“WPR and critical realism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foucault, M. 1994 [1981]. So is it important to think? In J.D. Faubion, (Ed.), Power: Essential works of Foucault 1954–1984, vol. 3, Hurley, R. and others (trans.). London: Penguin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troubling “problems”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Shades” and “Criticality”: Part II

Content: In the last entry I briefly introduced an article entitled “Shades of criticality in health and wellbeing education” (Primdahl et al. 2018). I signaled there that I needed to explain why I have separated the terms “shades” and “criticality” in my entry titles.

First, in the Primdahl et al. article, I enjoyed the evocative metaphor of “shades”, implying grey as opposed to black/white in thinking about critical research and writing – though perhaps with some unfortunate popular culture allusions!  Moreover, I assumed that I knew what was intended by the term “criticality” – a reference to one’s respective ability to be “critical”. However, I soon found that the term has another meaning – that developed in Irit Rogoff (2003) and taken up by Sasha Roseneil (2011). Note that Rogoff (2006) acknowledges that “criticality” is “a contingent and not entirely satisfactory term, not least because it is already occupied with various meanings I am not much interested in.”

Looking to locate some history of the concept, I found that Primdahl et al. (2018) took the term “criticality” from Biesta and Stams (2001), who adopted it from Burbules (1999).  A discussion paper on “criticality” by Yamada (2009) links the concept to Barnett (1997), who “claimed the importance of establishing educational aims in higher education, developing ‘criticality’ for fostering critical citizens with independent thought and action” (Yamada 2009: 11). This reference fits my assumed understanding of “criticality” as one’s ability to be “critical”. Yamada also reports on a “Criticality Project” at the University of Southampton in the UK.

Alongside and perhaps against this heritage, Rogoff (2003, 2006) has articulated a new understanding of “criticality”, as the next step, if you will, beyond criticism and critique. I cannot do justice to Rogoff’s arguments in this brief entry but encourage readers to explore both her propositions and those of her interlocutors (Vishmidt 2008). To put Rogoff’s argument simply, she (Pan 2015; emphasis added) states in an interview that:

You have to produce language that is both analytical and experiential; that is criticality. You are implicated, you are inside, you are part of it, and you can’t step aside and look at it from the perspective of critique.

Some of this may sound familiar given our exploration in previous entries of reflexivity and self-problematization (entries on 21 Oct. and 5 Nov.). However, a new (or rather old) term has been inserted, “experience”, which certainly cannot be assumed to have an obvious meaning (see Scott 1991; Lemke 2011).

Roseneil (2011: 126) proceeds to explore this “register of criticality” which, “while building on critique wants nevertheless to inhabit culture in a relation other than one of critical analysis; other than one of illuminating flaws, locating elisions, allocating blames (Rogoff 2003)”. Roseneil sees connections between Rogoff’s “desire to work in a more generative terrain that moves beyond negative critique” and Eve Sedgwick’s (2003) critique of “paranoid reading”: “In contrast to the paranoid practices of cultural critique, Sedgwick argues for what she calls, drawing on the work of Melanie Klein, reparative practices of knowing”: “What’s missing are readings that mediate between what’s wrong with the world and what can be and already is counter-normative and just plain ok” (Lynne Layton, personal communication in Roseneil 2011: 129). According to Roseneil (2011: 130):

In this context, what is needed, I would suggest, is less focus on the hegemonies of heterosexuality and recuperations for the heteronormative order, and more on the discontinuities, challenges, and transformations in the sexual order, and how they are lived psychosocially, ambivalently, in complex ways that are chosen and not chosen, consciously, reflexively constructed, and driven by powerful emotions and affective intersubjective dynamics of which people are often not aware.

The reference to “emotions” and “affective intersubjective dynamics” signals links to the “turn to affect” in social theory, a topic for another day. Roseneil (2011: 127) concludes:

whilst there can be no return to criticism in this post-post-structuralist era, I propose that the spirit of critical theory’s future-orientated, “practical” social research might be harnessed in conjunction with criticality’s emphasis on the potentiality of the present, in all the complexities of our implication in its creation and re-creation, to offer a productive way of approaching feminist social research.

The focus in this perspective on “the complex ways in which people live their lives or narrate themselves” (Roseneil 2011: 130) indicates a possible link to ethnographic methodologies, a topic I pursue in a subsequent entry.

In this entry I signal a point I have made on several occasions, that no concept is “safe” (Research Hub entry on Herbert Simon, 4 April 2018), that concepts have no fixed meanings but rather are proposals about how we proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207). As proposals, I suggest that one way to deal with this complicated terrain and with these contested meanings of “criticality” is to subject specific meanings to a WPR analysis (see Bacchi 2018: 7). I have yet to apply this suggested way forward but I hope I have signaled some of the paths that need following, including references to “affect” and “experience”. In the spirit of my last entry the objective of such analysis is to encourage conversations across theoretical perspectives, though I would suggest that the refrain of “post-post-structuralism” might be dangerously anticipatory.

Rogoff also has things to say about “problems”, a theme I couldn’t resist. I’ll offer some thoughts on this topic next time.


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

Barnett, R. 1997. Higher education: A critical business.Buckingham: Open University Press.

Biesta, G. J. J., & Stams, G. J. J. M. 2001. Critical thinking and the question of critique: Some lessons from deconstruction. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20(1), 57–74.

Burbules, N.C. 1999. Modes of Criticality as Modes of Teaching. In S. Tozer (ed.), Philosophy of Education 1998, Philosophy of Education Society, Urbana-Champaign, pp. 485–489.

Lemke, T. 2011. Critique and Experience in Foucault. Theory, Culture & Society  28(4): 26-48.

Pan, S. F. 2015. A Conversation with Irit Rogoff: Where do we sit within all of this? A*Desk Critical Thinking, Magazine 15 November, https://a-desk.org/en/magazine/a-conversation-with-irit-rogoff/

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

Rogoff, I. 2003. From Criticism to Critique to Criticality. Available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/rogoff1/en Accessed 2 December 2018.

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

Roseneil, S. 2011. Criticality, Not Paranoia: A Generative Register for Feminist Social Research. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research  19(2): 124-131.

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

Sedgwick, E. K. 2003.  Paraniod Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Eassy Is About You, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham & London: Duke University Press).

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

Vishmidt, M. 2008. The cultural logic of criticality. Journal of Visual Arts Practice  7(3): 253-269.

Yamada, E. 2009. Discussion on the concept of “Criticality”. Literacies WEB Journal  6(1).

“Shades” and “criticality”: Part I

Comments:  This entry was prompted by a stimulating article from Nis Langer Primdahl, Alan Reid & Venka Simovska, “Shades of criticality in health and wellbeing education” (2018). I will explain why I have separated the terms “shades” and “criticality” in my title in the next entry in two weeks time.

I found Primdahl et al. stimulating because they assisted me in my thinking around some important interconnected themes, themes that will form the backdrop to several subsequent Research Hub entries:

  1. the political implications of contrasting theoretical stances;
  2. the political implications of the concepts we adopt – or, more precisely, the political implications of the meanings we give to the concepts we adopt.

These themes have engaged me for some time and have appeared as a topic for reflection in earlier Research Hub entries (see 4 March, 18 March, and 14 May, 2018).  In 2011, Malin Rönnblom and I made the argument that methodologies matter in terms of the politics they make possible (see Rönnblom and Bacchi, 2011, RonnblomBacchiBudapest copy; see also Bacchi and Rönnblom, 2014). A year later (Bacchi, 2012: 141-156), I defended the view that research is a political practice, borrowing from Annemarie Mol (2002: 155, emphasis in original): “Methods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations”.

There are several reasons I feel impelled to pursue these topics. First, I am struck by the trend among many researchers to produce WPR as part of a “mixed methods” form of analysis. Second, I find that WPR is sometimes associated with theoretical perspectives that appear to conflict with its epistemological and ontological premises. I am thinking here, as one example, of the recent juxtaposition of WPR alongside critical realism (Windle et al. 2018; Baum et al. 2018), pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry. I have been carefully reading some of these contributions, and considering how to react to these attempts at hybrid methodologies.

Turning to “Shades of Criticality”, the authors (Primdahl et al. 2018) adopt two approaches to reflect on the form of critical analysis produced in some selected articles contributed to the Journal of Curriculum Studies.

First, they use Biesta’s and Stams’ (2001) organizing framework based on three “styles of critique”: “critical dogmatism”, “transcendental critique” and “deconstruction”. Primdahl et al. (2108: 6) restrict their analysis to the last two categories, “transcendental critique”, where they locate interpretivism and critical realism, and “deconstruction” or poststructuralism. To undertake an analysis of the “content of the argumentation”, the authors examine the various contributions in terms of their problematizations, in effect applying WPR to the selected articles. On several occasions I have suggested the usefulness of treating theories as proposals, available to WPR questioning, and was thrilled to see it so used here (see Bacchi 2009: 128-136; 103-105; 249-251; see also Research Hub entry for 18 March, 2018).

Primdahl et al. (2018) produce some insightful results, assisting readers to identify what specific theoretical approaches agree upon and where they part company. The point of the article and the plea, if you will, is the possibility of a “shared framework that exhibits different aspects of critique, as made evident in the assumptions, problematisations and implications that can be detected within these studies” (p 4).

In the past I have emphasized the need to consider the political implications of particular perspectives, and I continue to believe that this project is crucially important. However, I also believe there is an obligation to reflect on the political implications of theoretical dialogue as opposed to line drawing, keeping open borders rather than building walls. More studies such as this one could provide the grounds for these conversations.


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

Bacchi, C. 2012. Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Bacchi, C. & Rönnblom, M. 2014. Feminist Discursive Institutionalism—A Poststructural Alternative, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 22:3, 170-186, DOI: 10.1080/08038740.2013.864701

Baum, F. et al. 2018. Qualitative protocol for understanding the contribution of Australian policy in the urban planning, justice, energy and environment sectors to promoting health and health equity. BMJ Open, 8.

Biesta, G. J. J., & Stams, G. J. J. M. 2001. Critical thinking and the question of critique: Some lessons from deconstruction. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20(1), 57–74.

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

Rönnblom, M. & Bacchi, C. 2011. “Feminist Discursive Institutionalism – What’s Discursive About it? Limitations of conventional political studies paradigms”, Presented at the 2ndEuropean Conference on Politics and Gender, Budapest, 13-15 January 2011.

Windle, A. et al. 2018. Increased private health fund involvement in Australia’s primary health care: Implications for health equity. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 1-17.

“Governmentality and WPR”

Comment: I have been asked to clarify the relationship between a WPR approach and governmentality studies.

Both WPR and governmentality studies are informed by Foucault-influenced poststructuralism. Hence, there are many overlaps in premises and analytical projects. In particular there is a focus on governmental practices – i.e. on how governing, read broadly, takes place.

Remembering that governmentality studies constitute a wide field with many variations, it is possible to identify four main themes pursued both in WPR and in governmentality studies:

  • Ÿpolitical rationalities (ways of thinking about what governing entails);
  • the technologies and instruments involved in governing;
  • Ÿthe “subjects” of government, or the diverse forms of persons that are presupposed and also delivered by governmental activities;
  • Ÿthe problematizations through which governing takes place (adapted from Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 9; see also Bacchi 2012).

In terms of shared premises in WPR and governmentality studies, I would highlight the following:

  • a conception of governing as including but beyond the state;
  • a rejection of grand theorizing in favor of a focus on singular 
“events” and mundane practices;
  • a conception of power as relational and productive;
  • the centrality of knowledges (discourses) in governing processes;
  • the usefulness of identifying “family resemblances” among problematizations to characterize political rationalities;
  • the usefulness of comparisons among problematizations for making 
judgments about potential deleterious effects;
  • a genealogical focus; and
  • a view of “subjects” as constituted in practices.

(from Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 45)

To these I would add that governmentality studies and WPR both adhere to Foucault’s nominalist critique (see Alasuutari 2010 in Bacchi 2012: 5).

Turning to differences between WPR and governmentality studies, a major distinction is how the two approaches engage with governmental problematizations. Inda (2005: 8; emphasis added) explains the way in which governmentality scholars deploy the concept of problematization. As he says, for governmentality scholars,  “government is inherently a problematizing sphere of activity – one in which the responsibilities of administrative authorities tend to be framed in terms of problems that need to be addressed”.  He continues:

Guided with this perspective on governments, the governmentality literature tends to explore how certain events, processes, or phenomena become formulated as problems. Moreover, they are often concerned with investigating the sites where these problems are given form and the various authorities for vocalizing them. To focus on government, then, is to attend, at least on some level, to its problematizations– to the ways intellectuals, policy analysts, psychiatrists, social workers, doctors, and other governmental authorities conceptualize certain objects as problems. It is to focus on how government is bound to the continual classification of experience as problematic. (Inda 2005: 8)

While in WPR there is a shared interest in how rule is thought and made practicable through problematization, I argue that WPR provides access to a broader canvass to explore this topic. The key question becomes where to find problematizations.I suggest that governmentality scholars in the main tend to follow Foucault’s lead and look for problematizations in the “specific situations in which the activity of governing comes to be called into question, the moments and the situations in which government becomes a problem” (Dean 1999: 27).

By contrast, as I explain in Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be?(Bacchi 2009: 31), a WPR approach “makes the case that every policy [and indeed every program and governmental technology], by its nature, constitutes a problematisation”.  The WPR approach, through its seven forms of questioning and analysis (see Bacchi WPR CHART;Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20), assists researchers to tease out and interrogate the implicit problematizations in each and all of these sites. This expansion of the understanding of problematization beyond “specific situations” and “crisis” points (see Bacchi 2012: 2, 5) means that instead of being “relatively rare” (Dean 1999: 27), problematizations are ubiquitous.

In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 31) I explain other points of contrast between WPR on the one side, and Foucault and some governmentality theorists on the other. Specifically I put in question the suggestion that problematizations are due to some pre-existing set of “difficulties” that spark a response from governments, taking issue with this characterization in Foucault:

Actually, for a domain of action, a behavior, to enter the field of thought, it is necessary for a certain number of factors to have made it uncertain, to have made it lose its familiarity, or to have provoked a certain number of difficulties around it. These elements result from social, economic, or political processes. (Foucault 1984: 4-5)

In WPR, by contrast, the analytic target is the shape of implicit problematizations (or problem representations) in specific proposals, including policy proposals and other forms of proposal (see Bacchi 2018: 6-7). These problematizations are not driven by pre-existing changes in social conditions. In my view this shift from “putative conditions” that provoke “responses” to the implicit problematizations in all policies creates more analytic space to contest the ways in which policies and other proposals constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems.

Finally, WPR emphasizes the need to interrogate assumed categories of analysis wherever they appear – i.e. in all forms of governing texts and in research. For example, in Analysing Policy, I draw attention to  and query the way in which the governmentality scholar, David Garland (2001: 90), draws upon rising crime rates as part of his analysis, leaving the term “crime” unproblematized. Along related lines, I find Fraser and Gordon’s (1994) genealogy of “dependency” compelling, while the governmentality scholar, Mitchell Dean (1999: 66), is skeptical about this form of critique.

WPR brings together a concern both with the ways in which concepts are embedded in governmental practices and programs (highlighted by Dean), and with the uneven power relations involved in shaping the meaning of concepts (recognized by Fraser and Gordon). These concepts, I would argue, can be subjected to critique without assuming that “the oppressed are able to achieve an actual or potential greater access to truth”, which Dean (1999: 64) contends is necessary to this form of criticism (see entries in Research Hub on “subjugated knowledges”, 3 Sept. and 17 Sept. 2018).

In short, WPR provides a “tool” for interrogating problematizations in forms of proposal, broadly conceived (see “Buildings as proposals”, Research Hub, 14 Jan., 2018). The analytic strategy it offers, starting from proposals and looking back to see – or “reading off” – how they constitute “problems” as particular sorts of problems, opens up a wide field of contestation around diverse governing practices. The accompanying focus on contested concepts (Bacchi 2009: 8-9) supports this project.


Alasuutari, P. 2010. The nominalist turn in theorizing power. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13, 403-417. doi:10.1177/1367549410377579

Bacchi, C. 2012. Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible. Open Journal of Political Science,Vol 2, 1-18.

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.

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

Foucault, M. 1984. Polemics, Politics and Problematizations, based on an interview conducted by P. Rabinow. Trans. L. Davis, in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol 1, Ethics. NY: New Press.

Fraser, N. and Gordon, L. 1994. A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State. Signs, Vol 19, No 2, pp. 309-36.

Garland, D. 2001. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The “reflexivity quagmire”: Part II

COMMENT: The entries over the last month or so have prompted me to consider how I have modified my views and arguments over the years. I do not wish to bore you with a potted autobiography so I will keep these comments brief.

Basically I wish to “confess” that my position on a range of issues has altered between my earlier works and some later contributions. I would like to suggest that this shift in positions should be expected rather than decried; hence, the quotation marks around “confess”. Indeed, I am suggesting that applying forms of self-problematization (see last entry), by their nature, impels researchers to revisit stances we have adopted and concepts we have used previously – that is precisely what self-problematization is intended to achieve! Unfortunately, however, researchers seldom discuss in a public forum possible tensions in their work brought about by new reading and new thinking. My hope is that “early researchers” might take heart from hearing an “old hand” reflect on this issue.

The concept I wish to trouble is “reflexivity”. In a 2009 publication (Bacchi 2009) I endorse something I call “reflexive framing”. A recent article diplomatically takes me to task for using a concept that appears to endorse a rational, self-contained subject who can “stand back” and “reflect” on their views (Ikavaldo and Brunila draft 2018: 12). I accept this criticism. Two years after my chapter on “reflexive framing” was published, I agreed to give a paper on reflexivity as a keynote address at a conference on gender mainstreaming (BACCHI MADRID KEYNOTE 2011). This task compelled me to sort through the debates around the topic more carefully.

In a sense this keynote address illustrates what happened to my thinking when I asked the WPR questions of my earlier (2009) stance on reflexivity. Thinking of this earlier position (2009) I needed to consider the deep-seated assumptions underpinning a claim that reflexivity constituted the “problem” as an unwillingness to examine one’s presuppositions (Question 2 Bacchi WPR CHART). Specifically, I needed to consider the kind of subject produced or enacted in a claim of this sort. As Ikavaldo and Brunila (2018) point out, reflexivity presumes a rational, self-contained actor. As a result, the concept is circular (see BACCHI MADRID KEYNOTE 2011: 7-8). These are the reasons I moved towards the alternative of “self-problematization”, but a change in wording does not really alter the sense of some ability to “distance oneself” from one’s “beliefs” (note that in 2011 on p. 18 I decided it was acceptable to retain the term “reflexivity”).

To move forward theoretically I engaged with performativity theory, the “turn to practice” and an ontology of becoming [see last entry]. I found Annemarie Mol (2002) particularly helpful. Mol (2002: 38) makes the point that people’s identities “do not precede their performances, but are constituted in and through them”. It follows that we are produced as particular kinds of subjects through the practices in which we engage. Hence, attention needs to be directed to identifying “reflexive” practices that produce us as “reflexive” subjects.

In the 2011 paper I argue that WPR constitutes such a “reflexive” practice. Step 7 (see Bacchi WPR CHART) specifies the need to apply the WPR questions to our own proposals. This undertaking is not simply a recommendation to (somehow) become “reflexive”; it involves an active practice of critical self-problematization.

It calls upon all researchers and practitioners to examine their own proposals for change, to consider how those proposals represent the “problem” under scrutiny, to identify the unquestioned presuppositions that underpin that thinking and to listen to alternative problematisations. (Bacchi 2011: 18)

Hence, it draws on and supports the performative principle that subjects are produced through practices. The hope is that “applying these six questions to our own policy proposals allows us to consider the extent to which we may inadvertently be complicit in oppressive modes of governing” (Bacchi 2011: 11).

This example illustrates that I came to be more skeptical about the concept of reflexivity as I spent more effort researching its genealogy and premises. My hope is that the application of self-problematization, as illustrated in this story of my changing views on the topic of “reflexivity”, encourages other researchers to undertake a close examination of the concepts they adopt and how those concepts produce “problems” as particular sorts of problems with specific effects (Bacchi 2018: 7).


Bacchi, C. 2009. The issue of intentionality in frame theory: The need for reflexive framing. In E. Lombardo, P. Meier & Verloo, M. (Eds.), The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality: Stretching, Bending and Policymaking. London: Routledge, pp. 19-35.

Bacchi, C. 2011. Gender mainstreaming and reflexivity: Asking some hard questions”. Keynote address, Advancing Gender+ Training in Theory and Practice, Conference at Complutense University, Madrid, 3 February.

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

Ikavalko, E. and Brunila, K. 2017. Coming to discursive-deconstructive reading of gender equality. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, December. Draft copy.

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

The “reflexivity quagmire”: Part I

Comment: In the last entry I clarified a distinction between “situated knowledge” as a challenge to transcendental knowledge claims, and “situated knowledges” as “preferred” knowledges in Haraway (1988). The first position is commonly adopted in critical poststructural theorizing and is often roundly criticized for being “relativist”. The argument here is that, if all knowledges are “situated”, there are no epistemological grounds for preferring one “knowledge” over any other. The further claim is that such a position leaves us floundering in a world without meaning.

This common critique of poststructuralism – indeed I faced just this critique at the Swedish Political Science Association (SWEPSA) Conference in Malmo where I delivered the keynote address on 3 October 2018 – was dealt with in the last entry. There I made the case that the insistence on the politics of knowledge production in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism shifts the focus from primarily philosophical issues about “truth” to concerns with the political production and effects of knowledge (“truth”) claims. Poststructuralism thus constitutes a skeptical rather than a relativist stance on knowledge claims, articulating how systems of thought work through the world, constituting it in definite ways as they do so (Bletsas 2010; Chia 1996; Foucault 1984a).

Unsurprisingly, this issue has led to considerable reflection by critical scholars on their own knowledge claims. Haraway (1988: 584, 586; emphasis in original) emphasizes that “there is no immediate vision from the standpoints of the subjugated” and that “how to see from below is a problem requiring at least as much skill with bodies and language, with the mediations of vision, as the ‘highest’ technoscientific visualizations”. Writing about the field of organization studies, Chia (1996: 32) highlights that “if it is true, as many meta-theorists maintain, that all organizational accounts are paradigmatically circumscribed, this must reflexively apply to their own accounts”. And so, he argues, “The thorny question of reflexivity becomes, therefore, an inevitable one”.

Chia (1996: 32-34) mentions that one response to this “thorny question” or “reflexivity quagmire” has been to adopt a more modest and even ironical stance to proposed theories – a stance labeled “meta-reflexivity” in Latour (1988). But, as Chia says, such a response treats reflexivity as an epistemological problem, obscuring its “deeper ontological character”. Here Chia proceeds to contrast an ontology of being-realism, which “emphasizes the primacy of permanent and static states”, to an ontology of becoming-realism, which “privileges a thought style in which movement and the becoming of things are accentuated” (see entry on 3 September 2018). This shift in focus from how things “are” to how they “become” redirects attention to the “primary organizing micro-practices” involved in their becoming. A study of such practices, as explained above, involves a political rather than an epistemological undertaking.

Chia (1996: 49) argues that, to facilitate this focus on continual becoming, it follows that poststructural theoretical products must be “self-deconstructing”. Other researchers offer specific ways to enact this proposition. Todd May (2006: 94 ff.) suggests that it is possible to produce a “genealogy of genealogy”. Norma Rudolf (2017: 8) deploys a form of “autoethnography” developed “in dialogue” with participating South African communities “to question many of my own western assumptions that have been normalized as truth”. In line with these interventions, Step 7 in WPR (Bacchi WPR CHART) calls upon researchers to apply the other questions in the approach to their own proposals in a form of self-problematization. I distinguish self-problematization, as developed in WPR, from reflexivity because it institutes a practice of the self, applying the WPR questions to our own proposals (see next entry). For example, applying Question 3 to our own proposals incites exactly the form of “genealogy of genealogy” Todd May envisions.

Chia’s (1996: 49) call for “self-deconstructing” theories is accompanied by the suggestion (following Latour 1988: 174) that poststructuralists ought to produce “throw-away explanations” instead of “dogmatically using theories we generate to try to explain everything”. While I certainly agree with the critique of dogmatic theory, elsewhere, Joan Eveline and I (2010: 157) question the notion of “throw-away explanations”.  This conclusion, we suggest, appears to assume that all explanations are equally dispensable. In contrast we highlight the hierarchal organizing of discursive relations illustrated, for example, through the way in which medical discourse is privileged over the home birth movement.

Rudolf (2017: 79) explores the operation of power relations in the hierarchy of knowledges in her careful deployment of the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, showing precisely how that concept can be useful. She emphasizes how “evidence-based” policymaking in South Africa “prioritises scientific knowledge over other knowledges” and thus influences “who can speak, when, where and with what authority” (Ball 1990: 17-18 in Bacchi 2009: 237). With Somé (1995) she highlights the desirability of “making African cosmology more accessible to the West” without “judging one worldview as better than the other” (emphasis added). She appeals to Santos’ (2007: 1) call for “global cognitive justice” (Santos 2007: 1), challenging the tendency simply to “add-on” local and indigenous knowledges to the dominant western view of knowledge. At the same time, with Cross (2015: 53), she emphasizes that hierarchies of knowledge are not fixed but are locally constituted and reconstituted in the policy arena through “dynamic compromises between competing forms of knowledge and knowledge producers” in the changing political context.

In the next entry I consider the extent to which I apply Step 7 in WPR in my own work – something I have been asked about – with some unpleasant surprises.


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

Ball, S. J. 1990. Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology. NY: Routledge.

Chia, R. 1996. The Problem of Reflexivity in Organizational Research: Towards a Postmodern Science of Organization. Organization  3(1): 31-59.

Cross, M. 2015. Knowledge hierarchies and the politics of educational policy in South Africa. Education as Change, 19 (2), 37-57.

Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. Power, resistance and reflexive practice. In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline (eds) Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory.Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.   pp. 139-62.

Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.  Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.

Latour, B. 1988. The Politics of Explanation: An Alternative. In S. Woolgar and M. Ashmore (eds)Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage.  pp. 155-76.

May, T. 2006. The Philosophy of Michel Foucault. Chesham: Acumen.

Rudolph, N. 2017. Hierarchies of knowledge, incommensurabilities and silences in South African ECD policy: Whose knowledge counts? Journal of Pedagogy, 1.

Santos, B. de Sousa 2007. Beyond abyssal thinking: from global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review of African Political Economy, 30 (1).

Somé, M. P. 1995. Of water and the spirit: Ritual, magic and initiation in the life of an African shaman. New York: London Penguin.