WPR and “affectivity”


I mentioned “affect” briefly in the last entry. Given its prevalence in contemporary social theory, I felt it worthwhile to introduce the concept more fully.

Leys (2011) identifies a two-fold foundation: first, the “dominant paradigm in the field of emotions”, associated with Silvan Tomkins, in which “the affective processes occur independently of intention or meaning”; and second, Spinozist-Deleuzean ideas about affect. To these, I would add the uptake of “affect” by some governmentality scholars, discussed later.

The Tomkins’ perspective (2008), described as a “Basic Emotions paradigm” (Leys 2011: 439), conflates “emotion” and “affect”, a trend identified as problematic in the last entry. Some in the Spinozist-Deleuzean tradition, most importantly Massumi (2002), insist that “emotions” and “affect” are separate phenomena. Massumi claims a distance from “received psychological categories such as emotions”, describing “affect” as “irreducibly bodily and autonomic” (Massumi 2002: 28; see Shouse 2005). “Affect” is a prepersonal “intensity”, “the human power or capacity to affect and be affected” (Kristensen 2016: 17). In this account, “affects” bypass reason and criticality and seize “the body at the level of neural circuits, the nervous system, the endocrine system or other systems assumed to work independently of cognition” (Blackman 2012: xi).

This view of “affects” as “irreducibly bodily” appears in the work of the geographer, Nigel Thrift, and the policy researcher, Paul Hoggett. According to Thrift (2004: 59), “It has become increasingly evident that the biological constitution of being … has to be taken into account if performative force is ever to be understood, and in particular, the dynamics of birth (and creativity) rather than death.” Along similar lines, Hoggett (2000: 144; see also Thompson and Hoggett 2012), argues that “the body is the original site of the affects and emotions, and that these saturate consciousness”. Emotions, in his view, exist “on the boundary between the psyche and the soma”. For researchers, says Hoggett (2000: 144), it follows that, “With affect, quantitative considerations are dominant, whereas with emotion the qualitative dimension is much more important”.

This (re)turn to the body can be explained as, in part, a reaction against both “rationalist models of the human subject” and post-structuralist and Foucauldian perspectives. The latter, argues Hoggett (2000: 142), provides “us with no adequate way of theorizing agency”. “Agency” here aligns with the intentional, autonomous subject, put in question in a previous Research Hub entry (31 Jan. 2020). Along similar lines, Schaefer (2016; see also Shaefer 2015) argues that “affect theory helps us evade the ‘linguistic fallacy’”, while Sedgwick and Frank (1995 in Wetherell 2013: 352) see it as a counter to “routine anti-biologism and anti-essentialism”.

Its broader appeal can be linked to an attempt to “take a more encompassing view of social action … redirecting attention to the ‘somatically sensed’ body” (Wetherell 2013: 352). It reflects an effort “to offer a dynamic alternative to scientific thinking that highlights stasis” (Kristensen 2016: 12). We can see links here to what is described as the “new materialism” (Fox 2015). Wetherell (Beer 2014) also identifies connections to feminism “which made the ‘personal’ and the process of ‘being affected’ a core social topic”.

A number of theorists query what they perceive to be a presumption of a biological substrate operating in Massumi-associated understandings of “affect”. Leys (2011), for example, sees strong links between Massumi and a Basic Emotions paradigm. Wetherell (Beer 2014) considers “versions of ‘affect theory’ that posit affect as a pre-personal extra-discursive force hitting and shaping bodies prior to sense making” to be “simply unsustainable”. Clarke et al. (2015: 58) are equally wary of Massumi’s (2002) idea of affect as somehow “pre-social”, describing it as “psychologistic or biologistic essentialism”.

Some of these critics have produced adaptations that attempt to avoid “affective determinism” (Kristensen 2016: 11). Notably Wetherell (2013) describes “affect” as a “practice” and develops an affective/discursive variation. Here there are links to discursive versions of “emotions”, seen in the last entry. On this development, note that a decision to characterize “affect” as “practice” leads necessarily to the complex task of theorizing practices (see Research Hub entries 30 Nov. 2019; 31 Dec. 2019).

Clarke et al. (2015: 59) offer what they describe as a “somewhat promiscuous approach to thinking analytically” that can “weave the attention to affect/feeling into our repertoire, rather than succumbing to them”. In this approach they refer to the “danger” of borrowing “the languages of emotions and affect without them making any difference to how actors, processes and relationships are conceived”, leading to interesting questions about their conceptions of “the subject”.

Ahmed (2004: 119) develops the notion of “affective economies”. Her primary target is “emotions”. However, in her account, emotions are not “psychological dispositions”; they do not “reside in a given subject or object”. She describes emotions as “economic” because they circulate “between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (Ahmed 2004: 119).

Ahmed focuses on narratives of fear in the creation of notions of crisis. She gives as an example the fear of the “bogus asylum seeker” and how “words generate effects: they create impressions of others as those who have invaded the space of the nation, threatening its existence” (Ahmed 2004: 122-123). Fear, in this instance, “does not involve the defense of borders that already exist”; rather “anxiety and fear create the very effect of borders” (Ahmed 2004: 128, 132).

Ahmed’s argument leads us directly into, and allows a contrast with, the ways in which “emotions” and “affects” have been linked to studies of governmentality. Bigo (2010), introduced in the previous entry, shares Ahmed’s interest in borders. However, in Bigo’s account, fear does not create borders; rather, borders create fear and “unease”. The key point of differentiation from Ahmed is the emphasis on how governmental technologies (here “borders”) produce “subjects” as particular kinds of subject, described as “subjectification”. There is no “fearful” “subject” prior to the governmental practice of “bordering” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 100).

A significant group of theorists include consideration of “affect” in their reflections on subjectification.  Fannin (2013: 278) focuses on “transformations of governmental power in the realm of reproduction” to “incorporate the affective and psychological dimensions of birth”. Fortier (2010) targets “community cohesion” as a form of “governing through affect”, aimed at “designing people’s behaviours and attitudes in the public domain”. Carol Johnson (2010: 495) argues for the importance of a concept of “affective citizenship” which explores “(a) which intimate emotional relationships between citizens are endorsed and recognised by governments in personal life and (b) how citizens are also encouraged to feel about others and themselves in broader, more public domains.”

Other theorists argue that governing practices do more than produce particular “subjects”; governing involves “affects”. Clough (2007a), and Parisi and Terranova (2000), draw upon Deleuze and Foucault to examine the shift from discipline to control as a mode of governing. Says Clough, “Control is a biopolitics that works at the molecular level of bodies, at the informational substrate of matter”:

“The target of control is not the production of subjects whose behaviors express internalized social norms; rather, control aims at a never-ending modulation of moods, capacities, affects, and potentialities, assembled in genetic codes, identification numbers, ratings profiles, and preference listings, that is to say, in bodies of data and information (including the human body as information and data).” (Clough 2007: 27) – dramatised perhaps in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Clough et al. (2007: 62, 74) identify a “rationality of affectivity” that governs through “pre-individual capacities to affect and be affected”.

While recognizing the appeal of this argument, I remain uncomfortable with references to “capacities” and “moods” as if these exist outside of signification. For similar reasons, I am “unhappy” (so to speak) with “affect”.

I mentioned in the previous entry (29 Feb. 2020) that neither Foucault nor Deleuze engaged with “emotions”. “Affect” is clearly associated with Deleuze but not with Foucault.

“Affect” in Deleuze is directly connected to his concept of “desire” (see Gilliam 2018: 192). Foucault explicitly distanced himself from the term “desire” because it seemed to “evoke a psychoanalytic idealism of lack and repression (contra his reversal of the repression hypothesis in the first volume of The History of Sexuality)” (Gilliam 2018: 192). The point in Foucault was not to “liberate” “desire” but to create “pleasures”, a term Deleuze criticized.

Gilliam (2018: 194) argues that the dispute between Foucault and Deleuze over “desire” versus “pleasures” was a matter of semantics. That may indeed be the case. Foucault admitted that “desire” in Deleuze was not used with its conventional meaning. Still he continued to avoid the term. He explained why:

“Deleuze and Guattari obviously use the notion in a completely different way. But the problem I have is that I’m not sure if, through this very word, despite its different meaning, we don’t run the risk, despite Deleuze and Guattari’s intention, of allowing some of the medico-psychological presuppositions [prises] that were built into desire, in its traditional sense, to be reintroduced.” (Foucault 2011: 389)

I have similar qualms about “affect” and on grounds Gilliam (2018: 209) clearly explains:

“Language exists in a discursive network after all, particularly conceptual language. Thus, despite any internal conceptual subversions, the use of a word entails a subtle network of power-relations capable of invoking and/or inviting un/intended misuse.”

Choosing to adopt a specific theoretical language is a fraught exercise, as numerous earlier Research Hub entries illustrate. My aversion to “problem/s” and to “agency” rests precisely on long-standing traditional uses of these terms, uses entrenched in power-relations that concern me. On the same grounds the commonplace view of “affects” as pre-existent bodily capacities leads to my decision to avoid the term.


Ahmed, S. 2004. Affective Economies. Social Text, 22(2): 117-139.

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

Beer, D. 2014. The future of affect theory: An interview with Margaret Wetherell. Theory, Culture and Society, Available at: https://www.theoryculturesociety.org/the-future-of-affect-theory-an-interview-with-margaret-wetherall/Accessed 28 October 2019.

Bigo, D. 2010. Freedom and Speed in Enlarged Borderzones. In V. Squire (Ed.) The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. NY: Routledge.

Blackman, L. 2012. Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation. London: Sage.

Clarke, J., Bainton, D. Lendvai, N. and Stubbs, P. 2015. Making Policy Move: Towards a Politics of Translation and Assemblage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clough, P. T. 2007a. Introduction. In P.T. Clough and J. Halley (Eds) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Clough, P. T., Goldberg, G., Schiff, R., Weeks, A. and Wilse, C. 2007b. Notes Towards a Theory of Affect-itself. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 7, 60-77.

Fannin, M. 2013. The burden of choosing wisely: biopolitics at the beginning of life. Gender, Place & Culture, 20(3): 273-289.

Fortier, A-M. 2010. Proximity by design? Affective citizenship and the management of unease. Citizenship Studies, 14(1): 17-30.

Foucault, M., Morar, N. and Smith, D. W. The Gay Science. Critical Inquiry, 37(3): 395-403.

Fox, N. 2015. Emotions, affects and the production of social life. The British Journal of Sociology, 66(2): 301-318.

Gilliam, C. 2018. Vrais Amis: Reconsidering the Philosophical Relationship between Foucault and Deleuze. Foucault Studies, 25: 191-212.

Hoggett, P. 2000. Social Policy and the Emotions. In G. Lewis, S. Gewitz and J. Clarke (Eds) Rethinking Social Policy. London: Sage.

Johnson, C. 2010. The politics of affective citizenship: from Blair to Obama. Citizenship Studies, 14(5): 495-509.

Kristensen, K. 2016. What Can an Affect Do? Notes on the Spinozist-Deleuzean Account. LIR.journal, no. 7.

Leys, R. 2011. The Turn to Affect: A Critique. Critical Inquiry, 37: 434-472.

Massumi, B. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Parisi, L. and Terranova, T. 2000. Heat-Death, Emergence and Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life. CTheory, http://www.ctheory.com/article/a84.html, 5.

Sedgwick, E. K. and Frank, A. 1995. Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins. Critical Inquiry, 21(2).

Shaefer, D. O.2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution and Power. Duke University Press.

Shaefer, D. O. 2016. What is Affect Theory? Available at: http://donovanschaefer.com/what-is-affect-theory/Accessed on 28 October 2019.

Shouse, E. 2005. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect”, M/C Journal, 8(6).

Thompson, S. and Hoggett, P. 2012. Politics and the Emotions: The Affective Turn in Contemporary Political Studies. Continuum Books.

Thrift, N. 2004. Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect. Geografiska Annaler, 86B(1): 57078.

Tomkins, S. S. 2008 (1962-63). Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: The Complete Edition. 2 Vols. NY: Springer.

Wetherell, M. 2013. Affect and discourse – What’s the problem? From affect as excess to affective/discursive practice. Subjectivity, 6(4): 349-368.

WPR and “emotions”


This entry is prompted by a 2019 article by Stephanie Paterson entitled: “Emotional Labour: Exploring emotional policy discourses of pregnancy and childbirth in Ontario, Canada”. The article offers an overview of shifting discourses around pregnancy and birth over time, from a “discourse of fear” to a “discourse of joy” and a more recent merging of these discourses in a “discourse of risk”. Paterson uses her study to suggest some modifications to the WPR approach. In her view,

“While the WPR reveals how policy discourse affects what we can think and say, little attention has been given to how it affects what we can feel” (Paterson 2019: 5).

To amend this tendency, she lists a number of supplementary WPR questions to target “emotional landscapes” and “emotional discourses” (see Paterson 2019: 6-7).

There is a good deal to reflect upon in this article, including the meaning of “subjectification” and consideration of the place of “feelings” in governmentality studies. I will return to these topics at the close of this entry.

The article also provides an opportunity to examine briefly some themes regarding WPR that have arisen in previous entries. I have chosen three:

  • First, is there a place for “emotions” in WPR given its grounding in Foucauldian anti-humanism (see Research Hub entries on “Conceptions of ‘the subject’”, 30 Sept. 2019, 31 Oct. 2019)?
  • Relatedly, is it possible, in a WPR analysis, to build an analysis that relies upon perspectives reflecting opposing epistemological and ontological premises – e.g., Orsini and Wiebe (2014) and Nicol (2011)?
  • Third, how are researchers to decide which WPR questions are relevant to their analysis? Paterson focuses on questions 1, 3 and 5, bypassing question 2 (see Bacchi WPR CHART). This omission is surprising given the focus in question 2 on discourses and given that Paterson offers a form of discourse analysis.

Turning to the first question, in a previous entry on “Conceptions of the subject” (31 Oct. 2019), I quote Foucault (1977: 87) concerning his commitment to place “within a process of development everything considered immortal to man (sic)”, including “feelings”, “instincts” and “the body”. As Tamboukou (2003) explains, neither Foucault nor Deleuze “have dealt directly with emotions … since they refuse any universal or primordial notion of the human essence as such – both being persistent anti-humanist thinkers”.

Recall that Foucault (1990: 23; Research Hub entry 30 Sept. 2019) insisted that “the subject” has a history, thereby challenging universalist conceptions of human nature. It follows that, instead of studying emotions, a Foucauldian analysis would pursue the reasons for the current upsurge of interest in “emotions” across a broad range of fields (Leys 2011: 434) and the corresponding production of “the emotional subject”. As Hacking (2002: 3) explains, conducting an “historical ontology of ourselves” means “shedding light on the ‘historical a-priori’ of a time and place; on the conditions of possibility of what we can say about ourselves and the world” (in Pellizzoni 2015: 48).

Clearly, how “emotions” are conceptualized is critical to this discussion, and it is impossible to broach this topic without briefly mentioning the (sometimes associated) category of “affect” (this concept receives more discussion in the next Research Hub entry). Many researchers talk about “emotion” and “affect” alongside one another, while others mark a sharp distinction between the two concepts. Most commonly, “affect” is used to refer to autonomic bodily responses, such as reflexes (more detail to come next time).

Robinson and Kutner (2019: 111-112) object to the tendency to conflate “affect” and “emotion”. They argue that what is at stake in such conflation is “the very notion of subjectivity”:

“After all, the term emotion implies the existence of a singular human subject who experiences feelings that can be located, isolated, reflected on, and measured. This emotion-experiencing subject is the Cartesian cogito—the I, the rational, essential self.”

They go on to explain that the Spinozan conception of affect subsumes emotions (Robinson and Kutner 2019: 112).

Many theorists have challenged the individualistic version of “emotions” just described. I can mention only a few. The critical psychologist, Margaret Wetherell (2014), insists that “human affect and emotion are distinctive because of their immediate entanglement with very particular human capacities for making meaning” (see also Wetherell 2012). Pribram and Harding (2002) offer a “cultural studies” approach to “emotions” that draws upon Foucault’s “technologies of self” and Raymond Williams’ (1975, 1979) “structure of feeling”. Delori (2018) makes a plea for a “discursive conception of emotions”, using Foucault. I leave it to you to judge the success of these various attempts to counter the everyday usage of “emotions” as personal “feelings”.

Paterson argues that she offers a discursive understanding of emotions. She (2019: 3) quotes Janet Newman (2012: 466) to the effect that discursive approaches offer a more “fine grained analysis of how emotional regimes of governance are enacted” (see also Newman 2017).  However, Paterson builds her analysis on concepts borrowed from authors who come from very different theoretical perspectives.  From Orsini and Wiebe (2014), she adopts the notion of “emotional landscapes”, which refers to “an environment that includes affect and emotions, sensory experiences, the conscious and the unconscious” (Orsini 2017: 7 in Paterson 2019: 5). Such a stance inscribes a kind of subject – one with “senses” and an “unconscious” – that sits uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian perspective. This tension is not resolved by Paterson’s decision to substitute the term “subjects” for “actors” in Orsini and Wiebe’s account (Paterson 2019: 17 fn 6).

Paterson (2019: 6) also argues that Nicol’s three categories of affective, agential, and symbolic attunement can be added to Question 5 of WPR (see Bacchi WPR CHART) alongside discursive, subjectification and lived effects. However, “emotions” in Nicol (2001: 3, 6) sound very like common-sense understandings of the term. She describes them as “felt perceptions and embodied knowledge” and as “normative forces in their own right”. While claiming to move beyond the opposition between emotions as either biological and natural on the one hand, or social and constructed on the other, she is particularly critical of what she labels “discursive essentialism”. This positioning makes her a rather odd theoretical bedfellow given Paterson’s focus on discourses and a discursive view of “emotions”.

These tensions between competing paradigms in the Paterson article lead to questions about the kind of discourse analysis that is being deployed. I have already mentioned that Paterson (2019: 16) omits Question 2 of the WPR approach from her analysis, although she quotes it later in the paper (Paterson 2019: 16). Question 2 is pivotal to WPR. It is the place where we consider how a particular problematization or problem representation was possible. To this end we identify the meanings (presuppositions, assumptions, “unexamined ways of thinking”, knowledges/discourses) that needed to be in place for a particular problem representation to make sense or to be intelligible. These problem representations are located within specific governmental [broadly understood] texts and technologies, linking this analysis to modes of governing.

In Paterson, by contrast, the major discourses she identifies come from either the medical profession (“the discourse of fear”) or from contesting social movements (“the discourse of joy”). It would be worthwhile to compare and contrast these quite distinct approaches to discourse analysis.

Despite some qualms about aspects of Paterson’s analysis, I believe she has drawn attention to an issue that needs more reflection – how to describe subjectification effects (Question 5 in Bacchi WPR CHART). In the first Research Hub entry on “Conceptions of the subject” (30 Sept. 2019) I considered how, in Foucault, “governmental mechanisms of power” attempt to produce “subjects” who conduct themselves in ways deemed desirable for governing purposes. The objective is to “build subjects who are voluntarily subjugated” (Lorenzine 2016: 17; emphasis in original). The category “subjectification effects” encourages consideration of this dynamic.

However, when it comes time to describe subjectification effects, there is (perhaps inevitably) slippage into language that promotes the kind of pre-existent subject opposed in a Foucauldian analysis, a subject with an “interior” existence and one who displays “emotions”. I want to offer two examples.

In their analysis of how something called “public opinion” comes into existence, according to Osborne and Rose (1999: 392; emphasis added), one key aspect of the role of social science in creating phenomena pertains to “the subjective attributes of persons themselves: the kinds of persons they take themselves to be and the forms of life which they inhabit and construct”. The task becomes tracking how “the phenomena created by the knowledge practice [social science] are, so to speak, actually internalized within persons”. My comment in an earlier article noting this point reads: “We encounter here, in the term ‘internalized’, some of the limits imposed by available language. ‘Internalized” sounds very like the kind of psychological analysis Osborne and Rose would be intent on challenging. See Rose 1989” (Bacchi 2012: 145 fn 3). I put Osborne and Rose’s phrase “so to speak” in italics to indicate how they have tried to handle the difficult task of conveying the production or constitution of “subjects” without lapsing into “common-sense” ways of speaking about subjects and their “behaviours”.

My second example is Bigo’s (2010) study of the subjectification effects of “smart borders” (e-visas, etc.). A “governmentality of unease”, says Bigo (2010: 18), works “through everyday life and the dynamic of enlargement of life possibilities transforming reassurance into unease, angst, and even fear by evoking chaos, global insecurity, terror.”

Subjectification as a political dynamic concerns “who we are when we are governed in this way” (Bigo 2010: 19). Bigo argues that “we, the ‘normalised’ often agree that regulated mobility is the optimum of the regime of mobility controls”:

“Not only do large groups of those travelling accept new technologies of surveillance and strong intrusive techniques concerning their privacy, but so also are such groups happy, considering themselves more safe and more free now that they can move with ease and safety (my emphases).”

I would like to suggest that the terms “happy” and “fear” in Bigo’s account move us into a domain of “emotions” that sits uncomfortably alongside the kind of analysis Bigo offers. As with Osborne and Rose, I couldn’t help wanting to insert the words “so to speak” in front of them.

I am grateful to Paterson for drawing attention to the need to rethink how we talk about “who we are” when we are governed in certain ways. In the end, I remain wary of the concept of “emotions” due to the ease with which it is possible to lapse into treating them as assumed states of being. In the next entry, I will consider if I would be any “happier” (so to speak) to include attention to “affect” in WPR.


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.

Bigo, D. 2010. Freedom and Speed in Enlarged Borderzones. In V. Squire (Ed.) The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. NY: Routledge.

Delori, M. 2018. A Plea for a Discursive Approach to Emotions: The Example of the French Airmen’s Relation to Violence. In M. Clement and E. Sangar (Eds) Research Emotion in International Relations: Methodological Perspectives on the Emotional Turn. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 129-149.

Foucault, M. 1977. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews.Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990. Critical theory/intellectual history. In L. Kritzman (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews & other writings 1977–1984, 1st edition 1988, Sheridan, A. (trans.). London: Routledge.

Hacking, I. 2002. Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leys, R. 2011. The Turn to Affect: A Critique. Critical Inquiry, 37: 434-472.

Lorenzini, D. 2016. From Counter-Conduct to Critical Attitude: Michel Foucault and the Art of Not Being Governed Quite so Much. Foucault Studies, 21: 7-21.

Newman, J. 2012. Beyond the deliberative subject? Problems of theory, method and critique in the turn to emotion and affect. Critical Policy Studies, 6: 465–479.

Newman, J. 2017. Rationality, responsibility and rage: The contested politics of emotion governance. In E. Jupp, J. Pykett and F. M. Smith (Eds) Emotional States: Sites and spaces of affective governance, Kindle edition. UK: Taylor and Francis, pp. 21–35.

Nicol, V. 2011. Social Economies of Fear and Desire: Emotional Regulation, Emotion Management, and Embodied Autonomy. Berlin: Springer.

Osborne, T. and Rose, N. 1999. Do the Social Sciences Create Phenomena? The example of public opinion research. British Journal of Sociology, 50(3): 367-396.

Orsini M (2017) On emotional entanglements: Narrating the affective politics of fatness and obesity in Canada. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Canadian political science association, Toronto, 27 May – 3 June 2017.

Orsini, M. and Wiebe, S. 2014. Between hope and fear: Comparing the emotional landscapes of the autism movement in Canada and the United States. In L. Turgeon, M. Papillon, S. White et al. (Eds) Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 147–167.

Paterson, S. 2019. Emotional labour: Exploring emotional policy discourses of pregnancy and childbirth in Ontario, Canada. Public Policy and Administration, 1-21.

Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Pribram, E. D. and Harding, J. 2002. The power of feeling: Locating emotions in culture. Faculty Works: Communications. 8.

Robinson, B. and Kutner, M. 2019. Spinoza and the Affective Turn: A Return to the Philosophical Origins of Affect. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(2): 111-117.

Rose, N. 1989. Governing the Soul: The shaping of the private self. NY: Routledge.

Tamboukou, M. 2003. Interrogating the “emotional turn”: Making connections with Foucault and Deleuze.’ Eur. J. of Psychotherapy, Counselling & Health, 6(3): 209-223.

Wetherell, M. 2012. Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding. London: Sage.

Wetherell, M. and Beer, D. 2014. The future of affect theory: An interview with Margaret Wetherell. Theory, Culture & Society, October 15.

Williams, R. 1975. The Long Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Williams, R. 1979. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. London: NLB.

Conceptions of “agency”

Content:  In the Research Hub entry on “Conceptions of ‘the subject’: Part 2” (31 October 2019) I concluded that “discoursing subjects” can still act – they can refuse to be governed in specific ways. Does this mean that they have “agency”? Using quotation marks around the term signals that I consider “agency” to be a contested and somewhat troublesome concept (see Dean 2015). My concerns are linked to the common Western cultural associations between “agency” and free will (think of “a free agent”), self-determination and autonomy, and to the way in which “agency” is set against “structure” in much sociological theory (see Howarth 2013: Chapter 4). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Schlosser 2015), in the “standard theory”, “agency” is usually taken to refer to the exercise of the capacity of individuals to perform intentional actions. Hence, conventionally, the concept includes a “mental element” and is thus linked to the interior consciousness put in question within Foucault (see Research Hub entry 30 September 2019). The same Encyclopedia entry notes that the term attracts intense debate and that there is “good reason to distinguish between different kinds of agency”, including “mental agency, shared agency, collective agency, relational agency, and artificial agency”. Clearly, we have entered a conceptual minefield!

In several Research Hub entries I have introduced Tanesini’s (1994: 207) argument that concepts have no fixed meaning but are “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” (see Research Hub entries 17 Dec. 2018; 31 May 2019). Applied to “agency” this should mean that it is possible to reshape its meaning away from the Western cultural association of self-determination. However, I continue to puzzle over just what the term is meant to convey and how “the subject” is theorized in relation to “agency”. For those with poststructural sympathies or critical sympathies more generally, there appear to be two possible paths to follow in relation to “agency” – either to re-theorize it in ways that question the sovereign, transcendental “subject” with which it is commonly associated, OR to avoid using it altogether. I shall mention briefly some of the attempts at re-theorization for readers who would like to explore this theoretical option further. I shall then explain why I have chosen the second path – to avoid using “agency” in my writing. [I should note that I first expressed my disquiet about the concept in a 2005 piece on meanings of discourse (Bacchi 2005: 208 fn 1) and that, in Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 42) I place the term in quotation marks. I have since decided that, for political reasons, I prefer to avoid using the concept altogether.]

Unsurprisingly, given the long-standing debates among feminist theorists about the implications of poststructural theorizing for “women’s” capacity to act (see Research Hub entry 30 September 2019), important feminist theorists have explicitly reworked or redescribed “agency”. For example, Pearse and Connell (2016: 48) argue for the need to “think of agency as existing at a collective level, not just an individual level” in order to challenge “a simple opposition between gender norms and women’s agency”:

“As the studies of women’s activism cited earlier show, the collective agency that in the symbolic realm contests norms and establishes new identities, rests on the practices that constitute women as a group and specifically as a subordinated or oppressed group.”

This shift in focus to groups of activists usefully challenges the view in the “standard theory” (see above) that “agency” refers to some form of capacity held by individuals.

Sawicki draws on Butler to offer a “critical and transformative agency” that moves “beyond the dichotomy of free will versus determinism” (Sawicki 2003: 300). She quotes Butler (1990: 147) to the effect that “Construction is not opposed to agency: it is the necessary scene of agency”. The constituted “subject” in this account engages in a “performative agency” (Butler 2010) of “parodic repetition”. The possibility that such a perspective reinstalls a pre-existent “subject” who (then) “performs” certain actions/behaviours leads Annemarie Mol (2002: 41) to recommend using the language of “enactment” as an alternative to “performativity”.

Karen Barad proposes an ontological and epistemological framework that she terms “agential realism”. In this framework, “agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements” (Barad 2012; see also Barad 2007: 178).

Elizabeth St Pierre calls for the theorizing of a “different kind of agency” since “the discursive subject clearly is not free to do whatever it will”. Still, she insists that “agency does not disappear”. She describes how feminists use the concept of positioning “to explain how the subject positions available to women not only limit their agency but also enable certain kinds of knowledge and action not possible from other positions” (St Pierre 2000: 502). St Pierre describes this position as poststructuralism’s “double move in the construction of subjectivity”:

“a subject that exhibits agency as it constructs itself by taking up available discourses and cultural practices and a subject that, at the same time, is subjected, forced into subjectivity by those same discourses and practices. (St Pierre 2000: 502)”

Actor Network Theory (ANT) mounts a significant challenge to conventional notions of agency. Basically, it extends agency beyond humans to encompass non-humans, who are collectively described as “actants”. Latour (1996) defines an actant simply as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general”. Clearly, then, the “mental element” of the “standard theory” of “agency” (see above) has been removed.

This retheorizing of agency fits the ANT focus on heterogeneous elements acting in networks of relations, or “assemblages”. The goal or objective is to pluralize participants and to deconstruct “the antimony of nature and society” (James and Cloke 2008: 80). As Rhodes et al. (2019: 4; emphasis added) describe, ANT “emphasises objects as lively, drawing attention to social and material effects as matters of becoming that are co-enacted through human and nonhuman entanglement”. In their view, this approach “offers a more distributed account of agency in which the human subject is not alone”.

Clarke et al. (2015: 57-58) draw on performativity theory and ANT to frame “the possibilities of agency found within the slippage of particular enactments”. They emphasize that their approach to agency marks “a radical, and irrecoverable, break with sociological notions of agency as a generic property of human beings, which is often in play during debates about structure versus agency”.  They stress the “‘unreliability’ of agency” and suggest “treating the agent as a point of condensation of multiple, heterogenous and possibly contradictory forces”. In tune with Foucault’s emphasis on micro-practices (see Research Hub entry 30 November 2019) they note that “we can no longer operate with a notion of ‘agency in general’”. Rather, “agents are always empowered to do something in particular” [My initial search indicates that Foucault seldom used the term “agency”.].

From these selected interventions it becomes clear that to use the term “agency” without specifying the theoretical tradition within which you locate yourself is a fraught exercise. It is almost as if the term “agency” in its various incarnations has become a shorthand for making specific theoretical claims. I find this trend disappointing and wonder why complex theoretical debates get reduced to how we define or explain this contentious term.

I want to suggest the possibility that the centrality of “agency” as a concept in social theory, evidenced in this entry, may well have something to do with its ubiquity within psychology, psychiatry and popular culture, and this may well be a reason to avoid using it rather than attempting to refashion it. An article on “agency” in World Psychiatry endorsed the importance of recapturing “agency” as part of recovery (from “mental illness”). Such a process of recapture entails “regaining a larger experience of ownership and authorship of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions” (Lysaker and Leonhardt 2012). Despite references to “agency” as intersubjective, the goal is to assist in the production of “a narrator who has become able to speak with a coherent authenticity”. If there appear to be connections between this view and the humanist/Enlightenment “subject” discussed at the start of this series of entries (Research Hub entry 30 September 2019), I suspect it is no coincidence. I was pleased to see Peter Goldsworthy (2019: 283) in his recent novel, Minotaur, describe “agency” as one of the “pet terms” embraced by the lead character’s  psychiatrist.

My qualms about the term “agency” incline me to probe just what it means to attribute “agency” to non-human objects, as suggested in ANT (see above). Here I consider an article by James and Cloke (2008) that ascribes “agency” to trees, illustrated in their possession of “a bewildering range of skills” (James and Cloke 2008: 86).

My concern is that the “capacities” (here “skills”) that are transposed onto inanimate objects (here trees) are “capacities” assumed to exist in “human agents”. However, the notion of “skills” is not innocent. In labor market and industrial relations policy, for example, the concept “skill” relies upon a vision of humans as skill-acquiring animals, and this ontological presupposition affects how work is evaluated and workers categorized (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 36). A danger then in “distributing” “agency” to non-human “actants”, I suggest, is the tendency to accept and apply, rather than to interrogate, conventional characterizations of human behaviours.

Rather than trying to give “agency” a meaning to suit a particular theoretical stance, therefore, the task, as I see it, involves analysing how “agency” operates in popular and scientific materials with discursive, subjectification and lived effects – a task undertaken in WPR (see questions 2 and 5 in Bacchi WPR CHART. The suggestion is that political analysis could well be enhanced through troubling the term “agency” rather than through redefining it.


Bacchi, C. 2005. Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject “Agency” in Feminist Discourse Methodology. NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3): 198-209.

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.

Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. 2012. “Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers”: Interview with Karen Barad. In R. Dolphijn and I. van der Tuin (Eds) New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Open Humanities Press. An imprint of Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2010. Performative agency. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2).

Clarke, J., Bainton, D., Lendvai, N. and Stubbs, P. 2015. Making policy move: Towards a politics of translation and assemblage. Bristol University Press.

Dean, M. 2015. Afterword: The Art of Not Being Governed so Much. In S. Hansson, S. Hellberg and M. Stern (Eds) Studying the Agency of Being Governed: Methodological Reflections. Abington: Routledge.

Goldsworthy, P. 2019. Minotaur. Viking Press.

Howarth, D. 2013. Poststructuralism and After: Structure, Subjectivity and Power. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

James, O. and Cloke, P. 2008. Non-Human Agencies: Trees in Place and Time. In C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (Eds) Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach. NY: Springer.

Latour, B. 1996. On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications. Soziale Welt, 47(4): 369-381.

Lysaker, P. H. and Leonhardt, B. L. 2012. Agency: its nature and role in recovery from severe mental illness. World Psychiatry, 11(3): 165-166.

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

Pearce, R. and Connell, R. 2016. Gender Norms and the Economy: Insights from Social Research. Feminist Economics, 22(1): 30-53.

Rhodes, T., Azbel, L., Lancaster, K. and Meyer, J. 2019. The becoming-methadone-body: on the onto-politics of health intervention translations. Sociology of Health and Illness. pp. 1–19 doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12978

Sawicki, J. 2003. Chapter 11: Foucault, feminism and questions of identity. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

St Pierre, E. A. 2000. Poststructural feminism in education: An overview. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5): 477-515.

Schlosser, M. 2015. “Agency”, Stanford Encyclopedia, 10 August. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/agency/

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

Conceptions of “practices”: Part 2


In this entry I intend to pursue what it means to say that “subjects” are constituted in practices. Practices here are understood as Foucault conceptualized them, as legal “codes”, loosely defined, that are “in the true”.

Foucault made clear that one of his major purposes in examining such practices was to come to understand how we emerge as “subjects” of particular kinds. As he stated:

What I wanted to try to show was how the subject constituted itself in one specific form or another, as a mad or healthy subject, as a delinquent or nondelinquent subject, through certain practices that were also games of truth, practices of power and so on. (Foucault 1994)

In the previous entry we looked more closely at how “the mad” emerge in practices that problematize “subjects” in specific ways. Foucault refers to “games of truth” to emphasize that, as in a game, the rules of truth-making are internal to the game – there is no external arbiter. The reference to “practices of power” highlights that the “subject” in Foucault is always a political subject, enmeshed in practices, rather than an a priori subject. To study how “subjects” are produced, therefore, “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge” (Foucault 1988: 15). “Fields of knowledge” in Foucault generally refer to the “human sciences”, highlighting the role that research in such fields plays in producing the “subjects” it assumes (e.g. as rational or self-directed or, as in nudge theory, as needing guidance. See Research Hub entry, 26 Nov. 2017).

As Butler (1990) elaborates, the subject of law does not exist prior to the law but is produced within judicial processes. The repetition of these judicial processes operates to naturalize the “subject” along with the qualities, capacities and statuses that constitute the “subject” (Butler 1990: 2). Further, as “subjects” perform the qualities, capacities and statuses attributed to them, they reinforce the naturalization of these attributes, leading to the characterization of this theoretical perspective as “performativity”. As a simple example, think of how ticking the box “male” or “female” on administration forms reinforces the existence of sexed/gendered “subjects”.

In poststructural discourse theory, “a performative is that which enacts or brings about what it names” (de Goede 2006: 10). The language of “enactment” has come to replace “performativity” in many accounts, because the latter could be seen to support a view of conventional subject-actors as the originators of practices – when the intent is quite the opposite (see Mol 2002: 33; see also Netz et al. 2019). Most commonly, the word “constitute” is used by post-structuralists to capture this sense of “subjects” being produced or constituted in practices. As Jones (1997: 265) explains, the term “constitute” or “produce” means something like “comes into existence” rather than “shaped” or “made” (out of something else). With this understanding, there is “no doer behind the deed; rather, the “doer is invariably constructed in and through the deed” (Butler 1990: 142). People’s identities “do not precede their performances, but are constituted in and through them” (Mol 2002: 38): “The pervasive and mundane acts in which this is done make people what they are” (Mol 2002: 39).

None of these processes are predictable or straight-forward. The plural and contradictory characterizations (subject positions) available for “subjects” to perform means that the “subject” is always in process, always provisional (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688). Recalling that governmental mechanisms of power are not always successful (see Research Hub entry, 30 September 2019), practices (such as ticking the box) need to be repeated. In the repetition emerges the space for challenge and change (consider how administrative forms now often offer “other” as an option) (see Stern 2000: 113). Within this space we can locate the possibilities of “counter-conduct” (see Research Hub entry 31 October 2019) and “practices from below”. For example, Death (2010: 245) emphasizes how, through the embodied practices of protest, such as hunger strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, “new identities and subjectivities are performatively constituted”.

The reference to Annemarie Mol above signals a linkage between “performative” or “enactment” theory and STS (Science and Technology Studies), including Actor-Network theory. The points of connection include a shared relational ontology, seen in the language of “assemblages” and “networks”, and a constitutive approach to social “actors” and to “objects”. As Woolgar and Lezaun (2013: 322) describe, the field of STS “has long advanced an analytical programme that foregrounds the instrumental, performative and material dimensions implied in the making of facts and artefacts”. There is a particular emphasis on the way “objects” are “enacted” in practices, as described by Annemarie Mol and John Law:

knowing, the words of knowing, and texts do not describe a pre-existing world [but] are part of a practice of handling, intervening in the world and thereby of enacting one of its versions – up to bringing it into being. (Mol and Law 2006: 19 in Pellizoni 2015: 74).

The focus on “objects” as “actants” produces an emphasis on the place of non-humans in political relations. In line with this position, ANT offers a dispersed understanding of “agency”, a topic I pursue in a subsequent Research Blog entry.

I believe that there is a good deal more to be said about “practices”. With Pellizoni (2015: 77) I share disquiet with the tendency to appeal simply to the “generative power of the practices involved in the constitution of reality” (Woolgar and Lezaun 2013: 324; see entry 12 Nov. 2017), without elaborating on what “practices” are taken to be and how they are presumed to function politically. Perhaps the same could be said about a wide range of concepts, such as “processes” or “agency”, the topic I pursue next. As with “the subject”, it has become imperative to think through just what we mean by “practices” and to engage critically with research in the field.


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.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Death, C. 2010. Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian analytics of protest. Social Movement Studies, 9(3): 235–251.

de Goede, M. 2006. International political economy and the promises of post-structuralism. In M. de Goede (Ed.), International political economy and poststructural politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, M. 1977/1971. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. 1994/1984. The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom. In P. Rabinow and N. Rose (Eds) The Essential Foucault. NY: the New Press.

Jones, A. (1997). Teaching Post-structuralist Feminist Theory in Education: Student resistances. Gender and Education, 9(3): 261-269.

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

Mol, A. and Law, J. 2006. Complexities: An introduction. In J. Law and A. Mol (Eds) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. NC: Duke University Press.

Netz, S., Lempp, S., Krause, K. and Schramm, K. 2019. Claiming citizenship rights through the body multiple. Citizenship Studies, https://doi.org/10.1080/13621025.2019.1651041

Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.

Stern, D. 2000. The return of the subject? Power, reflexivity and agency. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(5): 109-122.

Woolgar, S. and Lezaun, J. 2013. The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies? Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 321-40.

Conceptions of “practices”: Part I

Content:  I want to forecast at the outset that the topics taken up recently, including this one, appear to be getting more and more difficult and abstract. It is daunting to attempt to summarize briefly the extensive literatures on questions of “the subject”, “practices” and “agency”. Please consider my comments, therefore, as introductions or first attempts to bring together aspects of the debates around these topics that seem to require more reflection.

Everyone is talking about practices recently, indicated in the references to the “turn to practice” in contemporary social theory (for example, Postill 2010; Shatzki 2001). However, not everyone means the same thing when they use the term. As Pellizoni (2015: 77) says, “the definition of practice itself … is anything but straightforward”. He offers a much-quoted definition: a practice

is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge. (Reckwitz 2002: 249 in Pellizoni 215: 77)

But, as Pellizoni goes on to say, this definition does not really take us far since “each of the elements is semantically dense and empirically opaque”.

If indeed this is the case, it seems fair to say that “a practice is the opposite of a self-evident phenomenon”: “One has no more direct access to practices, in any analytically useful sense of the word … that one has to anything else” (Pellizoni 2015: 78). Therefore, taking up Tanesini’s (1994: 207) point that concepts are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here, the task becomes recognizing the connections between how we describe practices and the political implications of particular usages. Again, quoting Pellizoni (2015: 77), “ontological assertions inevitably work as justifications of particular accounts of politics” (Barnett 2007: 57).

Gherardi offers a useful way to begin reflections on this topic.  She (2009: 118) makes a distinction between conceptualizing practices “from the outside”, which directs attention to how people (in context) “do” practices, and conceptualizing practices “from the inside”, which rests on a posthumanist analytic in which practices “do” (constitute) “subjects”. Here, we can see that discussions of practices draw us back almost immediately to the competing conceptions of “the subject” considered in the previous two Research Hub entries. In accounts of practices “from the outside”, “the subject” is assumed to be an a priori, acting “individual”, engaged in doing things (“practices”). In the latter account of practices “from the inside”, we can observe how “subjects” are produced as particular kinds of “being” through examining what they do. It is this latter meaning that I intend to pursue here, hoping to make some sense of “practices” in Foucault and in those who draw upon his approach to practices. This will involve brief consideration, in a subsequent entry, of theories of performativity/enactment in STS studies (Science and Technology Studies) and Actor-Network Theory.

In the last two entries (30 Sept. 2019 and 31 Oct. 2019) we observed how Foucault challenged a priori stances on “the subject” and causality. I ended the last of these entries noting that in the place of “universals” he offered “practices”. The move here is from the general to the specific. “Micro-practices” replace generalized speculation about assumed “forces” shaping history. The goal is to make “visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all” (Foucault 1991: 76; emphasis in original). To make these singularities visible requires detailed records of discontinuity, provided through genealogies that trace “an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers” (Foucault 1977: 82).

To this end attention is directed precisely to “what is done” rather than to the motives or intentions of people, which would invoke the interior consciousness Foucault was challenging (see Research Hub, “Conceptions of the ‘subject’: Part 1”, 30 Sept. 2019). The analytic task becomes examining how it is possible for those things to be done, “constructing their external relations of intelligibility” and the knowledges (discourses) upon which they rely (Foucault 1991: 77). And the analytic target becomes “the connections, encounters, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on” in order “to show that things ‘weren’t as necessary as all that” (Foucault 1991: 76), demonstrating a clear challenge to deterministic views of social relations.

So, what are these practices that provide starting places for this analysis? Foucault (1991: 75) describes practices as “places” where “what is said and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned and the taken for granted meet and interconnect”. “Place” here is to be understood metaphorically to envisage a “point of linkage” between what one says and what one does (Flynn 2006: 31), an ensemble of ways of doing things “understood simultaneously as a mode of thinking and acting” (Foucault 1988: 15). Flynn explains that a practice in Foucault has a two-fold character as judicative and “veridicative” (Flynn 2006: 31; italics in original): “on the one hand, practices establish and apply norms, controls, and exclusions; on the other, they render true/false discourse possible”. For example, the practice of legal punishment “entails the interplay between a [judicial] ‘code’ that regulates ways of acting – such as how to discipline an inmate – and the production of true discourse that legitimates [verifies] these ways of acting” (Flynn 2006: 31).

This understanding of practices helps to explain why Foucault turned to what he called “practical texts” as points of entry for his analyses, and why he found the concept of problematization a useful theoretical intervention. On “practical texts” he noted:

The domain I will be analysing is made up of texts written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should: “practical” texts, which are themselves objects of a “practice” in that they are designed to be read, learned, reflected upon, and tested out, and they were intended to constitute the eventual framework of everyday conduct. (Foucault 1984: 12-13)

In a WPR approach, policies are “practical texts” since they tell us what to do, usefully challenging the view that “practices” and “texts” are somehow in opposition [see Research Hub entry: “WPR and Ethnography, Part II, 31 March 2019]

Late in his life Foucault suggested the usefulness of a focus on problematizations as a way to bridge the conventional divide between thought and practice. Using the example of the history of “madness”, he pointed out that, if you looked at how “the mad” were treated – how they were characterized and analysed (in practices) – you would observe how they were problematized (made into “a problem”). You would then have pointers towards “determining the role of politics and ethics in the establishment of madness as a particular domain of scientific knowledge [connaissance], and also of analysing the effects of the latter on political and ethical practices” (Foucault 1984: 8). To this end, in WPR, policies as “practical texts” provide a point of entry for identifying specific problematizing practices.

The question – what do these practices do? – will be pursued in the next entry, along with some examples of contemporary applications of this theoretical perspective.


Flynn, T. 2006. Foucault’s Mapping of History. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge Collections Online: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. 1988a. (Auto)biography MICHEL FOUCAULT 1926-1984, History of the Present, 4: 13-17.

Foucault, M. 1991. Questions of method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gherardi, S. 2009. Introduction: The critical power of the “practice lens”. Management Learning, 40 (2), 115–128.

Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.

Postill, J. 2010. Introduction: Theorizing media and practice. In B. Bräuchler, & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices. A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243-63.

Schatzki, T. 2001. Introduction: Practice theory. In T. Schatzki, K.K. Cetina, E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory. London and New York: Routledge.

Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon, & M. Whitford (Eds.), Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. New York: Routledge.