“Thinking problematically Part I”

Comment: The previous two entries in the Research Hub [11 June, 25 June 2018] focused on the targets for analysis in WPR – problem representations, or problematizations. These are the “forms of problematizations themselves” in Foucault’s formulation (1986, pp. 17-18; see below for full quote), though, as explained in the last entry [25 June], WPR identifies these “forms” [problematizations] in every proposal or policy, rather than in “crises”, which are central to Foucault’s analysis.

The question for today is – what are we to do with these “forms of problematizations themselves”? How are we to approach them? The simple answer is that we need to problematize them. As I suggest in Analysing Policy(2009: 25; emphasis added), “We need to problematize [interrogate] the problematisations [the “forms” themselves] on offer”. But what does this entail?

First, note that the words “to problematize”, as used in the sentence from Analysing Policy, is a verb form [an infinitive], in contrast to the noun form of problematizations as “the forms themselves”.  This grammatical distinction becomes less helpful, however, when one wants to refer to “problematization” (a noun) as a method of analysis. The distinction in usage, therefore, is best thought of as a distinction between problematization as something researchers do – i.e. researchers problematize or engage in problematization – , while problematizations are the “forms of problematization themselves”, which I call problem representations [see Research Hub entry for 11 June].  For researchers, the task becomes the need to problematize [method of analysis] the problematizations [problem representations; the “forms” themselves] that they identify.

What, then, is involved in problematizing[or problematization] as a form of analysis?

In the conclusion to Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 271-2) I describe this analytic task as “problem-questioning”. However, the reference to “questioning” does not mean just any form of questioning. Foucault characterizes the kind of questioning involved in problematization (as a form of analysis) as “thinking problematically” (Foucault 1978 [1970]: 185-6). What did he mean?

Put simply, “thinking problematically” means to analyze something in terms of problematics [i.e “thinking problematic-ally”.] “Problematic” translates into French as problématique. It refers to the complex of issues associated with a topic. In France the term is often used to describe a thesis project, defining the question under examination.

In a 1984 interview Paul Rabinow asked Foucault to elaborate on what he meant by “thinking problematically”: “You have recently been talking about a ‘history of problematics’. What is a history of problematics?”

Foucault (1984) answers (obliquely of course) that this project involves a study of problematizations. His objective, he says, is to “describe the history of thought as distinct both from the history of ideas … and from the history of mentalities”. The “element that was capable of describing the history of thought” was “what one could call the problems or, more exactly problematizations”. It is useful to remember that Foucault explicitly engaged with the concept of problematization only later in his life and that he, along with many other philosophers, such as Deleuze, used the term “problems” as part of their analyses – a usage I wish to question.

The important point here is that, for Foucault, “thinking problematically” means analyzing problematizations [problem representations in WPR]. Elsewhere he elaborates that this project involves two analytic strategies, archaeology and genealogy:

The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms of problematization themselves, its genealogical dimension enabled me to analyze the formation out of the practices and their modifications (Foucault, 1986: pp. 17-18).

For example, to put the status of contemporary French prisons in question he “thinks problematically”, looking to see how systems of punishment were problematized in the past [archaeology] and tracing how current imprisonment practices relate to those earlier “problematizations” [genealogy].

WPR includes both Foucauldian archaeology and genealogy. Question 2 in WPR pursues Foucauldian archaeology while Question 3 encourages a genealogical analysis [Bacchi WPR CHART]. So, these, along with the other questions in WPR, are the questions that are intended when I recommend “problem-questioning” [more appropriately “‘problem’-questioning”] in Analysing Policy. The quotation marks, which I would now insert around “problem”, signal – lest there be any doubt – that the targets of the questioning are problem representations rather than some form of self-evident, independent problem.

The key points to take away from this discussion include:

  • “thinking problematically” is a way of describing problematization as a Foucault-influenced analytic strategy;
  • “thinking problematically” means “thinking in terms of problematics” (or problematizations);
  • “‘problem’-questioning”, as intended in Bacchi 2009: 271-2, is a way of “thinking problematically” and involves applying the WPR questions to identified problem representations [the “forms” themselves]

In the next entry I will pursue some of the challenges involved in “thinking problematically”.


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

Foucault, M. 1978 [1970]. Theatrum Philosophicum. In D. F. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans D. F  Bouchard and S. Simon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 165-96.

Foucault, M. 1984. Polemics, politics and problematizations, based on an interview conducted by Paul Rabinow. In L. Davis. (Trans.), Essential works of Foucault (Vol. 1), Ethics, New York: New Press. Available at: https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/4256765/mod_resource/content/1/FOUCAULT_Polemics_Politics_Problematizations.pdf

Foucault, M. 1986.The use of pleasure: The history of sexuality (Vol. 2). New York: Vintage.

“Problem representations” Part II

Comment: In the last entry I explained how problem representations and problematizations are coextensive – how they cover the same analytic terrain – and why I coined the term “problem representations”. In this entry I want to reflect on the challenges associated with adopting the language of representation in “problem representation”. As might be anticipated, the use of representation in WPR does not mean accepting a correspondence view of knowledge where there is a “real” world that is then “represented”.  As stated in Women, Policy and Politics, “there is no assumption that there is a reality that stands outside representation” (Bacchi 1999, p. 37).

Problem representations, therefore, are not just images of realproblems. Nor are they competing interpretations of a real problem. Rather, they are how the “problem” is produced, or created, or constituted as real – how the “problem” is made to be a particular kind of problem within a specific policy, with all sorts of effects (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, p. 17). A problem representation therefore is the way in which a particular policy “problem” is constituted in the real (Bacchi 2009: 35).

In the last entry I offered the example of training schemes for women and how they produced the “problem” of women’s underrepresentation in positions of influence as their “lack of training”. The argument here is that, training schemes, in their very existence, produce the “problem” as to do with women’s lack of training. In this proposal and its application in training courses, the “problem” is women’s lack of training.

As I stated in the last entry, problem representations are implicit in policies and policy proposals – so we are not talking about some sort of sequential process in which a problem is represented in a certain way and then a policy is developed. Rather, the policy contains the problem representation. The policy and the problem representation are coterminous. There is no suggestion that this problematization cannot be challenged but it is important to recognize that the proposal itself to give women training has direct consequences for how women’s position is produced as “lacking in training”.

This point is clearly delineated in Farrugia et al. (2017: 5), so I quote them at some length:

Rather than solely emphasising that policy makers and others can take different perspectives on phenomena such as problems, Bacchi argues that problems are ontologically constituted in the interventions designed to solve them. That is, there are not simply multiple perspectives on problems and solutions but onto- logically fluid problems constituted differently through different policy and practice.

This position is aligned with a focus on the performative character of practices and a productive view of power (see Bacchi and Goodwin, 14, 28-30). As Shapiro (1988, p.xi) says, ‘representations do not imitate reality but are the practices through which things take on meaning and value …’.

This key point, that representations are practices and interventions, is exactly the stance defended in what is called (apparently paradoxically) non-representation theory (see Anderson and Harrison 2010: 14), an important development in human geography:

As things and events they [representations] enact worlds, rather than being simple go-betweens tasked with re-presenting some pre-existing order or force. In their taking-place they have an expressive power as active interventions in the co-fabrication of worlds.

Dewsbury et al. (2002, p. 438) clarify that non-representation theory takes “representations seriously”: “representation not as a code to be broken or as an illusion to be dispelled rather representations are apprehended as performative in themselves; as doings”. Problem representations in WPR are performative in exactly this sense – they produce “problems”, “subjects”, “objects” and “places” (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). The use of quotation marks around “problems”, and the other terms, signals their ongoing production within policy practices, rather than “things” sitting outside those practices as essences. As a result the goal is not to solve “problems” but to examine how these problematized phenomena operate as governing mechanisms or technologies (see WPR questions, Bacchi WPR CHART).

Several researchers have suggested replacing the word “representation” in “problem representation” with a different word, either “constituted” or “enacted”. Both these terms clearly describe the way in which problem representations do their work – how “problems” are actually produced as particular sorts of problems. For the reasons elaborated above, I recommend retaining the term “problem representation” and adopting the language of “constituted” and “enacted” to reinforce this key theoretical point.

To summarize WPR does not involve an interpretive exercise. The goal is not to consider people’s different views on a “problem” but to reflect on how governing takes place through problematizations – through the ways in which “problems” are produced( or constituted or enacted) as particular sorts of problems.


Anderson, B. & Harrison, P. (eds) 2010. Taking-Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography. Ashgate.

Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems. London: Sage.

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

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

Dewsbury, J., Harrison, P., Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2002) Introduction: Enacting Geographies. Geoforum, 33, 437-440.

Farrugia, A., Seear, K. and Fraser, S. 2017. Authentic advice for authentic problems? Legal information in Australian classroom drug education, Addiction Research and Theory, 26(3).

Shapiro, Michael. 1988. The Politics of Representation: Writing Practices, Photography and Policy Analysis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

“Are ‘problem representations’ (WPR) problematizations?”

Comment: The short answer to the question in the title is “yes”, as I will go on to explain. I will also explain why I coined the term “problem representation” and how it functions in a WPR analysis.

To address these issues I draw on some passages from an article I wrote in 2012 entitled: “Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible” (Open Journal of Political Science, 2(1: 1-8). The whole article, with accompanying references, is attached for convenience Bacchi Why study problematizations?).

As a first step in clarifying the different terminologies, it is necessary to see how Foucault used the term “problematization”:

Foucault employs the term “problematization” in two ways: first, to describe his method of analysis and, second, to refer to a historical process of producing objects for thought. His particular method of analysis, which he calls “thinking problem- atically” (Foucault, 1977: pp. 185-186), is the method just described [above in the article], where the point of analysis is not to look for the one correct response to an issue but to examine how it is “questioned, analysed, classified and regulated” at “specific times and under specific circumstances” (Deacon, 2000: p. 127). In the second meaning problematization captures a two-stage process including “how and why certain things (behavior, phenomena, processes) become a problem” (Foucault 1985a: p. 115), and how they are shaped as particular objects for thought (Deacon, 2000: p. 139; see also Deacon, 2006: p. 186 fn 2). These problematized phenomena become problematizations, the foci for study.

The key sentence in this passage for our purposes is the last sentence: “These problematized phenomena become problematizations, the foci for study.” This same point is clear in this quote from Foucault (fn 2 in Bacchi 2012; emphasis added):

The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms of problematization themselves, its genealogical dimension enabled me to analyze the formation out of the practices and their modifications (Foucault, 1986: pp. 17-18; emphasis added).

“The forms of problematization themselves” are the “problematized phenomena”, “the foci for study”. Note how here the “problematizations” take a noun form (and a plural form) in contrast to the first meaning of problematization in the above passage where problematization describes a method of analysis (a verb form – i.e. to problematize something, meaning to subject something to critical scrutiny). The task in approaching “the forms themselves” becomes characterizing identified problematizations (noun form).

These “problematized phenomena” are precisely the target in a WPR analysis. As with Foucault, the focus is on how “things” are problematized and the aim is to scrutinize the shapes (“the forms themselves”) given to “problems”. As we shall see, however, there are differences in how I identify problematizations and where, in a WPR analysis, they are located. These differences explain why I coined the term “problem representation”.

I introduced the term “problem representation” for several reasons. First, it follows directly from asking the initial question in the WPR approach: “what’s the problem represented to be?” Reply: “The problem is represented to be …” (i.e. a problem representation).

I also found that the term “problem representation” was easier to deploy in analysis than “problematization”, which gets used in so many different ways (Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).

More than this, I introduced “problem representation” to set WPR apart from other forms of policy analysis that targeted “problem definition” and “problem identification” (see Bacchi, Women, Policy and Politics, 1999, p. 21).

I also used the term to contrast the form of analysis I encouraged from that produced by Foucault. As I explain in “Why Study Problematizations?” (2012 p. 2),

Foucault selects his sites—his “problematizing moments”— by identifying times and places where he detects important shifts in practices—for example from flogging to detention. As Flynn (1989a: 138) explains, for Foucault, “The problem in the case at hand is to account for the fact that from about 1791 a vast array of penal methods was replaced by one, incarceration”. In these “crisis” moments (Foucault, 1985a: Chapter 2), “givens” become questions, or problems, providing an opportunity to inquire into the emergence of what comes to appear self- evident because it is firmly in position, in this instance incarceration as a method of punishment.

As I go on to argue, “The WPR approach broadens Foucault’s agenda” (2012, p. 5):

It does not look for “crisis” points, places where practices change, stirring up debate. Rather, it suggests that all policy proposals rely on problematizations which can be opened up and studied to gain access to the “implicit system in which we find ourselves”.

In Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? (Pearson Education 2009, p. 31), I discuss another, related, distinction between WPR and Foucault:

For Foucault, that which “instigates” the process of problematisation has a more material existence than in a WPR approach (see discussion in Rabinow 2003, pp. 18-19), as seen in this quote:

Actually, for a domain of action, a behavior, to enter the field of thought, it is necessary for a certain number of factors to have made it uncertain, to have made it lose its familiarity, or to have provoked a certain number of difficulties around it. These elements result from social, economic, or political processes. (Foucault 1984, pp. 4-5)

By contrast, in a WPR approach there is no assumption that some set of “difficulties” sparks a “response” from governments.

Rather, the emphasis is on the shape of the implied “problems” within any and all proposals. “Problem representation” refers to the form of a problematization – the problematized phenonmenon – within a policy or policy proposal (and in other forms of proposal).

As an example I often use, if there is a policy or a proposal to introduce forms of training for women in order to increase their representation in positions of influence, the “problem” is represented to be women’s lack of training. The proposal for training schemes problematizes women’s underrepresentation in terms of their lack of training, producing the “problem” as “women’s lack of training”. The problem representation (“women’s lack of training”), therefore, is implicit within the proposal to introduce training schemes. Hence, in the Glossary for Analysing Policy (p. 277; emphasis added), I offer as a meaning for problem representations: “the implied “problems” in problematisations”.

Therefore, “problem representations” and “problematizations” can best be described as co-extensive and the term you select will depend on your analytic objective. However, “problem representations” involve different processes from the commonly referenced Foucauldian mode of problematization. As described above, they are not historical phenomena prompted by some external change. Nor are they uncommon “turning points” in history. Rather they are part and parcel of every policy proposal and other forms of proposal (see Bacchi 2018; see entry in Research Hub, 14 Jan. 2018, “Buildings as Proposals”). All policy proposals (and other forms of proposal) contain implicit representations of “the problem” they purport to address. These implicit representations are problem representations. Just what it means to suggest that a “problem” is represented to be a particular sort of problem will be pursued in the next entry.


Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems.London: Sage.

Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. (2016). Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Foucault, M. 1984, ‘Polemics, Politics and Problematizations’, based on an interview conducted by P. Rabinow, Trans. L. Davis, in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol. 1:Ethics, New Press, New York, <http://www.foucault.info/foucault/interview.html&gt;, accessed 9 August 2008.

Rabinow, P. 2003. Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

“Evidence-based policy and pragmatism”

Comment: The debates about evidence-based research, practice and policy appear to be never ending. This ongoing contestation is both necessary and predictable, given what is at stake. Basically under consideration are the roles researchers can expect to play in influencing governing practices. I have been interested in this topic for some time.

In 2008 I wrote an article examining debates in the 1970s about “research utilization” and attempts by researchers to influence policy making (Bacchi 2008). I traced the changing dynamics of these debates through to later discussions of the so-called “know-do gap” in relation to the social determinants of health (1990s, 2000s and continuing).  To summarize a rather complicated argument, I highlighted the institutional constraints on researchers – how the topics they investigated (the “problems” set for study) were linked to a large extent to their bases of support. I described a shift, from the 70s to today, to greater and greater reliance on government and other external forms of funding. My argument, put starkly, was that sources of funding influenced topics of research, shaping and limiting the research agenda.

This argument links directly to the evidence-based practice debates but in a way that is not immediately obvious. Current concerns around evidence tend to focus on questions about “whose evidence?”, challenging for example the “hierarchy of evidence” that privileges RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials). I ask a question that precedes this concern. I ask: “evidence for what?

Put briefly, evidence-base policy enshrines a form of applied problem solving, based on a rational policy model (see Howlett 2010, p. 19). As in this model, what goes under-examined are the “problems” that are assumed to launch both the policy making and research exercises. In evidence-based practice, the focus is on “what works”, assuming that the goals – the research “problems” – set for testing research interventions are legitimate and non-prejudicial. Given the commitment in the “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” (WPR) approach to interrogate assumed policy “problems”, my concern at the willingness to accept and work within such constraints can be anticipated.

Some researchers (Biesta 2007; Sanderson 2003, 2009) who raise critical questions about the “what works” approach to research embrace a version of pragmatism, drawing on Dewey (see Research Hub entry, 30 April 2018). They make an extremely important point – that critical scrutiny needs to target not just the means of research but the ends as well. However, this goal is compromised, I believe, by the lack of attention to how a problem-solving mindset – which both authors are loath to abandon – continues to assume the existence of legitimate, predetermined “problems” as research foci.

In this vein Biesta (2007: 15, 18), drawing on Dewey, endorses a form of “reflective experimental problem solving” or “professional problem solving”, and continues to assert that the goal of policy is to “successfully solve problems” (Biesta, p. 19; emphasis added). Along similar lines, Sanderson (2009, p. 699; emphasis added) identifies as one intellectual pillar in thinking about evidence-based policy, “social scientific knowledge and its role in guiding action to address social problems”.[1]Drawing on Dewey, he asserts that “the foundation for the development of knowledge about the world lies in active engagement with concrete problems” (Sanderson 2009, p. 709; emphasis added). This engagement, says Sanderson (p 709), involves “commitment to the methods of scientific inquiry and to the principle of experimentation, subjecting hypotheses to empirical test in an active engagement with experience”.

Sanderson’s aspiration is to produce a modified (“neo-modern”) approach to policy making that incorporates “a broader perspective” based on dialogue and argumentation. He (p. 710) insists that “our knowledge is always fallible and open to further interpretation and criticism”. As a result he recommends that we “introduce pilots or trials, evaluate their success and move forward cautiously” (p. 714).

WPR intervenes in these debates by pointing to the non-innocence of the “problems” set for researchers. It argues that the failure to question the “problems” set for analysis – or for pilot studies! – limits severely the scope of any critique. Put simply, I argue that, in order to interrogate the ends of research – which both Biesta and Sanderson endorse strongly –, one needs to interrogate the beginnings– the “problems” set for investigation.

I want to ask, for example – just how many more studies of “obesity” do we need? How has “obesity” come to be constituted as a health “problem”? How does it function to shape health research practices? What fails to be attended to in such research? What is not being investigated? On the implications for researchers, I can do no better than quote Merton and Lerner’s 1951 (p 306) caution:

The scientist is called upon to contribute information useful to implement a given policy, but the policy itself is “given”, not open to question … So long as the social scientist continues to accept a role in which he (sic) does not question policies, state problems, and formulate alternatives, the more does he (sic) become routinized in the role of bureaucratic technician.

A first step toward challenging this designated and compromised role, I suggest, is to disrupt the problem-solving mindset that dominates the current intellectual and policy landscape. WPR aims to contribute to this goal.


Bacchi, C. 2008. The politics of research management: Reflections on the gap between what we “know” [about SDH] and what we do.  Health Sociology Review, 17(2): 165-176.

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

Biesta, G. 2007. Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Educational Theory, 57(1):

Howlett, M. 2010. Designing Public Policies:  Principles and Instruments. Routledge.

Merton, R. K. and Lerner, D. 1951. Social scientists and research policy. In D. Lerner and H.D. Lasswell (eds) The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, pp. 282-363.

Sanderson, I. (2003). Is it “what works” that matters? Evaluation and evidence-based policy-making, Research Papers in Education, 18(4): 331-345.

Sanderson, I. (2009). Intelligent Policy Making for a Complex World: Pragmatism, Evidence & Leaning, Political Studies, 57: 699-719.

[1]Sanderson’s (2009, p 699) other intellectual pillar comprises “our developing knowledge about complex adaptive systems”. I have raised qualms about the “turn to complexity” in Bacchi 2016.

“Comparing WPR and critical discourse analysis”

Comment: I have been asked to clarify the distinction between WPR and critical discourse analysis. I should preface this brief elaboration by saying that, while I distance WPR from critical discourse analysis, I am not saying that such forms of analysis are not valid or worthwhile. Rather, my intent is to assist those who want to use WPR to have a clearer idea of its goals and its way of proceeding.

Basically, WPR is not a form of critical discourse analysis because it has a different understanding of discourse. In WPR, discourse refers, not to language or language use, but to knowledges, which Foucault (1994) describes as “unexamined ways of thinking”. In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009, p. 35) I describe discourses as “forms of social knowledge that make it difficult to speak outside the terms of reference they establish for thinking about people and social relations”. Hence, the focus of analysis is not on how people shape arguments, as in critical discourse analysis, but on the deep-seated ways of thinking that underpin political practices (see Bacchi and Bonham 2014).

It needs to be made clear that, in WPR, “knowledge” is not treated as a form of foundational wisdom to be acquired. Rather, “knowledge” is a contested political creation. The interest is not in discovering or producing “knowledge”, but in analysing how all forms of knowledge are linked to power and politics.

Elsewhere I (Bacchi 2005) have suggested that it is useful to draw a distinction between two analytic traditions, that involved in “discourse analysis” and that committed to “analysis of discourses (knowledges)”. The first tradition, which includes Norman Fairclough’s version of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (2010), focuses primarily on the content and linguistic construction of a text.  By contrast, in the second tradition, exemplified in WPR, the task is “to identify, within a text, institutionally supported and culturally influenced interpretive and conceptual schemas (discourses) that produce particular understandings of issues and events” (Bacchi 2005).

The drawing of boundaries between theoretical stances is a fraught exercise. Siegfried Jäger and Florentine Maier (2009) agree that in Foucault discourses are knowledges but they locate him within Critical Discourse Analysis. In contrast, I believe it is useful to distinguish an “analysis of discourses” from the focus in critical discourse analysis on language use.

Question 2 in WPR (Bacchi WPR CHART) prompts such an “analysis of discourses”. The objective in this form of analysis is to better understand how governing takes place through knowledges (discourses), including psychiatry, behavioural economics and public health knowledges, among many others.

It follows from these contrasting foci that WPR is not intended as a tool for analyzing debates or forms of argumentation, which are studied in critical discourse analysis through identification of metaphors and other forms of language use. Nor is it intended to examine competing frames within arguments (Bacchi, 2016 Bacchi Problematizations Health Policy) or the “problem definitions” produced by policy actors (see Bacchi, 1999, p. 21; see Research Hub entry 2 April 2018). Rather it serves as a strategy for reflecting critically on deep-seated ontological and epistemological assumptions within “problem representations”.

Because “problem representations” are the starting point for a WPR analysis, it is important to clarify how we are to identify them. Clarity here is especially important since the language of representation can be misleading. To put it starkly, WPR does not examine how people represent an issue, which could form part of some CDA projects. Rather, problem representations are the implied “problems” in policy proposals – how a “problem” is characterized and conceptualised within a policy proposal or some other text (see Bacchi 2017; see also Research Hub entry, “Buildings as proposals”, 14 January 2018).

To gain access to “problem representations”, a WPR analysis begins by identifying the proposals for change (or proposed “solutions”) within governing texts. These proposed solutions may be stated directly or indirectly. For example, a government report that calls for social cohesion makes a form of proposal, creating lack of cohesion as the “problem”. Policies themselves are proposals for change and can be treated as such. If, for example, the government sends police and troops into outback Aboriginal communities in “response” to a report on child sexual abuse in those communities, the “problem” is constituted to be a matter of inadequate law enforcement (see Bacchi 2009, pp. 116-120).

Adopting a governmentality theoretical stance, governing in a WPR approach encompasses government in the narrow institutional sense, as in the above examples, alongside the full range of agencies and associated knowledges (discourses) that conduct conduct (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, p. 5). By examining what is proposed, it is possible to grasp what is rendered problematic – what the “problem” is represented to be (Bacchi and Goodwin, p. 16). Hence it becomes possible to “read off” implicit problem representations from specific proposals.

This way of proceeding makes it possible to consider how “problems” are produced as problems of specific kinds within governing practices. There is no need to look outside the policy or other selected text to seek out starting points for analysis; these starting points (problem representations) are locatable within the material chosen for examination (hence the researcher is not imposing a schema upon the material). The argument in WPR is that, since governing takes place through these problem representations, it is important to reflect on where they come from and how they operate to shape “realities”. These tasks are undertaken in subsequent WPR questions (Bacchi WPR CHART).

The focus of analysis in WPR is therefore different from that within critical discourse analysis. The target is not linguistic devices or patterns of communication. Nor is it imposed frames or “problem definitions”. The goal is to tease out deep-seated “ways of thinking” in identified problem representations that play significant roles in how governing takes place. Due to researchers’ immersion within these “ways of thinking”, a practice of self-problematization – examining the problem representations in one’s own proposals – forms a central task in WPR (see Step 7, Chart).


Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems. London: Sage.

Bacchi, C. 2005. Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject “Agency” in Feminist Discourse Methodology. NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3), p. 199. Reproduced in C. Hughes (Ed.) (2012). Researching Gender. Sage Fundamentals of Applied Research Series.

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

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. (2017). Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a poststructural analytic strategy, Contemporary Drug Problems, 1-12. DOI: 10.1177/009/450917748760.

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

Bacchi, C. & Goodwin, S. 2016.  Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fairclough, N. 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The critical study of language, 2nd ed. Harlow: Longman.

Foucault, M. (1994) [1981]. So is it important to think? In J.D. Faubion, (Ed.), Power: Essential works of Foucault 1954–1984, vol. 3, Hurley, R. and others (trans.). London: Penguin).

Jäger, S. and Maier, F. 2009.  Chapter 2: Theoretical and Methodological Aspects of Foucauldian Critical Discourse Analysis and Dispositive Analysis. In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds) Methods of critical discourse analysis (2nd ed.). London, England: Sage.

“The (re)turn to pragmatism”

COMMENT:  This entry is prompted by the frequency with which I have encountered endorsements of pragmatism in recent research. My goal is to describe briefly reasons for this (re)turn to pragmatism and to consider connections with and/or disconnections from WPR.

I feel impelled to pursue this topic due mainly to the links I perceive between positions on pragmatism and conceptions of critique. I am also interested in and concerned by the ways in which a governmental problem-solving paradigm, targeting “what works”, is aligned with a kind of pragmatism (see Bacchi 2009, Chapter 10, pp. 238-241).

Pragmatism, like all concepts, has many meanings. There are versions described as “philosophical pragmatism”, “sociological pragmatism”, French “pragmatic sociology” (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006) and “classical pragmatism”, associated with the American philosophers William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce.

Each version requires careful analysis that cannot be offered here. My major interest at this time is the association between some STS (Science, Technology and Society) theorists, connected with Actor-Network Theory, and pragmatism, with common invocations of John Dewey (Latour 2007a, 2007b; Marres 2007). Certain themes in classical pragmatism, specifically its anti-foundationalism and anti-dualism, explain these associations (Keulartz et al, 2002, pp. 14-15). On whether an affiliation with those themes makes one a pragmatist, I share Ian Hacking’s (2007, p. 48) repudiation: “those selfsame perspectives do not owe much to pragmatism, and do not define one as a pragmatist unless one so chooses”.

My major concern, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the pragmatist’s anti-skepticism, defended on the grounds that skepticism (questioning or problematizing) “forms an obstacle to a creative tackling of problems”: “Anyone who puts everything up for discussion will simply have no time left for the real problemsof the moment” (Keulartz 2002, p. 15; emphasis added). It is of course the very presumption in these statements that “real problems” exist as self-evident “things” or conditions that WPR sets out to challenge.

On similar grounds I am hesitant about Dewey’s defense of a problem-solving approach to education and public policy. Questioning in Dewey is restricted to occasions when you find yourself “in what Dewey called ‘a problematic situation’ – a situation in which you are no longer sure of what you are doing” (Rorty 1996, p. 44). It seems to be that this “problematic situation” is presumed to have a taken-for-granted existence that requires critical analysis through application of the WPR questions (see Bacchi 2016, p. 4 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).

It is on this point that there appear to be connections between stances on pragmatism and approaches to critique. Latour’s (2004) classic piece addressed to why, in his view, critique has run out of steam,expresses disquiet with the tendency in contemporary critique, in his words, to “debunk” and a desire to replace that tendency with “assembling”. This stance affirms the link I have described between pragmatism, which Latour espouses, and anti-skepticism.

At one level I would want to challenge a dichotomy between “debunking” and “assembling” but, more seriously, I worry that such a dichotomy undermines a much-needed critical skepticism towards contemporary governing technologies. This need is particularly apparent in the trend over at least the last two decades (in western countries and in international organisations) to promote a “pragmatic” public policy focused on problem solving, evidence-based policy and “what works” (including “nudge theory”; see entry 26 November 2017).

I am pursuing links between this ubiquitous and influential paradigm and the endorsement of problem solving in John Dewey and other classical pragmatists. I want to ask – how are these positions compatible and perhaps even reinforcing? Bellman (2006) shows that Dewey is drawn upon in Germany to defendtechnocratic education reforms such as standardized testing, whereas in the United States, Dewey is put forward as a criticof these reforms. It seems important to ask how these contrasting positions came to be and how pragmatism can be invoked to support such divergent political projects. To this end I am currently involved in producing a genealogy of problem-solving models and theories. Such a project demands a healthy dose of skepticism!


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

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) [1991]. On Justification: Economies of Worth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (translated by Catherine Porter).

Bellman, J. (2006). “The Reception of John Dewey in the Context of Contemporary Educational Reform – a German-American Comparison”, Studies in Educational Policy & Educational Philosophy,5(1): 1-15.

Hacking, I. (2007). “On Not Being a Pragmatist”, in C. J. Misak (ed.) New Pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keulartz, J., Korthals, M., Schermer, M. and Swierstra, T. (2002) “Ethics in a Technological Culture: A Proposal for a Pragmatist Approach”, in J. Keulartz et al, (eds) Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture. Dordrecht: Springer-Science+Business Media.

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

Latour, B. (2007a). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. First published in 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (2007b). “Turning Around Politics: A Note on Gerard de Vries’ Paper”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 811-820.

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.

Rorty, R. (1996). “Response to Simon Critchley”, in C. Mouffe (ed.) Deconstruction and Pragmatism. London: Routledge. pp. 41-47.

“Troubling ‘wicked problems'”

Comment: This entry is prompted by a stimulating article by Marlon Barbehön, entitled: “Ever more complex, uncertain and urging? ‘Wicked problems’ from the perspective of anti-naturalist conceptualizations of time” (Zeitschrift Diskurs, April 2018; accessed through academia.edu.au). I draw on this article in two ways: first, to indicate the usefulness of troubling wicked problems as supposedly self-evident, natural or objective entities; and second, to suggest that the analysis offered by Barbehön resonates with WPR even though there is no mention of the approach (nor need there be!).

On the first point, I have found “wicked problems” troubling for some time. In my 2016 paper on problematizations in health policy I suggest that “wicked problems” tend to refer to “problems” as fixed or self-evident, even though they are held to be “complex”. Hence, the term reinforces a problem-solving mindset – “the conventional, pervasive view of policy as reactingto problems that must be solved” (Bacchi The Turn to Problematization, p. 8).

Here I am not ignoring the way in which some researchers use the term to stress the importance of acknowledging that certain policy “issues” are multi-causal and require intersectoral interventions. However, treating such issues as given, as fixed in some way, I suggest, undermines attempts to understand the governing practices involved in their production. Think here of “obesity” and “climate change” as commonly “identified” wicked problems and what is left unsaid in their naming and characterization.

Barbehön (2018) supports my disquiet with the concept “wicked problems”. His particular target is the tendency to refer to “them” as pressing or urgent, as if this is a naturalcharacteristic of such “problems”. As he describes, “wicked problems” are generally characterized as naturally“complex” and “uncertain”. Barbehön links this view to the tendency in a good deal of contemporary social theory to characterize the present as “fundamentally risky” (think of Beck 1992), unpredictable or uncertain (think of Callon et al. 2009), due to the “speedup of economic and technological dynamics”. Counter to this assumption, Barbehön offers “anti-naturalist perspectives” on time drawn from phenomenology and systems theory. Put much too simply, if how we think about time affects our theorizing, clearly it is important to reflect on the political implications of specific conceptions (of time). The suggestion here is that it is inadequate to say that there are “problems” which naturally reflect the “speed up” of technology; rather, we want to ask how our problematizations reflect specific conceptualizations of time.

The more general point is the need to reflect on the political implications of characterizing policy “problems” either as “wicked” or indeed as “tame” – commonly set as the counterpoint to “wicked”. Barbehön is particularly helpful on this point. In specific cases, he shows, since “wicked problems” are deemed to be naturally “complex” and “urgent”, they operate as “things” that can never be solved but only managed “in a never-ending chain of decisions” (p. 4), supporting a managerial style of governing. The “politics of urgency” can also, in specific instances, be reflected in “quick solutions”, “sometimes at the cost of democratic procedures” (p. 13). On the flip side, “problems” designated “tame” become the stuff of routine, thereby avoiding critical analysis and possible contestation.

Barbehön’s intervention – and you do not need to accept all parts of his argument to recognize the usefulness of his main contention – leads to the need to rethink current research and writing on “wicked problems”. Instead of trying to characterize “them”, to say what they are, we need to ask what they are represented to be and to consider the political implications of specific representations.

Here I see Barbehön’s analysis as paralleling the thinking in WPR. In effect, he asks (without using the words): “what kind of ‘problem’ are ‘wicked problems’ represented to be?”  He details the characterization of “wicked problems” as “complex, uncertain and urgent”, and proceeds to explore the assumptions underpinning these representations (Question 2 of WPR; Bacchi WPR CHART). His analysis is particularly useful because it illustrates the type of deep-seated ontological and epistemological assumptions targeted in a WPR analysis – here, assumptions about conceptions of time. Further, he probes the political implications (Question 5) of such assumptions.

My point in signaling the parallels between Barbehön’s analysis and a WPR analytic strategy is to suggest that the WPR approach offers a way of thinking that has a long and fertile heritage in critical literature. It also signals the possible usefulness of applying WPR to forms of knowledge production, such as, in this instance, the theorizing of “wicked problems” (see entry 18 March 2018). The aim of systematizing the WPR approach in a list of questions (see Chart) is to facilitate its application and hence hopefully to encourage this way of thinking – a way of thinking that I believe we desperately need in the current intellectual climate of evidence-based policy and problem-solving models of thought.

Addendum: I am currently researching the ways in which ANT (Actor Network Theory) scholars turn to “issues” as the focus and starting point for political analysis (Marres 2007). On this topic Bruno Latour (2007) quotes Walter Lippman approvingly:

Yet it is controversies of this kind, the hardest controversies to disentangle, that the public is called in to judge. Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions. The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle. They are the public’s problems (Lippmann: 1927, 121; CB’s emphasis).

I have a long list of questions provoked by this quote – e.g. What are the implications of portraying the majority of political “issues” as able to be handled by institutions? How is the “public” unfit? What makes something a controversy? Are controversies unambiguous empirical objects or political creations?  For the entry today I draw attention to the invocation of “hard problems” as assumed givens that, in my view, require critical questioning along the lines of WPR. In a sense “hard problems” appear to be precursors of “wicked problems”, which I find troubling. I would be keen to hear from anyone who is pursing this or related topics.


Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. First published in 1986. London: Sage.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. & Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. First published in 2001. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (2007) “Turning Around Politics: A Note on Gerard de Vries’ Paper”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 811-820.

Lippman, W. (1993 [1927]) The Phantom Public. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

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