Critique and “postcritique”

In the preceding two entries (30 Sept 2021; 30 Oct 2021) I concentrated on elaborating distinctions and tensions between Foucauldian-influenced poststructuralism and forms of “ideology critique”. Some useful collections signal the longstanding and ongoing debates about “ideology critique” among critical scholars (see Simons and Billig 1994; Malesevic and MacKenzie 2002; South Atlantic Quarterly, 2020). 

In this entry we turn to a more recent development, dubbed “postcritique”. I hope to explain in brief the relationship between this development and the themes addressed in the previous two entries, and to introduce some of the controversy about its stance. I draw largely on the contributions of Rita Felski (2011, 2015) and Anker and Felski (2017), since they most clearly delineate what is at issue. 

The postcritique argument, put briefly, is that Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” have more in common in terms of theoretical propositions than what separates them, posing a significant challenge to the argument I have been developing. According to Felski (2011) tensions and distinctions between Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” are mere “skirmishes”. While “surveys of criticism often highlight the rift between these camps” (as I have just done in the two previous entries), Felski emphasizes their shared investment in a particular ethos – “a stance of knowingness, guardedness, suspicion and vigilance” (Felski 2011). Hence, she locates both “ideology critique” and poststructuralism within what Ricoeur (1970, 1974) describes as a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, which attempts to decode meanings that are disguised. Going further, Felski (2011) argues that both “ideology critique” and poststructuralism are limited in their analysis of sociopolitical relations and that it is time to move on from the form of “negative critique” they generate.

Felski is not the first to make this argument about the negative character of “critique” (see Coole 2000). In his seminal 2004 article, entitled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, Latour characterizes deconstruction as purely “negative” in its impact, with a tendency to “totalize” and “demonize” opponents. Felski (2011) acknowledges her debt to Latour: “Critique is characterised by its ‘againstness’, by its desire to take a hammer, as Latour would say, to the beliefs of others” (see also Felski 2016). 

I should note that Felski writes predominantly in the fields of literary and cultural studies. Still, her position on postcritique has become popular in political and policy studies as well. MacLure (2015) draws connections between the postcritical position and the “new materialists”, supported by Anker and Felski’s (2017: 11) endorsement of the “turn to affect” and the reliance on ontology (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 29) (on the “turn to affect” see Research Hub entry 31 March 2020; on the “new materialisms” see 30 November 2020). 

What I find interesting about this discussion is that the castigation of “critique” in Felski echoes many of the concerns I voiced about “ideology critique” in the two previous Research Hub entries. Specifically, she cautions against the tendency to portray the populace as “dupes” of powerful forces, and the impulse to credit critics with epistemic insight into the nature of power and domination: “As long as critique gains its intellectual leverage from an adversarial stance, it will continue to presume a populace deluded by forces that only the critic can bring to light” (Anker and Felski 2017: 19). Latour also expresses concern about a concept of critique that presumes “a privileged access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances” (Latour 2010: 475 in Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2017: 33).

While I see merit in this characterization of “ideology critique”, one of the main arguments in the preceding two entries is that a contrast can be established between Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” on exactly these issues. Specifically I argue that poststructuralism explicitly challenges the conception of the subject as pawn in a power game and questions all knowledge claims, including the claims of critics. My concern about the postcritical argument, therefore, is the tendency to paint all critical analysis with the same brush, specifically the tendency to collapse poststructuralism into “ideology critique”. In fact, poststructuralism appears to be the primary target of Felski’s concern. In her and Anker’s (2017: 8) view, poststructuralism “especially has helped transform critique into a condition of metacritique”. Latour (2004) does much the same thing in his reduction of critical thinking to “debunking”. 

In part I am disturbed by the strong polemic characterizing this analysis. MacLure (2015) shares this concern. She notes that “in deploying irony as his counter-weapon of choice”, Latour appears “unable to evade the ‘debunking’ rhetorical gesture that he condemns”. As a result, he creates “a cognoscenti of discerning readers” who know more than “the preponderance of naïvely believing conventional critics”. Similarly, while Felski claims that she does not wish to dismiss critique, her description of the “nay-saying critic” as calling to mind “the Victorian patriarch, the thin-lipped schoolmarm, the glaring policeman” (Felsik 2011) sounds a tad dismissive.

This particular “thin-lipped schoolmarm” (me!) is predictably disturbed by Anker and Felski’s attack on the usefulness of problematization and self-problematization. Problematization is described as “a preferred idiom” among poststructuralists for “demonstrating the ungroundedness of beliefs” and hence as part of “negative critique” (Felski 2011). Going further, Felski (2011) explicitly castigates poststructuralism for its “self-reflexive thinking” and its “tormented and self-divided rhetoric”: “it broods constantly over the shame of its own success, striving to detect signs of its own complicity and to root out all possible evidence of collusion with the status quo”. With Anker she condemns this “demand” for “a hypervigilance on the part of the critic”, its “stringent self-critique and continued attempts to second-guess or ‘problematize’ one’s own assumptions” (Anker and Felski 2017: 8). 

The argument on this point, I suggest, reveals a significant inconsistency. As mentioned above, Felski challenges the presumption of epistemic privilege assumed by many critics, which is part of my concern about “ideology critique” (Research Hub entry, 30 Oct 2021). However, at the same time Felski questions the usefulness of forms of “self-critique”. That is, while she expresses concern that “suspicion of the commonplace and everyday risks entrenching the notion that critical thinking is the unique provenance of intellectuals” (Anker and Felski 2017: 14), she dismisses attempts by those very intellectuals to query the grounds of their knowledge claims. It is exactly this questioning of the presumed transcendence of one’s position, I argue, that helps distinguish poststructuralism from ideology critique (see Primdahl et al. 2018). To address this point, Step 7 in WPR enjoins researchers to subject their own problem representations to the six WPR questions (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

I do not want to dismiss the issues raised by Felski and others who develop the postcritical position. With Lorenzini and Tazzioli, I agree about the need to take their analysis seriously:

“Critique should not limit itself to negative, debunking or deconstructive tasks. Indeed, if, on the one hand, unpacking, undoing and problematising are the verbs of what we define here as the “operations of critique”, on the other hand, critique, as a practice, should also consist in enacting and opening up. In other words, critique should also be able to build and produce.” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 29)

There are two themes, therefore, that I wish to pursue: first, I want to consider the claim that poststructuralism is purely negative critique; and second, I want to consider the political implications of the postcritical argument. (On the importance of reflecting on the political implications of our theoretical stances, see Research Hub entry 31 August 2021). 

On the first theme – the characterizing of poststructuralism as “negative critique” –, I decided to confront head-on the possibility that WPR might (simply) engage in negative forms of thinking. In relation to the supposed portrayal of the populace as “deluded” (see above), I would suggest that the stance on subjectification in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism offers a very different conception of the subject from the “dupes” of “ideology critique”. Political subjects are understood to be emergent or in process, shaped in ongoing interactions with discourses and other practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 4). The practice of self-problematization prompted by Step 7 in WPR involves actively applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals. It operates as a transformative practice in a positive sense, by creating “new modes of subjectivation” and “new collective subjects” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 34). 

As to whether or not WPR implies that critical thinking is the “unique provenance of intellectuals” (see above), the emphasis on self-problematization operates to counter any presumption of epistemic privilege. Going further, I would suggest that the provocation in Question 4 to consider how an issue could be problematized differently opens up the opportunity for inventive thinking. The same is the case in Question 6, which invites researchers to consider how particular problem representations might be “disrupted and replaced”. An example of a replacement strategy is offered by Henry and Milanovic (1996) in “peacemaking criminology” (Bacchi 2009: 109).

I found it curious that Anker and Felski’s (2017: 1) analytic questions map readily onto those in WPR. For example, they ask:    

“What does critique look like as a style of academic argument? What kind of rhetorical moves and philosophical assumptions does the activity of critique deploy?” 

 There is a clear similarity between the question about “philosophical assumptions” and Question 2 in WPR, which directs attention to underlying assumptions and presuppositions. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that Anker and Felski in effect apply a form of problematization thinking, though they would probably be unhappy with this characterization of their work. 

In terms of our second theme – political implications –, Savage et al. (2021: 309) make the important point that all theoretical contributions have a “preferred politics”. Even a refusal to adopt a specific reform agenda, which Savage et al. (2021: 309) identify in Actor Network theory and much poststructuralist research, constitutes a form of politics. It is important, therefore, to reflect on the political implications of contrasting theoretical positions. 

Anker and Felski (2017: 2) explicitly link “postcritique” to “progressive commitments”, which in their view involves a “more nuanced vision of how political change comes about” (Anker and Felski 2017: 15). The labelling of their stance as “progressive” indicates a political commitment of some sort, though “progressive” is clearly a term with many possible interpretations. Anker and Felski go on to specify their “preferred politics”. Here they follow Latour’s lead in the expressed desire to encourage a “spirit of dialogue and constructiveness rather than dissection and diagnosis” (Anker and Felski 2017: 16). They also share Latour’s concern that constructionist arguments have been picked up by “the Right” to challenge the status of facts, “evident in positions such as climate change denial” (Anker and Felski 2017: 14). With Latour they endorse a shift in tactics “from a spirit of debunking to one of assembling – from critique to composition”.

I have raised Latour’s position on these issues in an earlier Research Hub entry (31 December 2020). There I point to the work of Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) who argues that Latour’s typecasting of “critique” as negative, exhibits “mistrust regarding minoritarian and radical ways of politicizing things that tend to focus on exposing relations of power and exclusion”. In her view Latour’s plea to “respect” “concerns”, or “matters of concern”, becomes an argument to moderate a critical standpoint. Along similar lines Keller (2017: 62) is concerned by the political vision promoted by Latour’s “compositionist” impulse. In his view, this impulse echoes Habermas in whom social actors, assembled around a table, decide in a setting “free of domination” upon “hierarchies of concerns”, ignoring significant power imbalances.   

It may be relevant to consider the contextual factors that have prompted a postcritical approach. According to Lorenzini and Tazzioli (2020: 29) the attacks on “negative critique” by postcritical scholars reflect an “ontological anxiety”: 

“… the fear that critique, by ‘deconstructing and demystifying’, will end up making things ‘less real by underscoring their social constructedness’ – thus leaving us with no solid ground on which to stand, ‘however temporarily or tentatively’“[quotes from Felski 2016: 221].

Interestingly, I conjectured in the previous entry (30 October 2021) that this same “ontological anxiety” may well help explain the recent proliferation of born-again “ideology critics” who exhibit a desperate realism in their attempt to identify “systematic distortions in the process of belief formation that can be traced back to existing power relations” (Bianchim 2021: 86). Both groups – the new ideology critics and those who propose postcritique – in the end wish to insist that “truth” is ascertainable. 

By contrast, in Foucauldian-influenced perspectives, “truth” is always situated: “that is, it has no intrinsic ‘force’ allowing it to impose itself to everybody or in every possible circumstance” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 30-31). In this view, there is no universal basis for “truth”. Rather, “truth” and “knowledge” are produced in “‘local centres’ of power-knowledge” (Foucault 1990: 98). The analytic task, therefore, involves seeking out and examining the multitudes of practices – the “processes, procedures and apparatuses” (Tamboukou 1999: 202) – involved in the production of “truth”, rather than (simply) to uncover what is concealed. The goal becomes showing how political practice takes part in the “conditions of emergence, insertion and functioning” of “regimes of truth” (Foucault 1972: 163), explicitly challenging a view of power as a purely negative force:

“We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him (sic) belong to this production”. (Foucault 1984: 204–205) 


Anker, E. S. and Felski, R. 2017. Critique and Postcritique. Duke University Press.

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.

Bianchin, M. 2021. Ideology, Critique, and Social Structures. Critical Horizons, 22(2): 184-196.

Coole, D. 2000. Negativity and Politics: Dionysus and Dialectics from Kant to Poststructuralism. London: Routledge.

Felski, R. 2011. Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. M/C Journal, 15(1).

Felski, R. 2015. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Felski, R. 2016. Introduction to the special issue “Recomposing the Humanities with Bruno Latour”, New Literary History 47:2–3.

Foucault, M. 1972. The archaeology of knowledge, and the discourse on language

(trans: Sheridan Smith, A.M.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. 1984. The means of correct training [from Discipline and Punish]. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books. 

Foucault, M. 1990. The history of sexuality. Volume I: An introduction

(trans: Hurley, R.). New York: Vintage Books. 

Henry, S. and Milanovic, D. 1996. Constitutive Criminology: Beyond Postmodernism. London: Sage.  

Keller, R. 2017. Has Critique Run Out of Steam? – On Discourse Research as Critical Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(1): 58-68. 

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry, 30(2): 225-248.

Latour, B. 2010. An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”. New Literary History, 41(3): 471-490. 

Lorenzini, D. and Tazzioli, M. 2020. Critique without Ontology: Genealogy, collective subjects and the deadlocks of evidence. Radical Philosophy, 2.07, Spring. 

MacLure, M. 2015. The “new materialisms”: a thorn in the flesh of critical qualitative inquiry? In G. Cannella, M.S. Perez & P. Pasque (eds) Critical Qualitative Inquiry: Foundations and Futures. California: Left Coast Press. 

Malesevic, S. and MacKenzie, I. (Eds) 2002. Ideology After Poststructuralism. London: Pluto Press.

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

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. 2011. Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 85-106.

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Savage, G. C., Gerrard, J., Gale, T. and Molla, T.  2021. The evolving state of policy sociology: mobilities, moorings and elite networks. Critical Studies in Education, 62(3): 306-321. 

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South Atlantic Quarterly (2020). Special Issue: The Ideology Issue, 119(4). Duke University Press. Tamboukou, M. 1999. Writing genealogies: An exploration of Foucault’s strategies for doing research. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 20 (2), 201–217

Ideology, discourse and the “new ideology critics”


In the last entry I concentrated on distinguishing between Marxist ideology critique and poststructural positions. My aim was to alert researchers to tensions between these two approaches to critique, and hence to encourage those who wish to adopt WPR to consider if their work might reflect some of these tensions. In the process I hope I clarified what poststructural researchers mean when they object to, or declare their intention to move beyond, “ideology critique”. I now wish to consider how the concept “discourse” enters the theoretical picture and whether its usage automatically frees those who use it from “ideology critique”. I also canvas the offerings of a new group of “ideology critics” to see if their “reworkings” of “ideology” offer some common ground with poststructural accounts. 

According to Purvis and Hunt (1993), one of the distinctive features of contemporary post-Marxism is the displacement of the concept of ideology by that of discourse. Colpani (2021: 10) attributes the replacement of ideology with discourse to the self-identified post-Marxist, Ernesto Laclau. Laclau and (Chantal) Mouffe furthered the break, initiated by Gramsci, in which ideologies are no longer pre-formed systems of “ideas” that “political protagonists wielded in the class struggle” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 491). The focus in their account shifts to the place of the subject in the reproduction of ruling relations, “the way in which the interpellation of subject positions operates systematically to reinforce and reproduce dominant social relations” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 473). 

According to Larner (2000: 12), “it is a short step from ideology to discourse”. It involves a move from Gramsci to Foucault, and from neo-Marxism to post-structuralism.  She elaborates the theoretical distinction involved in the shift from ideology to discourse:

“In post-structuralist literatures, discourse is understood not simply as a form of rhetoric disseminated by hegemonic economic and political groups, nor as the framework within which people represent their lived experience, but rather as a system of meaning that constitutes institutions, practices and identities in contradictory and disjunctive ways.” (Larner 2000: 12)

But, of course, the term “discourse” is used in many, many ways (see Bacchi 2005) and I think it fair to say that not all these usages match the characterization offered by Larner. I’ll dare to be provocative and suggest that in some accounts “discourse” actually turns out to be a near synonym for “ideology”, used in the pejorative sense of classical Marxist accounts (see previous entry Sept 2021). 

Vivian Burr (1995, chapter 5) explains that there are at least four meanings of ideology operating in contemporary social analysis, and that the old Marxian notion of ideology as false consciousness is generally rejected by contemporary theorists. Some time ago, I wrote an article on “policy as discourse” (Bacchi 2000) where I suggested that there is actually, at least in the policy-as-discourse literature, slippage around some of these issues. Specifically, I (2000: 51) identified a tendency among some theorists to treat discourses as resources marshalled by those “in power” to contain and constrain those described as “lacking power”: 

“In policy-as-discourse analysis, there is a tendency to concentrate on the ability of some groups rather than others to make discourse, and on some groups rather than others as effected or constituted in discourse”. (Bacchi 2000: 52; emphasis added)

I also noted in that article the tendency among policy-as-discourse theorists to continue to use the term “ideology”, indicating that “Interests, or power blocs, operate as sometimes unnamed actors in policy-as-discourse analyses” (Bacchi 2000: 53).

Where the new terminology (i.e., “discourse”) is adopted, the perspective advanced often continues to accept a view of power as repressive and of domination as produced by specific groups or interests. As Keller (2011: 48) notes in his assessment of Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis, such research “implies that the researcher knows and unmasks the ideological and strategic use of language by ‘those in power’ in order to ‘manipulate the people’.” It is this view that I sometimes see creeping into applications of WPR, a direction that concerns me.

As I forecast above, I would now like to introduce a selection of authors who are involved in resurrecting “ideology” as a useful theoretical concept. Put simply, these authors argue that it is possible and necessary to move past earlier Marxist conceptions of ideology in order to understand the operations of power in contemporary social relations. I intend to single out a few of the “new ideology critics” to explain what they do differently. I will also draw attention to what I consider to be lingering vestiges of Marxist “ideology critique” in these accounts. Specifically, I find an adaptation of a version of “false consciousness”, accompanied by an assumption that researchers are epistemically privileged in their ability to “see through” “ideology”. I agree here with Sankaran who concludes that the “new ideology critics” reproduce an understanding of “ideology” in which ruling relations are perpetuated because, in various complex ways, the masses are “in the grip” of “a collective epistemic distortion or irrationality that helps maintain bad social arrangements” (Sankaran 2019: Abstract).

The German Professor Rahel Jaeggi (2009) might be described as leading the current interest in this revival of “ideology”, with the publication into English of a chapter entitled “Rethinking Ideology”. As Prinz and Rossi (2017: 344) point out, Jaeggi understands “ideology” in the context of the “entangled relationship between diagnostic analysis and criticism”. The researcher begins with a diagnosis of what is “wrong” in the world, indicating a realist philosophical stance. With the diagnosis in place, it becomes possible to criticise belief systems that reflect this “wrong reality”. Jaeggi (2009: 76) emphasizes that she is not saying that people are deluded or that their ideas reflect a “cognitive deficiency”, but that their ideas reflect a “deficient reality”. So, we end up with a “necessary false consciousness” (Jaeggi 2009: 68). Claiming that it is possible to describe a “reality” as “wrong”, I suggest, presumes access to the “truth” of a situation, indicating the epistemic privilege that troubles those who critique “ideology critique” (see previous Research Hub entry; 30 Sept. 2021).

Along related lines, Bianchin (2021) accepts that ideology “may be said to be ‘simultaneously true and false’”. 

“It is true to the facts because it represents existing power relations. It is false because it represents the latter as natural, rational, universal, and thus beyond contestation”. (Bianchin 2021: 186)

The reference to “facts” indicates the realist starting point for the analysis. Ideological beliefs are said to result from “systematic distortions in the process of belief formation that can be traced back to existing power relations” (Bianchim 2021: 86). Ideology critique becomes transformative through exposing the “epistemically causal history” of ideological beliefs and unveiling their “delusional nature” (Bianchin 2021: 187). Given this explanation, I find unconvincing the claims that this perspective presumes no “epistemic privilege”, nor that it “allows belief formation to undergo systematic distortions without crediting agents with pervasive irrationality” (Bianchin 2019: 328). 

Haslanger (2017: 149; emphasis added) starts from the premise that “problematic networks of social meanings constitute an ideology”. Hence, she accepts from the outset a pejorative understanding of ideology that presumes the ability to pass judgement on what (in “reality”) is problematic and what is not problematic. She states that “ideology functions to stabilize or perpetuate unjust power relations and domination and does so through some form of masking or illusion”, suggesting the inability of the masses to “see through” these deceptions. The task of “ideology critique” is to reveal “this distortion, occlusion and misrepresentation of the facts” and to draw attention to “the unjust conditions that such illusions and distortions enable” (Haslanger 2017: 150). Ideology critics, hereby, are credited with an ability to identify and expose “distortions” (untruths). 

Haslanger makes “ideology” largely synonymous with “culture”, though I cannot see how “culture” would be equated with “problematic networks of social meanings”. She is particularly interested in exposing how “culture” sustains patterns of racial and gender injustice. This focus on “culture”, arguably, could be seen to align with the emphasis in Foucauldian-influenced accounts, such as WPR, on “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault 1994: 456). However, in these accounts, there is no suggestion that social actors are being deceived nor that researchers have privileged access to some “truth” about the workings of the world. In Haslanger (2017: 152), by contrast, individuals “in the grip of an ideology fail to appreciate what they are doing or what’s wrong with it, and so are often unmotivated, if not resistant, to change”. In her view, they are not “stupid or ignorant” but “complicit”, failing “to appreciate the wrongs in question” (Haslanger 2017: 160). In addition, Haslanger’s (2017: 157) descriptions of the operations of ideology tend to rely on a conception of power as repressive as opposed to the productive understanding in Foucault-influenced accounts (see previous Research Hub entry; 30 Sept. 2021): “For example, the interstate highway system in the United States was constructed largely to serve the interests of affluent whites”, described as “those in power”.  

With the “new ideology critics” mentioned above (i.e. Jaeggi, Bianchin and Haslanger), Celikates (2018: 206) starts his analysis from realist premises. He states that “critique has to be based in an analysis of social reality and its contradictions”. He also identifies as “one of the main tasks of critical theory” to “analyze and bring to the agents’ attention the distortions that block them from addressing and overcoming obstacles to emancipation” (Celikates 2018: 212). 

These four recent proponents of “ideology critique”, I suggest, display vestiges of the classical Marxist position. Specifically, individuals continue to be portrayed as “deluded” by “distortions”, perpetrated by select “interest groups”. Moreover, critical researchers are positioned as able to undertake the task of “unveiling” these “distortions”. 

Koopman (2011: 4) identifies Foucault as “one of our most important and viable alternatives” to the resurrection of these again-fashionable forms of grand theorizing and ideologiekritik”, purveyed under the names of Freud and Marx, Lacan and Althusser, and most recently Zizek and Laclau. He argues that 

“… in contrast to these massive theoretical apparatuses, which would propose to yield extraordinary explanatory power, Foucault offers us a cautious and skeptical empiricism, according to which the work of thought is a difficult labor, and one that is always stacked up against the heavy weight of the historical past that conditions us”.

Koopman (2011: 4) makes a case for the advantages of Foucauldian genealogical analysis, which brings contingencies to light, over against the reliance “on invisible necessities characteristic of Ideologiekritiken”. As Veyne (1997: 156) explains, there is no “prime mover” in Foucault. Nothing exists transhistorically: “everything is historical, everything depends on everything else” (Veyne 1997: 170 fn 7). As a result, Foucault’s accounts have the effect of denying that there is a “single profound and sinister story” to tell about current relations of power and domination (Koopman 2011: 7). 

The proliferation of born-again “ideology critique” accounts is a curious phenomenon that I suspect may be connected to current debates about “fake news” and the desperate desire to have a “truth” to offer in its place. In the following entry I consider the phenomenon dubbed “postcritique” as another, quite different, response to this “ontological anxiety” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2017: 29). Having spent two long entries insisting on important distinctions between Foucault-influenced analysis and “ideology critique”, this next entry will come as something of a surprise. There I intend to consider the “postcritique” argument that there is more that unites these positions than separates them, and that it is time to move on from “negative critique”.  


Bacchi, C. 2000. Policy as Discourse: What does it mean? Where does it get us? Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 21(1): 45-57. 

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

Bianchin, M. 2019. Explaining Ideology: Mechanisms and Metaphysics. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 50(4): 313-337. 

Bianchin, M. 2021. Ideology, Critique, and Social Structures. Critical Horizons, 22(2): 184-196.

Burr, V. 1995. An Introduction to Social Constructionism. NY: Routledge.

Celikates, R. 2018. Critical Theory and the Unfinished Project of Mediating Theory and Practice. In P. E. Gordon, E. Haspen and A. Honeth (Eds) The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School. NY: Routledge. pp. 206-220. 

Fairclough, N. 2013. Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Policy Studies. Critical Policy Studies, 7: 177-197.

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Haslanger, S. 2017. Culture and Critique (in S. Haslanger and C. Chambers, Ideology and Critique). Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume XCI, doi: 10.1093/arisup/akx001 

Jaeggi, R. 2009. Rethinking Ideology. In B. de Bruin and C. F. Zurn (Eds) New Waves in Political Philosophy. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 63-86.

Keller, R. 2011. The Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse (SKAD). Human Studies, 34: 43-65.

Koopman, C. 2011. Foucault across the disciplines: introductory notes on contingency in critical inquiry. History of the Human Sciences, 24(4): 1-12.  

Larner, W. 2000. Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality. Studies in Political Economy, 63: 5-25.

Lorenzini, D. and Tazzioli, M. 2020. Critique without Ontology: Genealogy, collective subjects and the deadlocks of evidence. Radical Philosophy, 2.07, Spring. 

Prinz, J. and Rossi, E. 2017. Political Realism as Ideology Critique. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 29(3): 334-348.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … The British Journal of Sociology, 44(3): 473-499.

Sankaran, K. 2020. What’s new in the new ideology critique? Philosophical Studies, 177: 1441-1462 

Veyne, P. 1997. Foucault revolutionizes history. In A Davidson (Ed.) Foucault and his Interlocutors. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 146-182

“Ideology critique” and its discontents

This and the subsequent entry examine the theoretical development referred to as “ideology critique”. I need to make it clear that the target for analysis is this particular phrase “ideology critique”, though I will also discuss briefly the various meanings of “ideology” and indeed of “critique”. Let me explain why I think this focus on “ideology critique” is justified.

The phrase “ideology critique” most obviously refers to the critique of ideology and many analysts happily describe what they do as “ideology critique”. The phrase, however, is commonly used by researchers who wish to distance themselves from the forms of analysis associated with this term. As Freeden (2020: 15) describes, the term “ideology critique” is used in the “context of a sphere of mainly hostile intellectual and scholarly activity”. That is, the term “ideology critique” is often used by those who wish to criticise it – those who wish to critique “ideology critique”. For example, you are likely to encounter the term in the work of analysts who specify that they offer a form of critical analysis that goes beyond “ideology critique”, with the distinct implication that “ideology critique” is limited in its ability to analyse sociopolitical relations (Sum and Jessop 2015). 

To indicate the target of their critique, these researchers put the phrase in quotation marks (“ideology critique”), use a hyphen (“ideology-critique”; Markus 1995) or use the German word ideologiekritik, which combines the two terms in one concept. Poststructuralists are most likely to use these shorthands to signal a theoretical position they consider to be limited. Indeed, I have done so myself on occasion. Unfortunately, just what the phrase refers to often goes unspecified. There are, as we shall see, many forms of ideology critique (Strickland 2012: 56). I hope in this entry to clarify what it is about “ideology critique” that concerns poststructuralists, why they feel the need to go beyondit. Put briefly, poststructuralists resist interpretations that describe “ideology” as a distorted view of the world imposed on subjects by powerful “interests” (elaboration below). 

Why is this topic relevant and, specifically, why is it relevant to engagement with WPR? I felt the need to explore this topic because it seemed to me that many analysts who offer applications of WPR accept the premises of a form of “ideology critique” that sits uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian-influenced analysis such as WPR. Specifically, there is the tendency to want to use the WPR questions to explain the ways in which “vested interests” control social arrangements, often through the manipulation of “ideas” and “beliefs”. For Foucauldian-influenced forms of analysis, such as WPR, such arguments oversimplify the ways in which governing takes place and paint an overly bleak picture of whether or how social change may be possible. In the subsequent Research Hub entry I will discuss the new wave of theoretical interest in “ideology” and will consider if the “new ideology critics” (Sankaran 2020) offer a form of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 

Readers may recall that on other occasions I have adopted Tanesini’s (1994: 207) approach to concepts that places an emphasis on their political implications. That is, Tanesini insists that concepts have no intrinsic meaning but that they are “proposals about how we are to proceed from here”. Elsewhere I have suggested that WPR can be applied to theoretical premises and to concepts since in both cases they put forward forms of proposal (Bacchi 2018: 7). Hence, it would be possible to apply WPR to various forms of ideology critique. I do some of this analysis in this and the subsequent entry, with the WPR questions integrated into the analysis. I focus in particular on Question 5 and the political effects or implications that accompany specific understandings of ideology and ideology critique (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

In effect, then, this entry follows the argument in the previous entry on “mixed methods” (31 August 2021), where I suggest that it is necessary to reflect on the paradigmatic distinctions in our research approaches (see Bacchi 2016). I contend that it is possible to do this without being obstructionist and that it is useful to open up conversations about the political implications that accompany specific theoretical positions. 

To begin, the term “ideology” features in political theory is two quite different ways. Nowicka-Franczak (2021) helpfully distinguishes between a descriptive and a normative usage (see also Geuss 1981). Approached descriptively, ideology refers to clusters of ideas or political positions/views. These can be associated with particular groups, such as liberals, conservatives or neo-liberals. Or, more expansively, ideology is seen as the “general sphere of consciousness of all humans” (Strickland 2012: 48).

The second, normative meaning carries a pejorative connotation. Ideology is used to refer to false ideas, misleading perceptions, a mask that distorts our views of the world. In classical Marxist theory, these ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes. They are the product of material economic arrangements, specifically the “modes of production” (Herzog 2018: 402). The phrase “false consciousness” is commonly adopted to refer to these “distorted” views. 

These two meanings of ideology, the normative and the descriptive, fit the distinction Eagleton (1994) draws between what he calls “two lineages of ideology”, one “preoccupied with ideas of true and false cognition” (the pejorative meaning), and the other “concerned more with the function of ideas within social life rather than with their reality or unreality” (the more descriptive meaning). Whereas in the first lineage the focus is on ideology as “necessarily repressive and as an instrument of a ruling class or group to uphold a status quo to its advantage”, in the second, ideology is a “phenomenon that exists in marginalised as well as hegemonic groups” (Sarkowsky and Stein 2020). In this more general meaning, ideology is not just negative; rather, it serves an integrative function. As Nowicka-Franczak (2020: 173) points out, however, all statements about ideology usually have a normative character (and I would say pejorative), “which the speaker may not be aware of, but which may still be identified by a critically-minded addressee”. When we say that someone is spouting “ideology”, it is hardly intended to be a compliment! 

The pejorative meaning of ideology is associated with classical Marxist ideology critique. This negative sense of ideology as “false consciousness” was “the most common usage in the Marxist tradition until the last part of the twentieth century” (Strickland 2012: 112). Each society, in this account, develops only one ideology that “serves the interests of dominant classes and capital” (Luke 2017: 177). 

The focus on “false consciousness” was, among other things, an attempt to “understand how relations of domination or subordination are reproduced with only minimal resort to direct coercion” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 474). However, “false consciousness” is interpreted in a variety of ways. Marx and Engels target the “distorted beliefs intellectuals held about society and the power of their own ideas” (Eyerman 1981: 43). By contrast, post-Marxists, including Gramsci, Althusser and the early Frankfurt School (Daldal 2014: 157) are more concerned with the “false consciousness” of the working class. In the latter explanation, “false consciousness” served as a convenient explanation “for the reluctance of oppressed workers to rise in revolt” (Strickland 2012: 48).  Ideology, in this account, hampers the capacity of subjects to detect relations of domination and induces them to “cooperate in their own subjection” (Bianchin 2020: 314).

The role of the researcher in classical Marxist accounts is to find a way through “false consciousness” with “rational, scientific inquiry” (Simons and Billig 1994: 1).  Relatedly, in his dream of “some kind of power-free analysis of society”, Althusser insisted that Marxism is a science, “able to function through the relative autonomous scientific rationality that breaks with ordinary and ideological knowledge” (Simons 2015: 70-71). In Gramsci “organic” intellectuals had to work to “re-educate and transform the false consciousness that makes hegemonic rule possible” (Eyerman 1981: 47). In each case Intellectuals are presumed able to see through the mask of ideology. 

Let us turn now to those who engage in the critique of “ideology critique”. They have two main objections to classical Marxist ideology critique and to the early post-Marxists: first, that the notion of “false consciousness” presumes the existence of a “true consciousness”; and second that certain analysts are presumed to occupy a privileged epistemic position from which they are able to identify “true consciousness” and “a smarter take on what’s really going on” (MacLure 2015: 6).

Both these concerns about “ideology critique” are relevant to WPR applications. If at some level there is the impression that the researcher has access to a better “truth” and indeed is located such that access to “truth” is possible, these contentions sit uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian approach. The pivotal place of self-problematization in WPR, indicated in Step 7 of the approach, counters any such impression of epistemic privilege: “Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).

In the remainder of this entry I will elaborate the qualms that postructuralists harbor about ideology critique, as articulated in the examples above. In the discussion I will touch on the following themes: conceptions of power, conceptions of the subject, governmentality, the question of epistemic privilege, and the political implications of specific theoretical stances. 

At the risk of oversimplification, I’d like to suggest that Marxist uses of ideology critique and Foucauldian analyses start from different questions – the first is primarily concerned with why there was no proletarian revolution (which had been predicted by Marx); the second, Foucauldian perspective is concerned with how governing takes place. While it would be useful to discuss possible overlaps in these starting points, I will be emphasizing the importance of the distinctions between them. 

Coté (2007: 52) suggests that a contrast can be drawn between the Marxist emphasis on the “false” – that is, on the practice of distortion by powerful groups – whereas in Foucault the emphasis is on “fabrication”, referring to the processes by which the “real” is produced. Fabrication is a tricky word given its common understanding as a form of invention. For Foucault, fabrication (borrowing Coté’s term) means solely “production”, how something is made, or how something comes to be. 

These two stances conceive of power quite differently. Classical Marxist ideology critics conceptualise power as “control over a given group of people by bodies that have certain moral norms as well as legal, institutional and material resources at their disposal, thanks to which they can exercise power and influence social sentiments” (Nowicka-Franczak 2021: 174). By contrast, the poststructuralist concept of power is understood as “dispersed constellations of technologies and practices which are correlated with knowledge and which help produce specific models of subjectivity”, commonly described as “governmentality” (Nowicka-Franzak 2021: 174). Whereas the focus in classical Marxist accounts is on power as repressive, in Foucault one examines how power relations produce “the real”. In a paper with Malin Rönnblom (2011: 9), I elaborate this point:

“What Foucault wants to show is that things we take to be ‘real’ and ‘true’ (hence ‘knowledge’) is not something transcendental but the product of human practices. The specific practices he identifies as forming ‘a discursive practice’ are the set of historically contingent and specific rules that produce forms of knowledge. He (1972: 102) explains that what is going on here is not a matter of manipulation or distortion, and hence is ‘both much more and much less than ideology’. What is going on is that ‘the real’ is produced through ‘technologies of truth’ (de Goede 2006: 7).

In these different accounts, the subject is conceptualized in sharply contrasted ways. The focus in classical Marxism is on the ways in which subjects are misled by those in power so that they end up, unknowingly, supporting regimes that oppress them. By contrast, in Foucault, subjects are not dupes of repressive power; rather, they are produced as particular kinds of subjects through processes of subjectification. For example, Miller and Rose (1997: 2) argue that “making up the subject of consumption” has been a complex technical process: 

“… less a matter of dominating or manipulating consumers than of ‘mobilising’ them by forming connections between human passions, hopes and anxieties, and very specific features of goods enmeshed in particular consumption practices”.

The role of researchers in the two approaches is also sharply contrasted. Whereas in classical Marxism researchers deploy scientific methods to discover suppressed “truths”, in Foucault (2000) researchers display an “ethic of discomfort”, always prepared to put in question their own analyses.  Recognizing their location within governing practices, they display heightened sensitivity to the ways in which emancipatory programs can be involved in oppression (Popkewitz 1998). McLeod (2011) contrasts this stance with those “critical pedagogists” who are trapped within a model in which they are the leaders and students are the followers. As Lather (1991: 15) explains:

The suspicion of the intellectual who both objectifies and speaks for others inveighs us to develop a kind of self-reflexivity that will enable us to look closely at our own practice in terms of how we contribute to dominance in spite of our liberatory intentions. 

In Foucauldian-influenced analyses, such as WPR, there is a shift in focus from the grand theorizing of a force called ideology to the minutiae of routine and mundane practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). Returning to the question of how governing takes place, government (read broadly) is seen as “a practical and technical domain not reducible to philosophy or ideology” (Dean 2002: 119-120). The suggestion here is that, while conceptualizing power as the distortion of truth and focussing on the deformation of subjectivity can provide important insights into the working of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and the like, these perspectives are less helpful “in visualizing the detailed workings of the forms of thought and practice that shaped our contemporary existence and experience” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 3). Marxist explanations, it is argued, could not address the new forms of liberal governmentality, their associated technologies of power, and new forms of subjectivation – hence, the determination to move beyond “ideology critique” (Jessop 2010: 4). At a minimum, Rose and Miller (2008) feel essential the need to go beyond the economic reductionism of Marxism signalled in the focus on the accumulation and distribution of capital to “explore the accumulation and distribution of persons and their capacities” (in Jessop 2010: 18). 

 As I signalled at the outset, I believe it is important to consider these contrasting perspectives on forms of rule in terms of their political implications (Question 5 of WPR). By this I mean how particular theoretical positions “shape our readings of the scope and content of possible political interventions” (Larner 2000: 6). The major point here is that poststructuralists offer a more hopeful picture for change. In an evaluation of the poststructural theoretical position described as “performativity”, John Law (2008: 637) explains how this happens:

“It is to refuse to be overawed by seemingly large systems, and the seeming ontological unity of the world enacted by large systems. It is, instead, to make the problem smaller, or better, to make it more specific.”

While Foucault “espouses a clear commitment to unravelling domination”, he is “concerned to avoid any homogenization of domination” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 487), creating room to move. To this end Foucault practices a style of research in which the “grand complexes” of conventional sociology – classes, institutions, cultures, beliefs, ideologies – are studied through the “mundane practices of the prison, the hospital, the school, the courtroom, the household, the town planner and colonial governor”: “The new problems and connections that come into view, precisely because of the level of detail at which they are described, seem to become more amenable to action and transformation” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 9-10).

In the following entry I consider the relationship between conceptions of ideology and the notion of discourse. I also comment on a wave of “new ideology critics” to see just what is new in their accounts and if these accounts offer a version of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 


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

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

Bianchin, M. 2020. Explaining Ideology: Mechanisms and Metaphysics. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 50(4): 313-337.

Billig, M. and Simons, H. W. 1994. Introduction. In H. W. Simons and M. Billig (Eds) After Postmodernism: Reconstructing Ideology Critique. London: Sage. pp. 1-11.

Coté, M. 2007. The Italian Foucault: Communication, Networks, and the Dispositif. PhD thesis, Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Daldal, A. 2014. Power and Ideology in Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci: A Comparative Analysis. Review of History and Political Science, 2(2): 149-167.

Dean, M. 2002. Powers of Life and Death Beyond Governmentality, Cultural Values, 6(1-2): 119-138. 

de Goede, Marieke 2006. ‘International Political Economy and the Promises of Poststructuralism’ in M. de Goede (ed.) International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1-20. 

Eagleton, T. 1994. Ideology: An Introduction. NY: Routledge.

Eyerman, R. 1981. False Consciousness and Ideology in Marxist Theory. Acta Sociologica, 24(1-2): 43-56. 

Foucault, Michel 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault M.2000. For an ethics of discomfort. In: Faubion JD, ed. Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Volume III. New York, NY: The New Press; 2000: 443–448. 

Freeden, M. 2020. Ideologiekritik – a Critique. In K. Sarkowsky and M. U. Stein (Eds) Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts. Brill. pp. 15-29.

Geuss, R. 1981. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Herzog, B. 2018. Marx’s critique of ideology for discourse analysis: from analysis of ideologies to social critique, Critical Discourse Studies, 15(4): 402-413.

Jessop, B. 2010. Constituting Another Foucault Effect. Foucault on States and Statecraft. Preprint version, published in: U. Bröckling, S. Krasmann, T. Lemke, eds, Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges. NY: Routledge. pp. 56-73. 

Larner, W. 2000. Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality. Studies in Political Economy, 63: 5-25.

Lather, P. 1991. Getting Smart: Feminist Research and PedagogyWith/In the Postmodern. New York: Routledge.

Law, J. 2008. On sociology and STS. The Sociological Review,56(4): 623-649.

Luke, A. 2017. No Grand Narrative in Sight: On Double Consciousness and Critical Literacy. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice, 66: 157-182. 

MacLure, M. 2016. The “new materialisms”: a thorn in the flesh of critical qualitative inquiry? Author pre-publication copy. In G. Cannella, M.S. Perez & P. Pasque (eds) Critical Qualitative Inquiry: Foundations and Futures. California: Left Coast Press. (30 May 2015) ISBN: 9781629580128 

Markus, G. 1995. On Ideology-critique: Critically. Thesis Eleven, 43: 66-99.

McLeod, J. 2011. Student Voice and the politics of listening in higher education. Critical Studies in Education, 52(2): 179-189.

Miller, P. and Rose, N. 1997. Mobilizing the Consumer: Assembling the Subject of Consumption. Theory, Culture & Society, 14(1): 1-36. 

Nowicka-Franczak, M. 2021. Between the right-wing and the left-wing: the retelling of the Polish systemic transition as a discursive and ideological practice, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 16:2, 171-187, DOI:10.1080/17447143.2021.1941063

Popkewitz, T. 1998. The Culture of Redemption and the Administration of Freedom as Research. Review of Educational Research, 68(1): 1-34.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … The British Journal of Sociology, 44(3): 473-499. 

Rabinow, P. and Rose, N. 2003. Introduction: Foucault Today. In P. Rabinow and N. Rose (Eds) The Essential Foucault: Selections from the Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984. NY: New Press. pp. 1-30. 

Rönnblom, M. and Bacchi, C. 2011. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – What’s Discursive About It? Limitations of conventional political studies paradigms. 2nd European Conference on Politics and Gender, Budapest, 13-15 January. 

Sankaran, K. 2020. What’s new in the new ideology critique? Philosophical Studies, 177: 1441-1462.

Sarkowsky, K. and Stein, M. U. 2020. Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts – an Introduction. In K. Sarkowsky and M. U. Stein (Eds) Ideology in Postcolonial Texts and Contexts. Brill. pp. 1-12.

Simons, M. 2015. Beyond Ideology: Althusser, Foucault and French Epistemology, Pulse: A Journal of History, Sociology and Philosophy of Science, 3: 62-77.

Strickland, R. 2012. The Western Marxist Concept of Ideology Critique. VNU Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 28 (5E): 47-56.  

Sum, N-L. and Jessop, B. 2015. Cultural Political Economy and Critical Policy Studies: Developing a Critique of Domination. In F. Fischer, D. Torgerson, A. Durnová, and M. Orsini (Eds) Handbook of Critical Policy Studies. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. pp. 128-150.Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon and M. Whitford (Eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology.  NY: Routledge


What about “hybrids” and “mixed methods”? Is WPR the “bad cop”?

In approaching today’s topic, I spent the morning reading earlier entries to the Research Hub on related themes. I was amazed at the range of topics I have broached over the past three years. Someone really ought to advise me to get a life! 

My goal in re-reading the selected contributions was two-fold: first, to see if I have developed a consistent position on the topic of mixed methods and hybrids; and second, to see if there was any point in revisiting the topic. On the first point, I found that I have more-or-less developed my position in relation to some wonderful material I engaged over these years – thinking here of Primdahl et al. (2018),Roseneil (2011), St Pierre (2014), Mol (1999, 2002), Law (2004), Jackson and Mazzei (2012), and many others. Today I report on my current stance on these issues, leaving open the possibility that down the track I will read something that causes me to modify my position. That is what intellectual exchange is all about!

Many researchers propose blending WPR with other research approaches as an explicit strategy. In this entry I aim to look at one such proposal by Van Aswegan et al. (2019) because it helps me to reflect on the suggestion that useful research requires theoretical “hybrids” or “mixed methods”. In their exposition of CDPR (critical discourse problematization framework), the authors defend the need for a “good cop/bad cop” approach to research methods, with WPR characterized as the “bad cop” while a form of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 1995; Hyatt 2013a) serves as the “good cop”. I wish to explain and challenge the grounds for this characterization of WPR because I am concerned that others may find its simplicity attractive. However, first, I need to review some of the long-standing debates about method, methodological pluralism and “eclecticism”.

As a starting point, I find helpful Van Aswegan et al.’s distinction between, on the one hand, theoretical lenses, such as Critical Disability Studies, Post-Colonial Studies or feminist studies and, on the other hand, theoretical tools, such as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA; Fairclough 1995) or critical higher education policy discourse analysis (CHEPDA; Hyatt 2013a). In my understanding “tools” provide analytic techniques whereas “lenses” can be said to refer to selected aspects of social relations (topic areas). I would add that “tools” reflect contrasting paradigms whereas “lenses” can and do cross paradigmatic lines. For example, both disability studies (Meekosha and Shuttleworth 2009) and feminist studies (Davis, 2008; Scott 2005) are characterized by intense internal debates about paradigmatic assumptions. Paradigms are understood to reflect competing worldviews due to contrasting ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions (Alvesson and Sandberg 2011: 255). In a paper on problematizations in health policy, I identify four dominant paradigms in health policy research: positivism, interpretivism, critical realism and poststructuralism (Bacchi 2016).

In terms of the heuristic distinction between “lenses” and “tools”, WPR provides a “tool” for critical analysis that can be applied using a variety of “lenses” – e.g., disability studies (see Apelmo 2021), post-colonial studies (see Gordon 2011), feminist studies (see O’Hagan 2020). As a “tool”, WPR reflects a particular theoretical stance and paradigm, Foucault-influenced poststructuralism (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). Hence, it does not sit easily alongside theoretical interventions that dispute poststructural premises and posit quite different ways of seeing the world. Elsewhere, for example, I reflect on the epistemological and ontological tensions between a poststructuralist and a critical realist perspective (see Bacchi 2016; Research Hub entries 30 Nov. 2020; 28 Feb. 2021). Hence, I would question the ways in which Windle et al. (2018) and Holding et al. (2021) combine WPR with Critical Realism in their analyses. And for the same reason, I suggest that WPR cannot serve on Van Aswegan et al.’s research team as the “bad cop” to Fairclough’s “good cop”. Fairclough (2013: p. 185) declares himself committed to “(critical) realism” and a “moderate constructivism”, in which the point of critique is to ask “what the problems really are”. Given the paradigmatic tensions between poststructuralism and Fairclough’s CDA (see Research Hub entry 14 May 2018), therefore, WPR and CDA do not work “in harmony with each other” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 195) and the political implications of the paradigmatic tensions between them need to be carefully considered (see below). 

The mention of paradigms as important in this context is contentious. There are expressed fears about “line drawing” and claims to theoretical purity. Going further, to suggest that paradigms are significant in shaping research approaches can appear to be obstructionist, preventing constructive dialogue among researchers. I would, in fact, like to claim the opposite – that saying that paradigms matter (Bacchi 2016) produces the grounds for constructive dialogue. This dialogue would involve researchers in interrogating the deep-seated ontological and epistemological premises that shape their work and in considering how those premises matter to the arguments they craft and the propositions they advance. 

Readers will recognize here a theme that has appeared in previous entries (e.g., 10 Dec. 2017 on ontological politics) – the claim that methods are not innocent and that they shape realities (see Mol 1999, 2002; Law 2004). Approaches to political studies are not simply forms of analysis; rather, they are techniques of “truth” production and forms of political intervention. John Law provides this useful example: by deploying concepts such as “nation-state” unproblematically, analysts actually reinforce them. Hence, they produce a reality of nation-states. This “performativity of method” (Law 2004: 149-150) creates a responsibility to reflect on the “realities” one’s methods create. 

For example, as I argued with Malin Rönnblom some years ago (Bacchi and Rönnblom 2014), it is important to initiate a conversation that examines theoretical stances in terms of the politics they make possible. There we made the case that poststructural theoretical approaches make an important political contribution by pluralising the relations that constitute “the real” and refusing the temptation to freeze these relations. Borrowing from Michael Shapiro (1992: 12), the objective is to challenge what “is” as what “must be”, to loosen “the grip” of the assumed “facticity” of established institutions and power relations. This position leads to Fraser’s (2020) argument that what is needed is “ontopolitically-oriented research”, research that produces alternative socio-political relations. 

The issue of “mixed methods” in political studies (and in other fields) has a long history. A Sage Journal of Mixed Methods Research commenced in 2007, signalling a trend towards “methodological eclecticism”. This trend was prompted by impatience with “rigid paradigm adherence” and “endless disputation regarding qualitative and quantitative forms of inquiry” (Yanchar and Williams 1989: 3). Countering an “incompatibility thesis” which “suggests that methods based on contradictory theoretical assumptions cannot be coherently mixed in a single study or set of studies”, Howe (1988) put forward a “compatibility thesis” that held the opposite – that “methods are essentially disengaged from paradigms and able to be mixed any way that researchers desire without theoretical incompatibility, contradiction, or implication”. There were also links between the call for “methodological eclecticism” and American pragmatism, advising researchers to pursue “what works” in context (see Research Hub entry 30 April 2018). 

In reaction to this position, Yanchar and Williams (1989: 3) insisted on the need to “take seriously the inescapable assumptions and values that accompany the use of a method and the pursuit of practically useful results”. They opted, therefore, for a “softer version of the incompatibility thesis” that allows for “methodological flexibility”. They put forward five guidelines for method use to move beyond both “methodological eclecticism and paradigm rigidity”: contextual sensitivity, creativity, conceptual awareness, coherence and critical reflection. Under “conceptual awareness” they noted that “researchers and evaluators would appropriately emphasize the theoretical nature of their methods and their work by identifying assumptions, values and moral commitments that have practical and theoretical consequences”. The criteria of critical reflection would entail researchers acknowledging “the assumptive framework” they adopt as “fallible, alterable and, in need of critical examination” (Yanchar and Williams 1989: 9).

These suggestions signal a perspective close to the stance I take at the outset of this entry – that constructive dialogue among researchers would involve researchers in interrogating the deep-seated ontological and epistemological premises that shape their work and in considering how those premises matter to the arguments they craft and the propositions they advance. Yanchar and Williams (1989: 9) also usefully qualify the proposition that “method choices should be driven by questions”, insisting on the need for “continued reflection on the fundamental nature of research questions”. 

Two decades after Yanchar and Williams’ (1989) important contribution, Wolf (2010) examined the trend towards triangulation and mixing methods in comparative public policy research. Wolf’s contribution is made interesting by his admission in an opening footnote that his analysis reflects his position as “some kind of realist” alongside his claim that it is possible to 

“subscribe to a pluralist view that welcomes different basic assumptions as at least potentially enriching in certain research contexts (cf Moses & Knutsen 2007: 289) – notwithstanding the need to discuss possible incompatibilities within every concrete research design” (Wolf 2010: 160-161 note 1). 

It is this last proposition that is the most difficult to enact and unfortunately Wolf fails to test his own analytic assumptions in the way he recommends. For example, he starts his article with a mainstream, realist view of the topic for analysis, describing comparative public policy as “mainly concerned with ‘what governments do, why they do it, and what difference it makes’ (Dye, 1976)”. Moreover, his criteria for assessing method use include the need for robustness, rigour and “validity checking” (Wolf 2010: 146) – all concepts that fit comfortably within his self-declared realist premises. Paradigms are clearly at work in Wolf’s evaluation of research approaches despite his defence of “pluralism”.

Similarly, contrasting paradigmatic assumptions sharply distinguish WPR from CDA, challenging Van Aswegan et al.’s (2019: 186, 195) description of the approaches as “complementary”, “in harmony” and forming a “good cop/bad cop” research team. Applying the criteria of conceptual awareness and critical reflection endorsed by Yanchar and Williams (1989), I proceed to list areas and topics where paradigmatic distinctions between the approaches need to be acknowledged. 

  1. At the most basic level the research task Van Aswegan et al. (2019) undertake is markedly different from that pursued in WPR. They (2019: 192) explain that their goal is “examining the ways in which the policy ideas are advanced and justified”. By contrast WPR directs attention to the conceptual logics embedded in policy and other proposals. Van Aswegan et al. (2019: 188; emphasis added) mistakenly describe WPR as targeting “the way in which an issue is represented or put forward by policy makers as the ‘problem’ to be addressed” – which might explain some of the confusion involved in their attempt to “marry” WPR and CDA (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 186). WPR directs attention to problematizations located in governmental texts, not to the understandings or interpretations of policy makers (Bacchi 2015).
  2. Given their expressed interest in “how the policy is legitimated”, unsurprisingly, Van Aswegan et al. target rhetorical devices (“warrants”) and the “power of language” (p. 187) as their primary concerns. On the latter they specify that CDA draws on a systemic functional linguistics approach to language. In WPR by contrast the interest is in discourses as knowledges, not as language use. The authors correctly note that the aim of WPR is “unearthing the conceptual logic operating behind the text” but then suggest that such logics are located in “linguistic paraphernalia” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 191-192). 
  3. There is unevenness in the treatment of intentionality. Whereas the authors acknowledge that a problematization approach does not suggest “misrepresentation or malign intent” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 188), elsewhere Hyatt (2013b: 837) describes policies as “the outcomes of struggles ‘between contenders of competing objectives, where language – or, more specifically, discourse – is used tactically’ (Fulcher 1989:7), suggesting intentionality.
  4. This stance on intentionality is linked to a form of “ideology critique” (see Hyatt 2013b: 839; Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 187) which sits uncomfortably with WPR’s poststructural premises (this topic will be pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry).
  5. Context is emphasized in both WPR and CDA. However, the latter ascribes to a realist perspective in which “context” is an uncontested domain which can simply be described. Linked to this view, CDPR (critical discourse problematization framework) describes genealogy as an exercise involving the “mapping” of CES (Comprehensive Employment Strategy) to “context” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 194). By contrast, genealogy in WPR involves tracing the detailed practices that produce specific governmental problematizations (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 22). In WPR, “contexts” are not uncontested spaces to be “filled in” since reflections on context are themselves interpretive (Bacchi 2009: 21).
  6. While there is acknowledgement that in WPR, policy subjects “are not considered individuals with fixed identities formed through self-directed agency” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 187), it is unclear how this perspective is compatible with the focus on policy actors and their rhetoric. The topic of subjectification – how subjects are constituted in policies – which is a central theme in WPR, goes unmentioned. There is only a passing reference to “reflexive problematization” in Table 1 (p. 191) and reliance on the behavioural psychology theory of “conditioning” (Van Aswegan et al. 2019: 188). 

The overall argument in Van Aswegan et al. (2019: 190) is that WPR provides questions while CDPR, which they describe as a “structural” and “problem-oriented” approach” (pp. 187, 195), provides “evidence” for, or answers to, those questions. It is difficult to see how the two approaches can be “married” given the poststructural premises underpinning WPR and its explicit challenge to “problem-oriented” analyses. 

In WPR, there is no way to think or research outside epistemological and ontological premises. The best way to proceed, therefore, is to acknowledge the tensions among approaches that exist at the paradigmatic level and to discuss them. As signalled above, this discussion ought to focus on the political implications of the methods we adopt and on the “realities” those methods create. The challenge becomes developing arguments to convince researchers committed to alternative paradigms to reflect on the possible usefulness of this proposition, which may prove to be difficult given that it reflects the very poststructural premises those researchers may dispute. Pursuing the possibility of “ontopolitically-oriented research” (Fraser 2020) and illustrating its usefulness as a political intervention may offer a way forward.


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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.

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Title: Do we really need WPR?


Over the last three entries I have developed the argument that WPR, and its sister strategy, PIA (Poststructural Policy Analysis), can be applied productively to a wide range of materials, including some forms of media texts, interviews, legislative debates and other official pronouncements by members of Governments (I use upper case “G” to refer to conventional State institutions). I’ve also indicated in articles and Research Hub entries that WPR can usefully be drawn upon to probe the ways in which buildings, ceremonies, maps, governmental technologies, theoretical propositions and concepts constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems. 

With all these suggestions to expand the ambit of WPR, it may appear, I fear, that I am on some sort of crusade for world domination!  In this entry I intend to elaborate why I find a WPR form of thinking so useful and to examine how it can most effectively be applied. 

The basic insight, or theory of interpretation, of WPR thinking is that what we propose to do about something indicates what we “think” needs to change and hence what is deemed to be problematic. It is necessary to start my reflections on the usefulness of WPR by working through just what this statement means and how it can serve as a “template” for critical analysis, dramatically altering the ways we approach “words and things” (Foucault 1966). 

I ask you to reflect on some change that you would like to make in some field of policy reform – say, for example, domestic violence or Indigenous affairs. What you propose will necessarily involve some form of change in practices and/or procedures. Your proposal is intended to improve the situation in some way. And, so, your “proposal” (or your “proposed solution”) indicates what you believe needs to change and hence what you consider to be problematic or “a problem”, though you may not use that wording. WPR takes this insight and applies it to governmental (read broadly) interventions.

Foucault captured this form of thinking in his references to the “conduct of conduct” (Gordon 1991: 2). He argued that we need to think about how we are governed in a wide range of practices that attempt to shape our behaviours. We need to remember that in this understanding the term “government” (lower case) has a broader meaning than conventional uses of the term that target specific State institutions. Reflecting a governmentality perspective (see Research Hub 19 Nov. 2018) it involves how order is maintained and how society is administered. Hence, we focus on factors that include the activities of “the State” but that also operate “behind” or “outside” the State (Foucault 2007: 162-163). This focus of analysis embraces the plurality of authorities and professionals that seek to govern conduct.  

In WPR, proposals – in an expansive sense – are governmental guides to conduct. Proposed solutions – a term I use as synonymous with proposals – are intended to provide guidance on how to behave. WPR adds the crucial point that we can best understand how governing (understood broadly) takes place by looking at how those proposals (or proposed solutions) problematize an issue and hence produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems (e.g. the introduction of a cashless welfare card produces the “problem” as an inability to manage one’s finances; (

This argument is captured in the claim that proposals (or proposed solutions) contain implicit problem representations. The goal of a WPR analysis is to explore these problematizations (or “problem representations”; see Research Hub 11 June 2018), considering their presuppositions, limits and effects. 

Instead of seeing objects (buildings, maps, etc.) and practices (technologies such as census taking, creating league tables) as (simply) benign and inert, we begin to see them as proposals to shape “conduct”. I repeat the example of school buildings offered by Bottrell and Goodwin (2011: 4) because it makes the point so clearly. They describe how modern schools with their “uni-purpose facilities located on enclosed land, fenced and gated” reflect a “hidden curriculum” that problematizes the moral and cognitive training of young people. That is, the design of the building is a proposal shaping conduct; it problematizes behaviours in specific ways. As another example, Rowse (2009) shows how the current Australian census problematizes Indigenous peoples as part of a population binary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, influencing the shape of possible political claims. 

In WPR we proceed to analyse at some depth how these proposals (buildings, censuses) produce “problems” as problems of particular sorts. To perform this analysis, WPR offers several forms of questioning and analysis to use in opening up “words and things” to critical analysis (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

Where did these questions and forms of analysis come from? 

Question 2 involves a form of Foucauldian archaeology, looking to identify the deep-seated knowledges and logics that make particular forms of thought possible. Question 3 turns to Foucauldian genealogy to help grasp the numerous twists and turns that eventuate in a particular problem representation. Question 4 zooms in on the need to think about the silences in specific problem representations and about other possible problematizations. Question 5 highlights the implications or “effects” (discursive, subjectification, lived) of a particular problem representation, while Question 6 draws attention to the specific practices that install and authorize particular problem representations and to the possibility of contestation. Step 7 (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20) emphasizes the importance of applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals or proposed solutions. 

Rigby et al. (2021: 507) helpfully refer to the questions in WPR as a “conceptual checklist”. Hence, it is to be expected that there will be overlap and repetition. Question 4, for example, on silences clearly overlaps with the attention directed to “discursive effects” in Question 5. Similarly, Step 7 ought to be seen, not as some simple add-on to the analysis, but as integral to the WPR analytic project.

This emphasis on overlap and interconnection among the WPR questions signals the need to examine possible forms of application. I refer readers here to the 2009 book, Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? There I outlined two forms of application, which I described as either systematic – addressing each WPR question separately and in order (see Chapters 3 and 4 in Analysing Policy) – or integrated, in which the WPR questions do not appear in the text. In the latter, the analysis integrates the WPR questions into a carefully argued whole. To illustrate that the WPR questions are at work in the Chapters where I developed this idea of an integrated analysis, I inserted notations, e.g. Q1, Q2, etc., to signal when a particular question is being applied (see Chapters 5 through 10 in Analysing Policy). My article on “alcohol problems” illustrates how an integrated analysis can be produced (Bacchi 2015).

I explain, in Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 92), that Chapters 3 and 4 systematically address each question in the approach separately and sequentially for two reasons: first, to ensure that every question gets raised; and second, to show how the same material can look slightly different through a different lens (question). I also note, however, that “separation of the questions in a WPR approach is not always necessary or even advisable”.

Indeed, the WPR approach offers a form of critical analysis that is commonly performed by poststructural researchers who have never heard of WPR. I “soaked up” the insights produced by these researchers and “packaged” what I perceived to be the key foci that were addressed. WPR emerged as a prompt to perform poststructural critical analysis. Unsurprisingly, then, researchers may indicate in their methodology section that they are adopting (or adapting) WPR but without listing the WPR questions. They simply proceed to produce the analysis. 

I offer Oscar Larsson’s 2021 article as an example (also mentioned in Research Hub entry 30 April 2021). Larsson examines the “preemptive logic of contemporary security and crisis management” to show how “civil and war preparedness are merged into an ever-present dimension of everyday existence”. He offers a “genealogical analysis of this development in Sweden since the end of the Cold War”. His particular interest is the “role now assigned to citizens within social and national security planning”, which he describes as “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject”. 

Larsson (2021: 5) opens his “Method and Material” section noting that:

“An analysis concerned with problem and/or subject descriptions – which in this case are descriptions of the characteristics and responsibilities of citizens in respect to crises and war – can fruitfully utilize Carol Bacchi’s unique approach to policy analysis that she terms “What’s the Problem Represented to be?” This method, which is based upon the premise that policy approaches contain implicit representations of what a problem is considered to be, provides a framework for examining security programmes as specific forms of governmentality. (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 28-29)”

Importantly, Larsson does not list or mention the WPR questions. Nor does he refer to the WPR approach other than in the quote I have just reproduced. However, the analysis in his article clearly raises questions associated with the WPR “template” – in particular, the commitment to produce a genealogy of approaches to civil and war preparedness (Question 3 in WPR), and the particular focus on how subjects are produced as resilient (subjectification effects: Question 5 in WPR). Larsson thus provides an example of an integrated analysis where the WPR questions operate in the background, and do not need to be listed.  

Does the list of WPR questions remain useful? Are there times when reproducing the Chart from Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2) assists or strengthens an argument? Researchers often adopt the list of questions in total, or choose certain questions from the list, to help structure their analysis. This form of application of the approach can work to ensure that readers are better able to follow the argument that is being developed. The list of questions has also proved popular with postgraduate students to help structure a thesis. The wide acceptance of WPR as an analytic device allows these students and other researchers to put forward the list of WPR questions as a “method”, which can be useful in a number of situations, such as making grant applications. 

At times, only some of the WPR questions are selected as the focus for an article or chapter. In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 100-101) I stated that “every question need not always be addressed in every analysis”. I am now more wary of this suggestion because of the tendency, at times, to neglect the interconnected mode of thinking at work in WPR. For example, Step 7 requiring self-problematization commonly disappears from these “tailored” analyses. To guard against this practice, I now state: “In terms of practical application of WPR, it is possible to draw selectively upon the forms of questioning and analysis just described [as part of the approach], so long as a self-problematizing ethic is maintained” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 24; emphasis added).

Still, researchers may wish to foreground aspects of their analysis.  As an example, a researcher may be particularly interested in the subjectification effects (Question 5 in WPR) of a selected policy or policy proposal. They may not be immediately interested in its genealogy (Question 3). Hence, they can signal this emphasis by stipulating which WPR questions they draw upon. However, it is important to keep in mind how a genealogical focus shapes the argument – how the focus in the analysis is on the ways in which present practices emerged but were not determined. Moreover, while I tread warily the path of imposing aspects of WPR, I have found myself increasingly emphasizing the need to undertake Step 7, to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought” (Stengers 2008: 41-42).

In the end, then, researchers do not need the WPR questions, but they may find them useful. Moreover, I speculate that the mode of questioning associated with WPR offers a way of thinking that can dramatically alter how we approach all sorts of topics – our school buildings above provide an example. The approach produces a new lens for questioning how socio-material relations are organized. It challenges any and all assumed “endpoints”, conceiving them instead as problematizations. As examples, consider the targeting of “issues” in Marres’ work (2007) and “matters of concern” in Latour (2004). Applying a WPR lens, there are no “issues” or “matters of concern” that exist outside contestation. Indeed, as explained in an earlier entry (Research Hub 31 Dec. 2020), I would want to ask: “What is the specified matter of concern represented to be?”. To engage critically with that question, I would apply the WPR analytic “template”: start from proposals (or proposed solutions), work backwards to problem representations that require interrogation, and ensure that one’s own proposals receive the same treatment through self-problematization. 

The world looks quite different when we start from proposals in this way and work backwards to see how “problems” are produced as particular sorts of problems. It means, of course, that there are no “problems” per se; the term becomes meaningless. I have had students who tell me that they can no longer read a newspaper or go to a film without considering how what is stated produces a “problem” as a particular sort of problem. My hope continues to be that this novel way of thinking provides a counterpoint to the mindset in the policy world and in many other fields of practice that presumes “problems” are obvious and uncontroversial, and that the only required task is “solving” them. The overarching goal, therefore, is to facilitate critical interrogation of the problem-solving knowledge that shapes and dominates the current intellectual and policy landscape (Bacchi 2020). 


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