Conceptions of “agency”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldsworthy, P. 2019. Minotaur. Viking Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schlosser, M. 2015. “Agency”, Stanford Encyclopedia, 10 August.

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

Conceptions of “practices”: Part 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netz, S., Lempp, S., Krause, K. and Schramm, K. 2019. Claiming citizenship rights through the body multiple. Citizenship Studies,

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

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

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

Conceptions of “practices”: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conceptions of “the subject”: Part 2

Content: I ended the last entry asking about the “subject” in Foucault’s strategy of “counter-conduct”. Importantly, Foucault does not wish to posit a “counter subject” to the humanist subject. Rather, he wants to show what is gained analytically and politically by putting common assumptions about the humanist subject or “human nature” into question. As Butler (1992: 9 in St Pierre 2000: 502-503) explains, “The critique of the subject is not a negation or repudiation of the subject, but, rather, a way of interrogating its construction as a pregiven or foundationalist premise”.

To this end, Foucault (1977: 87) “places within a process of development everything considered immortal to man”, including “feelings”, “instincts” and “the body”. Contra “human nature” he emphasizes the possibility of a changing subject, a subject in process, “a thoroughly contingent human, ‘one’ ever open to (juridical) reinscription” (Golder 2009; see also Golder 2010).

In a recent entry on “Gendering” (30 June 2019) I explain how this view leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “woman” by nature; rather we are constantly becoming “woman”. This proposition lies at the centre of the feminist debates introduced in the previous Research Hub entry (1 September 2019). On one side, the argument is that we need a concept of “woman” to ground political claims, that a Foucauldian stance leaves us with no actors to initiate political projects and drive change. On the other side, following Butler, the argument is that political claims are actually facilitated if one works with a “subject in process” because talking about “woman” as a natural category of existence locks us into particular, limited ways of thinking change.

An example may help explain this proposition. In a recent article on “women returning to cycling”, Jennifer Bonham and I (2017) note that research that focusses on cycling as a predominantly masculine activity can inadvertently naturalize certain characteristics as “feminine”, e.g. that “women” are naturally risk averse, or naturally inclined to perform domestic labour. Assuming an a priori subject (“woman”) in this way, we suggest, bypasses questions about the politics involved in the production of “subjects”.  In this sense, a pre-given subject can be described as “anti-political” (Brown 1995: 37), closing off “questions about the ways in which the assignment of subjectivity and agency can work to include some and exclude others, authorizing some to speak and act in ways that bind others, while denying the same privileges to others” (Stern 2000: 113).

Bringing this critical interrogation of “the subject” to research involves new questions. Instead of asking “what do I know?” there is a need to ask, “how have my questions been produced?“ (Olssen 2003) and “what assumptions do I make about the categories of analysis I deploy?”, with clear links to the practice of self-problematization (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 52).

Think, for example, of how we treat research subjects in interview situations. Is there an assumption that we can access the “truth” of what happened through their accounts of their experiences (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688; Atkinson and Silverman 1997)? This question becomes particularly important when we recognize that research plays a central role in producing “reality” (see Research Hub entry on “ontological politics”, 10 Dec. 2017). In Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA), Bonham and I (2016) suggest as an alternative analytic strategy locating interview “subjects” within discursive practices.

As with conventional uses of interview material, actor-centred models of political change tend to treat “subjects” as self-authoring (Krott et al.2014). For example, research on deliberative democracy can appear to posit a “self-authoring subject” who can “unproblematically enter into dialogical democratic discourse with others to achieve consensus” (Eagan 2009: 149). Similarly, interpretive research on framing focusses on “how actors create meaning in the policy process and how they package those meanings for instrumental and expressive purposes” (Koon et al. 2016: 7). In other work I use the example of the interpretivist proposal to train policy actors to shape problematizations effectively to indicate the political implications of such a focus on policy actors as self-directed “subjects”. The commitment to use political theory to guide and facilitate reform initiatives, I argue, neglects the need to critically interrogate governmental problematizations (2015 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).

To query the dialogical and interpretive perspectives outlined here does not mean that actors cannot act. The question becomes how to theorize or think about those actors as always “subjects” in ongoing-formation (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). In earlier work I suggest the possibility of a “dual-focus agenda”, attending “both to the ways in which we are all in discourses, understood as institutionally supported and culturally influenced interpretive and conceptual schemas and signs, and to the active deployment of language, including concepts and categories, for political purposes” (Bacchi 2005: 207). I emphasized at the time that these two analytical perspectives need to be combined so that it becomes possible to recognize the contributions of policy actors while hanging on to the insights into subjectification. If, as occasionally happens, the projects are separated, there is a danger that “important insights into limitations imposed by our own subject positionings are lost” (see 2011: 6-7 RonnblomBacchiBudapest ).

Question 6 in WPR (see Bacchi WPR CHART) creates space for charting and analysing the actions of individuals and groups. It invokes the spirit of “counter-conduct” and reads: “How and where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How has it been and/or can it be disrupted and replaced?” As with the “dual agenda” (above), it is important to remember that the seven forms of questioning and analysis that constitute WPR form an integrated analytical strategy. Therefore, Question 6 needs to be considered together with the insights into subjectification (Question 5) and self-problematization (Step 7; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 2). In these complex interrelationships, the humanist subject, described in the previous Research Hub entry, is decentred.

Mansfield (2000: 10) reminds us of how difficult it is to shift our thinking on this question of “the subject”. The major vehicle of constraint, he argues, is language, “which petrifies the illusion that for every action there is a pre-existing subject responsible for it”. Think, for example, of the commonly used terms such as “self”, “subject”, “individual”, “consciousness”, and “agency” (the last pursed in a subsequent entry). Jones (1997: 268) explains that, through language – her examples are the pronouns “I” and “me” – , we produce ourselves as “rational choosing actors”. As she describes, “we behave as though we are, we run whole social systems on that premise”.  The task becomes interrogating these taken-for-granted usages and to consider how they close off certain avenues for thought. Consider, for example, how assumptions about human nature commonly underpin policy proposals, limiting the factors considered relevant (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49). A step towards broadening our conceptions of politics and policy, therefore, involves politicizing “personhood” (Bacchi and Bonham 2016).

To replace a priori subjects and a priori structures, Foucault turns to practices – in his words, to “what happens” (Foucault 1982: 786), to “how things work at the level of on-going subjugation” (Foucault 1980). In the next entry I pursue what this position entails and how “practices” are deployed in several theoretical traditions – e.g. performativity theory and Actor-Network theory.


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

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. and Bonham, J. 2016. Poststructural Interview Analysis: Politicizing “personhood”. In C. Bacchi and S. Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

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

Brown, W. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Butler, J. 1992. Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of “postmodernism”. In J. Butler & J. W. Scott (Eds) Feminists theorize the political (pp. 3-21). NY: Routledge.

Eagan, J. 2009. The Deformation of Decentered Subjects: Foucault and Postmodern Public Administration. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 12(1): 141-162.

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

Foucault, M. 1980. Two lectures (lecture one: 7 January 1976). In C. Gordon (Ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977. Translated by C Gordon, L Marshall, J Mepham, K Soper. NY: Vintage, pp 78–108.

Foucault, M. 1982. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4): 777-795.

Golder, B. 2009. Foucault, Anti-Humanism and Human Rights. UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2009-39. Available at SSRN:

Golder, B. 2010. Foucault and the Unfinished Human of Rights. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 6(3): 354-374.

Hoppe, R. 2002. Cultures of Public Policy Problems. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practise, 4: 305-326.

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

Koon, A. D., Hawkins, B. and Mayhew, S. H. 2016. Framing and the health policy process: a scoping review. Health Policy and Planning, 31(6): 801-816.

Krott, M. et al. 2014. Actor-centred power: The driving force in decentralised community based forest governance. Forest Policy and Economics, 49: 34-42.

Mansfield, N. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. NY: New York University Press.

Olssen, M. 2003. Foucault & Critique: Kant, Humanism and the Human Sciences. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003. Also: in M. A. Peters, M. Olssen & C. Lankshear (Eds) Futures of Critical Theory: Dreams of Difference. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rönnblom, M. and Bacchi, C. 2011. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – What’s Discursive About It? Limitations of conventional political studies paradigms.
Presented at the 2nd European Conference on Politics and Gender, Budapest: 13 – 15 January 2011, in section 4: Research Methodologies and Methods.

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

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

Conceptions of “the subject”: Part 1


A few months ago, I received an email requesting some discussion of Foucauldian poststructural conceptions of “the subject”, agency and practices. A concern was expressed that the “decentred subject” left little space to reflect on actors’ motivations or behaviours. I intend to pursue these topics over several entries, which hopefully will complement each other. Subsequent entries will pick up the topics of bodies and affect/“emotions”.

The question of “the subject” became central to feminist debates from the 1990s, making a link to the previous Research Hub entry on “WPR and feminism”. In Feminist Contentions, Selya Benhabib and Judith Butler set out clearly what is at stake in these debates. Benhabib argued that there are weak and strong versions of the poststructuralist position on “the subject”. The former she described as a “situated subject”, one where the environmental, social and discursive influences on subject formation are acknowledged. In the latter, stronger version, according to Benhabib (1995: 20), “The subject … disappears in the chain of signification of which it was supposed to be the initiator”. In her view the stronger version denies the possibility of rational agency and construes us as what David Hoy has dubbed “cultural dopes”. The self, Benhabib argues, becomes nothing but the roles assigned to it (in Stern 2000: 111-112), a position I go on to dispute.

The concern for some (self-identified) feminists is that this “stronger version” of “the subject” is incapable of emancipatory action as is required for feminist projects committed to defending “woman” and “women”. Butler (1995a: 46; emphasis in original) responds that we need not, nor should not, appeal to a “pregiven subject or agent”, that we do not need to assume “theoretically from the start a subject with agency before we can articulate the terms of a significant social and political task of transformation, resistance and meaningful political practice”. [A few references worth pursuing on this debate include: London Feminist Salon Collective, 2004; Clegg 2006; Heyes 2007; and Gammage et al., 2016.] The topic of “agency” is pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry.

It may help at this point to consider just what is intended by a “decentred” subject. To “decentre” something means to move it from the centre. The question becomes, therefore, what is this subject “at the centre” that is challenged in Foucauldian poststructuralism? Butler (above; emphasis added) assists us on this point, questioning the need for a “pregiven subject or agent” as a starting point for thinking about social relations and change. It is this pregiven or a priori subject that provides the foundation of much Western philosophy and that becomes the target of Foucault’s critique. This “subject”, often referred to as “the Enlightenment subject” or “the humanist subject”, is characterized as rational, autonomous, asocial and ahistorical. Fraser (1994: 191) describes the humanist project as “making the subject pole triumph over the object pole”, representing man (see Lloyd 1984) as constitutor, as free, as all knowing, and as master of their fate and destiny. This a priori subject serves as a foundation anchoring objectivity and truth (Olssen 2003: 80).

Freud, of course, decentred this rational subject with his investigation of the subconscious. However, as Mansfield (2000: 8) points out, there is still an assumption that a “subject” is a real thing, with a fixed structure, operating in knowable and predictable patterns.

Foucault makes a different move, putting in question the whole idea of a separate interior consciousness, a director directing the show (so to speak) (see Blanco 2018). Foucault argues that the view of “the subject” as autonomous, rational, etc. is only one possible way to think about “the subject”. Supporting this point, he insists that “the subject” has a history (Foucault 1990: 23) and a good deal of his work involved tracing the history or genealogy of “the subject” (Foucault 1977).

This Foucauldian approach enables us to see that what we understand by “being human” has “shifted radically over the ages” (Davies 1997: 272). If we accept this claim that there are other ways to think about “the subject”, it follows that “subjectivity” is not the “free and spontaneous expression of our interior truth” but rather “the way we are led to think about ourselves” (Mansfield 2000: 10). In this view we shouldn’t take for granted that we are particular kinds of actors; rather, we should consider how we envisage ourselves as actors.

The task therefore becomes to explore “the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts” rather than to accept them as “given” and “true” (Foucault 1977: 86). In effect, what we refer to as “subjectivity” and “consciousness” are creations “produced by techniques of power-knowledge, such as the human sciences” (Simons 1995: 47); think here of psychology. Likewise, the concepts of “attitude”, “behaviour”, “perception” and “motivation” assume that the individual has an interior consciousness that “processes and produces true meanings of the world” (Bonham et al. 2015: 184). Therefore, says Foucault (1988a: 15), we need to study how this “subject” has been produced: “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge”; think again of psychology (topic pursued in next Research Hub entry). It follows that, instead of assuming a subject “at the start”, we need to ask about the assumptions that inform the particular position on “the subject” we decide to adopt.

Foucault goes on to question the assumptions underpinning the sovereign subject of Enlightenment thinking, especially the assumption that this “subject” can access “truth” (Taylor 2013: 90). As Olssen (2003) explains, for Foucault, “the unresolved tension of Kant’s philosophical project is that he fails to appreciate the contingent and historically contextualized character of all truth-claims”.

To understand this position, we need to say a few things about conceptions of power and of government in Foucault.

For our purposes it is sufficient to register that Foucault did not see power as something people possessed. He challenged the humanist view where power is generally considered to be the product of agency (see forthcoming Research Hub entry for discussion), a “universal resource to which all humans qua humans have access” (Butler, 1995b). Nor did he believe it possible to define a priori the “acceptable conditions of power” by locating some underlying structure, e.g. class. In place of universals he sees power as the complex working out of heterogeneous relations in which “subjects” and “objects” are produced (Foucault 1988b: 11).

Foucault is particularly concerned with how “governmental mechanisms of power” try to impose on groups of individuals a specific form of conduct deemed desirable for governing purposes, captured in the term “governmentality”. The objective of government, thus understood, is to “build subjects who are voluntarily subjugated (assujettis) – subjects who want what the other wills, who want not to will anything different from the other, and who want not to will” (Lorenzini 2016: 17: emphasis in original). As Dean (2010: 43, 83) explains, following this proposition, “governing is concerned with the fabrication of certain kinds of subjectivity and identity”, or rather identification. He offers the examples of “the consumer”, “the active job seeker” and “the poor”. It is these forms of subjectivity and identification that are considered in Question 5 of the WPR approach on the subjectification effects of governmental problematizations (see Chart Bacchi WPR CHART).

This mode of governing, through the creation of “subjects”, derives its strength “from the fact that it does not impose itself upon individuals through constraint or threat” (Lorenzini 2016: 16). In Foucault’s understanding, by definition we speak of “government (instead of constraint, domination and so on) if and only if the individual is free to choose to be governed or not to be governed like that” (Lorenzini 2016: 7-8; emphasis in original). Dean elaborates:

Regimes of government do not determine forms of subjectivity. They elicit, promote, facilitate, foster and attribute various capacities, qualities and statuses to particular agents. They are successful to the extent that these agents come to experience themselves through such capacities (e.g. rational decision-making), qualities (e.g. as having a sexuality) and statuses (as being an active citizen). (Dean 2010: 43).

By definition, therefore, in Foucault’s account (2000: 324), “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt”.

A critical point that often gets missed here is that a Foucauldian analysis considers governmental attempts to create certain kinds of subjects. While governmental mechanisms of power are “extremely efficient” (Lorenzini 2016: 16), there is no assumption that they are always successful. [The word “attempts” does not imply intentionality or deliberate manipulation.] To make this point Foucault developed the notion of counter-conduct, which is specifically to do with refusing governmental shaping of conduct (see Lorenzini 2016). Counter-conduct entails “the endless questioning of constituted experience” (see Rajchman 1985: 7 in St Pierre 2000: 493).

So, who or what is this “subject” deemed to be capable of counter-conduct? I will take up this topic in the next entry.


Benhabib, S. 1995. Feminism and Postmodernism. In S. Benhabib, J. Butler, D. Cornell & N. Fraser (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Blanco, A. G. 2018. Processes of Subjectivation: The Biopolitics and Politics of Literature in the Later Foucault. Comparative Literature and Culture, 20(4): Article 1.

Bonham, J., Bacchi, C. and Wanner, T. 2015. Gender and cycling: Gendering cycling subjects and forming bikes, practices and spaces as gendered objects. In J. Bonham and M. Johnson (Eds) Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Butler, J. 1995a. Contingent Foundations. In S. Benhabib et al. (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. 1995b. For a Careful Reading. In S. Benhabib et al. (Eds) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. NY: Routledge.

Clegg, S. 2006. The problem of agency in feminism: a critical realist approach. Gender and Education, 18(3): 309-324.

Davies, B. 1997. The Subject of Post-structuralism: A reply to Alison Jones. Gender and Education, 9(3): 271-283.

Dean, M. 2010. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage.

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

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

Foucault, M. 1988b. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault, conducted by Michael Bess, San Francisco, 3 November 1980. History of the Present, 4: 1-2; 11- 13.

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

Foucault, M. 2000. “Omnes et singulatum”: Toward a critique of political reason. In J. d. Faubion (Ed.) Michel Foucault/power, trans. R. Hurley and others, 298–325. New York: The New Press.

Fraser, N. 1994. Michel Foucault: A “Young Conservative”?. In Michael Kelly (Ed.) Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Gammage, S., Kabeer, N. & van der Meulen Rodgers, Y. 2016. Voice and Agency: Where Are We Now?, Feminist Economics, 22(1): 1-29.

Heyes, C. J. 2013. Introduction to Foucault Studies Special Issue: Foucault and Feminism, 16: 3-14.

London Feminist Salon Collective 2004. The problematization of agency in postmodern theory: as feminist educational researchers, where do we go from here? Gender and Education, 16: 25-34.

Lloyd, G. 1984. The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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

Mansfield, N. 2000. Subjectivity: Theories of the self from Freud to Haraway. NY: New York University Press.

Olssen, M. 2003. Foucault & Critique: Kant, Humanism and the Human Sciences. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003. Also: in M. A. Peters, M. Olssen & C. Lankshear (Eds) 2003. Futures of Critical Theory: Dreams of Difference. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rajchman, J. 1985. Michel Foucault: The freedom of philosophy. NY: Columbia University Press.

Simons, J. 1995. Foucault & the political. NY: Routledge.

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

Taylor, D. 2013. Resisting the Subject: A Feminist-Foucauldian Approach to Countering Sexual Violence. Foucault Studies, 16: 88-103.