Monday, 9 February 2015

Rethinking policy: what’s the problem represented to be?

Carol Bacchi is Professor Emerita of Politics, University of Adelaide. Her work on policy theory is attracting interest worldwide. In this blog Carol introduces the WPR approach to policy analysis, an analytic strategy for interrogating how ‘problems’ are represented in policies, and considers the usefulness of this approach for families and relationships research.

Why is it necessary to rethink policy? Most commonly policies are put forward as responses to problems. However, a closer look indicates that proposals for change, such as policies, actually contain implicit representations of the ‘problem’ they purport to address.

This rethinking begins from the simple idea that what we propose to do about something reveals what we think needs to change and hence what we think is problematic – e.g. what the ‘problem’ is represented to be. It follows that, since policies consist of proposals, they are inevitably involved in shaping how ‘problems’ are understood.

For example, proposals to counteract childhood obesity constitute the ‘problem’ in quite different ways. If the proposal is to offer children an activity regime to counter obesity, children’s lack of activity is represented to be the ‘problem’. By contrast, if the proposal is to ban fast food advertising during prime time children’s television, the ‘problem’ is represented to be aggressive or possibly even unethical advertising.

Importantly, these representations of the ‘problem’ are not merely images or impressions. In point of fact, they form part of the policy and, thus, have effects on how we are governed. Indeed, you could say that we are governed through the ways in which issues are problematised, rather than through policies. Hence, we need to be able to interrogate these problematisations, to see what meanings they rely upon and what effects follow from them.

The widespread tendency to think about policies as responding or reacting to ‘problems’ makes it difficult to see what’s going on here. To counter this tendency, the WPR approach develops a form of thinking that directs attention away from policies as ‘fixing’ or ‘addressing’ ‘problems’ to policies as creating or constituting ‘problems’ – making them come to be as specific sorts of ‘problem’. It offers seven interrelated forms of questioning and analysis to probe the assumptions underlying specific problem representations and to reflect on possible silences and effects (adapted from Bacchi 2009 Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? Pearson Education):

  • What’s the ‘problem’ of (e.g. ‘problem gamblers’, ‘drug use/abuse’, ‘irregular immigration’, domestic violence, absenteeism, ‘anti-social behavior’) represented to be in a specific policy or policies?
  • What presuppositions and assumptions (ontological, epistemological) underlie this representation of the problem?
  • How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come to be?
  • What is left unproblematic (unproblematised) in this problem representation?
  • What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?
  • How and where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How can it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?
  • Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations.

The WPR approach has proved popular among researchers and PhD students, and has been applied across fields and across countries. Useful applications relevant to families and relationships include:

     Bjørnholt, M. (2012). "From Work-Sharing Couples to Equal Parents. Changing Perspectives of Men and Gender Equality". In Krekula, C.; Åberg, M.; Samuelsson, M.J. Gender and Change. Power, Politics and Everyday Practices. Karlstad: Karlstad University Press.
     Carson, Lisa and Edwards, Kathy 2011. ‘Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: What are the Problems Represented to be? A Discursive Analysis of Law and Policy in Sweden and Victoria, Australia’, The Australian Feminist Law Journal, 34: 63-87.
     Grebe, Cornelius 2009. Reconciliation Policy in Germany 1998-2008: Constructing the ‘Problem’ of the Incompatibility of Paid Employment and Care Work. Germany. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.
     Hearn, Jeff and McKie, Linda 2010. ‘Gendered and Social Hierarchies in Problem Representation and Policy Processes: “Domestic Violence” in Finland and Scotland’, Violence Against Women, 16(2): 136-58.
     Murray, Suellen and Powell, Anastasia 2009. ‘ “What’s the Problem?”: Australian Public Policy Constructions of Domestic and Family Violence’, Violence Against Women, 15: 532-552.
     Payne, Sarah 2014. ‘Constructing the gendered body? A critical discourse analysis of gender equality schemes in the health sector in England’, Current Sociology, 62(7): 956-74.

For a video workshop introducing the WPR approach in greater detail and a list of additional applications on a wide range of topics, go to

For free download of a book with an overview of the approach and chapters exploring possible adaptations, see A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (eds) Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

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