“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.

“Comparing framing, problem definition and WPR”

COMMENT:  I have been asked on several occasions how WPR is similar to or different from analyses that refer to framing and/or problem definition. I have written on this topic elsewhere and refer you to the sources at the end of this entry if you want to pursue the matter.

It seems important to locate this discussion in relation to views on the meanings of concepts. I argue, in good company, that concepts have no fixed meaning. They are never exogenous to (outside of) social and political practices. Therefore, we need to examine carefully specific uses of terms, including “discourse”, “reflexivity”, and our topics today, “framing” and “problem definition”. It is important to approach such theoretical languages as part of a terrain that needs to be mapped – see if you can identify something of the history of various usages (see Bacchi 2009) and try to ascertain the particular role or function served by the concept/s under investigation. That is, consider the meanings of concepts in terms of the specific projects to which they are attached. Following this thinking, you ought not to be surprised to see that “framing” and “problem definition” appear in many different theoretical projects, and with contrasting meanings.

In the main, “frames” are used by scholars who are interested in how social actors manage political arguments. Hence, in the main, they are interpretivists (see Bacchi 2015). As an illustration of this perspective, in the 1970s and 1980s an important group of American political scientists advocated training policy advocates in the skills of “framing” and “problem definition” (e.g. rhetoric). Dery (1984), for example, dedicates an entire book to “problem definition,” which in his view requires political scientists to be concerned “with the production of administratively workable and politically realistic ideas for solving social problems” (p. 38). A later development, within sociology, focuses on what is referred to as “strategic framing”, the marshaling of particular “problem definitions” to gain political support  (see Bacchi 2009).

In these approaches “problem definitions” and “frames” become competing interpretationsof an issue or problem, interpretations mounted by diverse social actors. By contrast, a WPR analysis interrogates how “problems” are conceptualised within policy texts. It starts from proposals within policies to see how they represent the “problem”, rather than examining how specific social actors mount their arguments. These contrasting starting points are tied to deep disagreements about the status of the political subject and the meaning of power, and have implications for political agendas (see Bacchi 2015).

A more recent development in health sociology draws on “discourse analysis” to examine how “problems” are conceptualized (or “framed”) within policy documents, suggesting a closer link with WPR than previous usages of frame theory (Bacchi 2016). However, the authors associated with this development locate themselves within “the linguistic turn”, whereas WPR offers a study of knowledges rather than of language use (see Bacchi and Bonham, 2014). The primary target of these frame theorists is the rhetorical distance between descriptions of “problems” within policies on the one hand and “recommendations” for change on the other hand, which are judged to be limited or disappointing. By contrast, in WPR, the target of analysis is not the rhetorical ploys of governments judged to be reluctant to deliver substantive change, but deep-seated “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault, 1981/1994, p. 456) that underpin specific policy proposals and shape “problems” as particular kinds of problems.

There is no doubt that the word “frame” is a useful term. At a very general level it means simply the shape or configuration of an argument or stance. For this reason I have occasionally used the term myself – though I now resist doing so to avoid confusion between WPR and frame theory. The emphasis on “problem representations” in WPR, as opposed to “problem definitions”, indicates the commitment to subject existing policies to critical interrogation.

I was reminded recently that no concept is “sacred” in some research I have been conducting on Herbert Simon, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s primarily on administrative behaviour and decision-making (Bacchi 1999: 22-23). In later work Simon uses the concepts of framing and indeed “problem representations” (how disconcerting!). A closer look (Simon 1978: 275-276) clarified Simon’s usage of “problem representation”.  For Simon a “particular subject represents a task in order to work on it” and the “relative ease of solving a problem will depend on how successful the solver has been in representing critical features of the task environment in his problem space” (emphasis added). The focus in Simon’s perspective, therefore, is on social actors and their relative ability to produce “successful” representations – those that assist in “solving problems”. There is no interest in probing critically how “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems. I hope the distance from WPR is clear, despite the overlap in theoretical terminology!


Bacchi, C. (1999) Women, Policy and Politics: The construction of policy problems, London: Sage. pp. 20, 21, 27,  34, 36-37.

Bacchi, C. (2009). “The issue of intentionality in frame theory: The need for reflexive framing,” in E. Lombardo, P. Meier and M. Verloo (eds) (2009) The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality: Stretching, bending and policymaking. NY: Routledge. pp. 19-35.

Bacchi, C. (2015). “The Turn to Problematization: Political implications of contrasting interpretive and poststructural adaptations”. Open Journal of Political Science, 5: 1-12. [Bacchi The Turn to Problematization]

Bacchi, C. (2016) “Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How “Problems” Are Constituted in Policies”, Sage Open, pp. 1-16 [Bacchi Problematizations Health Policy]

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

Dery, David (1984). Problem Definition in Policy Analysis.Foreword by Aaron Wildavsky. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Foucault, M. (1994). So is it important to think? (R. Hurley & others, Trans.). In J. D. Faubion (Ed.), Power: Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984(Vol. 3, pp. 454–458). London, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1981)

Simon, Herbert (1978). “Information-Processing Theory of Human Problem Solving”, in W.K. Estes (ed.) Handbook of Learning and Cognitive Processes, Vol. V. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 271-295.

“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).