Bacchi and the “What’s the Problem Represented to be” approach

My PhD project focuses on Datafication in educational settings. To get a better grasp of the Datafication process that are going on in schools, analyzing policies is the starting point for me. Since I have more of a critical perspective on Datafication, my supervisors recommended to have a look at Bacchis take on policy analysis.

I have read the following three pieces and will note down some of my thoughts, questions and remarks here, BUT as this blog is thought to help me annotate and collect quotes and stuff that I might use later on, a lot of it is COPY & PASTE from the articles.

Bletsas, Angelique, and Chris Beasley, eds. Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2012.

(I read the introduction as well as the first chapter in part 2. In the second part of the book, Bacchi herself wrote 3 pages about the WPR approach and summarized the main points. If you are interested in her work, I would recommend reading the chapter to get to know her suggested approach a bit better.)

Bacchi’s most crucial contribution to intellectual inquiry, according to the book, is the  ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’ (‘WPR’) approach/ analytical framework. The acronym emphasizes concerns about how social questions become shaped and consequently labelled as social problems, however, Bacchi highlighted the necessity to focus on the process of problematizing present in research, policy and practical applications.

The ‘WPR’ approach is described as a resource, or tool, intended to facilitate critical interrogation of public policies. The main idea behind the WPR approach is that “what one proposes to do about something reveals what one thinks is problematic (needs to change). Following this thinking, policies and policy proposals contain implicit representations of what is considered to be the ‘problem’(‘problem representations’)”. Bacchi, therefore, draws attention to how policy solutions are constituted by the assumptions entailed in the problematising process, rather than being self-evidently responsive to objective social ‘problems’.

Based on this, policies are not seen as the government’s best effort to solve ‘problems’; rather, according to Bacchi, policies produce ‘problems’ with particular meanings that affect what gets done or not done, and how people live their lives. However, as Bacchi clarifies, the focus is not on intentional issue manipulation or strategic framing. Instead, “the aim is to understand policy better than policymakers by probing the unexamined assumptions and deep-seated conceptual logics within implicit problem representations. This focus means paying attention to the forms of knowledge that underpin public policies”.

Moving on to a more practical application of the WPR approach: The point of departure for the analysis is, to begin with postulated ‘solutions’, such as policies, in order to tease out and critically examine their implicit problem representations. Using WPR as an analytical tool starts with reading policies to discern how the ‘problem’ is “represented within them and to subject this problem representation to critical scrutiny”.

Bacchi proposes six guiding and accompanying questions for the analysis:

Question 1: What’s the “problem” of (e.g., “discrimination,” “problem gamblers,” “drug use/abuse,” “domestic violence,” “absenteeism,” “anti-social behavior”) represented to be (constituted to be) in a specific policy or policies?

Question 2: What presuppositions—necessary meanings antecedent to an argument—and assumptions (ontological, epistemological) underlie this representation of the “problem” (problem representation)? This question involves a form of Foucauldian archaeology (Foucault, 1972).

Question 3: How has this representation of the “problem” come about? This question involves a form of Foucauldian genealogy (Foucault, 1971/1977).

Question 4: What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences?

Question 5: What effects (discursive, subjectification, and lived) are produced by this representation of the “problem”?

Question 6: How and where has this representation of the “problem” been produced, disseminated, and defended? How has it been and/or can it be questioned, disrupted, and replaced?

Step 7: Apply this list of questions to one’s own problem representations.

Summing up: The ‘WPR’ approach offers both an original methodology and as well as a scholarly paradigm, by providing to the social sciences a mode of critical enquiry which simultaneously engages to contemporary post-structuralist accounts of power, subjects and social change. According to the book, the “‘WPR’ approach serves as a much needed interruption to the presumption that ‘problems’are fixed and uncontroversial starting points for policy development”. The WPR approach reminds us “that the banal and vague notion of ‘the problem’ and its partner ‘the solution’ are heavily laden with meaning. To probe this meaning the ‘WPR’ approach recommends ‘problem’-questioning as a form of critical practice”.

To grasp structuralism/post-structuralism a bit better I watched:

And also started to read the book: Zima, Peter V. Die Dekonstruktion: Einführung und Kritik. 2., überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage. UTB Literaturwissenschaft, Philosophie 1805. Tübingen: A. Francke Verlag, 2016.

After I had read this very short intro to Bacchi, I two articles written by her, which I will briefly summarize

Bacchi, Carol. “The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations.” Open Journal of Political Science 05, no. 01 (2015): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojps.2015.51001.

I think the abstract pretty much summarizes this articles (which it is also supposed to ;P)

“In this article, Bacchi introduces and further elaborates the varied meanings of problematization in contemporary policy theory. The primary focus is on the different meanings and uses of the term in interpretivism and Foucault-influenced poststructuralism. The paper argues that interpretive/ argumentative adaptations direct attention primarily to how policymakers/workers develop problematizations (ways of understanding a problem) while Foucault-influenced poststructuralists critically scrutinize problematizations (how “problems” are produced and represented) in governmental policies and practices. It concludes that Foucault-influenced adaptations provide a more substantive critique of extant social arrangements than interpretive approaches, which tend to be reformist in design and inclination.” The article builds on the idea of problematization/ to problematize which could be defined as follows:

Def: (v) 1. a form of critical analysis;

(n) 2. putting something forward, or designating something, as a “problem”―that is, to give a shape to something as a “problem”.

Since problematization focuses on unpacking assumptions, notions and established, unexamined ways of thinking of accepted practices, it can also be used for policy analysis, as it “seeks explanations about the ways thinking is practised and produced”.

Bacchi highlights two distinct analytical foci with regards to problematization:

Interpretivist vs Foucauldian/poststructuralist approach

InterpretivistFoucauldian/ Poststructuralist
Emphasise role of people(policymakers/workers, social scientist) as problematizing agents Concerned with those involved in policy makingDirects attention to problematization as the products of governmental practices critical interrogation of the problematizations within existing policies.
Looks at how people, mainly policymakers/ workers engage in problematizing, that is, how they offer an interpretation of a problemLooks at the conceptual underpinnings of identified governmental problematizations, “the forms of problematization themselves” rather than on social actors as problematizing  
Ontology: political subjects are seen as “agentic”, that is, as sovereign or foundational subjects,who stand outside of and shape “reality”. Agentic, human subjectOntology: Subjects are constituted in discourses, understood as broad, socially produced forms of and are tehrefore precarious, contradictory and in process, constantly being reconstituted in discourse each time we think or speak complex strategic relations that produce “subjects” in continual formation
how policy actors shape problematizations in ongoing policy processesexamine thedeep-seated conceptual logics that underpin governmental problematizations in existing policies, problematizations which shape who we are.  
direct attention to “the development of shared problematization which frames and justifies collective action”teasing out and interrogating the meanings within, and political implications of, existing forms of governmental problematization.  
problematizations are considered to be competing understandings or interpretations of a problem which people (e.g. policymakers/ workers, citizens, researchers) put forward (problematizations are deeply ingrained ways of thinking (conceptual schema) that shape (to different degrees) who we are and how we live.
how people make meaning togetheremphasize the need to scrutinize and question meanings that are in place.
Focses on doable problemsfocus is on interrogating existing constructions or representations of “problems” (problematizations) to point to possible consequences that potentially accompany these ways of thinking Continuous critique necessary
want to use theory to develop interventions and techniques to guide and facilitate reform initiatives. Consensus is seen as a desirable outcome of effective problem management, even though it leads to a willingness to accept partial answers to complex problemsthe aim of theory is to trouble consensus, which they see as inherently problematic, and to avoid commitment to “problem-solving” The argument is that problem-solving initiatives invariably accept “problems” as some sort of identifiable ill instead of recognizing them as the effects of political processes. The suggestion, therefore, is to open up existing governmental problematizations to a process of continuous questioning and critique as a move towards contesting problematizations in specific contexts that are deemed to produce possible deleterious consequences.  
Interpretivists turn their attention to assisting policy workers to learn how to problematize (to shape understandings of problems) in order to negotiate shared problematizations (interpretations of problems) that will enable a reform agendarecommend that we all (i.e. researchers, policymakers/workers, etc.) engage in problematizing (critically interrogating) existing problematizations (deep-seated conceptualizations of “problems” in policies and policy proposals), including our problematizations  

Interpretivist: Focuses on the role of people as problematizing agents and how they inrerpret, construct and shape the problem and problematization

Foucault/ Poststructuralism: Looks at how something has been problematized, views problematization as a product of governmental practice.

What I did not get/ want to read more about:

  1. In the article Bacchi also discusses problematization in relation to constructivism and constructionism- however that part I am not sure I got 100% and I will get back to re-read that.
  2. Bacchi also mentioned that the reflections in the article have implications for political theory, more generally and specifically for Shapiro’s “problem-driven research”. While I can guess why I want to look read a bit about Shapiros approach.
  3. What I thought was interesting was the discussion around the word “problem”. Bacchi presents an example where “questions” and “answers are used instead of using “problems” and “solutions” to study governing practices. This is particularly interesting for my project and my focus:

“Rose (2000: p. 58) suggests that we should approach issues such as marketization, imprisonment and community care as answers, and direct attention to the implicit questions that produce such “entities” as answers. In his view, this relationship between questions and answers creates the opportunity to inquire into the form of problematization―how the issue is constructed as a “problem”―that produces marketization, for example, as an intelligible answer. Pursuing this line of inquiry, he argues, makes it possible to reflect on the presuppositions and possible limitations in the identified problematization. Attention is directed to entrenched “problematizations” (such as marketization) that potentially limit current thinking about specific issues”.

Bacchi, Carol. “Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How ‘Problems’ Are Constituted in Policies.” SAGE Open 6, no. 2 (April 20, 2016): 215824401665398. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244016653986.

While the first article closely examines interpretivist and poststructuralist approaches to policy analysis, the second article looks at positivism, interpretavism as well as critical realism and highlights the potentials and issues with these approaches. In addition to this, it uses health policies as an example to explorewhat poststructural policy analysis contributes to understanding the broad political influences shaping contemporary modes of rule.

  1. positivist, interpretive, and critical realist paradigms, tend to approach policy analysis with some notion of an existing “problematic situation”. The paradigmatic assumptions are interregoated through the lense of “problems/problematization” and how it is conceptualized.
    • Problems exist outside of the policy and are addressed/solved by policy
  2. Foucault-influenced poststructural approach to policy analysis—“What’s the Problem Represented to be?” (WPR approach):  In a WPR form of analysis, “problems” do not sit outside policy processes waiting to be solved. Instead, they are produced as problems of particular kinds within policies and policy proposals. That is, every policy proposal contains within it an implicit representation of what the problem is represented to be
    • Problems are conceptualized within policy texts

Positivism

This approach endorses the view that there is a real world that is accessible to objective descriptionand analysis. The process of making policy is set out in clearcut “stages”: agenda setting, formulation, implementation, and evaluation. There is an assumption that there is some readily identifiable social/economic problem that needs “addressing” and that policy makers get together and do their best to come up with a policy that will “deal with” this problem. A further assumption is that they will approach this task rationally and come up with the best solution given cultural, political, and economic constraints. There is a presumed “decision space” at the outset of the policy process where problems are identified. The real work, as it were, consists in finding solutions—often, implying that problems exist separate from thepolicy process and need only to be named.

Interpretivism

Beliefs and intentions become central in this paradigm. Theorists in this tradition object to the impression conveyed by technical rationalists that policy is a straightforward matter of finding technical answers (solutions) to readily identified problems. They are much more sensitive to the give and take of politics, to the shifting of perspectives and positions, and to the role played by politics, here meaning party politics and bureaucratic politics, in decision making. Importantly, they address the need to talk about the role of values in policy making.

Critical Realism

This cluster of theories alters the positivist evidence-based question “what works?” asking instead “what works for whom in what circumstances and in what respects, and how?” CR recognizes the need to examine the “contexts” within which policy interventions operate. However, it becomes necessary to reflect on how that formulation— “what works for whom in what circumstance?”—conceptualizes contexts, subjects, and problems. Importantly, the primary focus in realist evaluation is on the beavhiour of actors. For critical realists, social (or in this case policy) interventions are ‘complex systems thrust amidst complex systems,’” linking this perspective to systems theory, also referring to “the complex reality and nature of wicked problems” (p. 149, emphasis added).

“Wicked problems” is conceptual shorthand used to characterize “messy,” “fuzzy” problems, which are described as multi-causal and requiring intersectoral interventions. Systems thinking claims to offer “an approach to problem solving that views ‘problems’ as part of a wider, dynamic system” (de Savigny & Adam, 2009, p. 33, emphasis added). However, the space to consider just where these “problems” come from and how they are understood is severely constrained.

Poststructuralism

There is no single poststructural theory. The WPR approach draws upon a Foucault-influenced poststructural perspective. In this view, there is a focus on the plurality of practices that produce hierarchical and inegalitarian technologies of rule. In Foucault-influenced poststructuralism, realities emerge in practices. Hence, a singular reality, assumed in critical realism, is deemed to be a political creation rather than an ontological given.

In the place of a sovereign subject who can access “true” meaning (Foucault, 1972, p. 54), poststructural policy analysis considers how governmental problematizations produce particular kinds of provisional “subject”. Social actors are understood to be in continual formation; hence, they form part of what must be “interpreted” rather than the starting point of interpretation. In line with this perspective, whereas interpretivists tend to focus on the problematizations that people produce, poststructural policy analysis interrogates the governmental problematizations that constitute what “subjects” can become (Bacchi & Goodwin, in press). As a result, in poststructural policy analysis, the analytic focus shifts from the competing perspectives of policy actors—how they understand a “problem”—to the problematizations (the ways in which “problems” are produced and represented) in governmental policies and practices. Rather, the proposition is that the specific policy or policy proposal contains within it an implicit representation of the “problem,” referred to as a problem representation (Bacchi, 2009). This proposition relies upon a simple idea: That what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change and hence what we think is problematic— that is, what the “problem” is represented or constituted to be. Following this logic, it becomes possible to “read off” how the “problem” is constituted from examining a specific policy proposal. To conduct research in this way, one starts.

Put in other words, weare governed through problematizations, rather than through policies, signaling the importance of critically interrogating problem representations. Crucially, representations of “problems” are not images or imagined states; they are interventions.

Application:

See 7 steps

Deep evaluation: intervention to challenge the limitations imposed by the ex post character of forms of policy analysis. It includes as critical foci: (a) the meanings attached to key concepts (e.g., “equity”); (b) how the “problem” is represented (i.e., applying the WPR approach); (c) how “contexts” are represented.

Example:

WPR analysis begins with the recommendation or proposal, in this example that of increasing “parental engagement with literacy.” Based on this proposal, the “problem” is constituted to be both lack of parental engagement and lack of literacy. Subsequent questions in the WPR approach (see above) identify grounding assumptions within these problem representations, genealogies of the identified problem representations, and reflections on silences and effects, always with an eye to contestation and debate around the interventions and how they represent the “problem.” Such questions produce the following critical reflections.

What I did not get/ want to read more about:

  1. Bacchi mentioned Kingdon’s “three streams.” which is an approach to policy development. Could be interesting to read more about it
  2. Framing: I am not sure I got it and need to re-read that part.

Rein and Schon (1977) introduce the language of framing to clarify what “problem setting” involves. “Framing,” they explain, refers to the process by which “worries, arising in problematic situations, can be converted into the orderly formation of problems” (Rein and Schon, 1977, p. 238), a goal echoed in the sub-title of their important book on framing theory ( While interpretivists helpfully alert analysts to the ways in which social actors give “problems” specific meanings, the political implications of how “problems” are constituted within policies are not generally considered. However, several authors use the language of framing to refer to the meanings produced within a policy rather than meanings imputed by social actors.

Questions:

  1. Bacchi mentions that the WPR analysis does not focus primarily on language (see Bacchi & Bonham, 2014). Rather, governing is deemed to take place through the discourses, or knowledges, on which policy proposals rely.
    • I am not sure that after I have read the article that I know where to start and I am not sure I could answer WHY the WPR does not focus on language. How does one apply the WPR?

2. As mentioned above, framing is brought up in connection to interpretivism, however, to me using an interpretivist approach with/and framing it sounds quite similar to the WPR.

How is it different then?

3. Bacchi mentioned systems thinking and why it is not applicable. What about critical system thinking?

4. Bacchi opposes relativm: Hence the analysis counters a relativist assumption that any one ‘truth’ is as good as any other. I am not sure I get it …so WHY?

5. Bacchi, citing other authors is positive towarts the perspective that researchers should focus “less on describing the problem and more on ways to solve it,” researchers are called upon to contest the current emphasis on “problem-solving,” and to subject their own problematizations to the kind of critical scrutiny a WPR analysis recommends.

So, does it mean then that this is not targeted at action, but just theory, how can we then create policy documents? Policy documents should also be developed based on rearchers recommendations or is it going to be a neverending process? Feasable for researchers?

But this should also be apploed to polcy makers: But Also aren’t policy makers trying to critically reflect? How feasible is this?

EDIT: I am not 100% sure she uses critical realism appropriately, will have a look at it!

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