‘precarious, contradictory and in process’ (ibid.; referring to Bacchi 2015, p. 3)”. However, this issue is not raised again in the Introduction and it is clear that most of the contributions to the book, as discussed in the Introduction, operate within the hermeneutical tradition. They are interested in actors and on the meanings those actors impart to issues. Mostly, the focus is on narratives and frames, described as “interactive sense-making” (p. 7). Frames are offered as competing constructions, commonly referred to as “problem definitions”, of “what the problem really is”.

By contrast WPR does not target people’s competing interpretations or definitions of a “problem”, which is presumed to exist. In WPR, there is no “real problem” in this sense in dispute. Rather, “problems” are constituted or produced within governmental policies and technologies, and the critical task is to interrogate these problem representations. A key point to pursue is how these problem representations shape ways for subjects to be – called “subjectification effects” – through “subject positions”, and with what political implications (see Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. Poststructural Policy Analysis, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 49-53). Subjectification effects are tied to the suggestion that political subjects are precarious, contradictory and in process (see above). In contrast interpretive analyses tend to emphasise how political actors shape their arguments, often for strategic reasons (see preceding entry, 18 February 2018).

The strong emphasis in interpretive approaches on sense-making and argumentation, as opposed to the focus in WPR on subjectification, appears in the meaning imparted to “discourse”. While the editors note the importance of contested meanings of “discourse”, they equate “discourse” with the “role of language” (p. 4). In Foucault-influenced poststructural policy analysis, discourses refer to knowledges, in the plural, not to language (see Bacchi, C. and Bonham, J. 2014 Reclaiming discursive practices as an analytic focus: Political implications, Foucault Studies, no. 17, pp. 173-192). Hence, attention is directed, not to the “communicative interactions” of social actors, but to the deep-seated assumptions and presuppositions that underpin ways of thinking.

In an earlier entry (10 December, 2017) on “ontological politics”, the point is made that theories play a constitutive role in shaping realities. Hence, there is a responsibility for researchers to reflect on the realities their theoretical propositions create. There is a common view in interpretive approaches that political subjects can and do operate as sovereign agents who shape arguments for a range of purposes. By contrast in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism subjects are always “becoming”, produced in practices, including policy practices. Such a perspective draws critical attention to both the operation of assumptions about a fixed human nature that underpin a range of policies – with effects that need to be traced – and to the ways in which policies are involved in producing particular types of subject (see entry on gendering, 11 February 2018).

“Meanings of problematization”

COMMENT: This entry is a reply to Andrew Clarke’s 2017 article in Critical Policy Studies entitled: “Analyzing problematization as a situated practice in critical policy studies: a case study of ‘customer focus’ policy in urban compliance services” (DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2017.1414619).

Clarke argues the need for a “supplement” to the WPR approach, which would offer an analysis of “the situated practices that give rise to particular problematizations” (Abstract). He wishes to provide a method to reveal “how a certain discourse came to be imbued in the policy under study” and to this end wants to foreground “the work of particular actors in shaping the formation [of] policy problems in particular times and places” (p. 2; emphasis in original).

Let me preface these brief comments by noting that I am genuinely pleased and flattered to see researchers exploring possible modifications of and additions to WPR as I have never suggested that it provides the only useful form of political analysis. However, in my reading, the focus on actors as agents locates Clarke’s analysis within an interpretive analytic tradition, which I distinguish from Foucauldian-influenced poststructuralism and the WPR approach, making his suggestion of a “supplement” difficult to support (see “The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations” Bacchi The Turn to Problematization].

A key distinction between interpretivism and WPR is how the political subject is conceptualized, an issue that Clarke does not address. In brief, interpretivists can be located in a hermeneutic tradition that sees people’s self-interpretations as central to understanding social organization, whereas Foucault-influenced poststructuralists support a posthumanist analysis that questions the existence of a sovereign subject who can access “true” meaning (see C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin 2016 Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 40). Put briefly, Clarke probes the competing understandings of “problems” put forward by specific subjects/actors whereas WPR interrogates governmental problematizations and how subjects are constituted within them (see “subjectification” in Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016, pp. 49-53).

Clarke (p. 4) argues that the perspective he offers derives from “the novel reading of Foucault’s later work advanced by Rabinow (2003) and Collier (2009)”, and leads to “an alternative conception of problematization that examines it at the level of situated practices”. However, Foucault uses the term “problematization” in two ways, adopting a verb form to describe a kind of analytic practice (“thinking problematically”) and a noun form, to refer to the objects for thought that emerge in historical problematizing practices, including governmental practices (“the forms of problematization themselves”) (Bacchi 2015, p. 3). Collier and Rabinow are concerned with the former usage. Their intent is to elaborate the specific form of thinking Foucault is putting forward as “thinking problematically”. Clarke correctly quotes Collier who describes this form of thinking as “critical reflection that establishes a certain distance from existing forms of acting and understanding and also works to remediate and recombine these forms” (Collier 2009, p. 80; my emphasis). This view of thinking in Foucault is reinforced in another quote from Collier (p. 90): “As we will see, he [Foucault] places particular emphasis on the work of actors – thinkers – who constitute existing ways of thinking and acting as problems, and seek to reform and remediate them.” Here Collier (p. 96) is exploring how thinking in Foucault “makes possible a certain critical distance from existing ways of understanding and acting” – an elaboration of “thinking problematically”.

The point here is that Collier, drawing on Foucault, is describing a particular way of thinking critically, not simply the thinking that goes on in the formation or development of public policies, which Clarke describes. This point is clear in Collier’s use of the italicized term “thinkers” (see above from Collier, p. 90), a term that unfortunately is cut from Clarke’s version of the Collier quote.

By contrast with Collier Clarke’s analysis looks to explain “contradictory discursive explanations” within selected policy documents. The frequent references to “strategy” and “strategic” suggest that he offers a version of strategic framing (see Clarke, pages 12 and 16), which fits within interpretivism. On this point, Clarke usefully describes WPR as “a critical and reflexive approach to studying policy problems that is more sensitive to the productive role of discourse than existing approaches to problem framing” (p. 4; my emphasis), pointing to the tensions between interpretivism and Foucault-influenced poststructuralism.

We are left therefore with a familiar dilemma – is it possible or useful to blend paradigms? Can we adopt an interpretive focus (such as Clarke’s) to study the contributions of policy actors to the formation of understandings of “problems” and add it as a “supplement” to a poststructural analytic strategy (i.e. WPR)? Elsewhere, Malin Rönnblom and I develop the argument that it is important to consider how methodologies create realities and that there is a need therefore to reflect on the forms of politics enabled in contrasting theoretical stances. In that paper we make the case that poststructural theory offers opportunities for political challenge closed off by more empirical approaches and invite researchers to engage theories at the level of politics, to ask how they are political, and what sorts of politics they make possible. This invitation remains open! (see Research Hub entry on ‘Ontological politics’ 10 December 2017; see also C. Bacchi and M. Rönnblom 2014. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism—A Poststructural Alternative, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, DOI: 10.1080/08038740.2013).

“Gendering and de-gendering”

COMMENT: In her recent book (Struggles in (Elderly) Care: A Feminist View, Palgrave Macmillan 2017; see previous entries 21 and 28 January, 4 February 2018) Hanne Marlene Dahl embraces the language of “gendering”, to which she adds “de-gendering”. The use of gerunds (putting “ing” onto nouns) is a well-known post-structuralist device for challenging fixity (essences) and highlighting process. The goal here is to draw attention to how “things” are continually being made with the effect of opening up spaces for challenge and change (see C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 31).

This challenge to fixity is particularly difficult to maintain in relation to people, especially those people marked as “men” and “woman”. We are certainly not used to thinking of these categories as anything but fixed!

Poststructuralism makes the case that there is “no essential, natural or inevitable way of governing or classifying people” (M. Tamboukou 1999. “Writing genealogies: An exploration of Foucault’s strategies for doing research. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 20(2), p. 208). Rather, people are seen as in “ongoing formation” and as constituted in practices (see Bonham, J. & Bacchi, C. 2017. “Cycling ‘subjects’ in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis”. The Journal of Sociology, 53(3): 687-703).

It is argued, for example, that policies as practices can play a role in producing “women” and “men” as gendered beings (Bacchi, C. 2017. “Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions”. Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, 38(1): 20-41). Importantly, we are never completely “gendered”; rather, we are always becoming “men” and “women” (signaled through the use of quotation marks around the terms). For a helpful illustration of how research and policy are gendering practices that take part in the co-constitution of binary genders, see David Moore, Suzanne Fraser, Helen Keane, Kate Seear & Kylie Valentine (2017), “Missing Masculinities: Gendering Practices in Australian Alcohol Research and Policy”, Australian Feminist Studies, 32(93): 309-324.

De-gendering, it follows, are practices that interfere with the “ongoing formation” of “women” and “men” as particular kinds of gendered being. As Dahl (p. 39) describes, in de-gendering, “efforts are made to de-link gender from bodies with gendered signs”. An example would be the efforts in the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – to encourage “men” to assume more caring and domestic responsibilities (p. 40).

Deploying this theory leaves us with a dilemma – how to refer to and develop policies that aim to assist existing “women” and “men”, those who inhabit the categories. With Joan Eveline, I describe a “politics of movement” that involves strategies of “fixing” and “unfixing” the meanings we attach to concepts given the politics of the situation.

Recognising that “knowledge” is always political, a “politics of movement” relies upon willingness to self-identify as critical researchers, with the decisions about when to fix and when to unfix meanings dependent upon reflexive judgment about the political exigencies of the particular situation. (C. Bacchi and J. Eveline, Mainstreaming Politics: Gendering Practices and Feminist Theory, University of Adelaide Press, 2010, p. 13; available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press – https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/.

“Theorising ageing”

COMMENT: In her recent book (Struggles in (Elderly) Care: A Feminist View, Palgrave Macmillan 2017; see entry for 21 January 2018) Hanne Marlene Dahl makes the point that “struggles over elderly care have intensified” (p. 160). She highlights the increasing emphasis, in Denmark and elsewhere, on making the elderly more independent and “self-responsible” (p. 169). Dahl identifies this “active aging” (p. 167) concept as related to a neo-liberalizing form of regulation (in tune with her post-structuralist perspective she notes that neo-liberalizing is never the only form of regulation; p. 169). One of her concerns is that not all those who are ageing may feel comfortable with this emphasis on independence and indeed may want to resist it.

Elsewhere in Struggles Dahl notes the tendency to stigmatize ageing (p. 140). I am reminded here of Betty Friedan’s 1993 book, The Fountain of Age (Jonathon Cape, London), which sets out to overturn this stigma. Friedan mounts a careful challenge to the view of ageing as “decline” and offers in its place a model of “vital aging” (p. 46). “Vital aging” considers “old age” as another step in human development where we come to display more contextualized understandings of events and people. How far, I want to ask, is “vital aging” from the “active aging” discourse that Dahl convincingly questions?

Set side by side, these accounts pose the challenge of how to critique both the stigma attached to ageing that Friedan emphasizes and the “self-responsibilising” that Dahl identifies. The concept of “social flesh”, which Chris Beasley and I developed, proves useful in challenging this dichotomy (see C. Beasley and C. Bacchi, “Envisaging a new politics for an ethical future. Beyond trust, care and generosity – Towards an ethic of ‘social flesh’”, Feminist Theory, 8(3): 279-298). As argued in the Research Hub entry on “Theorizing care” (28 January 2018), emphasizing human interdependence and reliance on shared resources and space provides a lever to defend both the need to acknowledge the exigencies of ageing alongside ways to facilitate growth and development.

“Theorising care”

COMMENT: This entry continues reflections prompted by Hanne Marlene Dahl’s recent book Struggles in (Elderly) Care: A Feminist View (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) (see 21 January, 2018, for previous entry).

One of Dahl’s projects is to consider existing research on care and how to develop a new analytic. She notes that for some years feminists have worked assiduously to ensure that “care” is treated seriously as a political issue. Her Chapter 3 provides a helpful review of many of these interventions.

Drawing on Mol (The logic of care – Health and the problem of patient choice, Routledge, 2008) Dahl endorses the need for a new question to guide research on care. It is time, she suggests, to stop asking “What is care?”, a question that risks essentializing “care” (p. 61). Instead we need to reflect on how we think about care, asking: “How are the changing conditions of care and an attention to power and struggles reframing our theorizing about care?” (p. 62; italics in original). Here the point is that how we talk or theorize about care reflects the changing political landscapes we inhabit. Hence “care” is a “moving feast”; it is unwise theoretically to speak about “it” as a “thing”.

Along similar lines Mol et al. (“Care in Practice: on Normativity, Concepts and Boundaries”, Technoscienza, 21(1), p. 84) refuse to define “care”. The authors explain the limitations imposed by definitions. Put (much too) simply, if we provide a definition of an apple, from that point in time we see, as apples, only those things that fit that description. The same is the case with “care”. How confining!

Changing the target of analysis from “care” as a “thing” to how we talk about or theorize care means examining critically the concepts we use – asking what they allow us to see and what they (may) leave out. This reflexive or self-problematizing approach to research is highlighted in Step 7 of the WPR approach, which states: “Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations”.

One concept that may deserve more scrutiny of this nature is “vulnerability”. A good deal of current feminist analysis deploys this concept or close synonyms (e.g. “precarity”; Puar J 2012. “Precarity talk: a virtual roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejic, Isabel Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanovic”. TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 163–177).

Work I have undertaken with Chris Beasley suggests that such languages (e.g. “vulnerability”, “precarity”) carry within them an unstated hierarchy between those presumed to be “weak” and those who are considered to be “strong”. Even if the argument is made that we are all “vulnerable” at different stages in our lives, it is important to challenge the weak/strong dichotomy (see Dahl on the importance of trying to avoid reproducing dichotomies; p. 14). To this end Chris Beasley and I have developed the concept of “social flesh”, which draws attention to shared human reliance on social space, infrastructure and resources. In our view this shift from “vulnerability” and “dependence” to embodied interconnection provides grounds for a radical democracy and challenges taken-for-granted privilege (C. Bacchi and C. Beasley, “The Limits of Trust and Respect: Rethinking Dependency”, Social Alternatives, 24(4), 2005: 55-59; see also C. Beasley and C. Bacchi, “Envisaging a new politics for an ethical future. Beyond trust, care and generosity – Towards an ethic of ‘social flesh’”, Feminist Theory, 8(3): 279-298).

“Struggles in (Elderly) Care”

COMMENT: This entry aims to introduce the recent book by Hanne Marlene Dahl entitled Struggles in (Elderly) Care: A Feminist View (Palgrave Macmillan 2017). This rich theoretical text provides the basis for several forthcoming entries on “theorizing care”, “theorizing ageing”, and on “gendering and de-gendering”.

Here I wish to emphasize how Struggles in (Elderly) Care [hereafter referred to as Struggles] illustrates what it means to deploy a poststructural research perspective. Throughout the book Dahl’s focus is on complexity and contingency, and on the processural nature of change. She develops a repertoire of concepts to facilitate analysis of this kind, including some that will be familiar to those working with poststructural frameworks, e.g. “assemblage”, “discourses”, “logics”, “governmentality”, among others.

The key term in the book’s title – Struggles – signals Dahl’s poststructural theoretical positioning. She challenges a view that she sees as dominant in research in the area of elderly care, where the focus is on inevitable and fixed contradictory positions (e.g. “dilemmas”; pp. 76-77). By contrast she points to tensions, conflicts and points of change that produce struggles.

Reflecting her poststructural positioning Dahl notes that her analysis targets a specific context – paid elderly care in Denmark from the 1950s to 2015. Her material is drawn from several research projects conducted over the past two decades. Dahl also specifies that her analysis reflects a critical and feminist viewpoint.

Dahl deploys a range of strategies to ensure that she focuses on a level she describes as “micro”, and that she eschews grand narratives (p. 7, 47). For example, in several places she explains the theoretical benefits of using verbs rather than nouns, e.g. neo-liberalizing rather than neo-liberalism, and gendering (p. 29). At the same time she argues for and illustrates the possibility of drawing broader insights about the nature of the place of “care” in the context of a range of social and political processes – “commodifying, professionalizing, late modernizing, de-gendering, globalizing, bureaucratizing and the advent of neo-liberalism” (p. 19).

These broader insights are linked to the notion of “logics”, drawn from Annemarie Mol’s work (A. Mol, The logic of care – Health and the problem of patient choice, Routledge, 2008; see entry on “ontological politics”, 10 December 2017). Logics are described as “different ways of viewing and providing care” (p. 7), and are treated as synonymous with “governmental rationalities” (p. 129). This key term in Foucauldian-informed analysis is discussed in the Research Hub entry, 7 January 2018. In that entry I emphasize the usefulness of problematizations (brought to attention through the WPR questions; Bacchi WPR CHART) as a way to identify rationalities/logics, clearly a key task in this form of analysis.

Dahl highlights the importance of ensuring that we do not miss important struggles, those that may well be less visible or invisible due to a range of “silencing practices” within “discursive regulation”. To bring these struggles into view, Dahl elaborates three analytic techniques: deconstruction, some comparative discourse analysis and memory work (Chapter 4).