Open Journal of Political Science
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 1-8
Published Online April 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojps) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojps.2012.21001
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1
Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible
University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
Received October 27th, 2011; revised December 8 th, 2011; accepted January 2nd, 2012
This paper introduces the theoretical concept, problematization, as it is developed in Foucauldian-inspired
poststructural analysis. The objective is two-fold: first, to show how a study of problematizations politi-
cizes taken-for-granted “truths”; and second, to illustrate how this analytic approach opens up novel ways
of approaching the study of public policy, politics and comparative politics. The study of problematiza-
tions, it suggests, directs attention to the heterogenous strategic relations – the politics – that shape lives.
It simultaneously alerts researchers to their unavoidable participation in these relations, opening up a
much-needed conversation about the role of theory in politics.
Keywords: Problematization; Poststructuralism; Foucault; Public Policy; Comparative Politics; Ethics
At a time when concerns about the knowledge status of re-
search and the role of the researcher are paramount, problema-
tizations provide a fertile field of study. To support this claim I
explore the place of problematization in Foucauldian-inspired
poststructural analysis. The paper lays out the goals and hopes
of this form of inquiry in two parts: first, examining what it
means to take problematizations as a focus of analysis; and,
second, considering how a study of problematizations translates
into research in the fields of public policy, politics and com-
parative politics. The paper concludes by drawing out the ethi-
cal implications of this analytic approach for researchers.
Throughout, the intent is to direct attention to the ways in
which the study of problematizations opens up innovative re-
search strategies that make politics, understood as the complex
strategic relations that shape lives, visible.
Part 1 Studying Problematizations:
Goals and Methods
What Is Problematization? What Are
The term “problematization” is used in distinct ways in di-
verse research traditions. Most famously Paulo Freire intro-
duced problematization as a “strategy for developing a critical
consciousness” (Montero and Sonn, 2009: 80). For Freire prob-
lematization is a pedagogical practice that disrupts taken-for-
granted “truths”. This objective is accomplished by posing the
“myths fed to the people by the oppressors” as “problems”
(Freire, 1972: p. 132).
This understanding of problematization as the putting into
question of accepted “truths” carries over to Foucault’s use of
the term, although for Foucault and the forms of poststructural
analysis that draw on his work, problematization is more a de-
scription of thinking as a practice than a diagnosis of ideologi-
cal manipulation. As developed below, in poststructural ac-
counts, problematizations are to be treated, not as illusions that
can be unveiled by “clever philosophical investigation”, but as
the thinking that comes to constitute our condition (Koopman,
2007). Nonetheless, Freire and Foucault share a conviction to
approach questions differently, not to argue pro or con a spe-
cific position, but to inquire into the terms of reference within
which an issue is cast—into its “problematization”.1
Foucault employs the term “problematization” in two ways:
first, to describe his method of analysis and, second, to refer to
a historical process of producing objects for thought. His par-
ticular method of analysis, which he calls “thinking problem-
atically” (Foucault, 1977: pp. 185-186), is the method just de-
scribed, where the point of analysis is not to look for the one
correct response to an issue but to examine how it is “ques-
tioned, analysed, classified and regulated” at “specific times
and under specific circumstances” (Deacon, 2000: p. 127). In
the second meaning problematization captures a two-stage
process including “how and why certain things (behavior, phe-
nomena, processes) become a problem” (Foucault 1985a: p.
115), and how they are shaped as particular objects for thought
(Deacon, 2000: p. 139; see also Deacon, 2006: p. 186 fn 2).
These problematized phenomena become problematizations,
the foci for study.2
For example, in his History of Sexuality, Foucault (1980a)
asks how different eras have problematized sexuality and thus
made sexuality a particular kind of object for thought in differ-
ent sites. His focus is “the historical study of the way in which
domains we call sexuality—that is analyses and experiences—
have been formed” (Foucault in Mort and Peters, 2005: pp.
12-13). Particular attention is directed to the shaping influence
of the various modern bodies of knowledge about “sexuality”
(various “sciences of sexuality”, including psychoanalysis) and
to the political structures, laws, requirements and regulations
surrounding sexual practices. For Foucault (1984), in effect,
“sexuality” does not exist as an object for thought outside the
1“[M]y attitude isn’t a result of the form of critique that claims to be a meth-
odologi cal ex amination in order to r ej ect al l p ossible so lutions except for th e
one valid one. It is more on the order of ‘problematization’—which is to say
the development of a domain of acts, practices and thoughts that seem to me
to pose proble ms to politics” (Foucault, 1984).
2“The archaeo logical d imension of the analysis made it pos sible to examin e
the forms of problematization themselves, its genealogical dimension en-
abled me to analyze the formation out of the practices and their modifica-
tions” (Foucault, 1986: pp. 17-18).
relationships forged by these knowledges and regulations.
Therefore, to understand how “sexuality” has come to be ac-
cepted and treated as a designated human characteristic, we
need to study “the practices, political structures and ethical
forces which ‘constitute’” “sexuality” as an object for thought
(Carelle, 2000: p. 131). This is accomplished by studying “s exu-
ality” as a problematization.
As another example, in his history of madness (Foucault,
1972a), Foucault asks “how and why were very different things
in the world gathered together, characterized, analyzed, and
treated as for example ‘mental illness’?” The answer to this
question provides the “elements” deemed relevant “for a given
‘problematization’” (Foucault, 1985a: p. 115):
It was a matter of determining the role of politics and ethics
in the establishment of madness as a particular domain of sci-
entific knowledge [connaissance], and also of analyzing the
effects of the latter on political and ethical practices (Foucault,
1984: p. 8).
The goal here is to make the criteria that “establish” the ob-
ject “madness” more noticeable. Such an intervention under-
mines its taken-for-granted status as “true” and “real”. It opens
up for examination both the complex relations that produced it
and the effects of its operation (Veyne, 1997: p. 154).
The main purpose of studying problematizations, therefore,
is to “dismantle” objects (e.g. “sexuality”, “madness”) as taken-
for-granted fixed essences (Foucault, 1991a : p. 29 in
Rabinow, 2009: p. 29) and to show how they have come to be.
Each of Foucault’s methodological interventions—archaeology,
genealogy, discursive practices (Bacchi and Bonham, 2011)
and problematization—shares this objective. Foucault (1991b:
p. 86) describes himself as a historical nominalist for whom the
terms “madness” and “sexuality” (and others, such as “delin-
quency”, “power”, “man”, “the state”) are simply the names
that one attributes to “complex strategical situations in a par-
ticular society” (Foucault, 1980a : p. 93 in Alasuutari,
2010: p. 407). Studying how these “things” emerge in the his-
torical process of problematization puts their presumed natural
status in question and allows us to trace the relations—“con-
nections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces,
strategies on so on” (Foucault 1991b: p. 76)—that result in their
emergence as objects. In effect, relations replace objects
(Veyne, 1997: p. 181).
What is the political point of this stratagem? Foucault’s par-
ticular concern is how governing takes place: “My problem is
to know how men (sic) govern (themselves and others) by
means of the production of truth” (Foucault, 1980b: p. 47 in
Castel, 1994: p. 238). “Objects” such as “sexuality” and “mad-
ness” are central to how we are governed because they have all
sorts of effects on the ways we live our lives—both directly and
indirectly through the norms they install. Therefore disrupting
their taken-for-granted status as truth opens up relations of
ruling for critical scrutiny. A further political consequence is
that, since relations are in flux, as opposed to the presumed
fixity of objects, more room to maneuver is created. History, in
this view, is crossed by heterogeneous strategic relations that
consequently are mobile and can be changed.
Foucault starts his analysis from a “problem” in the present,
producing a “history of the present” (Flynn, 2005: p. 45). For
example, Foucault was directly involved in campaigns to refo rm
contemporary French prisons3; they became his “problem” in
the present. To put the status of contemporary French prisons in
question he “thinks problematically”, looking to see how sys-
tems of punishment were problematized in the past and tracing
how current imprisonment practices relate to those earlier
Foucault selects his sites—his “problematizing moments”—
by identifying times and places where he detects important
shifts in practices—for example from flogging to detention. As
Flynn (1989a: 138) explains, for Foucault, “The problem in the
case at hand is to account for the fact that from about 1791 a
vast array of penal methods was replaced by one, incarceration”.
In these “crisis” moments (Foucault, 1985a: Chapter 2), “giv-
ens” become questions, or problems, providing an opportunity
to inquire into the emergence of what comes to appear self-
evident because it is firmly in position, in this instance incar-
ceration as a method of punishment.5
Importantly, the problematizations Foucault studies are not
driven by shifting historical circumstances, such as industriali-
zation or urban growth.6 But nor are problematizations simply
free-floating ideas that answer to nothing, “pure dream, or an
‘anti-creation’”. A problematization is always “a kind of crea-
tion”, Foucault tells us, but “a creation in the sense that, given a
certain situation, you cannot infer that this kind of problemati-
zation will follow” (Foucault, 1985a). There is nothing inevita-
ble about it. That is, there are always exigencies that affect how
developments take place, putting emphasis on the politics, the
contestation, the strategic relations involved in those develop-
ments. By studying problematizations therefore it is possible
to demonstrate how things which appear most evident are in
fact fragile and that they rest upon particular circumstances,
and are often attributable to historical conjunctures which have
nothing necessary or definitive about them (Foucault in Mort &
Peters, 2005: p. 19).
Rendering fixed “objects” “fragile” is particularly important
because they shape our experience of “who we are and what we
know” (May, 2006: p. 104), a process Foucault calls “subjecti-
vation” (Flynn, 1985). To understand how problematizations
provide entry-points for reflecting on this process, it is neces-
sary to examine the relationship between problematizations and
How to Identify Problematizations: The “Turn to
Foucault tells us that problematizations emerge in practices;
they are not simply mental images or ideas. He describes “the
problematization of madness and illness arising out of social
and medical practices” and “a problematization of crime and
crimi nal beh avior emerging from punitive practices” (Foucault,
1986: p. 12; emphasis added). But what then are practices? And
how do problematizations “emerge” from them?
Foucault describes “practices” as “places” where “what is sa id
and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned
4Foucault describes this form of study as genealogy: “I start with a problem
in the terms in which it is currently posed and attempt to establish its gene-
alogy; g enealog y means th at I con duct the an alysis s tarting from the p resent
situation” (Foucault, 1988: 262; emphasis added).
5The next section of the paper elaborates the key role played by the concept
“practice” in Foucault’s analysis.
6“But we have to understand that a given problematization is not an effect or
consequence of a historical context or situation, but is an answer given by
definite individuals (although you may find that same answer given in a
series of texts, and at a certain point the answer may become so general that
it becomes anonymous )” (Foucault, 1985a: Concluding R emarks).
3Foucault was very active politically in the 1970s, founding the Groupe
d’information sur les prisons (Gutting, 2008).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
and the taken for granted meet and interconnect” (Foucault,
1991b: p. 75).7 They have a judicative component, establishing
and applying norms, controls and exclusions (“rules imposed”),
and a “veridicative” component, rendering “true/false” dis-
course possible (“reasons given”) (Flynn, 2005: p. 31). Thus,
“the practice of legal punishment… entails the interplay be-
tween a ‘code’ that regulates ways of acting—such as how to
discipline an inmate—and the production of true discourse that
legitimates these ways of acting” (Flynn, 2005: p. 31; emphasis
added). People are involved in practices of this sort every day
and all the time, for example, in carrying and displaying a
driver’s license, going to school or getting married.
The term “practice” therefore describes the “intelligible
background” for actions—which Foucault calls “thought”—“a
preconceptual, anonymous, socially sanctioned body of rules
that governs one’s manner of perceiving, judging, imagining
and acting” (Flynn, 2005: p. 31).8 Hence, practices shape emer-
gent individuals and relations. Through practices, we are con-
stituted as particular kinds of subjects, while the multiplicity of
practices ensures the always incomplete nature of these subjec-
tivation processes (Eveline & Bacchi, 2010: pp. 139-141).
Thought, as understood here, is “not merely a mental, cogni-
tive, speculative, or linguistic phenomenon”; rather, it is a “set
of practices in its own right”, that is, “a process that participates
in the constitution of the objects of which it speaks, and that has
specific and identifiable political effects” (Deacon, 2000: p.
132). This position challenges a theory/practice divide. Theory
is itself a practice, “part of the process that constitutes or prob-
lematizes reality” (Deacon, 2000: p. 134). The implications of
this stance for researchers are pursued in the conclusion to the
The relationship between practices and problematizations—
how problematizations emerge from practices—is explained
most clearly in a 1969 pamphlet written as part of Foucault’s
application for a Chair of Systems of Thought at the Collège de
France. Here he explains that he “wanted to determine what
could be known about mental illness at a given period” (Fou-
cault, 1969 in Eribon, 1991: p. 214; emphasis added). He ac-
knowledges the traditional sources of such “knowledge”, that is,
medical theories and “opinion”. However he deduces that there
is “a dimension that seemed unexplored”—the actual practices
involving those designated “mad”:
how madmen were recognized, set aside, excluded from so-
ciety, interned, and treated; what institutions were meant to
take them in and keep them there, sometimes caring for them;
what authorities decided on their madness, and in accordance
with what criteria; what methods were set in place to constrain
them, punish them, or cure them; in short, what was the net-
work of institutions and practices in which the madman was
simultaneously caught and defined (Foucault, 1969 in Eribon,
1991: p. 214).
These practices reveal how an issue (“madness”) is ques-
tioned, analyzed, classified and regulated—how it is problema-
tized. Hence, we can study the emergence of “madness” as an
object of knowledge by examining the practices that classify
and regulate, that problematize and constitute, those designated
“mad”. The suggestion here is that it is possible to get at
“knowledge” (“what could be known”) about “madness”,
through examining what is done, how the “mad” are dealt with.
“Knowledge”, as understood here, is something immanent to
what people do, not a transcendent phenomenon, waiting to be
By turning to practices, therefore, Foucault is looking to
carve out a space between realism and idealism. That is, he
postulates that there is something “real” being regulated—but it
is not “madness”, which does not exist as an object for thought
until it is produced through practices. At the same time we are
not talking simply about ideas or attitudes, a mental perception
of what it means to be “mad”. Rather we are talking about how
“madness” is “thought”, “conceptualized”, “problematized”, as
demonstrated through how the “mad” are dealt with as a spe-
cific kind of phenomenon. In this way attention is directed to the
mechanisms involved in collecting together things, actions,
gestures, behaviours, words that are to make up “madness” as
Foucault’s method for accessing problematizations, therefore,
starts from practices:
Rather than perusing the library of scientific books, as one
so happily does, I had to visit a group of archives including
decrees, regulations, hospital or prison registers, judicial
precedents. Working at the Arsenal or the National Archives, I
began the analysis of a knowledge whose visible body is neither
theoretical or scientific discourse nor literature, but a regular,
daily practice (Foucault, 1969 in Eribon, 1991: p. 216).
Foucault calls these regulations and decrees “practical texts”
or “prescriptive texts”, “written for the purpose of offering rules,
opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should” (Fou-
cault, 1986: pp. 12-13). We can think here of Foucault’s de-
scription of practices as “places” where “rules imposed and
reasons given” meet and interconnect (see above). Moreover,
these texts are themselves the “object of a ‘practice’ in that they
were designed to be read, learned, reflected upon, and tested
out, and they were intended to constitute the eventual frame-
work of everyday conduct” (Foucault, 1986: pp. 12-13). To
inquire into how governing takes place, therefore, the place to
start is the problematizations within these practical guides to
practice, focusing on how they problematize an issue or ex-
perience. From this starting place it becomes possible to tease
out the complex strategic relations that produce “things”.
Problematizations, “T ruth” and Su bj ectivity
Foucault has specific practices in mind when he undertakes
the study of problematizations. He focuses on practices in-
volved in governing (understood broadly), practices that “con-
tain institutionally legitimated claims to truth” (Rabinow, 2003:
20; emphasis added). As Flynn (1989b: p. 189) describes, Fou-
cault’s intent is to “reveal the chance crossings of lines of gov-
ernance (institutions, practices, attitudes), the brute facts and
contingencies at the base of our most cherished values and most
respected necessities”. To this end he targets historical con-
junctures, e.g. the emergence of modern prison practices, the
7Practice is a key term in Foucault’s earlier and later work, bridging what
many see as significant shifts in his analysis. It is a difficult concept that
needs some attention given the diverse meanings of the “turn to practice”in
much contemporary social theory ( Oswick et al., 2007; Simpson, 20 0 9).
8Importantly, Foucault’s “rules” are not principles of organization or struc-
tures (compare Fairclough, 1992: 57), but sets of relationships, “a complex
group of relations that function as a rule” (Foucault, 1972b: 74; emphasis
9As O’Farrell (2005: p. 22) explains, Foucault is opposed to the idea o
“thought”as something divorced from action and from material existence:
“Every human institution and action activates some form of thought, even i
the individual practising that action is not aware of the thought they are
putting into play”.
10The author would like t o thank Jennifer Bonham for elucidating this point.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 3
institutionalization of “the mad” and the regulation of “sexual-
ity”, that raise power/knowledge challenges to those governing.
In Foucault, as we have seen, “madness” and “sexuality” do
not exist as fixed and autonomous essences; rather, they “be-
come”, they “emerge”, as objects for thought in practices.
Studying problematizations, therefore, allows one to consider
the relations involved in their emergence through examining
how they are “thought” (remembering that thought refers to a
material practice not to a mental image). One starts on the sur-
face with practices, and observes how these practices render
complex relational phenomena problematic (as “problems”), in
the process producing them as “objects” (e.g. as “sexuality”,
“madness”). Foucault describes problematization in exactly
Problematization doesn’t mean the representation of a pre-
existing object, nor the creation through discourse of an object
that doesn’t exist. It is the set of discursive and non-discursive
practices that makes something enter into the play of the true
and the false and constitutes it an object for thought (whether
under the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, po-
litical analysis, etc.) (Foucault, 1988: p. 257).11
The reference to making “something enter into the play of
the true and the false” relates to Foucault’s position on “truth”
and “truth games”. For Foucault (1985b), telling the truth is
like playing a game because, as in a game, there are no outside
criteria by which to judge its content; “truth” is shaped by in-
ternal rules (Franchi, 2004). When he speaks about the “pro-
duction of truth”, therefore, he means, not the “production of
true statements”, but the “administering of the realms” (setting
up the “rules of the game”) in which the production of the true
and the false is regulated. This intervention places the produc-
tion of these rules “at the heart of historical analysis and politi-
cal debate” (Foucault, 1980b: p. 47 in Castel, 1994: p. 238).
Alerting “game-players” (all of us) to the “internal rules” that
shape the emergence of “real” “objects”, achieved through the
study of problematizations, is a crucial political intervention.
Through this analytic gesture one comes to understand how
something (e.g. “sexuality”, “madness”) has come to be “true”
or, more precisely, as “in the true”.12 This task is complicated,
however, by the norms embedded in practices—the “rules one
prescribes to oneself and the reasons one ascribes” (Foucault,
1980b: p. 42 in Flynn, 2005: p. 31)—that “determine how we
go about constructing who we are and what we know” (May,
2006: p. 104). That is, since we are all located within practices
and problematizations that shape us to an extent, it is difficult to
stand back and study their operation. For example, Foucault
(1980a) argues that specific problematizations of sexuality—e.g.
sexuality as moral code, sexuality as biological imperative—
enjoin people to bec ome particular kinds of sexual subjects.
This argument challenges the more conventional view that
normative intervention in people’s lives takes place through
prohibitions and interdictions.13 It also elucidates Foucault’s
much misunderstood position on power. True to his nominalist
stance, power is not a thing but the name attributed to plural
and diffuse strategic relations. These strategic relations can
both restrain and produce. The productive effects of power are
observed through problematizations, as in the example just
given of the production of particular kinds of sexual subject. In
this stance, the subject is “distilled” “into the points of intersec-
tion of various practices” (Flynn, 1989a: p. 141), in stark con-
trast to the humanist conception of a coherent, knowing con-
sciousness (Eveline & Bacchi, 2010: p. 150).
Problematization as a method (thinking problematically) in-
volves studying problematized “objects” (“problematizations”)
and the (historical) process of their production. It involves
“standing back” from “objects” and “subjects”, presumed to be
objective and unchanging, in order to consider their “conditions
of emergence” and hence their mutability. Foucault (1984)
argues that thinking in this way produces a kind of freedom,
“freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one
detaches oneself from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects
on it as a problem”. Through this detachment there emerges the
possibility of gaining a sense of the “implicit system in which
we find ourselves”, of “the system of limits and exclusions we
practice without realizing it”, and thus “to make the cultural
unconscious apparent” (Simon, 1971: p. 73 in O’Farrell, 2005:
However, because there is no place outside practice from
which to make this intervention, “it must be a matter of looking
at the unfolding, the evolution and the interaction of different
practices” (May, 2006: p. 19). Problematizations offer the best
hope for considering this “unfolding” because they engage us in
studying the times and places when “things” are contested and
“real” “objects” emerge. Moreover, as itself a practice, the
study of problematizations can generate alternative ways of
being.14 The next part of the paper explores how this form of
analysis translates into research in the fields of public policy,
politics and comparative politics.
Part II Problematizations in Policy and Politics:
Taking her lead from Foucault and the concept of problema-
tization Bacchi (1999, 2009) develops an approach to policy
analysis that focuses on problematizations. Her “what’s the
problem represented to be?” (WPR) approach states that it is
possible to use public policies and policy proposals as starting
places to access the problematizations through which we are
governed. The approach picks up and develops Foucault’s sug-
gestion that “practical” or “prescriptive” texts provide entry-
points for identifying problematizations. For Bacchi every pol-
icy or policy proposal is a prescriptive text, setting out a prac-
tice that relies on a particular problematization (or particular
problematizations). She coins the term “problem representa-
tion” to refer to the form of a problematization—the problema-
tized phenomenon—in a specific site.
The WPR approach rests on a basic premise—that what we
say we want to do about something indicates what we think
needs to change and hence how we constitute the “problem”.
Following this thinking Bacchi argues that it is possible to take
any policy proposal and to “work backwards” to deduce how it
produces a “problem”.15 For example, there are currently many
11There is considerable debate about Foucault’s distinction between discur-
sive and non-discursive practices, canvassed in Bacchi and Bonham (2011).
They make the case that “discursive practices” in Foucault refer to know-
ledge not language, meaning that non-discursive practices are practices not
specifically related to forms of sanction ed knowled ge.
12As Flynn (1989a: 135) explains, “A focus on practices enables statements
to be assessed as true or false, as valid or invalid, as authoritative or not
without presuming that there is any a-contextua l reality to wh i ch they refer.”
13This is Foucault’s famous challenge to the “repressive hypothesis”.
14This endorsement of the study of problematizations as a critical practice is
in keeping with Foucault’s later work on “practices of the self”(Martin,
Gutman, & Hutton, 19 88 ).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
plans of action that offer women training in order to increase
their likelihood of acquiring positions of status or higher paying
jobs. Such proposals make women’s lack of training the “prob-
lem”. With this starting place, it becomes necessary to explore
the terms of reference within which the issue is cast—that is, to
study its problematization. To open up problematizations for
critical scrutiny, Bacchi (2009: p. 2) introduces a series of ques-
tions designed to tease out conceptual premises, to draw atten-
tion to the “history” (genealogy) of specific problematizations,
and to consider their effects, including subjectification effects,16
for how people live their lives. This focus on the implications
or effects of problematizations sets this mode of analysis apart
from relativist stances.
The WPR approach broadens Foucault’s agenda. It does not
look for “crisis” points, places where practices change, stirring
up debate. Rather, it suggests that all policy proposals rely on
problematizations which can be opened up and studied to gain
access to the “implicit system in which we find ourselves”. As
with Foucault, the point is not to stake out a position “pro” or
“con” a specific stance, nor to identify the “real” “problem”,
but to explore “the system of limits and exclusions we practice
without realizing it” (Simon, 1971: p. 73 in O’Farrell, 2005: p.
69). To this end the goal is to stand back from taken-for-granted
objects and concepts to determine how they have come to be
through studying the heterogeneous strategic relations—the
politics—that have gone into their making. The WPR approach
also incorporates Foucault’s suggestion that it is possible to
detect patterns in problematizations, revealing modes or styles
of governing that shape lives and subjectivities. This analytic
focus is pursued in governmentality studies.
As mentioned earlier, Foucault’s particular concern is how
governing takes place and, to this end, he studies the practices
of governing. Our examples so far include the governing of
“madness” and of “sexuality”. However, more conventional
techniques of governing, such as the policy of health and wel-
fare of the population, or the use of statistics in calculating and
identifying political subjects, can be subjected to the same kind
of analysis. The goal in each case is to access the “thought” in
governing practices. As discussed earlier, thought here is con-
ceived, not as what goes on in people’s heads, but as “a set of
practices in its own right”, participating in the constitution of
the objects and subjects of which it speaks (Deacon, 2000: p.
132). Problematizations, as we have seen, provide entry-points
for reflecting on this “thought” and the role it plays in consti-
tuting kinds of subjects and forms of “object” that make rule
In his studies of governmental practices, Foucault detects
styles of problematization, described variously as “grids of
intelligibility”, “interpretive grids” (Castel, 1994: p. 148), “gov-
ern-mentalities” or “political rationalities”. Rationality in this
context refers not to the exercise of reason but to the rationales
for rule that make the activity of government both thinkable and
practicable (Gordon, 1991: p. 3). For example, Foucault identi-
fies a new “rationale” at work, “punitive reason”, in the shift
from a “vast array of penal methods” to “incarceration” in 1791.
Govern-mentalities, then, are the ways in which rule is ration-
alized and rendered “effective”. They are “diagrams” of rule
(Deleuze, 1988: p. 44) that “seek to shape conduct by working
through our desires, aspirations, interests and beliefs” (Dean,
1999: p. 11). Importantly these rationalities (or rationales) are
not restricted to conventional governmental institutions; rather,
the role of professionals and professional knowledges in gov-
erning processes is emphasized. This focus is illustrated in the
following examples of governmentality studies.
Rose (2000: p. 12) examines a mode of governing common
to liberalism and to neoliberalism, which he calls “advanced
liberalism”, that emphasizes individual responsibility and inde-
pendence. Individual “responsibilisation” (Bacchi, 2009: pp.
118, 134, 157) has emerged as a mode of rule in criminal jus-
tice policy, in drugs/alcohol and gambling policy, and in much
health policy in contemporary industrialized countries. Walters
(2004) identifies security as a dominant motif in national and
international governance, seen in the current focus on “energy
security”, “food security” and “w ater security”, alongside more
conventional foreign policy security concerns. Along similar
lines Bigo (2002) talks about a current “governmentality of
unease”. In relation to regimes of governing justice, Garland
(2001) describes a shift from “penal welfarism”, as a govern-
mental rationality, that, in his view, dominated the 1960s and
1970s in the UK and the USA, to a more recent “culture of
control”. St Pierre (2006: p. 259) identifies evidence-based
research as a form of governmentality, “a mode of power by
which state and complicit nonstate institutions and discourses
produce subjects that satisfy the aims of government policy”.
Bacchi (2009: pp. 252-255) describes evidence-based policy as
part of a broader problem-solving motif currently dominating
the intellectual and policy landscape of western industrialized
societies. Putting a particular focus on subjectivation Clough
(2007: pp. 62, 74) identifies a “rationality of affectivity” that
governs through “pre-individual capacities to affect and be
Angelique Bletsas (2012, forthcoming) draws attention to
what is novel in the study of governmentalities through her
analysis of contemporary debates about the place of poverty in
current political regimes, shaped, she argues, by an “affluence
governmentality”. She points out that the task in governmental-
ity studies is not simply to identify how different groups con-
ceptualize poverty (as either a “problem” of individuals or a
“problem” of structures) but to recognize how rule takes place
through one or other of those conceptualizations. Governing
takes place through particular problematizations, raising a raft
of new questions, such as:
How did poverty come to be seen as a “problem” for gov-
ernments and other experts to address? Why is it poverty, and
not some related issue—inequality , wealth, etc.—that has come
to be seen as the “problem”? What forms of governing practice
(surveillance, discipline, self-government, etc.) are enabled
where poverty is constructed in this way as a problem? What
are the effects of this formation—including, and in particular,
the lived effects for those who are poor? (Bletsas 2012, forth-
15Bacchi (20 09) expands her analysis to encompass theoretical p roposit ions,
which in her view are proposals for action that presume certain “problems”.
She ther ef or e applies t h e WPR appro ach t o criminal j ustice th eory (101 -1 02 )
to health policy theory (128-140), to gambling policy theory (249-250), and
to policy studies theory (249-255).
16“Subjecti fication” is Bacch i’s (2009: 16 -17) term for Foucau lt’s “subject i-
Governmentality studies adhere to Foucault’s nominalist cri-
tique (Alasuutari, 2010). “The state” is conceptualized as a
“mythical abstraction” (Rose and Miller, 1992: p. 173), an an-
chor point for myriad strategic relations that merge in specific
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 5
political forms, rather than an entity with a presumed essential
necessity or functionality. Demonstrating a poststructuralist
sensitivity to fluidity and contestation in social thought and
relations, such studies challenge the reliance of conventional
political “science” on homogenous, fixed categories, such as
“nation-state”. Accepting that theory itself is a practice that
plays a key role in producing the “real” (see above), the further
implication is that such reliance reinforces a “reality” of “na-
tion-states” (Law, 2004: p. 144), with important power effects
for both those deemed to be members or non-members.
As an alternative, governmentality studies detail the hetero-
geneous strategic relations that go into the making of specific
“states”, opening up spaces for intervention and movement. For
example, the poststructualist scholar, Rowse (2009), describes
nation-states as methods for assembling power relations.17 Such
a reconceptualization provides an opening to problematize
“sovereignty in world politics as well as in research practice
itself” (de Goede, 2006: p. 5). This recommended shift from
static entities to strategic relations promises to open up a whole
new field for comparative politics.
Conventional comparative politics presumes a fixity of “na-
tion-states” in order to set up comparisons “between” and
“among” them. Hence, as argued above, such studies tend to
reinforce “states” as political realities. By contrast a compari-
son of problematizations keeps relations in flux and alerts re-
searchers to the politics involved in accepting and hence rein-
forcing entities, such as “states” or “institutions”, as stable and
legitimate (Bacchi & Rönnblom, 2011).
Moreover, comparing problematizations across time, across
“cultures” or across geophysical “spaces” shifts attention from
how specific bordered entities “compare” on identifiable factors
or “indicators” to consideration of how an issue looks quite
different in different locales. Hence, such comparisons can
illustrate that certain ways of thinking about “problems” reflect
specific institutional and cultural contexts. In this way compar-
ing problematizations promises to address Christopher Bosso’s
(1994: p. 200) request that we ask more questions about the
“dog that did not bark”, posed by Sherlock Holmes in the
“Mystery of Silver Blaze”.
For example, Pálsson and Rabinow (2006) compare how the
collection of biometric data was problematized quite differently
in Iceland, undertaken post-1998, where there was a highly
polarized debate, and in Britain, where a plan to collect similar
kinds of data attracted very little attention. They found that a
key factor was that, in the two countries, there was a different
relationship between physicians and parliament in the regula-
tion of human research. In their view, there was no protest in
the UK because there the “funders of research, the managers of
the data base and the regulators can be in the same institutions”
(Kaye & Martin, 2000 in Pálsson & Rabinow, 2006: p. 100).
Comparisons of problematizations, such as this one, high-
light the specific combinations of factors and relations that
allow something to become a “problem” in one situation and
not in another. While “nation-states”, here the UK and Iceland,
are used as identifiers of sorts in the analysis, the focus
throughout is on the interconnections, the relations, the move-
ment that results in specific effects in specific “places”. These
effects are understood as contingent and open to re-thinking,
rather than as “true” or “real”. There is no suggestion that “na-
tion-states” ought to be treated as variables in some attempt to
predict “outcomes” in other settings. The objective is to make
politics visible rather than to generate “knowledge”.
Uma Narayan’s (1997) examination of contrasting problema-
tizations of sati, or “widow burning”, accomplishes exactly this
goal. Narayan compares how sati is conceptualized (problema-
tized) differently in what she calls the “colonialist stance” and
among contemporary Indian feminist critics. In contrast to the
latter, the “colonialist stance” ignores past political contestation
and produces generalizations about the role of “tradition” and
“Third World Patriarchal Cultural Practices” in the practice of
sati. Narayan (1997: pp. 59-60; Lazreg, 1988 in Narayan, 1997:
p. 60 n 29) argues that such generalizations are damaging to the
women involved since treating “traditions” as fixed and un-
changing forecloses “any analysis of change”. In her view
(2000: 86) “cultures” and “traditions” ought to be conceived as
political projects, rather than as static entities, “‘frozen’ with
respect to both space and time” (Narayan, 1997: p. 50). To
undermine the power of such essentialist categories and their
anti-feminist repercussions, Narayan calls for a strategy of re-
turning history and politics to the emergence of “cultures” and
“traditions”. This strategy involves producing genealogies of
Conclusion: Implications for Researchers
For Narayan, different forms of analysis—e.g. “the colonial-
ist stance” versus “genealogies of problematizations”—have
political repercussions that should become part of the study of
politics. She shows how a focus on problematizations promises
to reveal the exigencies and contestation involved in the pro-
duction of oppressive practices which conventional approaches
to “tradition” and “culture” (“the colonialist stance”) tend to
reinforce. The same point was made above in the contention
that conventional political science studies that treat “nation-
states” as givens tend to reinforce existing geopolitical power
relations. In this view theories, as practices, produce forms of
problematization that create objects and subjects necessarily
involved in how rule takes place.
This position is defended and elaborated by Annemarie Mol
(1999) and John Law (2004, 2008), who develop the concept of
“ontological politics” to draw attention to the political effects of
theory practices (see Bacchi, 2012, forthcoming).18 According
to Mol (2002), multiple realities are produced through plural,
heterogeneous practices, raising questions about the “singular
reality” that emerges from this multiplicity. The “singularity of
objects” turns out to be “an accomplishment”, an act of “coor-
dination” (Mol, 2002: pp. 7-8), with research methods identi-
fied as major players in the reinforcement of particular realities.
Says Mol (2002: p. 155; emphasis in original), “[M]ethods are
not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of in-
terfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and
If, as argued here, the concepts and arguments developed by
researchers play a key role in establishing what is “in the true”
and hence “real”, those researchers ought surely to be encour-
17Rowse (2009) borrows the concept of “method assemblage” from John
Law. A method assemblage includes “not only what is present in the form o
texts and their production, but also their hinterlands and hidden supports”
(Law, 2004: 144).
18Law (2008a, 2008b) and Mol (1999) are leading theorists of the “turn to
practice”, discussed earlier in the paper, and of actor-network theory.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
aged to consider the repercussions of their research in these
terms. Understanding power as creative/productive and theory
as practice creates an ethical obligation to consider the political
fallout of our theoretical investments. It means confronting the
political implications that accompany the reification of “na-
tion-states”, “sexuality”, “culture”, “tradition” and other cate-
gories (Veyne, 1997: p. 167). It means asking—what realities
do my methods create and with what effects for which creatures
The practice of studying problematizations encourages ex-
actly this form of critical reflexivity. Such a practice prompts
researchers to keep a critical eye to their own analyses, which
can only ever be part of a problematization. To encourage this
self-scrutiny, Bacchi (2009, 2011) builds self-problematization
into the WPR approach by including an undertaking to apply its
questions to one’s own presuppositions and assumptions. The
suggestion here is that “to problematize reality or to write a
history of the present is as much to transform oneself as it is to
make objects of reason present” (Deacon, 2000: p. 137).19
A study of problematizations, therefore, offers researchers
the possibility of getting inside thinking—including one’s own
thinking—observing how “things” come to be. It gives access
to the spaces within which “objects” emerge as “real” and
“true”, making it possible to study the strategic relations, the
politics, involved in their appearance. Examining thought in
this way puts into question the presumed fixity of the thing
“thought” and, by so doing, makes it possible to think other-
wise: “It radicalises our sense of the contingency of our dearest
biases and most accepted necessities, thereby opening up a
space for change” (Flynn, 2005: p. 33).
In this research approach, problematizations are recognized
as powerful and yet contingent ways of producing the “real”. In
effect governing takes place through problematizations, empha-
sizing the importance of subjecting them to critical scrutiny and
pointing to the possible deleterious effects they set in operation.
Such scrutiny “involves the multiplication of further problema-
tizations, such that we are constantly alerted to the task of an
on-going ethic of the problematic as a sort of critical virtue in
itself” (Osborne, 2003: p. 15). Such an ethic directs attention to
the political effects of forms of explanation, opening up a
much-needed conversation about the role of theory in politics.
The author would like to thank Angelique Bletsas, Jennifer
Bonham and Anne Wilson for comments on earlier drafts of
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