Widening the Ambit of WPR: Legislative debates and official pronouncements

Content:

In the two previous entries I have considered the possibility of adapting WPR for use in analysing media texts and interview material. On media texts (30 April 2021), I caution against adopting WPR to (simply) canvas opinions, expressed in a media post of some sort, on an issue or “problem”. At the same time, it is possible to read certain media texts as proposals regarding conduct and hence as governing strategies, making a WPR form of analysis possible (Manlik 2020). In the latter case, the target is the conceptual logics within governmental (read broadly) proposals, not opinions. 

In relation to interview material (31 May 2021), there are two levels of challenge regarding attempts to apply WPR. The first involves the kind of subject assumed in the use of research interviews. As WPR puts in question the notion of an “authentic” or sovereign self, the use of interviews to provide “true” meaning conflicts with this premise. The second challenge is that interviews do not, in my view, appear to offer “guides to conduct”. They are not “practical” or “prescriptive texts” in the sense developed by Foucault (1986: 12-13) and adopted in WPR (Bacchi 2009: 34). Therefore, I, with Jennifer Bonham, developed Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA) as a “sister strategy” to WPR in order to tease out conceptual logics within interview material (see Bacchi and Bonham 2016). 

The query in this entry is whether it is possible to use WPR to analyse legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (upper-case “G” signals official institutions). I ask: can the words of politicians and legislators be drawn upon to build a WPR-style analysis? I offer as exemplars three WPR applications that use either legislative debates (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, and Johnson et al. 2021) or the official pronouncements of heads of state and heads of Government (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020). All three studies are stimulating and challenging analyses that have assisted me to sort through my thinking on these issues. Given space limitations I introduce these articles only briefly and recommend that those interested in the topic read them in their entirety. To preview my argument, I suggest that it is possible to bring a poststructural analytic to such debates and pronouncements but, depending on the specific character of the material analysed, sometimes WPR can be applied and sometimes PIA is a more promising strategy.

Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) analyse “how two Australian problem-solving courts – Victoria’s Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list for people with cognitive impairments or mental illness – have been conceptualized by Victoria’s Parliament” (Abstract). With the appellation of “problem-solving court” the topic appears to invite a WPR analysis. And the authors offer useful insights into how the very existence of courts described as “problem-solving” represents the “problem” of crime prevention. They note for example that such courts derive from the “therapeutic jurisprudence movement of the United States” and “operate on the premise that law, its personnel and processes can have therapeutic effects on participants’ wellbeing” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 459). There is rich material here that could be pursued further.

The authors turn their attention to “the legislative processes through which these courts came about”. And, to that end, they examine “what is said” in parliamentary debates “pertaining to the development of both the Victorian Drug Court and the Assessment and Referral Court list” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 460). Their targets are the “pervasive cultural logics” or “imaginaries” underpinning “what was said”. For example, they note how the subject in the Victorian Court is produced as “agentive, responsive, responsible and capable of change”.  They also identify the “dominant cultural imaginary of the addict as a lesser citizen” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463).  In relation to the Assessment and Referral Court list, they point out that “members of the Legislative Assembly appear to rely on a medicalized and protectionist discourse of disability and mental health” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 463). They conclude that such “dominant cultural imaginaries” shape “the ways by which ‘problems’ are constituted” and foreclose “other possible problematizations” (Spivakovsky and Seear 2017: 467).

The focus on “what is said” in the selected Parliamentary debates, in my view, invites a PIA analysis rather than a WPR study. This is mainly because WPR relies on proposals in “prescriptive texts” for its starting point and the statements of legislators do not, in my view, constitute prescriptive texts in any straight-forward manner. Moreover, the authors state clearly that their goal is to bring attention to “the limits on what can be said” about a range of topics, which is the stated goal in PIA – to consider how precisely “what is said” could be said (how it is “sayable”) (Bacchi and Bonham 2016: 116). 

However, it is possible to apply WPR in the ways Spivakovsky and Seear (2017) recommend if one approaches the legislative statements as governing technologies. An article by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al.(2020) illustrates how this can be done. In this article the focus is on a collection of speeches given by “heads of state and heads of government” in Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden to frame “the problems and solutions to the spread of the [COVID-19] virus during the pandemic’s initial phase”. The authors specify that they adopt a “Foucauldian-inspired method of problematization”, alongside narrative analysis, governmentality, risk communication and taskscape theories (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract). On problematization, referring to my work (Bacchi 2009, 2012), they ask: “What are the ‘problem(s)”’ and the ‘solution(s)’ to the spread of the virus represented to be in the communication of the heads of state and heads of government in the four countries included in the study?”.  

The authors (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: 9) develop the argument that, because the speeches explained the restrictions and interventions planned and implemented by the state, they formed part of “the strategy implementation”. It follows, they say, that the speeches “can be understood as governance technologies” in the Foucauldian sense of mechanisms of rule. A particular interest is how these mechanisms, such as the spatial distancing and self-governance demanded by the regimes, “create subject positions for individuals or groups” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 1). The point that individuals and groups are rendered “governable” through “the communication between the state and the public [i.e. through the speeches of heads of state] as well as through the technologies and rationalities employed by the state” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2020: 3) seems well taken. Along similar lines, the governmentality scholars Miller and Rose (1990: 1) describe language as an “intellectual technology” that “renders aspects of existence amenable to inscription and calculation”.

In terms of WPR, the authors focus on the “solutions presented” (e.g. social distancing, hand-washing, etc) and how these produce a “problem-solution complex”. With “postulated solutions” read as proposals, it becomes possible to explore how these “solutions” produce the “problem” of contagion. As explained in my article on problematizations in health policy (Bacchi 2016: 10-11) WPR begins with a “postulated solution” (or proposal) and “identifies the problem representations within it”.  Furthermore, it is clear that the official pronouncements collected by Sjölander-Lindqvist et al.  target the “conduct of conduct” and allow the authors to raise questions about the effects of such interventions: 

“Through invoking a sense of responsibility, sacrifice, and current life during the pandemic as a difficult time, the speeches allude to how people through changed behavior can/should, contribute to the greater good. The individual is positioned as a key cause of, and solution to the problem; however, construing the individual as an indispensable actor to overcoming the crisis also means that the individual is laid open for reprehension.” (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. 2020: Abstract)

 There is one issue that requires more discussion in using WPR to apply to legislative debates. This is the issue of intentionality. As Manlik (2020) reminds us, in relation to media texts (see Research Hub 30 April 2021), in a WPR analysis, there is no suggestion that blame should be assigned to particular individuals. The level of analysis targets underlying governmental presuppositions not individual intentions. And yet it seems to me that the heads of state and heads of government in Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. set out with the clear intentionof altering citizen behaviours. As with media texts and interviews, then, in applying WPR, there is a need to ensure that the focus is on governmental problematizations and not on individual opinions or intentions.

A 2021 piece by Johnson et al. wants to blend these tasks. They set out to critically interrogate and compare legislation in Louisiana and Maryland that restricts and regulates how and when public colleges can ask applicants about their criminal history. The debates around this topic link to campaigns to “ban the box” on employment applications that ask if a candidate does or does not have a criminal history. The authors describe how they approach the issue, using WPR, in these terms: that, while the policies they examine “appear similar on the surface, they vary in the solutions they pose, reflecting different understandings of the problem they aim to address”.  

Here I would suggest altering the wording to read – “they vary in the solutions they pose, and hence produce[or enact, or constitute] the “problem” of prior convictions (or criminal history) as a particular sort of problem”. Those readers who have followed the entries in the Research Hub will recognize the distinction I am drawing here between an interpretive approach that focuses on competing understandings, or interpretations, of an issue and a poststructural analysis that looks at how specific interventions produce different realities. Johnson et al. (2021: 6; emphasis added) proceed to base their analysis largely on the comments of legislators in “legislative hearings”. They explain that their focus is “on how various actors – state legislators, representatives from advocacy organizations, public citizens – shape the policy discussion and how the problem is defined”, illustrating that they are working within an interpretive tradition. 

From my early work on WPR in Women, Policy and Politics (Bacchi 1999) I have endeavoured to draw a distinction between “problem definitions”, as described here, and “problem representations”, as I first develop in that book. There (1999: 34) I note that those interested in “problem definition” tend to focus on the people (e.g., policymakers, researchers, etc) involved in setting the norms that determine when certain conditions are to be regarded as policy problems  and, hence, on the values and interpretations of those people (Bacchi 1999: 28; see also Bacchi 2015). By contrast, the focus of analysis in WPR is not the competing interpretations of policy actors but the deep-seated conceptual logics in governmental problematizations. To gain access to the conceptual logics in legislative debates or government pronouncements, they need to be interrogated through identifying “proposed solutions” and their implicit problem representations – ensuring that the “proposed solutions” are not simply the opinions of select social actors. 

Next time I look more closely at the analytic formats available for WPR-inspired analyses, either question-by-question or as an “integrated analysis”. In relation to the latter, I will ask a question that some of you might have been pondering – do we really need WPR?  

REFERENCES

Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. London: Sage.

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

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making politics visible. 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 Science, 5: 1-12.

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

Bacchi, C. & Bonham, J. 2016. Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi & S. Goodwin, Poststructural policy analysis: A guide to practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 113-121. 

Foucault, M. 1986. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality. Volume 2. Trans. R. Hurley. London: Viking Press. 

Manlik, K. 2020. Allies or at-risk subjects? sexual minority women and the “problem” of HIV in Lesbians on the Loose, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1837907

Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1990. Governing Economic Life, Economy and Society, 19(1): 1-31.

Johnson, R. M., Alvarado, R. E. and Rosinger, K. O. 2021. What’s the “Problem” of Considering Criminal History in College Admissions? A Critical Analysis of “Ban the Box” Policies in Louisiana and Maryland. The Journal of Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2020.1870849. 

Sjölander-Lindqvist, S., Larsson, S., Fava, N., Gillberg, N., Marcianò, C. and Cinque, S. 2020. Communicating About COVID-19 in Four European Countries: Similarities and Differences in National Discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Frontiers in Communication, Volume 5, Article 593325.  

Spivakovsky, C. and Seear, K. 2017. Making the abject: problem- solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment, Continuum, 31(3): 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1275152 

Widening the ambit of WPR: interviews

Content

Interviews are a highly popular research method. In fact, people who adopt WPR frequently offer interviews, often with “key informants”, to supplement the analysis. There are difficulties with this approach. As I’ve argued elsewhere, with Jennifer Bonham (Bacchi and Bonham 2016; Bonham and Bacchi 2017), since WPR challenges any sense of a sovereign subject who stands outside power and who can access “true” meaning, researchers who use interviews as a source of “truth” about an event or an individual’s “experience” face a major theoretical challenge. Atkinson and Stillwell (1997: 306) argue that we live in an “interview society”, where interviews represent a “technology of biographical construction” (think of Oprah Winfrey, ABC’s “One on One”, news reports etc, etc). They put the poststructuralist perspective that such “personal narratives” are not “any more authentic or pure a reflection of the self than any other socially organized set of practices” (Atkinson and Stillwell 1997: 322). It follows that, as St Pierre (2011: 620) notes, if poststructuralists “no longer believe in a disentangled humanist self, individual, person, we have to rethink qualitative methods (interviewing and observation) grounded in that human being as well as humanist representation”.

There are at least four areas where conventional interviewing analytic techniques prove problematic for poststructural researchers:

  1. The “status” of “the subject” as “authentic self”; 
  2. The “status” of “data”, in the sense of accessible “information”; 
  3. The “status” of “experience” as a static and accessible category (see Scott 1992);
  4. Assumptions about “memory” as (again) accessible and “truthful”. By contrast, Smith and Watson (2010: 22 in Moon 2016: 37) postulate that remembering is meaning-making by “a reinterpretation of the past in the present”. 

Clearly all these areas are interconnected, and none is straightforward.

Several recent contributions explore the possibility of poststructural interview analysis(Niemi and Jahnukainen, 2019; Renedo et al. 2019; Bay et al. 2019). A major challenge in these analyses is the need to avoid lapsing into language use that reinstalls a “choosing” and hence autonomous subject – for example, by talking about “subjects” negotiating among or “drawing upon” (Scharff 2016: 108) competing discourses, or about “subjects” as choosing a particular subject position. There is a need also to be wary of appealing to a subject’s “experience” or “perceptions” as if these stand outside discourse. 

Alvesson (2002) offers something he calls “discursive pragmatism” to assist poststructuralists who wish to draw on interview material in their research. This framework allows the use of a post-structuralist framework alongside an interpretive approach: 

“where it seems reasonable, interview findings are indeed interpreted as reflections of social practices or the ‘inner life’ of interviewees. In other instances, interviews are seen as a combination of localist influences (such as the position/role of the interviewer/interviewee, location of interviews, gender, age, professional background) and the drawing upon dominant discourses, ‘operating behind and on the subject’ (Alvesson, 2002: 114)”. (Swirak 2013: 55). 

The question I broach in this entry is whether or not WPR can be adapted to analyse interview material. I suggest that a “sister strategy” to WPR, which Bonham and I call Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA; Bacchi and Bonham 2016), provides a useful alternative to Alvesson’s “discursive pragmatism” and illustrates how postructuralists can include interviews among other research materials. Put simply, this approach (PIA) examines precisely “what is said” in interviews and looks to explain how it was/is possible to say those things – what meanings and practices need to be in place for “what is said” to be “sayable” (Rhodes and Lancaster 2021: 7). I describe such meanings and practices as reflecting “conceptual logics” or “cultural logics” (see also “cultural imaginaries” in Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, next Research Hub entry).

In a PIA account, as in WPR, “objects” and “subjects” are not essences but are in “ongoing formation”. Interviews are drawn upon to provide insights into how “subjects” are produced in discourse. This analytic task is accomplished through examining how interviewees “interact” with “subject positions”. Note that I have problematized “interact” (and below “encounter”) to signal how difficult it is to find language that does not reproduce the implication that “subjects” stand outside discourse (see above re the need to be careful with the languages of “negotiating” or “drawing upon” which in my view are more problematic since they clearly situate the subject outside the discourse/s).

The concept of “subject position” is widely used in policy analysis to refer to the “identity categories” made available to “subjects”, categories that reflect specific cultural logics. Think, for example, of some of the common categories “subjects” need to “take up” in order to live and work in Western industrialized democracies – e. g.  “citizen”, “migrant”, “welfare recipient”, “single parent”, “male” and “female”. PIA directs attention to how interviewees “encounter” subject positions, where they accept and reinforce them, and at times where they disrupt them. Importantly, there is no implication that acceptance or disruption are intentional interventions, a stance that would reinstall a sovereign subject. 

An example best illustrates the dynamic I describe here. The example comes from the 2017 article written with Bonham, and I refer you to that piece for additional context and detail (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). The issue we examine is how some women interviewed for a project studying their return to cycling spoke about themselves as “cyclists”. When asked explicitly if she considered herself a “cyclist”, one interviewee replied that she did not see herself as fitting that category because she doesn’t cycle much on weekends or join groups of people cycling. At another point in the interview, the same interviewee describes some traffic conditions that disturb her: 

“The other thing I don’t like is if you’re getting [pause] if you’re stuck at traffic lights a lot, I don’t like getting exhaust in my face. Sometimes it feels a bit unsafe ’cos you’ve got big buses in your bike lane and you’ve got them parked very close to cars [in the adjacent lane]. So as a cyclist you can’t go up the middle … so you have to think so ‘what am I going to do now?’ … I really feel unsafe in this circumstance; there is not provision here for cyclists”. (from Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 697; emphasis added)

In this extract, the interviewee identifies herself as a “cyclist”.

The point in drawing attention to the contrast in the two references to “cyclist” is not to suggest that the interviewee is being inconsistent. Rather, the two uses of the term indicate that the subject position of “cyclist” is fluid and relational. It follows that “subject positions” are not determinative; nor are they fixed. They are not imposed on people but delimit possible ways of being. Furthermore, they are in “ongoing-formation” and hence susceptible to variation, signalling the ever-present possibilities for change.

As illustrated in the case of “cyclist” just discussed, interviews can provide one research site where it is possible to study the production and mutation of subject positions and hence of “subjects”. What becomes important are the factors that lead different meanings to emerge. In the first case the interviewee adopts a normative understanding of “cyclist” as defined by group membership and certain kinds of performance; in the latter case “cyclist” is defined in relation to and in reaction to automobile and bus road occupancy. The two uses of “cyclist” also clearly have important political implications. In the first case, a conventional understanding of “cyclist” as recreational road user (weekends, clubs) is reinforced; in the second case, “cyclists” are located in “traffic”, demanding a space as road users. 

The question that arises is – what are researchers to do with the kinds of insight provided in this analysis? In contrast to “discursive pragmatism” (see Alvesson above), PIA highlights the role played by researchers in interpreting and disseminating the “findings” they “extract” from interviews. Instead of seeing researchers as (simply) reiterating and conveying the presumably transparent views of interviewees, Poststructural Interview Analysis emphasizes the political role of interviewers, given the significant political implications of what they distribute and how it is distributed in terms of interpretation and format (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 698).

Annemarie Mol (2002: 154) reminds us that research methods “are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it”. Researchers, in this view, are necessarily involved in “ontological politics”, making different or multiple versions of reality (Mol 1999: 74; see Research Hub entry, 10 Dec 2017). In Rhodes and Lancaster’s (2021: 5) terms, “science does not observe a reality, as if ‘from a bridge’, but is ‘immersed’ in its making”. As we have just seen in relation to “cyclists”, how interviewers/researchers approach the material collected in interviews can produce quite different realities – in this case, either reinforcing conventional road usage or, by contrast, developing a potentially transformative alternative.

With Bonham, I conclude that, if interviews are approached solely in terms of providing “access” to “information” or “experiences”, the opportunities for observing and detecting disruptions to dominant narratives are minimized. Poststructural Interview Analysis opens up interviews in new ways to make it possible to consider their transformative potential. Such a stance necessarily alerts researchers to the need to reflect on their own views on issues and how they might easily miss the kinds of “creative tensions” we discover through approaching interviews as political resources rather than as transparent scripts. 

Why, I’m asked, did I feel it necessary to develop PIA? Why not simply call it WPR? My decision to develop PIA hinged on the conviction that interviews do not usually provide “guides to conduct” in the ways in which materials adopted for a WPR analysis do. They are not “prescriptive” or “practical texts” (Bacchi 2009: 34). Hence, the basic precept in WPR that proposals contain implicit problem representations (because what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change) would not form a part of these analyses. If “proposals” (to alter conduct) do appear in interviews, these proposals tend to reflect the opinions of interviewees. Hence, the analysis would become an interpretive study of competing understandings (opinions) or perceptions of a “problem” (Bastian and Coveney 2013: 162) rather than a critical analysis of governmental problematizations, as in WPR. At the same time, PIA replicates the poststructural analytic perspective deployed in WPR – a relational ontology based on “how possible” questions (how certain things are “sayable”) and a productive view of power that prescribes to the primacy of politics – which is why I describe it as a “sister strategy” to WPR. 

In the next entry I look at some novel applications of WPR to legislative debates and other statements by politicians and legislators. 

REFERENCES

Alvesson, M. 2002. Postmodernism and Social Research. Buckingham: Open University Press. 

Atkinson, P. and Silverman, D. 1997. Kundera’s Immortality: the interview society and the invention of the self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3): 304–25.

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

Bastian, A. and Coveney, J. 2013. The responsibilisation of food security: What is the problem represented to be? Health Sociology Review, 22(2): 162-173.

Bay, U., Haynes, A. & Western, D. 2019. Thinking what
we do: reflexively testing post-structural theoretical concepts with social work practitioners and fieldwork educators. Social Work Education, 38(7): 941-953, DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2019.1586868 

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.

Mol, A. 1999. Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions. In J. Law and J. Hassard (Eds) Actor Network Theory and After, Sociological Review Monograph. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 74-89.

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

Moon, S. 2016. Poststructural Theorizing of “Experiences”: Implications for Qualitative Research and Curriculum Inquiries. Journal of Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1): 33-65. Retrieved from Loyola eCommons, School of Education: Faculty Publications and Other Works. 

Niemi, A-M. and Jahnukainen, M. 2019. Educating self-governing learners and employees: studying, learning and pedagogical practices in the context of vocational education and its reform. Journal of Youth Studies,https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2019.1656329

 Renedo, A., Miles, S. and Marston, C. 2019. Transitions to adulthood: self-governance and disciplining in the making of patient citizens. Sociology of Health and Illness, doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.13019

Rhodes, T. and Lancaster, K. 2021. Excitable models: Projections, targets, and the making of futures without disease. Sociology of Health & Illness, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.13263 

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. 611-625.

Scharff, C. 2016. The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(6): 107-122.  

Scott, J. W. 1992. Experience. In J. Butler & J. W. Scott (Eds.), Feminists theorize the political. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 22-40.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. 2010. Reading autobiographyA guide for interpreting life narratives (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Spivakovsky, C. and Seear, K. 2017. Making the abject: problem- solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment, Continuum, 31(3): 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1275152 Swirak, K. 2013. A post-structuralist analysis of Irish youth crime prevention policy with specific emphasis on the Garda youth diversion projects, PhD thesis, University College Cork

Widening the Ambit of WPR: Media texts

Content:

I have been asked about the kinds of materials open to a WPR form of analysis. I have addressed this question in other places but decided it was worthwhile to lay out some clearer guidelines through the medium of the Research Hub. To keep entries to a reasonable length, I will produce three in succession on the topic. In this first entry I will review some earlier thoughts on the possible uses of WPR, focusing in particular on media texts. Subsequent entries will consider whether or not WPR can be adapted to critically analyse interview material and Parliamentary debates. 

In a 2018 piece in Contemporary Drug Problems (Bacchi 2018: 6-8), I offer some preliminary thoughts on how to apply WPR to materials other than policy texts, understood in the strict sense of the term – e.g. Government reports, pieces of legislation, Government programs (I use upper-case Government to refer to institutions and policies associated with conventional governing bodies). First, I note that, since WPR works with and through a governmentality perspective, it can be deployed to interrogate the full range of governmental (read broadly; here small “g” governmental refers to the broad matrix of governing practices and institutions) and knowledge practices. “Policy” in WPR is not simply what Governments (narrowly conceived as Government institutions) do; it embraces a wide range of actors and agencies, including experts and professionals, and the knowledges they produce. Hence, WPR can be applied to the range of materials produced by these agencies and experts. For example, a researcher could adopt WPR to reflect critically on reports or programs produced by professional groups or agencies, or non-governmental organizations. 

The logic underlying WPR provides guidance on just which “sites” might be included in the analysis. That is, since WPR rests on the premise that what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change and hence what we deem to be “problematic”, WPR can be applied to any materials that make some sort of proposal about how things ought to be. Any “thing” (I say “thing” rather than “text” advisedly for reasons that will become clear) that tells us what to do or how to do something (how to conduct ourselves) becomes fair game for a WPR analysis. Importantly, researchers do not need to identify explicit instructions, such as “you must not engage in anti-social behaviour”, about how to conduct oneself. Rather, by their very existence, a wide range of materials set out (propose) to shape social-material relationships in certain ways, opening them to a WPR analysis. Consider, for example, general statements about the importance of “social cohesion” or “community”, which imply the need to augment either state, and thus constitute lack of “social cohesion” or lack of “community” as a “problem”.  

Moving to specifics, in my 2018 article, I review how WPR can be drawn upon to tease out the problematizations in Governmental technologies, including “mundane programmes, calculations, techniques, apparatuses, documents and procedures” (Miller & Rose 2008: 55; e.g. the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA, 2017; see Bacchi 2020). Also, because WPR assumes a broad view of governing that moves “behind” or “outside” (Foucault 2007: 162-163) Government institutions, it can also be applied to non-governmental technologies – e.g. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013; see Buller et al. 2021). Other targets for analysis include expert knowledges (e.g. “evidence-based” discourse; see Lancaster, Treloar & Ritter 2017), case law and precedent (Seear and Fraser 2014), symposia (Månsson and Ekendahl 2015), and social marketing texts (Farrugia 2016).

In the same article (Bacchi 2018) I mention briefly the possible extension of a WPR way of thinking to phenomena that are not strictly textual, such as buildings, ceremonies and organizational culture. The argument here, as elsewhere, is that these “things” can be approached as proposals about how social-material relations ought to be organized, making it possible to apply the WPR questions (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). Finally, I suggest the potential usefulness of applying WPR to theoretical propositions (e.g. the importance of “class struggle”, or a realist perspective in international relation), which are clearly proposals about how things ought to be. Following similar reasoning, concepts such as “class”, “social capital” or “national borders” can be approached as proposals to which WPR can be applied.

With all this, I found myself puzzling over the possible application of WPR to media texts. I gave a seminar at the University of South Australia in 2014 where I expressed hesitation about applying WPR to media texts. My concern was, at least in part, that statements in the media are often associated with specific actors. Hence, I had difficulty seeing how to draw on them to examine governmental logics. I was also hesitant to step into the well-developed field of “media analysis”, for which I had no training. However, there have been some interesting applications of WPR to forms of media texts and these have assisted me in thinking through this issue.

First, media texts produced by Governmental organizations have been usefully analysed using WPR. For example, Nielsen and Bonham (2015) draw on WPR to critically interrogate a road safety campaign screened by the South Australian Motor Accident Commission (MAC) from 2010 to 2014 (for details see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 77-78). As another example, in his study of the adoption of a broader understanding of “security” in Sweden in the 1990s, Larsson (2020) includes as material for analysis a Government website, “Your Security”, operated by MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency), the MSB YouTube channel, and the MSB podcast series If a Crisis Comes. Such “texts” can be readily seen to contain “proposals” (understood broadly) on behalf of conventional State institutions to influence conduct. As a result, they can usefully be approached as “levers” to open up reflections on the forms of governing, and associated effects, instituted through a particular way of constituting a “problem” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 18). 

Second, there have been applications of WPR to forms of media representation not associated with Government directives. For example, Carole Zufferey (2013) examines representations of “homelessness” in “broadsheet Australian newspaper articles” between 2000 and 2011. She notes that “media articles about homelessness tended to represent homelessness as a crisis problem to be solved urgently”. She also highlights that “people who experienced homelessness tended to be represented in homogenous categories” as “lackers”, “slackers”, and “unwilling victims”. Zufferey offers useful analysis of links between these representations and deep-seated historical and cultural assumptions about “deserving and underserving” people. She also directly engages with the question of the “gaps” and “silences” in print media representations of homelessness. For example, she points out how “homelessness” is constructed as the absence of an abode whereas many women are “homeless” at home, due to violence (Zufferey 2013).

Several issues remain unresolved. For one, it is important in a WPR analysis to make clear that the target of analysis is not an individual author or editor. WPR does not operate at the level of actors’ opinions. Also, in a WPR analysis the project involves examining proposals to guide conduct as a means to interrogating strategies for governing. In my view, general analyses of media “views” on an issue do not qualify for this form of analysis in a clear and straight-forward manner. 

However, in a recent article Manlik (2020) illustrates how it is possible to read certain media texts as proposals regarding conduct and hence as governing strategies, making a WPR form of analysis possible. Manlik (2020) brings the WPR questions to an analysis of Australia’s largest LGBTQ women’s magazine, Lesbians on the Loose (2014-2017 editions). She highlights the absence from HIV discourse of SM (Sexual Minority) women – how HIV exposure categories cannot record (potential) “female-to-female” sexual transmission of HIV due to the presupposition of “lesbian immunity” that underpins dominant heterosexist HIV discourse. Her particular focus is the role played by “SM women’s print and online media publications for their place in the (re)production and circulation of HIV knowledges” (Manlik 2020: 2). To interrogate this role, Manlik explores “how SM women are interpellated into a diverse range of HIV subject positions through both their explicit representation in the magazine and the silencing of their identities, practices and desires”. 

Manlik (2020: 13 fn 1), therefore, treats the magazine, Lesbians on the Loose, as a “practical text” as understood in WPR (Bacchi 2009: 34), which aims to produce particular effects in the “conduct” of their audiences. Specifically, she explains how SM women are positioned within the magazine texts “as responsible, at least in part, for addressing the ‘problem’ of HIV”. She shows how this stance illustrates Foucault’s theoretical focus on subjectification (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53), which is primarily concerned with how governing transpires through problematisations: “that is, how certain subject positions are rendered thinkable or unthinkable through, what Bacchi (2009: 48) terms, ‘problem representations’” (Manlik 2020: 4).

Crucially, the key point to remember is how to treat these “practical texts” in one’s analysis. Manlik (2020: 12) explains: 

“And yet, it is important to note that, under Bacchi’s (2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016) WPR approach, blame should not be assigned to individual authors in LOTL or the magazine itself for (re)producing particular problem representations.” 

When using WPR, the researcher targets underlying conceptual logics; it does not seek signs of intentional manipulation. The point to take from this example, then, is the possibility of interrogating the conceptual logics in at least some media texts through applying the WPR questions. 

Manlik proceeds to offer useful insights into the political implications of the style of critique displayed in her (and other WPR-influenced) work. She notes that increasing the visibility of SM women in HIV discourses may not, in the end, serve them well, possibly forcing them to endure “surplus visibility” (Patai 1992). The purpose of her analysis is not, therefore, to advocate making SM women visible but to inquire into the forms of visibility required in order to be recognized as participating subjects in HIV discourse and accompanying legal regulations. Quoting Lamble (2009: 126) Manlik (2020: 12) concludes that “[t]he remedy for ‘limited thinking’ is not ‘better thinking’ but rather a critical interrogation of the conditions that make such rationalities possible.” To challenge taken-for-granted discourses and regulations through which governing takes place, they must be rendered as questionable – as open to interrogation and possible change. Such is the intent of a WPR analysis.

References

American Psychiatric Association 2013. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. 

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

Bacchi, C. 2018. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying
a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 2-14.

Bacchi, C. 2020. Problem-Solving as a Governing Knowledge: “Skills”-Testing in PISA and PIAAC. Open Journal of Political Science, 10, 82-105.

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

Buller, A., Espstein, S. and Hosken, N. 2021. What is the Problem With Sexual Intimacy Following Intimate Partner Violence in the DSM-5?  Violence Against Women, 1-22. DOI: 10.1177/1077801221998561. 

Nielsen, R., & Bonham, J. 2015. More than a message: Producing cyclists through public safety advertising campaigns. In J. Bonham, & M. Johnson (Eds.), Cycling futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Farrugia, A. (2016). Assembling realities, assembling capacities: Young people and drug consumption in Australian drug education (PhD thesis). Curtin University, Bentley, WA.

Foucault, M. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977‐78. Ed. M. Senellart. Trans. G. Burchell. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lamble, Sarah. 2009. Unknowable Bodies, Unthinkable Sexualities: Lesbian and Transgender Legal Invisibility in the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Raid. Social & Legal Studies 18 (1): 111–130. doi:10.1177/0964663908100336. 

Lancaster, K., Treloar, C., & Ritter, A. 2017. “Naloxone works”: The politics of knowledge in “evidence-based” drug policy. Health, 21, 278–294.

Larsson, O. 2020. The connections between crisis and war preparedness. Security Dialogue, 1-19.

Manlik, K. 2020. Allies or at-risk subjects? sexual minority women and the “problem” of HIV in Lesbians on the Loose, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1837907 

Månsson, J., & Ekendahl, M. 2015. Protecting prohibition: The role of Swedish information symposia in keeping cannabis a high-profile problem. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42, 209–225.

Miller, P., & Rose, N. 2008. Governing the present: Administering economic, social and personal life. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

OECD. 2017. PISA 2015 assessment and analytical framework: Science, reading, mathematics, financial literacy and collaborative problem solving (Rev. ed.). Paris, France: Program for International Student Assessment, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. doi:10.1787/9789264281820-en

Patai, Daphne. 1992. Minority Status and the Stigma of “Surplus Visibility”. Education Digest, 57 (5): 35–37. 

Seear, K., & Fraser, S. 2014. The addict as victim: Producing the “problem” of addiction in Australian victims of crime compensation laws. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25, 826–835.Zufferey, C. 2013. ‘Questioning representations of homelessness in the Australian Print Media’, Australian Social Work, 67(4): 525-36.

Governing during COVID-19: Normalizing experimentation

COMMENTS:

Almost a year has passed since Jennifer Bonham and I reflected on the early interventions of the Morrison Government in Australia to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic (Research Hub entry 30 April 2020). There we expressed disquiet at the way in which certain populations were treated as “ciphers in a scientific experiment”. Our specific example was the decision to allow child care centres to continue to operate despite the “risks” facing staff and the children in their care. The comment of one child care worker that “They are treating my childcare centre like a petri dish” sparked our concerns. Morrison’s mantra of “No guarantees” signalled, in our view, an experimental ethic we found troubling (Melbourne Age, Saturday 4 April 2020, p. 6).  

I thought it time to consider to what extent our thoughts on “governing through experimenting” may or may not remain relevant a year into the pandemic. The argument I develop below is that over this time experimenting has become increasingly normalized as a mode of governing. That is, it has been generated as a legitimate way to govern, as a kind of “truth” of governing. This entry explains how this has happened and considers how to reflect critically on this development. 

This topic is usefully approached through applying a governmentality perspective. Such a perspective encourages us to step back from the immediate focus on “crisis management” (Curtis 2020) – how to “manage” the pandemic, how to reduce the number of “cases”, how to “flatten curves”, how to get people to “socially distance” – to reflect on the broader issues of how governing is taking place and our location within these governing stratagems. Approaching the question of governing during COVID-19 from a governmentality perspective means attending to the specific practices involved in that governing and how these constitute a certain “mode of governing”, a certain rationality or rationale that Bonham and I characterize as “experimenting”, and how these practices produce us as particular kinds of subjects.

As discussed in the earlier entry (30 April 2020) it is necessary to put these reflections within a broader frame of reference – to consider how experimenting has become increasingly legitimized and recognized as a form of government intervention but, even more than this, to consider how experimenting could be used to describe just about any policy. On the former point Sabel and Zeitlin (2008) describe how “experimentalist governance” has become a popular system of governance in the EU and the US. The latter for example saw the development of formal policy experiments to test the effectiveness of various welfare-to-work and job training schemes, as well as education initiatives (John 2013). The recent “trials” of a Cashless Welfare Card in Australia indicate something approximating this “experimentalist” mode of governing, though there is no explicit description of the program in such terms (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/cashless-welfare-card-expansion-parliament-two-years/12962684).

The broader claim – that all policy is experimentation – reflects on the guiding premise in evidence-based approaches that efforts to “improve” society need to consider “what works”. Elsewhere I (2020) have described how this way of thinking about policy fits a “problem-solving” logic where interventions are tested to assess effectiveness in “fixing” pre-set and taken-for-granted “problems”. We can recognize here the scientific model of setting and evaluating hypotheses. As a critical intervention I highlight the need to question the existence of pre-set “problems” and to show how these are actually products of specific policy formulations (Bacchi 2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). 

If all policy, as argued here, is experimenting, what is different about the COVID-19 situation? Why is it useful to draw attention to the ways in which governing becomes experimenting in this specific case? First, in the current situation, there are no overt claims that experimenting is going on. So, we are not talking about the kind of “experimentalist governance” described by Sabel and Zeitlen (2008). In fact, to the contrary, there are increasing attempts to assert a more authoritative approach to governing. We now hear about how governments are dealing with “an evolving situation”, how they must in certain instances “hold their nerve” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-22/nsw-premier-gladys-berejiklian-faces-test-coronavirus-christmas/13006984)and how they are getting to know the virus better (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020: 8). In relation to COVID-19 interventions the Morrison mantra “no guarantees” (see above) hasn’t been heard in months and is unlikely to be used again. My suggestion here is that the impression that governments are simply trying out different policy interventions until something works would not sit comfortably with the assumed character of government decision-making as well-informed and authoritative. 

At the same time an experimental approach, while not described as such, becomes understandable given the “uncertainty” of the “evolving” situation. COVID-19 is characterized as a “crisis”, an “emergency”, driven by “uncertainty”. Hence, specific intrusive policy interventions (think of mandatory mask-wearing, curfews, etc.) are described as out of character, as something that will go away when the crisis abates. In these “crisis” conditions “citizens” are asked to allow the government a certain leeway. As Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 10) point out: “it is important to build individual willingness to engage in preventive or emergency behaviours proposed by an authoritative agent (Jasanoff 2007; Cairns et al., 2013)”.

O’Malley (2004) usefully reminds us that “uncertainty” and “risk” are constructs rather than natural states of things. He describes these “neo-liberal concepts” as complementary techniques for governing diverse aspects of life. Pellizzoni (2011) agrees. Pre-COVID he made the case that uncertainty has become a way of governing, a technology of governing: “Uncertainty, thus, is seen no more as a circumscribed situation on which to build a few strategic decisions, but as an empowering everyday condition”. Describing the orientation as neoliberal, he notes: “proper calculations of risk are seen as an exception, while reasoned bets over unpredictable futures are regarded as the rule”. The invoking of “uncertainty” also works paradoxically to “reinforce the authority of expertise” (Demeritt 2001: 327), clearly illustrated in the current reliance on the (often contradictory) messages of epidemiologists.

It would be difficult to question the characterization of current world COVID-19 experiences as “crisis”. Still, Cordero (2016: 129) provides a timely caution. He notes: “For if there is something true about crisis, it is precisely that in such moments of distress truth becomes a political problem and therefore an open site of struggles”. I see the question of “truth” as relevant at two levels: first, in asserting the existence of crisis, and second, in producing ways of understanding the “crisis”. Here, I am particularly interested in how an understanding of COVID-19 as crisis encourages experimenting as a mode of governing. 

It may appear that by questioning experimentation I am positing the need for a firmer, more authoritarian style of rule. Such is not my intention especially as, in the case of COVID-19, questions about which experiments to undertake are precisely to do with which forms of authoritarian intervention are justified (restrictions on movement, tracking devices, electronic bracelets on quarantined subjects, prison, curfews, etc.). The logics of experimentation and authoritarianism are not opposed to each other; they are in effect complementary. As Petersen (1996: 56) noted, some time ago, 

“In a context of uncertainty, all manner of interventions, which at other times or in other circumstances might be considered intrusive, oppressive, discriminatory or paternalistic, can be justified as being for the protection of the ‘at risk’ individual and ultimately of benefit to ‘society’ as a whole; for example, forms of public surveillance and mass screening.”

In line with a governmentality approach, this Research Hub entry aims neither at endorsing nor condemning specific courses of action; rather, the point of the exercise is to highlight the array of interventions as governing techniques and to subject them to critical interrogation. To this end, it is important to see what they include within, and exclude from, their terms of reference, to examine their underlying presuppositions and to consider how subjects are constituted within them (see WPR questions in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). On the last point O’Malley (2004) elaborates: 

“These analyses would include examining the diverse ways in which risk and uncertainty might shape the kinds of subjects we are to be made into, the practices through which we will be expected to govern ourselves, and the ways we will be expected to imagine the world and prepare for the future”.

As an example, I think it worth exploring the emergence and development of tracking devices, specifically the widespread use of QR [Quick Response] codes in South Australia (and increasingly in other parts of Australia) (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-covid-qr-codes-in-south-australia/12937756). Almost overnight South Australians have faced the obligation to scan a kind of bar code that conveys their whereabouts to SA Health. This scanning practice occurs at numerous types of venue, including shops selling food and apparel, gymnasiums, hairdressers (and the list goes on). 

Public officials have asserted that information will be discarded after 28 days but there has been little public discussion about privacy considerations or about the need for legislation to protect privacy (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-03/privacy-concerns-with-qr-code-contact-tracing-in-south-australia/12844050).  Public health officials have suggested that QR codes be retained post-pandemic (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-01/thought-bubble-to-retain-qr-codes-draw-fire-in-south-australia/13108786); however, the Police Commission, Grant Stevens, rejected the notion (https://indaily.com.au/news/2021/02/01/qr-codes-are-for-covid-only-stevens-rejects-spurriers-extension-call/).

How are subjects constituted within this practice? Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 9) point out that the full range of approaches to controlling COVID-19 include an aspect of “responsibilization” – the implication that citizen subjects are responsible for the outcomes of the pandemic. Such is the case with QR codes. While customers are instructed to “check in” using the SA Government QR app, the public has been encouraged to take on this task as a kind of civic duty. They have responded enthusiastically. I am reminded of Bigo’s (2010: 20) study of the uptake of “regulated mobility” in “smart borders”:

“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)”.

Likewise in Sweden, Larsson (2020: 1) shows how crisis management interventions promoted by the Swedish government produce “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject who is willing to accept uncertainty and shoulder greater individual responsibility for her own security”.  

QR codes, I suggest, offer an experimental mode for contact tracing . At the same time, they indicate a willingness to experiment with authoritarian oversight of citizen behaviours. In my view they are a perfect illustration of how experimenting has become normalized, how it has become acceptable to govern through experimenting. 

But surely, I’ve been asked, isn’t such an approach required in these times of crisis and change? I am not disputing the need for such interventions. Rather I am suggesting that a range of important questions goes unasked in their all too enthusiastic adoption. Schroth (2016) makes the important point that experiments reduce the “enigmatic world” to what are deemed to be manageable proportions. Illustrating how this happens, the focus on experimental interventions (such as QR codes) to “control the spread” of the virus produces a tendency to concentrate on what Waleed Aly (2020) calls “the symptoms” of a crisis. We are encouraged to see such “technologies” as “solving” (albeit in a piecemeal fashion) the “problem” of contagion. There is no space in this reactive approach to consider how we have got here – how pandemics, for example, are an increasing likelihood due to a range of practices such as deforestation (Zimmer 2011). In this post-hoc mode of thought, experimenting, as it is practised in current responses to COVID-19 – and one could consider including “climate change” (Lidskog et al. 2020) –, amounts to tinkering, to fiddling while Rome burns.  

References

Aly, W. 2020. Get to the root of mess. The Melbourne Age, Saturday 26 Dec., p. 48.

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. 

Bigo, D. 2010. Freedom and Speed in Enlarged Borderzones.

 In V. Squire 2010. The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. Routledge.

Cairns, G., de Andrade, M., and MacDonald, L. (2013). Reputation, relationships, risk communication, and the role of trust in the prevention and control of communicable disease: a review. J. Health Com. 18, 1550–1565. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2013.840696 

Cordero, R. 2016 Making Things More Fragile: The Persistence of Crisis and the Neoliberal Disorder of Things – Michel Foucault. In R. Cordero, Crisis and Critique: On the Fragile Foundations of Social Life.  NY: Routledge.  

Curtis, K. 2020. Out of the pan and into an election? Australians may need time to recuperate in 2021 after a year of crisis management by the federal government. The Melbourne Age, Saturday 26 Dec., p. 42.

Demeritt, D. 2001. The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(2): 307-337.

Jasanoff, S. (2007). Technologies of humility: citizen participation in governing science. Nature 450:33. doi: 10.1038/450033a

John, P. 2013. Policy entrepreneurship in UK central government: The behavioural insights team and the use of randomized controlled trials. Public Policy and Administration 29: 257–267.

Larsson, O. 2020. The connections between crisis and war preparedness in Sweden. Security Dialogue, 1-19.

Lidskog, R., Elander, J. and Standring, A. 2020. COVID-19, the Climate, and Transformative Change: Comparing the Social Anatomies of Crises and their Regulatory Responses. Sustainability, 12, 633; doi:10.3390/su12166337 

O’Malley, P. 2004. Risk, Uncertainty and Government. NY: Routledge. 

Petersen, A. 1996. Risk and the regulated self: the discourse of health promotion as politics of uncertainty. ANZJS, 32(1): 44-57.

Sabel, C. F. and Zeitlin, J. 2008. Learning from difference: The new architecture of experimentalist governance in the EU. European Law Journal 14: 271–327.

Schroth, F. 2016.The Politics of Governance Experiments: Constructing the Clean Development Mechanism. PhD thesis, Berlin Institute of Technology. 

Sjölander-Lindqvist, S., Larsson, S., Fava, N., Gillberg, N., Marcianò, C. and Cinque, S. 2020. Communicating About COVID-19 in Four European Countries: Similarities and Differences in National Discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Frontiers in Communication, Volume 5, Article 593325. Zimmer, C. 2011. A Planet of Viruses. University of Chicago Press.

Poststructuralism and Critical Realism: Revisited

Content

The issue of the status assigned conceptual categories, considered in the last entry, marks a clear distinction between poststructuralism and critical realism (see also Research Hub 1 Feb. 2019). Wendy Larner (2008: 23), for example, points out that Stenson’s (2008) “realist governmentality” takes key terms such as “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. As Larner explains, in treating these “entities” as “real”, the politics involved in their formation disappears from the analysis.  

But how useful is this form of poststructural questioning of key concepts? In a recent defence of critical realism Alex Stevens (2020: 2) argues that ontologically oriented research, which he calls “radical constructionism”, leads to political paralysis. In his view, the argument that “scientific processes produce their objects” (Moore 2011: 82 in Stevens 2020: 2) cannot provide a sound basis for analysis: “All it can do is throw up a ‘multiplicity’ of competing ‘forms of reality’ (Moore 2011: 85)” (Stevens 2020: 2). Rather, says Stevens (2020: 2), researchers have to embrace a “conceptual framework” that accepts an external reality (such as Stenson’s self-evident descriptors) as a backdrop to their analyses. Critical realism, he argues, provides such a framework. 

valentine and Seear (2020) offer a robust commentary on Stevens’ article and I recommend reading it in its entirety (see also Howarth et al. 2020). For my purposes, I am interested in valentine’s and Seear’s insights into the impact of STS (Science and Technology Studies) research on policy developments in alcohol and other drug research. They elaborate the point made by Larner about the need to make visible the “made-in-practice status of realities” by opening up these categories to critical analsyis. Their examples of such “made-in-practice realities” include: “knowledge”, “evidence”, “data”, and “drug effects” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2). They also emphasize that ontopolitical research of this sort is not intended simply to “highlight the multiplicity of realities”: “It is rather a political response to particular realities, those that produce and reproduce social injustices” (valentine and Seear 2020: 2). 

The point I am making in this entry complements this analysis. If, as I and others argue, researchers need to interrogate their own categories of analysis in order to offer “useful knowledge”, then poststructuralism becomes an essential research tool. It alerts researchers to the ways in which their views of what is real are contingent and provisional. It is not an optional extra or an annoying detour – it is a necessary part of useful political reflection. This mode of critical analysis seems particularly important to those embarking on “ontopolitically-oriented research”. To repeat a point made in an earlier Research Hub entry (30 Nov 2020), the terms we adopt are not innocent “explanatory” devices; instead, they play a central role in “world making” (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 4). 

In several places Stevens attempts to lay bare what he sees as clear inconsistencies in poststructural argumentation. He offers a version of the commonly made argument that the challenge of poststructuralism to notions of “truth” is itself a truth claim (see fn 2 regarding Law’s [2004: 155] statement that “there are no general rules”, which Stevens identifies as itself a general maxim, or rule.). This rather tired argument neglects a key point. Poststructuralism is not an epistemological theory; it is a political stance. It does not offer a “god’s eye” or a “we know better” (Stengers 2008) view. Rather, its claims and arguments are developed in the name of political commitments to progressive change, with “progressive” open to discussion and debate. To repeat Mol’s (2002: 151) contention, quoted in the last Research Hub entry, “veracity is not the point. Instead it is interference”.

There is a good deal at stake in these discussions. We are talking about key decisions to do with directions in research strategy. With Joan Eveline (Eveline and Bacchi 2010: 157) I have argued against the conclusion that the best poststructuralism can offer researchers are “throw-away explanations” (Chia 1996: 49). By contrast, poststructuralism prompts an interrogation of all taken-for-granted concepts and precepts, including our own such precepts, leading to a practice of self-problematization (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 38-41). I see such a critical intervention as bridging tensions between “compositionism” and “the guerrilla of ontological interferences” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54; see previous Research Hub entry).

Next time I hope to offer a much-needed update on my reflections with Jennifer Bonham on governing through experimentation in a time of COVID-19 (see Research Hub entry, 30 April 2020).

References

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

Chia, R. 1996. The problem of reflexivity in organisational research. Organization, 3(1): 31-59.

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

Lancaster, K. and Rhodes, T. 2020. Towards an ontological politics of drug policy: Intervening through policy, evidence and method. International Journal of Drug Policy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102932

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, J. 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge. 

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

Moore, D. 2011. The ontological politics of knowledge production: Qualitative research in the multidisciplinary drug field. In S. Fraser and D. Moore (Eds) The drug effect: Health, crime and society (pp. 73-90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Munk, A. & Abrahamsson, S. 2012. Empiricist interventions: Strategy and tactics on the ontopolitical battlefield. Science Studies, 25(1): 52-70. 

Stengers, I. 2008. Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism. Subjectivity, 22: 38-59.

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

Stevens, A. 2020. Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”. International Journal of Drug Policyhttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102723

valentine, K. and Seear, K. 2020. Commentary on Alex Stevens (2020) Critical realism and the “ontological politics of drug policy”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 84: 102879.