The “reflexivity quagmire”: Part II

COMMENT: The entries over the last month or so have prompted me to consider how I have modified my views and arguments over the years. I do not wish to bore you with a potted autobiography so I will keep these comments brief.

Basically I wish to “confess” that my position on a range of issues has altered between my earlier works and some later contributions. I would like to suggest that this shift in positions should be expected rather than decried; hence, the quotation marks around “confess”. Indeed, I am suggesting that applying forms of self-problematization (see last entry), by their nature, impels researchers to revisit stances we have adopted and concepts we have used previously – that is precisely what self-problematization is intended to achieve! Unfortunately, however, researchers seldom discuss in a public forum possible tensions in their work brought about by new reading and new thinking. My hope is that “early researchers” might take heart from hearing an “old hand” reflect on this issue.

The concept I wish to trouble is “reflexivity”. In a 2009 publication (Bacchi 2009) I endorse something I call “reflexive framing”. A recent article diplomatically takes me to task for using a concept that appears to endorse a rational, self-contained subject who can “stand back” and “reflect” on their views (Ikavaldo and Brunila draft 2018: 12). I accept this criticism. Two years after my chapter on “reflexive framing” was published, I agreed to give a paper on reflexivity as a keynote address at a conference on gender mainstreaming (BACCHI MADRID KEYNOTE 2011). This task compelled me to sort through the debates around the topic more carefully.

In a sense this keynote address illustrates what happened to my thinking when I asked the WPR questions of my earlier (2009) stance on reflexivity. Thinking of this earlier position (2009) I needed to consider the deep-seated assumptions underpinning a claim that reflexivity constituted the “problem” as an unwillingness to examine one’s presuppositions (Question 2 Bacchi WPR CHART). Specifically, I needed to consider the kind of subject produced or enacted in a claim of this sort. As Ikavaldo and Brunila (2018) point out, reflexivity presumes a rational, self-contained actor. As a result, the concept is circular (see BACCHI MADRID KEYNOTE 2011: 7-8). These are the reasons I moved towards the alternative of “self-problematization”, but a change in wording does not really alter the sense of some ability to “distance oneself” from one’s “beliefs” (note that in 2011 on p. 18 I decided it was acceptable to retain the term “reflexivity”).

To move forward theoretically I engaged with performativity theory, the “turn to practice” and an ontology of becoming [see last entry]. I found Annemarie Mol (2002) particularly helpful. Mol (2002: 38) makes the point that people’s identities “do not precede their performances, but are constituted in and through them”. It follows that we are produced as particular kinds of subjects through the practices in which we engage. Hence, attention needs to be directed to identifying “reflexive” practices that produce us as “reflexive” subjects.

In the 2011 paper I argue that WPR constitutes such a “reflexive” practice. Step 7 (see Bacchi WPR CHART) specifies the need to apply the WPR questions to our own proposals. This undertaking is not simply a recommendation to (somehow) become “reflexive”; it involves an active practice of critical self-problematization.

It calls upon all researchers and practitioners to examine their own proposals for change, to consider how those proposals represent the “problem” under scrutiny, to identify the unquestioned presuppositions that underpin that thinking and to listen to alternative problematisations. (Bacchi 2011: 18)

Hence, it draws on and supports the performative principle that subjects are produced through practices. The hope is that “applying these six questions to our own policy proposals allows us to consider the extent to which we may inadvertently be complicit in oppressive modes of governing” (Bacchi 2011: 11).

This example illustrates that I came to be more skeptical about the concept of reflexivity as I spent more effort researching its genealogy and premises. My hope is that the application of self-problematization, as illustrated in this story of my changing views on the topic of “reflexivity”, encourages other researchers to undertake a close examination of the concepts they adopt and how those concepts produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems with specific effects (Bacchi 2018: 7).


Bacchi, C. 2009. The issue of intentionality in frame theory: The need for reflexive framing. In E. Lombardo, P. Meier & Verloo, M. (Eds.), The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality: Stretching, Bending and Policymaking. London: Routledge, pp. 19-35.

Bacchi, C. 2011. Gender mainstreaming and reflexivity: Asking some hard questions”. Keynote address, Advancing Gender+ Training in Theory and Practice, Conference at Complutense University, Madrid, 3 February.

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

Ikavalko, E. and Brunila, K. 2017. Coming to discursive-deconstructive reading of gender equality. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, December. Draft copy.

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

The “reflexivity quagmire”: Part I

Comment: In the last entry I clarified a distinction between “situated knowledge” as a challenge to transcendental knowledge claims, and “situated knowledges” as “preferred” knowledges in Haraway (1988). The first position is commonly adopted in critical poststructural theorizing and is often roundly criticized for being “relativist”. The argument here is that, if all knowledges are “situated”, there are no epistemological grounds for preferring one “knowledge” over any other. The further claim is that such a position leaves us floundering in a world without meaning.

This common critique of poststructuralism – indeed I faced just this critique at the Swedish Political Science Association (SWEPSA) Conference in Malmo where I delivered the keynote address on 3 October 2018 – was dealt with in the last entry. There I made the case that the insistence on the politics of knowledge production in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism shifts the focus from primarily philosophical issues about “truth” to concerns with the political production and effects of knowledge (“truth”) claims. Poststructuralism thus constitutes a skeptical rather than a relativist stance on knowledge claims, articulating how systems of thought work through the world, constituting it in definite ways as they do so (Bletsas 2010; Chia 1996; Foucault 1984a).

Unsurprisingly, this issue has led to considerable reflection by critical scholars on their own knowledge claims. Haraway (1988: 584, 586; emphasis in original) emphasizes that “there is no immediate vision from the standpoints of the subjugated” and that “how to see from below is a problem requiring at least as much skill with bodies and language, with the mediations of vision, as the ‘highest’ technoscientific visualizations”. Writing about the field of organization studies, Chia (1996: 32) highlights that “if it is true, as many meta-theorists maintain, that all organizational accounts are paradigmatically circumscribed, this must reflexively apply to their own accounts”. And so, he argues, “The thorny question of reflexivity becomes, therefore, an inevitable one”.

Chia (1996: 32-34) mentions that one response to this “thorny question” or “reflexivity quagmire” has been to adopt a more modest and even ironical stance to proposed theories – a stance labeled “meta-reflexivity” in Latour (1988). But, as Chia says, such a response treats reflexivity as an epistemological problem, obscuring its “deeper ontological character”. Here Chia proceeds to contrast an ontology of being-realism, which “emphasizes the primacy of permanent and static states”, to an ontology of becoming-realism, which “privileges a thought style in which movement and the becoming of things are accentuated” (see entry on 3 September 2018). This shift in focus from how things “are” to how they “become” redirects attention to the “primary organizing micro-practices” involved in their becoming. A study of such practices, as explained above, involves a political rather than an epistemological undertaking.

Chia (1996: 49) argues that, to facilitate this focus on continual becoming, it follows that poststructural theoretical products must be “self-deconstructing”. Other researchers offer specific ways to enact this proposition. Todd May (2006: 94 ff.) suggests that it is possible to produce a “genealogy of genealogy”. Norma Rudolf (2017: 8) deploys a form of “autoethnography” developed “in dialogue” with participating South African communities “to question many of my own western assumptions that have been normalized as truth”. In line with these interventions, Step 7 in WPR (Bacchi WPR CHART) calls upon researchers to apply the other questions in the approach to their own proposals in a form of self-problematization. I distinguish self-problematization, as developed in WPR, from reflexivity because it institutes a practice of the self, applying the WPR questions to our own proposals (see next entry). For example, applying Question 3 to our own proposals incites exactly the form of “genealogy of genealogy” Todd May envisions.

Chia’s (1996: 49) call for “self-deconstructing” theories is accompanied by the suggestion (following Latour 1988: 174) that poststructuralists ought to produce “throw-away explanations” instead of “dogmatically using theories we generate to try to explain everything”. While I certainly agree with the critique of dogmatic theory, elsewhere, Joan Eveline and I (2010: 157) question the notion of “throw-away explanations”.  This conclusion, we suggest, appears to assume that all explanations are equally dispensable. In contrast we highlight the hierarchal organizing of discursive relations illustrated, for example, through the way in which medical discourse is privileged over the home birth movement.

Rudolf (2017: 79) explores the operation of power relations in the hierarchy of knowledges in her careful deployment of the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, showing precisely how that concept can be useful. She emphasizes how “evidence-based” policymaking in South Africa “prioritises scientific knowledge over other knowledges” and thus influences “who can speak, when, where and with what authority” (Ball 1990: 17-18 in Bacchi 2009: 237). With Somé (1995) she highlights the desirability of “making African cosmology more accessible to the West” without “judging one worldview as better than the other” (emphasis added). She appeals to Santos’ (2007: 1) call for “global cognitive justice” (Santos 2007: 1), challenging the tendency simply to “add-on” local and indigenous knowledges to the dominant western view of knowledge. At the same time, with Cross (2015: 53), she emphasizes that hierarchies of knowledge are not fixed but are locally constituted and reconstituted in the policy arena through “dynamic compromises between competing forms of knowledge and knowledge producers” in the changing political context.

In the next entry I consider the extent to which I apply Step 7 in WPR in my own work – something I have been asked about – with some unpleasant surprises.


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

Ball, S. J. 1990. Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology. NY: Routledge.

Chia, R. 1996. The Problem of Reflexivity in Organizational Research: Towards a Postmodern Science of Organization. Organization  3(1): 31-59.

Cross, M. 2015. Knowledge hierarchies and the politics of educational policy in South Africa. Education as Change, 19 (2), 37-57.

Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. Power, resistance and reflexive practice. In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline (eds) Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory.Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.   pp. 139-62.

Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.  Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.

Latour, B. 1988. The Politics of Explanation: An Alternative. In S. Woolgar and M. Ashmore (eds)Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage.  pp. 155-76.

May, T. 2006. The Philosophy of Michel Foucault. Chesham: Acumen.

Rudolph, N. 2017. Hierarchies of knowledge, incommensurabilities and silences in South African ECD policy: Whose knowledge counts? Journal of Pedagogy, 1.

Santos, B. de Sousa 2007. Beyond abyssal thinking: from global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review of African Political Economy, 30 (1).

Somé, M. P. 1995. Of water and the spirit: Ritual, magic and initiation in the life of an African shaman. New York: London Penguin.

Title: “Situated knowledges” OR “subjugated knowledges: Part II

Comment: In the last entry I raised for discussion a distinction between “subjugated knowledges”, as used by Foucault (1980), and “situated knowledges”, in the classic article by Haraway (1988). Without oversimplifying Haraway’s argument, her references to “situated knowledges” and “‘subjugated’ standpoints” as “preferred” positions makes an epistemological claim to “better knowledge” for groups positioned as oppressed. By contrast Foucault (1980: 83) describes “subjugated knowledges” – including the knowledges of the psychiatric patient, the ill person or the delinquent – as “disqualified, illegitimate knowledges” (Foucault 1980: 83). He is not making an epistemological claim as to their contents but a political claim as to their tactical usefulness in challenging the “centralizing powers” of “an organized scientific discourse”. The aim in Foucault, through genealogies, is to play off subjugated knowledges against “the rights of a science that is in the hands of the few” (Foucault 2003: 9).

This distinction between “subjugated knowledges” (in Foucault) and “situated knowledges” is further complicated by another argument frequently made in contemporary critical social and political theory, an argument that directs attention to all forms of knowledge as situated. Here the point of the analysis is to challenge the idea of transcendental knowledge by showing that knowledge is a social product, reflecting specific circumstances and influences (Bacchi 2009: 234). In this sense all knowledges are, to borrow from John Law (2009: 3), “contexted truths”.

This argument, that all knowledge is (socially) situated, can (understandably) lead to references to “situated knowledge” (Vitelloni 2018), or even “situated knowledges”. However, the implication of this usage contrasts starkly with references to “situated knowledges” as “preferred” perspectives in Haraway. In the first instance, the argument is that, since all knowledge claims are situated, there are no epistemological grounds for privileging one claim over any other. In the second instance, “situated knowledges” become “preferred”“partial perspectives” (Haraway 1988: 584) – clearly an epistemological claim.

The argument that all knowledges are situated and none is to be preferred in epistemological terms is an argument often used to typecast poststructural thinking as relativist. However, the insistence on the politics of knowledge production, elaborated in the last entry, shifts the focus from primarily philosophical issues about “truth” to concerns with the political production and effects of knowledge (“truth”) claims. Poststructuralism thus constitutes a skeptical rather than a relativist stance on knowledge claims, articulating the ways systems of thought work through the world, constituting the world in definite ways as they do so (Bletsas 2010; Chia 1996; Foucault 1984a).

In this situation it is incumbent on researchers to clarify the sorts of claims they are making when they draw on these languages. In WPR I recommend using Foucault’s concept of “subjugated knowledges”, with a clear explanation that the term does not involve a claim to “truth” (it is not an epistemological claim). I might on occasion also refer to knowledges as situated or “contexted” as a way to challenge any assumed transcendental status for knowledge. However, I avoid the phrase “situated knowledges” (in the plural) given its historical association with Haraway’s position on “situated knowledges” as “preferred” “partial” perspectives.

Barry’s comments on “the political” suggest the reasons I distance myself from claims that oppressed groups have privileged access to “truth”. He says:

an action is political . . . to the degree to which it opens up new sites and objects of contestation. And it is anti-political to the extent that it closes down the space of contestation (2001, p. 194, emphasis in original).

In my view epistemological claims close down the space of contestation. Therefore, I endorse Foucault’s call for “indispensable restraint” that “records the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality” (Foucault, 1984b: 76).

I have been thinking that even the language of “subjugated knowledges” appears to retain some sense of knowledge as a “thing” or essence. Here it may be possible to follow John Law’s (1994: 14) suggestion that we need a sociology of verbs rather than of nouns (see also Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 94 n1). Hence we could refer to “knowledging practices” as an alternative to “knowledges”.

In the next entry I would like to follow up these brief reflections with consideration of the implications of this stance for researchers, which Robert Chia (1996: 31) characterizes as “the reflexivity quagmire”. Due to an overseas trip I will not be able to make an entry for several weeks.

Kind regards



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

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

Barry, A. 2001. Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society. NY: A & C Black.

Bletsas, A. 2010. Poverty in the “age of affluence”: A governmental approach.PhD Thesis, Politics Department, University of Adelaide.

Chia, R. 1996. The Problem of Reflexivity in Organizational Research: Towards a Postmodern Science of Organization. Organization  3(1): 31-59.

Foucault, M. 1980. Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.)Michel Foucault power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. NY: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. 1984a. What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.) The Foucault Reader. NY: Pantheon Books.  pp. 32-50.

Foucault, M. 1984b. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In P. Rabinow (Ed.). The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin.

Foucault, M. 2003. Society must be defended. In M. Bertani & A. Fontana (Eds), Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, Macey, D. (trans.). NY: Picador.

Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.  Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.

Harding, S. 1993. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: “What is Strong Objectivity?” in L. Alcoff and E. Potter (eds) Feminist epistemologies. NY: Routledge, pp. 49-82.

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

Law, J. 2009. The Greer-Bush Test: on Politics in STS, version of 23rd December 2009, available at BushTest. See also J. Law 2010. The Greer-Bush test: on politics in STS. In M. Akrich, Y. Barthe, F. Muniesa, and P. Mustar (eds.). Débordements: Mélanges offerts à Michel Callon. Paris: Ecole des Mines, pp. 296–281.

Vitelloni, N. 2018. Situating the syringe. International Journal of Drug Policy

“Situated knowledges” OR “subjugated knowledges”

COMMENT: I am prompted to prepare this entry because I am concerned that there may be some terminological and conceptual confusion around “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1988), “situated knowledge” (Vitelloni 2018) and “subjugated knowledges” (Foucault 1980), and would like to open up a conversation on the matter. I think the topic is important because of the need to find ways to put in question conventional theories about “knowledge production”. The topic is tied also to questions about the kinds of claims researchers wish to make in relation to qualitative material based on interviews and participant observation. This entry and the two following entries engage these questions.

To begin, I suggest that “situated knowledges”, as in Haraway (1988), and “subjugated knowledges”, as in Foucault (1980), are not interchangeable terms, though they are sometimes treated as such (Haraway 1988; St Pierre 2013: 648). I can understand why this occurs. The two terms sound similar and appear to do similar things, drawing attention to “minority” or “oppressed” “points of view”. However, when Foucault introduced the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, this goal was not one he shared.

Without oversimplifying Haraway’s (1988: 584) argument, her references to “situated knowledges” as “preferred” positions makes a claim that “vision is better from below” (583), that is, from groups positioned (or situated) as oppressed: “they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world”. While Haraway qualified this claim carefully, “situated knowledges”, as used here, makes an epistemological claim, a claim that some people are better positioned (situated) than others to produce “knowledge”.

Haraway uses the term “‘subjugated’ standpoints” to make the same claim, indicating a direct link to feminist standpoint theory. Sandra Harding (1993: 56) elaborates the argument:

Standpoint theories argue for “starting off thought” from the lives of marginalized peoples; beginning in those determinate, objective locations in any social order will generate illuminating critical questions that do not arise in thought that begins from dominant group lives.

She describes these marginalized “starting points” as “epistemologically advantaged” (Harding 1993: 56).

In Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Palgrave Macmillan 2016: 48), I, with Susan Goodwin, point out that, when Foucault introduced the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, he was making a political claim about knowledges, not an epistemological claim. His expressed concern was with the tactical usefulness rather than the content of “subjugated knowledges”. He clarified his specific concern in his elaboration of genealogy as a form of critique:

We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges that are opposed primarily not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but to the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours … it is really against the effects of the power of a discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle (Foucault, 1980:84; emphasis added).

“Subjugated knowledges”, in Foucault, include forms of “erudite” knowledges and “disqualified” knowledges. “Erudite” knowledges consist of “blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systematic ensembles, but which were masked”. The role of critique is “to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship”.

The second grouping of “subjugated knowledges” are those

that have been explicitly disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity (1980: 82).

His examples include the knowledges of the psychiatric patient, the ill person or the delinquent.

The analytic task is to bring all these knowledges to the fore, to contribute to an “insurrection of knowledges” in order to challenge “the centralising powers linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse” (Foucault 1980: 84). To “emancipate” “subjugated knowledges” from “subjection” renders them  “capable of opposition and of struggle” and of being used “tactically” (Foucault 1980: 84).

How does this position differ from the meaning of “situated knowledges” as used by Haraway and many others (see above)? Put simply, Foucault is not claiming that any particular group has privileged access to “truth”; rather, he insists that truth claims are always political claims. In Foucault, the thing to examine in relation to “psychological knowledge”, for example, is its effects, not its truth. What needs to be questioned resides “in the political character of what it creates rather than in the epistemic character of its claims” (May 2006: 94-95).

At stake in this view is not an alternative epistemological position, but a contrasting ontology that is prior to epistemological principles. In opposition to an ontology of being, which asserts the primacy of “things” (such as “knowledge”), a poststructural ontology recognizes an ontology of becoming, “in which the processual becoming of things is given a fundamental role in the explanatory schema” (Chia 1996: 31). The central focus in the latter position becomes the study of “reality-constituting practices” – political practices – that shape how “knowledge” has come to be taken-for-granted as “truth”. “Knowledge” then is an effect of power relations rather than some “thing” to be pursued.

The implications for research are significant. St Pierre (2013) points out that much qualitative research (including the use of interviews and participant observation) relies on some sense of research subjects as the sources of foundational knowledge based on “experience” (see for example Vitelloni 2018 on “drug users [sic] situated experience”). This position bypasses relevant questions about subject formation and subjectification (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-51). By contrast, “subjugated knowledges” can be drawn upon as a challenge to established knowledge frameworks without reverting to epistemological claims.

WPR creates space to bring in “subjugated knowledges” under Question 4 on silences (see Bacchi WPR CHART). The term, however, needs to be used carefully to ensure that it is NOT mistaken to be a synonym for “situated knowledges”. There is no claim that these accounts offer access to “truth”; rather, there is insistence on the need

to entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. (Foucault 1980: 83).

Attention is thus “redirected” from the justification of particular knowledge claims to “an examination of the workings of primary organizing micro-practices which generated stabilized effects such as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’” (Chia 1996: 31).

The next entry further complicates this picture (sorry!).


Chia, R. 1996. The Problem of Reflexivity in Organizational Research: Towards a Postmodern Science of Organization. Organization  3(1): 31-59.

Foucault, M. 1980. Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.) Michel Foucault power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. NY: Pantheon Books.

Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.  Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.

Harding, S. 1993. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: “What is Strong Objectivity?” in L. Alcoff and E. Potter (eds) Feminist epistemologies. NY: Routledge, pp. 49-82.

May, T. 2006. The Philosophy of Michel Foucault. Chesham: Acumen.

St. Pierre, E. 2013. The posts continue: becoming. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26(6): 646-657.

Vitelloni, N. 2018. Situating the syringe. International Journal of Drug Policy.

“The investment in ‘problems’: A response”

COMMENT: In the last entry I opened up for consideration the ways in which researchers become involved in reproducing the existence of “problems” as self-evident referents. I expressed concern that this phenomenon, which I call “the investment in ‘problems’”, is depoliticizing, since it undermines the ability to recognize how governing takes place through problematization – through the shaping of “problems” as particular sorts of problems. However, if funding is tied to “problems” as pre-set foci for analysis, what are researchers to do?

A 2018 piece by Pineaar et al. provides insights into this situation. It examines the policies of three Australian LGBTIQ health organisations, namely the National LGBTI Health Alliance, the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) and ACON (formerly known as the AIDS Council of New South Wales). The authors apply the WPR questions to selected policies of these organisations and show how the policies endorse the construction of LGBTIQ consumption of alcohol and other groups as a problem. They go on to consider the subjectification effects of these policies (see Question 5 Bacchi WPR CHART), and conclude that the policies enacted “LGBTIQ consumers as an ‘at-risk’ minority”, arguing further “that this policy formulation has somewhat mixed political implications”. The authors point out that

these policy documents play a key role in securing funding, which means that governmental funding structures necessarily shape the problematisations identified in that they require the issues targeted by policy to be constructed as problematic matters of state concern if they are to warrant government attention and resources . (Pineaar et al. 2018: 193)

Hence, this article illustrates exactly the dynamic I discussed in the last entry – how funding requirements produce researchers who reinforce what are described as problems as self-evident referents.

This research provoked a response from the leaders of the three organizations that were the focus of the research. The response raised concerns about limited selection of the policy documents used in the Pineear et al. (2018) article and the lack of attention to the “different purposes and audiences for which the documents were developed” (Ruth et al. 2018: 195). In addition, the organization leaders stressed that, unlike academics who “may be in a position to ignore or sidestep existing policy and political contexts”, they had to “work for change while operating within the existing system” (Ruth et al. 2018: 195). The organization leaders were particularly critical of the implication, as they saw it, that they “misrepresented research or information for the purpose of funding”, and were motivated by self-interest (Ruth et al. 2018: 196). They concluded that the research could damage their reputations and fuel “the arguments of those who seek to halt LGBTI progress”.

This encounter between academics and policy advocates raises numerous important issues. One I take to heart is the relevance or irrelevance – and perhaps possible political danger – of the kind of poststructural analysis offered in WPR. More generally, are we seeing here an example of the conflict Tanya Li (2007: 2) identifies between “the work of the programmer (one who designs and pursues governing strategies) and the critic”? Li argues that:

A central feature of programming is the requirement to frame problems in terms amenable to technical solutions. … Under pressure to program better, they are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis. A critic can take a broader view.

I resist Li’s dichotomy between critics and programmers. It is clear from the Pineaar et al. (2018) article that they are aware that the link between funding and governmental problematizations affects all researchers:

As researchers, we engage in similar practices for the purposes of grant funding applications: to attract increasingly competitive research funding, we are obliged to frame research questions as “problems” of national concern requiring urgent attention. (Pineear et al. 2018: 190).

As Suzanne Fraser (2015: 52) says, “All science relies on funding imperatives, institutional forces, and individual careers. All science is located in specific historical, political, and social conditions.”

It follows that academics are not all that free to sidestep political contexts. Moreover, so-called “programmers” are acutely aware of the political implications of research. Sue Goodwin and I (2016: 9) describe “the policy worker cum analyst as engaged in the practices of interrogating, criticizing and evaluating policies”. Indeed, many policy workers/analysts are already engaged in deploying WPR as an analytic strategy (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 11).

I remain convinced, therefore, that we need to change how we think about “problems” and to become more sensitive to the ways in which pre-set “problems” – e.g. obesity, climate change, car mobility, etc. – constrain the forms of questions that can be raised. The strategy I recommend is to examine how specific proposals produce those “problems” as problems of particular kinds, providing a novel basis for debate and contestation.


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

Fraser, S. 2015. A Thousand Contradictory Ways: Addiction, Neuroscience, and Expert Autobiography.  Contemporary Drug Problems  42(1): 38-59.

Li, T. M. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pienaar, K., Murphy, D., Race, K. & Lea, T. 2018. Problematising LGBTIQ drug use, governing sexuality and gender: A critical analysis of LGBTIQ health policy in Australia.International Journal of Drug Policy  55: 187-194.

Ruth, S., Parkhill, N. and Reynolds, R. 2018. A response to Pienaar et al (2018). Problematizing LGBTIQ drug use, governing sexuality and gender: A critical analysis of LGBTIQ health policy in Australia.International Journal of Drug Policy,55: 195-196.

“The investment in problems”

COMMENT: Following on from the last entry on the challenges of self-problematization, I want to reflect on the relationship between research/ers and “problems”. To prefigure the argument, I feel disquiet at the extent to which “problems” as self-evident givens, as “problems-that-exist”, become the bread and butter of many, if not most, researchers. I refer to this phenomenon as “the investment in problems”. Clearly, this disquiet is due to my conviction that “problems” are not self-evident givens but are produced through the proposals purported to address them. Hence, treating them as givens misses out on the politics involved in their formation.

I have argued for some time and in many places that there is a need to disrupt the common impression in political deliberation that policy needs to solve “problems-that-exist”. Rather, I have argued that governing takes place through the production of “problems” as particular sorts of problems. In order to govern, governments (and other agencies) have to problematize their territory – to put forward proposed changes as “solutions” to “problems”. In the process of doing this, “problems” are shaped or problematized in particular ways. I am not talking about deliberate manipulation, but about the way in which proposed “solutions” necessarily produce a “problem” as a particular kind of “problem”. An example I often use is that a proposal to offer women training programs as a way to increase their representation in high status positions produces the “problem” as women’s lack of training. My argument, therefore, is that it is misleading to refer to problems as simply existing, waiting to be “solved”. There are no problems separate from their problematizations, and the analytic task becomes to interrogate these problematizations – to ask what presuppositions and discourses they rely upon, how they have come to be (i.e. “the circumstances, practices, historical conjunctures and relations that have produced them” (Foucault, 1991)), how they function and with what effects.

Given this view, I am keenly interested to explore how problems have come to acquire a self-evident status as “things-that-exist” [I’d like to thank Angie Bletsas for this useful phrase] and, relatedly, how problem-solving has come to dominate our political and intellectual landscape. An important contributing factor, I argue, is the symbiosis between researchers and “problems”, the ways in which researchers become involved in studying “problems-that-exist”. As an example, evidence-based policy invites researchers to propose studies on pre-set problems. Problems, therefore, become taken-for-granted foci for analysis, and researchers become invested in both the thinking behind problem-solving and in the methods associated with such thinking (e.g. empirical studies of alternative interventions along the lines of scientific problem-solving).

For example, in my study of alcohol and other drug policy (Bacchi 2015: 140), I found that the notion of “alcohol problems” emerged as a category of analysis in part due to researchers’ concerns to establish credibility for their work. The category “alcohol problems” raised the profile of associated research. Moreover, since – as conceptualized – “alcohol problems” – e.g. domestic violence, drink drinking, absenteeism – could be counted, they fitted the prevailing positivist research paradigm. “Alcohol problems” thus are sociological and political creations, not “facts”.

In more recent research I have been investigating the political fallout accompanying international “skills” assessment programs, specifically the OECD’s PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] and PIAAC [Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies] programs.  I believe it is important to consider how these programs establish their authority. One factor appears to be the way in which researchers become “co-opted” into research projects devoted to counting and assessing student and adult “skills”. As just one example, Waldow (2009: 481) notes: “The enormous resonance of the PISA debate has led to a massive expansion of empirical educational research of the PISA-type in Germany”. And with this research, Radhika Gorur (2016) argues, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to “see like PISA”.

Making these sorts of observations is a fraught exercise, unlikely to make you popular. In a keynote address at a 2009 conference at the University of Surrey on the “mother war” problem, I drew attention to the ways in which social attitude surveys – through the questions asked – played a part in producing a presumed dichotomy between “stay-at-home” mothers and “working” mothers. In this way the research reproduced the “problem” of the “mother war”.

In discussion I was taken to task for suggesting that researchers abandon reliance on social attitude surveys, a method associated with “solid research” and “defendable” “outcomes”.  I was told that the Vice Chancellor Research, for one, would be deeply unhappy should researchers follow this advice (Bacchi 2012: 149)!

Clearly, the suggestion that our research needs to be monitored for its political effects is contentious. This suggestion follows from the argument developed in an earlier entry on “ontological politics” [10 December 2017], that research practices produce realities. As Annemarie Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) says, “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediatebetween an object and its representations”.

This issue is clearly linked to the question of research funding and research “utilization” (Bacchi 2008). Put simply, how research is funded affects the extent to which researchers become “invested” in “problems”. If researchers are compelled to seek and accept research projects funded from external (non-university) sources, including private sector and government funding, they are likely presented with pre-set “problems” to “solve”. We need more studies of this dynamic so that we can envisage how to intervene – how to shift the research focus from presumed “problems-that-exist” to governmental problematizations and their effects [note that in line with a governmentality perspective “governmental” encompasses conventional political institutions and the many agencies and groups involved in the “conduct of conduct”]. We also need analytic “tools” that serve to dislodge the commonsense understanding of problems as self-evident referents. WPR is put forward as one such analytic strategy (Bacchi 2009).

In the next entry I reflect briefly on the implications of this thinking for relationships between researchers and the groups they research.


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

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

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

Foucault, M. (1991). Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller (Eds.).The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality (pp. 73–86). Harvester Wheatsheaf :Hemel Hempstead.

Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

“Thinking problematically Part II”

Comment: In the last entry Foucault’s analytic approach of “thinking problematically” was briefly introduced. I suggested there that WPR applies this form of analytic strategy. Today I want to reflect further on the challenges associated with “thinking problematically”.

Foucault’s argument is that, as a mode of analysis, “thinking problematically” (or problematization as a form of analysis) introduces a distinctive mode of thought. He distinguishes this mode of thought from Hegelian dialectics, an interpretive method in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis). In a review of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, published in 1970, Foucault wrote:

“The freeing of difference requires thought without contradiction, without dialectics, without negation; thought that accepts divergence; affirmative thought whose instrument is disjuncture; thought of the multiple… We must think problematically rather than question and answer dialectically … And now, it is necessary to free ourselves from Hegel – from the opposition of predicates, from contradiction and negation, from all of dialectics.” (Foucault 1978 [1970]: 185-6)

When researchers apply this form of analysis they become, in Webb’s (2014) coined expression,  “policy problematizers”. As policy problematizers, researchers refuse the problem-solving framework which still dominates policy thinking, and work to defamiliarize present categories and practices, opening up indeterminate spaces for creative possibilities.

There is a challenge here, which Webb acknowledges – how are researchers to defamiliarize categories and practices within which they are clearly immersed? Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011; see also Alvesson and Sandberg 2013) work on how to develop interesting research questions assists with this task. It is important to note that these authors use the term “problematization” in a broad sense to describe five different forms of analysis, linked to the level of assumptions one interrogates: in-house, root metaphor, paradigm, ideology and field assumptions. The last category of assumptions – “field assumptions” – they associate with Foucault. By contrast, in WPR, the term problematisation as a mode of analysis is reserved for Foucault’s usage – i.e. “thinking problematically”. In WPR the assumptions interrogated through this mode of analysis are characterized as deep-seated epistemological and ontological presuppositions, rather than as “field assumptions” (see Question 2 in Bacchi WPR CHART).

Despite these differences in approach, Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 257) have useful things to say about the difficulty of questioning the deep-seated assumptions in “ways of thinking”. They recognize that   “Field assumptions are difficult to identify because “everyone” shares them, and, thus, they are rarely thematized in research texts.”

They proceed to make suggestions about how to identify and interrogate such assumptions:

“One option is to search across theoretical schools and intellectual camps to see whether they have anything in common regarding the conceptualization of the particular subject matter in question. Another option is to look at debates and critiques between seemingly very different positions and focus on what they are not addressing – that is, the common consensual ground not being debated”. (emphasis in original)

Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 258) also recommend checking other critical literature.

Because it is so very difficult to move outside assumptions that form the backdrop to how we live and think, problematization as a form of Foucault-influenced analytic strategy requires critical self-reflection. Supporting this view Alvesson and Sandberg (2011: 252; emphasis in original) recommend using “problematization as a methodology for challenging the assumptions that underlie not only others’ but also one’s own theoretical position”. Recognizing how challenging this task is, they note:

“The ambition is therefore not, nor is it possible, to totally undo one’s own position; rather, it is to unpack it sufficiently so that some of one’s ordinary held assumptions can be scrutinized and reconsidered in the process of constructing novel research questions.”

WPR directly confronts this issue of critical self-reflection in Step 7 of the approach, where researchers are encouraged to engage in self-problematization [see Bacchi WPR CHART]. WPR offers a practical exercise to engage in this necessary undertaking: it is suggested that one apply the WPR questions to one’s own proposals or proposed “solutions”, interrogating one’s own “problem representations”. The objective, as Chantal Mouffe (1996: 6) describes it, is to avoid complacency.

The key points to take away from the last two entries 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];
  • “thinking problematically” [problematization as an analytic strategy] requires self-problematization.



Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. 2011. Generating Research Questions through Problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36, 247-271.

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. 2013. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage.

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:

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

Mouffe, C. 1996. Deconstruction, Pragmatism and the Politics of Democracy. In C. Mouffe (ed.) Deconstruction and Pragmatism: Simon Critchley, Jacques Derrida, Ernesto Laclau and Richard Rorty.NY: Routledge. pp. 1-12.

Webb, P. T. 2014. Policy Problematization. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27, 364-376.