Why “gendering”?

In the previous entry (31 May 2019) I suggested the usefulness of gendering as a concept. An earlier entry (11 February 2018) introduced this topic. In this brief contribution I summarize the intent of this conceptual intervention (as I use it), preparing the ground for two subsequent entries on dilemmas associated with this position: first, how to operationalize a gendering concept in research; and, second, the relationship between gendering and claims about feminism.

In a recent article (Bacchi 2017) I make a first attempt to clarify the many ways in which feminist researchers deploy the concept “gendering”. I have found additional uses since that article. For simplicity’s sake it is useful to identify two trends in this literature: first, interventions by researchers to insist that a particular phenomenon needs to be understood as displaying “gendered” characteristics (as an example, see Staudt, “Gendering development”, 2008); and, second, interventions that use gendering to refer to how social practices, including policy practices, produce “women” and “men”. I use the term in this second sense.

To repeat a point I have made on several occasions, my comments on “gendering” as a concept do not reflect a conviction that I am offering the one, correct definition of gendering. Rather, I think it is important to be clear about the political intent of specific adaptations of the term. To talk about “gendering” to refer to how social practices produce “women” and “men” offers a political attempt to challenge gender binaries, including male/female, man/woman, boy/girl, masculine/feminine. The grounds for this challenge are that such binaries impose unacceptable and harmful boundaries on forms of human interacting.

This stance is associated with a poststructural view that political subjects are beings in process rather than fixed or essential types/entities – described as an ontology of becoming rather than an ontology of being. Many poststructuralists find it helpful to replace nouns with verb forms as a strategy for displacing essences. Gerunds, produced by adding “ing” to a noun, constitute one such verb form.  Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016, p. 100) offers the example of “bordering” (van Houtum 2005). When one talks about bordering rather than borders one draws attention to the practices involved in producing things called borders. In this way it becomes possible to highlight or make visible the politics – the heterogeneous relations – involved in producing geopolitical entities.

To apply this thinking to “women” and “men” through the concept of gendering is a challenging exercise since the common distinction between male and female biological entities is longstanding and ingrained in many cultures. In The Politics of Affirmative Action (Bacchi 1996, p.4) I make the simple point that, if these categories are common-sensical, one needs to wonder at the amount of effort expended in reinforcing them. More significantly, of course, transgender and intersex positions pose important challenges to conventional gender distinctions.

Brought to the policy domain, a gendering analysis examines policies as productive of gender. Policies are treated as social practices involved in the production of the categories of “women” and “men”.  Westbrook and Saperstein (2015) make a useful contribution on this point.  They show how social surveys are “gendering” in the ways in which sex/gender categories are applied to respondents, both directly and indirectly, through the forms of question asked (about grandsons and granddaughters, for example) and through gendered pronouns. The poststructural position makes the case that in these instances gender is not only attributed to subjects; rather, such practices take part in the ongoing constitution of “women” and “men”. This position is developed in the WPR argument that policies produce “subjects”, alongside “problems”, “objects” and “places” (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016).

As an example, according to a 2017 OECD Report, women at home looking after their children represent “the greatest untapped potential” in Australia’s workforce (https://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2016/s4633783.htm). The Report concluded that the Australian economy might continue to suffer unless “stay-at-home mothers are encouraged back to work”.  Encouraging “stay-at-home mothers” into paid labour appears to challenge conventional gendered domestic roles. However, because the Report pays no attention to how caring responsibilities will be carried out (a silence), the presumption is that those marked as “women” will continue to perform these responsibilities. The Report therefore almost counter-intuitively constitutes “women” as carers; it impels those marked as “women” to fulfill expected obligations and so genders [verb] them.

The political implications of this stance are far-reaching. Such an argument means that, instead of asking how particular policies impact on women and men, as assumed categories, we, as researchers, ask what I call the “gendering question” – how policies and policy research produce “women” and “men” as particular sorts of being. For a helpful illustration of how research and policy are gendering practices that take part in the co-constitution of gender binaries, see Moore et al., 2017.

Such a focus on the constitutive effects of policies entails the need to also ask questions about policies as racializing, heteronorming, third-worldizing, disabling, classing, etc. (Bacchi 2017). In each case the emphasis is on how policies produce realities rather than the conventional view of policies as reactions to assumed “problems”, creating a whole new agenda for policy research.

The next entry considers the challenges such a theoretical position poses for policy development and research.


Bacchi, C. 1996. The Politics of Affirmative Action: “Women”, Equality and Category Politics.London: Sage.

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

Bacchi, C. 2017. Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions, Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 38:1, 20-41.

Moore, D., Fraser, S., Keane, H., Seear, K. & Valentine, K. 2017. Missing Masculinities: Gendering Practices in Australian Alcohol Research and Policy”. Australian Feminist Studies, 32(93): 309-324.

Staudt, Kathleen. 2008. “Gendering Development.” In Politics, Gender, and Concepts: Theory and Methodology, eds. G. Goertz and A. Mazur. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 136–56.

van Houtum, H. 2005. The geopolitics of borders and boundaries. Geopolitics, 10: 672-679.

Westbrook, L. and Saperstein, A. 2015. New Categories are Not Enough: Rethinking the Measurement of Sex and Gender in Social Surveys. Gender & Society. 29(4): 534-560.

“Concept-as-method” and/or “method” as concept

Comment: This entry was prompted by Silvia Gherardi’s (2019) recent contribution to an anniversary issue of Gender, Work and Organization, entitled “If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer?”  The article is important because it directs attention to some challenging work produced by those who have taken up “post qualitative inquiry”, a mode of inquiry developed by Elizabeth St Pierre (2019). In a previous entry (WPR and ethnography Part I, 28 Feb 2019) I suggested possible tension between my attempts to “redeem” some ethnographic methods (e.g. interviews) and St Pierre’s argument. In this entry I explain my hesitations about post qualitative inquiry.

First, I should say that I share St Pierre’s concerns about the sorts of questions that need to be brought to “research methods” in a post humanist perspective. Indeed, in an earlier article on the challenges of using interviews given the need to displace “assumptions about an ‘interior’ self who constructs versions of the world”, Jennifer Bonham and I (2017: 687) quote St Pierre (2011: 620): “If we no longer believe in a disentangled humanist self, individual, person, we have to rethink qualitative research methods (interviewing and observation) grounded in that human being as well as humanist representation”.

From this starting point, St Pierre (2019: 2, 10; emphasis added) concludes that, in post qualitative inquiry, there can be “no post qualitative data or methods of data collection or methods of data analysis”. Such a mode of inquiry therefore requires us to put “methodology aside” and, instead, read “widely across philosophy, social theories, and the history of science and social science to find concepts that reorient thinking”.

Gherardi picks up this discussion in the quest for such concepts, elaborating what it means to approach research through a “concept-as-method” orientation (2019: 40; see keyword “concept-as-method”). The argument here (and in St Pierre) is that “to think like a feminist” is “about the generation of new thought, new concepts, as much as if not more than it is about the critique of existing knowledges” (Grosz  2011: 77 in Gherardi 2019: 45).

As Gherardi (2019: 45) explains, the theoretical background to this approach is Deleuze’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, often mediated by Colebrook’s (2002) interpretation of their work. Colebrook (2017: 654; emphasis added; see also in Taguchi and St Pierre 2017: 645-646) explicitly links “concepts” to “problems”:

“We might begin to think of concepts as methods, precisely because concepts are at once prehuman (emerging from the problems or plane of thinking in which we find ourselves), but also reconfigure or reorient the plane precisely by being prompted by a problem. Concepts are methods precisely because they emerge from problems rather than questions.”

I am enthusiastic about the focus on concepts and what they can do. In an earlier contribution I borrow from Law and Mol, and indeed from Deleuze and Guattari, to defend the use of concepts as political interventions (Bacchi 2012: 142-145; 151-152).

However, I would suggest that there is a distinction between my argument and that put forward in Gherardi, St Pierre and Colebrook. Primarily I tend to stress the political implications of concepts rather than suggesting that they can (simply) open up ways of thinking, that they are “prehuman” in some sense. To this end I draw on Tanesini (1994: 207) who argues that concepts have no fixed meaning; rather, “they are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here”. In Tanesini’s account, the purpose of concepts is “to influence the evolution of ongoing practices”. Note that there is no suggestion here of a plot or of deliberate manipulation; rather, the focus is on concepts as having necessary political effects.

Given this stance, I am hesitant to describe “concepts-as-method”. In places this intervention is characterized as “concept as/instead ofmethod”, described by Jackson and Mazzei (2012; 2017) as “post-methodological” (see also Jackson 2017). However, above Colebrook says that “concepts are methods”, which unfortunately continues to privilege the notion of “method” (see Jackson on this point 2017: 673).

In contrast I would stress that the term “method” is itself a concept, as I signal in the title to this entry, and it is a concept about which critical researchers need to be wary. Some years ago Sandra Harding (1987: 1; emphasis added) declared it unwise to seek a “distinctive feminist method of inquiry” because “preoccupation with method mystifies what have been the most interesting aspects of feminist research processes”. Looking back to the Research Hub entry on critical realism (1 February 2019), John Law (2004: 143) reminds us that “method is not, and could never be, innocent or purely technical” because it “unavoidably produces not only truths and non-truths, realities and non-realities, presences and absences, but also arrangements with political implications”.

For this reason I do not describe WPR as a method. Rather, given my focus on the political implications of concepts, I describe it as an “analytic strategy”. My intervention on today’s topic, therefore, is the usefulness of talking about concepts as “analytic strategies” rather than as “methods”, as “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” (Tanesini 1994: 207) rather than as “prehuman” (Colebrook 2017: 654). It follows that, if concepts are proposals, they can be assumed to contain problem representations that need to be subjected to a WPR analysis (see Bacchi 2018: 7).

A concept that, in my view, always requires this form of critical interrogation, is the concept “problem”. Unfortunately, as noted above, post qualitative inquiry picks up Colebrook’s suggestion that concepts “emerge from problems”. Colebrook (2017: 654; see above) contrasts “problems” to “questions”, suggesting that the latter (but not the former) “already have a determined field of answers”. Such a stance, in my view, downplays the ways in which “problems” are deeply imbricated in social and political fields. Again, some time ago, Harding made the slightly different but still relevant point that “a problem is always a problem for someone or other” (Harding 1987: 6; emphasis in original).

I was also disappointed that Gherardi (2019) did not explore recent attempts to reconfigure “gender” as an analytic strategy. Here I am referring to the verb form or gerund “gendering” (Bacchi 2017; Research Hub 20 November 2018).

By drawing attention to the central role of concepts in research practices post qualitative inquiry raises important questions about the purposes of research and how to go about it. In this brief entry I suggest that there is a need to examine more explicitly the political implications of our theoretical interventions. I am concerned that the post qualitative stance can be depoliticizing. On these grounds , I believe we need to create room to explore the possibility of adopting “a wide gamut of empirical techniques, as part of a commitment to selected political goals” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 23), remembering that “judgments on the basis of this material have to remain open to disputation, variation, and revision”.

Refusing the position that “concepts are methods” (Colebrook 2017: 654; emphasis added; see Jackson 2017: 673), and treating them as “analytic strategies”, in my view, opens up the opportunity to deploy carefully and critically (see Research Hub entry 28 Feb 2019) some ethnographic methods (e.g. interviews) for political purposes (see Research Hub entry 1 May 2019) rather than abandoning “methods of data collection or methods of data analysis” altogether (as in St Pierre 2019: 10; see Jackson on this point 2017: 666). There are clear implications here for the myriad of policy workers currently engaged in these forms of data collection – a topic pursued in a subsequent entry.


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. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.

Bacchi, C. (2017). Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions. Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, 38(1): 20-41.

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

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

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

Colebrook, C. 2002.Understanding Deleuze. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Colebrook, C. 2017. What is this thing called education? Qualitative Inquiry, 23(9): 649–655. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1077800417725357

Gherardi, S. 2019. If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer? Gender, Work and Organization  26: 40-53.

Grosz, E. (2011). Becoming undone: Darwinian reflections on life, politics, and art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https:// doi.org/10.1215/9780822394433

Harding, S. 1987. Feminism and methodology: Social science issues. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jackson, A. Y. 2017. Thinking without method. Qualitative Inquiry  23(9): 666-674.

Jackson, A. Y. and Mazzei, L. A. 2012. Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing Data Across Multiple Perspectives. NY: Routledge.

Jackson, A. Y. and Mazzei, L. A. 2017. Thinking with Theory: A new analytic for qualitative inquiry’. In Norman K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research– 5thedition.  SAGE publications.

Law, John 2004. After Method: Mess in social science research. New York: Routledge.

St Pierre, E. 2011. Post Qualitative Research: The Critique and the Coming After. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 611-25.

St Pierre, E. 2019. Post Qualitative Inquiry in an Ontology of Immanence. Qualitative Inquiry  25(1): 3-16.

Taguchi, H. L. and St Pierre, E. A. 2017. Using Concept as Method in Educational and Social Science Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry  23(9): 643-648.

Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon and M. Whitford (Eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology.  NY: Routledge.

WPR and normativity


This entry was prompted by Mark Kelly’s 2018 book, entitled For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory. It also follows on from the previous two entries (Feb. 28 and March 31, 2019) on “lived effects” as an analytic category in WPR. Basically, the purpose of this entry is to consider how researchers “evaluate” or “assess” the effects – discursive, subjectification and lived – identified in Question 5 of the WPR approach (see Bacchi WPR CHART).

We need to start by considering the difficult term “normativity”. First, it is important to clarify that the discussion in this entry is not about “normalization”, referring to the imposition of social norms. Rather, the debate about “normativity” in political theory relates to whether or not researchers are entangled in value commitments and/or whether or not they prescribe, on the basis of these commitments, what ought to be done.

I suggest that there are two separate points here – first, the extent to which researchers’ views and positions reflect values; and second, the extent to which they are prepared to impose these values on others. Along these lines Kelly (2012: 2; emphasis added) distinguishes between what he describes as an “inflationary” understanding of normativity as broad value commitments, and a “much stricter definition of the ‘normative’ … which takes it as merely a by-word for prescription, which is to say for ‘oughts’”.

Kelly makes the case that Foucault distances himself from the latter position – that is, from prescription– an argument I support. Foucault made it clear on several occasions that he did not wish to endorse specific reforms and wanted to separate his analytic contributions from “politics” as an arena for designing such reforms (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 25). On the basis of this position, I, with Kelly (2018: 121), would argue that Foucault ought not to be aligned with American pragmatism (see discussion in Bacchi 2015: 9; Bacchi The Turn to Problematization; see also Olsen 2014).

However, contra Kelly, I would suggest that Foucault clearly adopted a number of political commitments that imply a value orientation. For example, among subjugated knowledges (see entries Sept. 3 and Sept. 17, 2018), he included those produced by “the prisoner, the exile, the ‘abnormal’” (Flynn 1989: 196). In the 1970s Foucault was directly involved in campaigns to reform contemporary French prisons, founding the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (Bacchi 2012: 2; Bacchi Why study problematizations?). As Jon Simons (1995: 91) puts it, the perspective affirmed in these commitments “is that of those who resist”.

Kelly (2018: 8-9) is not satisfied that such alignments make Foucault “normative”. He claims that, even “if there is normativity at work in the selection of the object of investigation, the investigations themselves can be more or less objective and historical”. Such a position, I would suggest, sits uncomfortably with a poststructuralist questioning of “truth” and “objectivity”.

There are long-standing debates about Foucault’s value commitments. Habermas coined the term “crypto-normativist” to describe Foucault, suggesting that he was a kind of secret or “closet” normativist, “publicly rejecting normative commitments while tacitly relying on them for criticism” (in Kolodny 1996: 67). Nancy Fraser (1989) also believed that Foucault’s unwillingness to declare his political ideals undermined his political analysis.

Kolodny (1996) provides a way forward in these discussions. Based on Foucault’s political commitments, discussed above, Kolodny (64-65) argues that “Foucault’s work was self-consciously critical, and criticism is inescapably normative”. He argues that the “later Foucault resisted not the demand for norms, but rather the demand of a normative theory” (1996: 65; emphasis in original) – an argument that sits comfortably alongside Kelly’s (2018: 11) claim that “Foucault’s political thought is atheoretical, eschewing systematization”.

With Cynthia Coe (2011) I would argue that Foucault “refuses the polarity of nihilism and normative foundationalism”:

If we are searching for normative foundations, what Foucault is up to will look like nihilism. But the purpose of his genealogical work is to illuminate the contingency of our intellectual quests in order to open up new practices of resistance to particularly modern forms of oppression. 

In support of this view Foucault refuses a theory of power. He (1987: 129) famously declares that “relations of power are not something bad in themselves, from which one must free one’s self”. Still, as Yates (2002: 41-42) points out, Foucault preferred some forms of power to others. He preferred “agonic” forms of power – “those that are flexible enough to allow for creative and continued resistance, and which contain as little domination as possible” (see also Patton 1994).

Accepting Kolodny’s argument (above) that criticism is inescapably normative, WPR seeks likewise to explore the space between nihilism and normative foundationalism. In several places I refer to the need to assess or evaluate identified problem representations in terms of their “deleterious effects”, or “deleterious implications” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 45, 64, 72-74, 90). In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 42), I state explicitly that the WPR approach “presumes that some problem representations benefit the members of some groups at the expense of others. It also takes the side of those who are harmed”.  The goal, I explain, is “to intervene to challenge problem representations that have these deleterious effects, and to suggest that issues could be thought about in ways that might avoid at least some of these effects”.

The language of “benefit” and “harm” is, of course, contentious (see Bacchi 2006: 9; BacchiNCETA2006-2 copy). “Deleterious”, in my view, is less heavy-handed, providing researchers more space to reflect on the varied implications of the problem representations they identify. Merriam-Webster defines “deleterious” to mean “harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deleterious). This “lighter” normative standard contrasts with the insistence in critical realism on “the necessity of thick ethical concepts in social science” (Sayer 2012: 179; see Research Hub entry, Feb. 1, 2019).

Regardless of the language adopted, there is a broad or “inflationary” normativity at work in Question 5. However, there is also a commitment to avoid overly simple explanations and a refusal to prescribe, to say what ought to be done. What follows is a commitment to close contextual analysis of specific situations. Moreover, any analysis one produces needs to be scrutinized through the lens of self-problematization (see Research Hub entries, Oct. 21 and Nov. 5, 2018).

In Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 25), Sue Goodwin and I directly confront the question of whether or not it is possible to support an egalitarian politics while refusing to advocate specific reforms (i.e. to refuse to be prescriptive). There we argue that, not only are the two perspectives compatible, they are actually necessary to each other. This is because reform programs often buy into problematic premises that need highlighting and questioning. We offer the examples of “social inclusion”, “literacy” and “wellbeing” from Chapter 6 in the book. With Foucault (2001: 1431), therefore, the objective is a practice of continuous critique, engaging in “a work of problematisation and of perpetual reproblematisation”.


Bacchi, C. 2006. “Policy, Theory, Politics: problem representations in drug and gambling policy”. Keynote address, 2ndInternational Summer School on Inequality and Addictive Behaviours: A Fair Go For All? Policy Responses to Alcohol, Drug and Gambling Issues. NCETA (The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction), University of Adelaide, 18-19 September.

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

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible. The Open Journal of Political Science  2(1): 1-8.

Bacchi, C. 2015. The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science5: 1-12.

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

Coe, C. D. 2011 Review of: D. Taylor (Ed.) Michel Foucault: Key Concepts. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: An Electronic Journal. Available at: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/michel-foucault-key-concepts/ (viewed on 21 January 2019).

Flynn, T. (1989). Symposiums papers: Foucault and the politics of postmodernity. Noûs, 23 (2), 187–198.

Foucault, M. (1987). The ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom: An interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984, with R. Fornet-Betancourt, H. Becker, A. Gomez-Müller, J.C. Gauthier, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 12, 112–131.

Foucault, M. (2001) [1984]. À propos de la généalogie de l’éthique: Un aperçu du travail en cours (rewritten version). In D. Defert, & F. Ewald (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Dits et Écrits, tome II. Paris: Gallimard.

Fraser, N. 1989. Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions. In N. Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 17-34.

Kelly, M. 2018. For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Knifton, C. and Yates, S. 2019. A “history of problematizations” for dementia education: a Foucauldian approach to understanding the framing of dementia, Journal of Research in Nursing, 1-19.

Kolodny, N. 1996. The ethics of cryponormativism: A defense of Foucault’s evasions. Philosophy and Social Criticism  22(5): 63-84.

Olsen, K. 2014. Genealogy, Cryptonormativity, Interpretation. Foucault Studies  18: 253-260.

Patton, P. 1994. Foucault’s Subject of Power. Political Theory Newsletter  6: 60-71.

Sayer, A. 2012. Power, causality and normativity: A critical realist critique of Foucault.  Journal of Political Power  5(2): 179-194.

Simons, J. 1995. Foucault and the Political. NY: Routledge.

Yates, S. J. 2002. Power and Subjectivity: A Foucauldian discourse analysis of experiences of power in learning difficulties community care homes. PhD thesis, De Montford University, Leicester, UK.

“WPR and ethnography: Part II”


In the last entry I reflected briefly on the possible uses of ethnographic methods in a WPR analysis, specifically in relation to “lived effects” (Question 5 see Bacchi WPR CHART). I found some common spaces to explore via the work of Dorothy Smith (2005), George Smith (2014) and Georgina Tsolitis (2008), and forecast the possibility of others. In this entry I propose to look briefly at the argument that research approaches such as WPR and governmentality studies absolutely NEED ethnography, that, without ethnography, they are sadly lacking as analytic strategies due to their top-down perspective.

There are many versions of this argument. I intend to focus on the debate between Michelle Brady and Mitchell Dean (2015) to illustrate what is at stake in these positions. Brady (2014: 11) describes governmentality studies as “succumbing to a more general tendency among social scientists to present neoliberal transformations in monolithic and linear terms”. She recommends “combining an analytics of governmentality with ethnographic and quasi-ethnographic methods” in order to “avoid deterministic, homogenous and static accounts of social transformation”.

Dean challenges Brady’s characterization of governmentality accounts of neoliberalism as monolithic, stressing that, in his own work, he emphasized the plurality of liberalisms (Dean 1999: 55-56). He objects to Brady’s interpretation of Foucault and to the “epistemological imperialism of her claims for ethnography” (Dean 2015: 360). On the latter, he challenges the assertion that ethnographic studies “allow a critical engagement with the ‘real’, always in scare quotes”, given that such studies ignore the dependence of ethnography on concepts – e.g. resistance, agency, freedom, among others – “to access its ‘real’” (Dean 2015: 365).

The debate between Brady and Dean hinges on some key methodological and theoretical issues, most notably:

Ÿi) competing conceptions of “reality” (see Hammersley 1992), with connections to the so-called “new empiricism” (Clough 2009) and “new materialisms” (Gullion 2018);

ii) Ÿthe use of texts in research; and

iii) Ÿconceptions of subject “agency”.

The need to consider competing conceptions of “reality” was forecast in the entry on critical realism (Research Hub 1 February 2019).  There I mentioned Stenson’s (2008) work on “realist governmentality”, which is endorsed by Kim McKee (2009; see last entry 28 February). According to McKee (2009: 482), “By adopting a ‘realist’ approach attention can be accorded to the messy actualities of the empirical world”, offering a “more grounded, ethnographic analysis of the exercise of power in situ that is sensitive to both time and place”.

Dean (2015: 359; emphasis added) explains how Foucault engages thinking about “reality”. As he says, Foucault “seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about or ‘name’ the real” (Dean 2015: 359). As Dean explains, Foucault  is not concerned with

gaining access to how things really operate, but with something he admits is more irritating and troubling, how our “finely grained pictures” of reality are produced and the diverse realm of effects they have within certain practices.

To gain access to these “finely grained pictures” Foucault turns to governmental “programmings of behaviours” (texts). These are to be studied as “fragments of reality that induce such particular effects in the real as the distinction between true and false implicit in the ways men (sic) ‘direct’, ‘govern’ and ‘conduct’ themselves and others” (Foucault 1991; emphasis added).

On the other side both Brady (2014: 13-14) and McKee (2009: 479) are critical of what they describe as the “exclusive reliance” of governmentality studies on the use of texts or documents as research tools. However, not all ethnographers share these views. In the previous entry I drew attention to the useful contribution of Institutional Ethnography to the place of concepts in governing practices, an analysis that starts from governmental texts. And, Tania Li (2007a and 2007b), well known for encouraging productive dialogue between governmentality and ethnography, notes pointedly why documents (texts) are useful:

First, documents have effects: … Second, a close reading of documents can reveal an ethos, a way of defining problems and connecting them to solutions, that takes even the authors by surprise. (Li 2010: 234)

As explained in the last entry (28 February), WPR shares this conviction that documents/texts provide springboards for investigating governmental practices; they open up a range of questions about how governing takes place rather than bracketing out “this multiplicity and complexity” (Brady 2014: 14).

For Brady and McKee a particular “complexity” is omitted from governmentality studies – specifically the reactions of subjects (people) to governmental prescriptions. And this is precisely where ethnographic studies are deemed to be useful, recognizing “strategies from below which aim to resist governmental ambitions” (McKee 2009: 479). I would suggest that this creation of a subject outside governmental processes, reacting to those processes, reinforces a structure/agency binary that has outlived its usefulness. As Dean (2015: 365) explains, what are needed are studies that “connect how people govern themselves to how they are governed in a broader institutional set of arrangements” – “how techniques of the self might interact with techniques of governing”. This, of course, is precisely the research terrain anticipated in the concept of “lived effects”, located in Question 5 of WPR, together with discursive and subjectification effects. It could even be argued that, far from producing an overly-determinist and “simple” view of the subject, as critics imply (see Brady 2014: 11), such an approach complicates the picture, producing a “messier” understanding and a “messier” subject.


Brady, M. 2014. Ethnographies of Neoliberal Governmentalities: from the neoliberal apparatus to neoliberalism and governmental assemblages. Foucault Studies, no. 18, pp. 11-33.

Clough, P. T. 2009. The New Empiricism: Affect and Sociological Method. European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 43-61.

Dean, M. 1999. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London:  Sage.

Dean, M. 2015. Neoliberalism, Governmentality, Ethnography: A Response to Michelle Brady. Foucault Studies, no. 20, pp. 356-366.

Foucault, M. 1991 [1982]. Questions of Method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gullion, J. S. 2018. Diffractive ethnography: Social sciences and the ontological turn. NY: Routledge.

Hammersley, M. (1992). Ethnography and Realism.  In M. Hammersley, What’s Wrong with Ethnography?  Methodological Explorations.  London: Routledge.

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

Li, T. 2007b. Practices of assemblage and community forest management. Economy and Society  36(2): 263-293.

Li, T. 2010. Revisiting The Will to Improve. Annals of the Association of American Geographers  100(1): 233-235.

McKee K. (2009) Post-Foucauldian Governmentality: What Does It Offer Critical Social Policy Analysis? Critical Social Policy, vol. 29, no 3, pp. 465–486.

Smith, D. E. 2005.Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. NY: AltaMira Press.

Smith, G. W. (2014) [1988]. Policing the gay community: An inquiry into textually-mediated social relations. In D. E. Smith and S. M. Turner (Eds) Incorporating Texts into Institutional Ethnography.Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stenson, K. (2008). Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety.  Social Work & Society  6(1): 1-14.

Tsolidis, G. 2008. The (im)possibility of poststructuralist ethnography – researching identities in borrowed spaces”, Ethnography and Education  3(3): 271-281.

“WPR and ethnography Part I”

COMMENT:  This entry is prompted by several queries about the category of “lived effects” in WPR, specifically about the possibility of using ethnographic methods to “fill out” the category. “Lived effects” appear as part of Question 5 in the approach (see Bacchi WPR CHART), together with “discursive effects” and “subjectification effects”. Importantly, in my discussions of Question 5, I note that the three “kinds” of effects are interconnectedand overlapping; they have been separated solely for heuristic purposes (Bacchi 2009: 15; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 23).

Hence, “lived effects” need to be treated as part of an integrated analysis of effects, not as a separate category to be “filled out”. The use of the term ensures that the way in which discursive and subjectification effects translate into people’s lives forms part of the analysis. For example, if welfare were constituted a “hand-out” rather than a “right”, the amounts distributed as welfare could be affected, posing possible life and death consequences for recipients (Dean 2006). One might also consider how the stigmatizing practice of being cast as a member of a “problem group” could affect a person’s life in a myriad of ways (Rance, Lafferty and Treloar 2018: 3; Bacchi 2009: 93; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 64;).

Turning to ethnographic methods, such as interviews and participant observation, to describe these “lived effects” is not straightforward, therefore. It is necessary to consider possible tensions between the ontological and epistemological premises of a WPR analysis and ethnography. As just one example, given the focus on subjectification effects in WPR, we need to consider the extent to which ethnographic methods rely upon a “humanistic ethnographic subject” (see Britzman 1995: 234).

In addition, a starting premise in WPR is that, as poststructural researchers, we are not seeking “truth”. Whatever methods we adopt, the findings have to remain open to criticism and questioning (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 23). To the extent that ethnographers claim to access “experience” and hence to produce a kind of “truth”, tensions with WPR are unavoidable. There are connections here with earlier Research Hub entries on subjugated knowledges and self-problematization (3 Sept. 2018, 17 Sept. 2018).

Debates about the possible blending or the potential incommensurability of poststructuralism and ethnography have a long history (see Blitzman 1995). Any discussion of this topic needs to recognize the plurality of ethnographic approaches (Clair 2003), including “critical ethnography” (Pignatelli 1998), “ethnography of the state” and “stategraphy” (Dubois 2018),  “institutional ethnography (IE)” (Smith, D. E. 2005; Teghtsoonian 2016) and “diffractive ethnography” (Gullion 2018). Possible articulations between these developments in the field and WPR ought to be considered.

In the Appendix to Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Bonham 2016) and elsewhere (Bonham and Bacchi 2017), my colleague, Jennifer Bonham, and I explore the possible uses of interviews, a common ethnographic method, in a WPR analysis. To this end, we develop an approach called Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA). This attempt to “rescue” interviews as a research “method” sits in some tension with “post qualitative inquiry”, “invented” by Elizabeth St Pierre (2019), a topic pursued in a subsequent entry.

Tsolidis (2008) also considers the possibility of reconciling poststructural premises and ethnographic methods. Her major argument is the need to question the categories of analysis ethnographic researchers adopt. Her specific target is the category of “site”, a common starting point for ethnographic studies. Tsolidis (2008: 278) shows that the “sites” in her analysis of “student teaching” are not fixed places but “complex social relations”.  This notion of the production of place (“sites”) is a central premise in WPR (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: Chapter 7). This kind of “reflexive” approach to research categories (Tsolidis 2008: 278) opens up the possibility of adopting, or rather adapting, some ethnographic research methods (see Research Hub, 2 October, 5 November 2018).

Institutional ethnography (IE), developed by Dorothy Smith (2005), offers a possible strategy to bring together the insights of poststructuralism and ethnography. Institutional ethnography shares with WPR a focus on texts as springboards to study governmental practices, read broadly. According to Dorothy Smith (2001: 160), the approach explores “how texts mediate, regulate and authorize people’s activities”, expanding “the scope of ethnographic method beyond the limits of observation”. George Smith (2014: 36), for example, examines how legal concepts, such as “indecent act”, in a piece of legislation, “far from being theoretical entities”, constitute “a fulcrum from which a ruling apparatus gets purchase on the lives of those it seeks to govern”. This kind of analysis sits comfortably alongside that provoked by Question 5 and “lived effects”, though WPR eschews any suggestion of intentional manipulation.

A related question, raised by some ethnography scholars (Brady 2014; McKee 2009), is whether or not ethnography is a necessary complement to governmentality studies. The suggestion here is that the kinds of analysis offered in WPR, and in governmentality studies, ignore the “voices” of those affected by governmental prescriptions in texts. McKee (2009: 473), for example, describes governmentality studies as “top down” accounts, attentive to “government from above” but blind to the “messy empirical actualities” of lived realities – “actualities” discovered by interviewing and observing “real people” living their lives (i.e. ethnography). The emphasis in these ethnographic accounts is on the need to consider the “agency” of policy actors and their involvement in interpretation, contestation and resistance (Rodin 2017: 20). Other contributors to the debate talk about the need to examine “implementation” (Rutherford 2007) rather than staying at the level of governmental prescription. In the next entry I pursue these topics.


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

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

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

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

Brady, M. 2014. Ethnographies of Neoliberal Governmentalities: from the neoliberal apparatus to neoliberalism and governmental assemblages. Foucault Studies, no. 18, pp. 11-33.

Britzman, D. P. 1995. “The question of belief”: writing poststructural ethnography, Qualitative Studies in Education  8(3): 229-238.

Clair, R. P. 2003. Chapter 1: The Changing Story of Ethnography. In R. P. Clair (ed.) Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods. Suny Press.

Dean, M. 2006. Governmentality and Powers of Life and Death. In G. Marston and C. McDonald (eds), Analysing Social Policy: A Governmental Approach.Cheltenham, UK: Edward Edgar.

Dubois, V. 2018.  Chapter 2: The State, Legal Rigor, and the Poor: The Daily Practice of Welfare Control. In T. Thelen, L. Vetters, K. von Benda-Beckmann (Eds) Stategraphy: Toward a relational anthropology of the state. NY: Berghahn.

Gullion, J. S. 2018. Diffractive ethnography: Social sciences and the ontological turn. NY: Routledge.

McKee K. (2009) Post-Foucauldian Governmentality: What Does It Offer Critical Social Policy Analysis? Critical Social Policy, vol. 29, no 3, pp. 465–486.

Pignatelli, F. 1998. Critical Ethnography/Poststructuralist Concerns: Foucault and the Play of Memory. Interchange  29(4): 403-423.

Rance, J., Lafferty, L. and Treloar, C. 2018. “Behind closed doors, no one sees, no one knows”: hepatitis C, stigma and treatment-as-prevention in prisons. Critical Public Health, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2018.1541225

Rodin, L. 2017. Studies on Governmentality: Six Epistemological Pitfalls. Russian Sociological Review  16(2): 9-28.

Rutherford S. 2007. Green Governmentality: Insights and Opportunities in the Study of Nature’s Rule. Progress in Human Geography, vol. 31, no 3, pp. 291–307.

Smith, D. E. 2001. Texts and the Ontology of Organizations and Institutions. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, 7(2): 159-198.

Smith, D. E. 2005.Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. NY: AltaMira Press.

Smith, G. W. (2014) [1988]. Policing the gay community: An inquiry into textually-mediated social relations. In D. E. Smith and S. M. Turner (Eds) Incorporating Texts into Institutional Ethnography.Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

St Pierre, E. 2019. Post Qualitative Inquiry in an Ontology of Immanence. Qualitative Inquiry  25(1): 3-16.

Teghtsoonian, K. 2016. Methods, discourse, activism: comparing institutional ethnography and governmentality, Critical Policy Studies, 10(3): 330-347.

Tsolidis, G. 2008. The (im)possibility of poststructuralist ethnography – researching identities in borrowed spaces”, Ethnography and Education  3(3): 271-281.

“WPR and critical realism”

Comment: This entry was prompted by two recent articles on health policy that offer the WPR approach as one of their adopted methodologies (Baum et al., 2018; Windle et al., 2018). The articles also juxtapose WPR with critical realism, the latter (Windle et al.) most explicitly. I wish to reflect on the implications of this juxtaposition.

In Baum et al. (2018) the authors ask “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” of their selected documents in order to identify “what the authors of the document consider to be the problem/issue that needs to be addressed” (p. 6, Table 1, column 3). This adaptation of WPR does not follow the recommended analytic strategy of starting analyses from proposed solutions and focusing attention on the implicit problem representations within them (Bacchi 2009). Instead it uses WPR to identify rhetorical commitments to SDH/HE [Social Determinants of Health/Health Equity] and proceeds to assess these commitments using a “critical realist evaluation approach” (Baum et al. 2018: 8; see Danermark et al. 2002; Pawson 2003). The policy statements are to be assessed against “adopted frameworks for understanding optimal policy action on SDH/HE in Australia” (p. 5). While this research design does not create the opportunity to probe deep-seated epistemological and ontological assumptions within the policy documents – as per a WPR analysis – attention to policy “silences” and to how “problem conceptions” may have “delimited the objectives and strategies in ways which are favourable or unfavourable to action on SDH/HE”, indicates some resonance with WPR thinking.

The Windle et al. (2018) contribution uses WPR to probe differing stakeholder conceptions of equity, specifically in relation to the implications of PHFs’ [private health funds] involvement in PHC [primary health care]. This use of WPR to explore the understandings of policy advocates and policy makers is a fairly common adaptation of the approach, though not in line with the specific WPR goal of interrogating problem representations within policies and policy proposals (Bacchi 2015 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization). The authors note that they applied “two theoretical perspectives; realism and Carol Bacchi’s (2009) constructionist approach”. Usefully, for the purposes of this entry, they state:

“We recognise that the underlying ontologies of these two approaches have been regarded as incompatible (e.g. Guba & Lincoln 1994). However, in keeping with Cairney’s (2013) discussion of options for multitheoretical approaches to public policy research, we did not seek to synthesise these two approaches but to apply them separately to illuminate different aspects of the policy environment in a complementary way. (Windle et al. 2018: 4)”

As stated, to achieve this multitheoretical analysis, Windle et al. (2018) ignore the “underlying ontologies” of the WPR and realism. Can this be done? Is there a cost? How does this discussion fit with earlier entries in the Research Hub on “criticality” (Dec. 3, 2018; Dec. 17, 2018) and “ontological politics” (Dec. 10, 2017)

In line with the first entry on “criticality” (Dec. 3, 2018) I would like to suggest the usefulness of pursuing this topic by asking about the political implications of contrasting theoretical stances. To what extent is it possible, or desirable, to adopt, or claim to adopt, the kind of “multitheoretical approach” advanced in these studies?

Returning to Annemarie Mol’s (2002: 155) argument that research methods are forms of political intervention rather than ways to access “truth”, and in line with a “performativity” perspective on “reality” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 30), it is useful to think of research practices as creating realities. To quote John Law (2004: 143), “method is not, and could never be, innocent or purely technical” because it “unavoidably produces not only truths and non-truths, realities and non-realities, presences and absences, but also arrangements with political implications”. The task then becomes reflecting on the specific realities and “arrangements” our research practices create.

Now I acknowledge that this task is not one likely to engage critical realists who postulate a reality existing “independently of social actors”, while accepting that the interpretations of those actors can influence that reality (Gilson 2012: 35-36). Still, I think it worthwhile to consider if such a position itself has political effects that require consideration. For example, elsewhere, Malin Rönnblom and I (2011; RonnblomBacchiBudapest copy), alongside Law (2004) and Rowse (2009), reflect on the political fallout accompanying the assumed fixity of “nation-states” in much political science analysis. Law points out that, by deploying concepts such as “nation-state” unproblematically, analysts actually install them as “real”. Hence, they participate in creating a reality of nation-states, reinforcing contemporary geopolitical arrangements.

This issue of the status assigned conceptual categories arises in commentaries on Kevin Stenson’s (2008) “realist governmentality”. Wendy Larner (2008: 23) points out what gets lost in Stenson’s references to  “white flight”, the “knowledge economy” and “social capital” as “self-evident descriptors of the terrain being analysed” in his study of “community safety” in the UK Thames Valley region:

“These terms bundle together a set of presuppositions about the nature of the region, the causes of the problems to be solved, and the capacities of the subjects involved. They need to be denaturalized, made specific, and their governmental implications revealed.” (Warner 2008: 23)

Put too briefly, in treating these “entities” as “real”, the politics involved in their formation disappears from the analysis.

Elsewhere I (2016; Bacchi Problematizations Health Policy) have reflected on the political implications of other key critical realist premises. Specifically I make the case that the primacy accorded “mechanisms” that work through the “behaviours” of social actors can serve to promote a focus on individual responsibility for health outcomes, exacerbating the “lifestyle drift” that concerns so many health policy analysts (Bacchi 2016: 6).

There are also grounds, I suggest, for linking endorsements of methodological pluralism to critical realist premises. Specifically, critical realists assert a separate “real world” that can only be “known” through partial perspectives. As Margaret Archer et al. (2018) explain:

“Ontological realism is committed to the relatively autonomous existence of social reality…; however, our knowledge about that reality is always historically, socially, and culturally situated.”

As a result, says Archer et al. (2018), “methodological pluralism” is deemed to be a “necessity”.

It follows, I suggest, that endorsements of methodological pluralism are “not innocent, or purely technical” (see Law above), regardless of how benign they may sound. In this instance methodological pluralism forms part and parcel of a critical realist paradigm.

All of this highlights the importance of being clear about the ontological, epistemological and political commitments that accompany our research choices rather than simply using them in a “pick and mix” fashion (Whittle and Spicer 2008: 620). This argument does not imply opposition to the use of several theoretical perspectives (Scott 1991: 116); rather, it encourages careful reflection on the “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault 1994: 456) that inform our methodological choices.  To this end I recommend that we ask of our research methods, “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” (see Primdahl et al. 2018).


Archer, M., Decoteau, C., Gorski, P., Little, D., Porpora, D., Rutzou, T., Smith, C., Steinmetz, G. and Vandenberghe, F. 2018. What is Critical Realism?  Perspectives  38(2): 4-9. Available at: http://www.asatheory.org/current-newsletter-online/what-is-critical-realism Accessed on 12 December 2018.

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

Bacchi, C. 2015. The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science   5: 1-12.

Bacchi, C. 2016. Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How “Problems” are Constituted in Policies.  Sage Open, April-June: 1-16.

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

 Baum F, Delany- Crowe T, Fisher M, et al. Qualitative protocol for understanding the contribution of Australian policy in the urban planning, justice, energy and environment sectors to promoting health and health equity. BMJ Open2018;8:e025358. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2018-025358

Cairney, P. 2013. Standing on the shoulders of giants: how do we combine the insights of multiple theories in public policy studies? Policy Studies Journal, 41: 1–21.

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M. and Jakobsen, L. 2002. Explaining Society: critical realism in the social sciences.London: Routledge.

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.

Gilson, L. (Ed.). 2012. Health policy and systems research: A methodology reader. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Guba, E.G. and Lincoln, Y.S. 1994. Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, pp. 105–7.

Larner, W. 2008. Comments on Kevin Stenson’s “Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety”, Social Work & Society   6(1): 21-25.

Law, John 2004. After Method: Mess in social science research. New York: Routledge.

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

Pawson, R. 2013. The Science of Evaluation: A Realist Manifesto.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Primdahl, N. L., Reid, A. & Simovska, V. 2018. Shades of criticality in health and wellbeing education, Journal of Curriculum Studies,DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2018.1513568

Rowse, Tim 2009. The Ontological Politics of “Closing the Gaps”. Journal of Cultural Economy 2(1 & 2) March/July: 33-48.

Scott, J. W. 1991. The Evidence of Experience. Critical Inquiry  17(4): 773-797.

Stenson, K. (2008). Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety.  Social Work & Society  6(1): 1-14.

Whittle, A. & Spicer, A. 2008. Is Actor Network Theory Critique? Organization Studies  29(4): 611-629.

Windle, A., Fisher, M., Freeman, T., Baum, F., Javanparast, S., Kay, A., and Kidd, M. 2018. Increased private health fund involvement in Australia’s primary health care: Implications for health equity.Australian Journal of Social Issues, 2018: p. 1-17; DOI: 10.1002/ajs4.45

Troubling “problems”

Content:  In earlier entries (25 Dec. 2017, 1 Jan. 2018) I declared war on “problems”.  I was and continue to be disturbed by the ubiquity and vacuity of the term “problem” – how it serves as a placeholder and substitute for considered thinking on particular states of affairs.

The goal of WPR is to destabilize the term “problem”. It does so by drawing to attention how postulated “solutions” or “proposals” for change presume, and hence create, “problems” as particular sorts of problems. If, for example, activity regimes for children are introduced as a way to reduce childhood “obesity”, the “problem” is constituted as children’s inactivity (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 16-17). In effect, then, no “problem” stands as self-evident, as separate from this constitutive or generative process.

My questioning of “problems” in this way has, I argue, a wide range of significant political implications. For example, if there are no “problems” per se, the emphasis in so much of our education theory on problem-solving as a skill to be developed needs to be rethought. Equally, the designation of evidence-based thinking as the key to decision-making in just about every policy domain clearly begs the question of what “problem” the “evidence” is meant to address.

Returning briefly to the theme of the meanings we impute to concepts (see entry on 2 Dec. 2018) I wish to stress that, as with all concepts, the meaning of the term “problem” is open to contestation.  In my abridged talk from late 2017 (see Bacchi Declaring War abridged) I mentioned that, when we are told that there are no problems, only challenges, indicating a person’s ability to take charge of any difficult situation, I actually prefer “problems” to “challenges”. Hence, in approaching references to “problems”, the goal becomes identifying the specific role the concept plays in the situation where it is deployed.

Two theorists, Irit Rogoff (see previous entry 17 Dec. 2018) and Kane Race (2018), need to be acknowledged for taking another approach to this topic.

Rogoff (2006; italics added) emphasizes “people’s inherent and often intuitive notions of how to produce criticality through inhabiting a problem rather than analyzing it.” The point, in Rogoff’s explanation, is “not to find an answer but rather to access a different mode of inhabitation … a ‘living things out’ which has a hugely transformative power as opposed to pronouncing on them”. I welcome this contribution for its challenge to the problem-solving mindset that dominates our current social and political landscape. However, the “problems” Rogoff wishes people to “inhabit” appear to be taken-for-granted as “real” conditions – a position I would question.

In his recent book, The gay science, Kane Race (2018: 7) suggests that the term “problematisation” is “unwieldy” (2018: 7). As an alternative, he thinks that “problem should be a verb” and so he refers to “probleming”. Race explains that the word “problem” draws its origins from the Greek and means “to throw forth or propose”. In his view,

“This invites us to conceive of problems as performative actions, embodied gestures; practical wagers on the world – ways of doing things that can be experimented with and transformed.”

Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms, especially gerunds, achieved by adding “ing” to the noun (i.e. problem-ing), is a common poststructural analytic strategy (Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016: 31, 94 fn1). The objective in such a strategy is to highlight how “things” are made to be and are in continual formation. I welcome “probleming” as an innovative stratagem to destabilize “problems”, and look forward to more examples of its political usefulness.

There are, of course, numerous important theoretical contributions – indeed the vast majority – that do not destabilize the category “problems”, that treat “them”, to varying degrees, as self-evident situations. For example, the poststructural scholars Glynos and Howarth (2007, p. 167) follow Shapiro (2002, p. 601; emphasis added), who proffers “problem-driven research” as preferable to “theory-driven research,” where “a phenomenon is characterized so as to vindicate a particular theory rather than to illuminate a problem that is specified independently of the theory.” Here, we need to recognize the clear and valuable attempt to displace “theory-driven research”. Still, I would like to raise for consideration what may be lost politically in treating “problems” as taken-for-granted starting points for analysis in the postulated alternative of “problem-driven theory”. It is at this level of political implications that I believe the conversation would be most productive.


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

Glynos, J., & Howarth, D. 2007. Logics of critical explanation in social and political theory. London, England: Routledge.

Race, K. 2018. The gay science: intimate experiments with the problem of HIV. NY: Routledge.

Rogoff, I. 2006. “Smuggling” – An Embodied Criticality, https://gold.rl.talis.com/items/48A2BAC5-8C5B-0602-2E97-863D663C78C6.html

Shapiro, I. 2002. Problems, methods, and theories in the study of politics, or what’s wrong with political science and what to do about it. Political Theory, 30, 596–619.