The politics of the problem: How to use Carol Bacchi's work

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Lisa Carson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales. Her research focuses on the complexities of translating policy into practice at local, national and international levels. Her research crosses boundaries of policy analysis, feminist and gender studies, political science, international relations, institutionalist theory and sociology among others. She has published in Australian Journal of International Affairs and the Australian Feminist Law Journal. She tweets @LisaC_Research.

In 1991 Carol Bacchi comprehensively introduced poststructuralism and social constructionism to policy studies with her book Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. It detailed an approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ and offers a different way of conceptualizing and understanding policy. Whilst usual approaches tend to treat policy as axiomatic or self-evident, Bacchi’s challenges the privileging of all forms of expertise and knowledge. For Bacchi, approaches to policy studies are ‘inherently political’ and  need to be treated as such. Her approach comes from a feminist understanding that every issue affects the lives of women. She seeks to shift attention to policies as constituting competing representations of political issues, by focusing on the discourse that surrounds them (defined as the language, concepts and categories used in the framing of issues).

For Bacchi, research is never simply descriptive of a ‘problem’ or issue, it’s always political. The relationship between participation, knowledge and power is pivotal, and leads to critical questions regarding not only what kind of knowledge is considered relevant for policy processes, but also who may legitimately speak. Bacchi’s approach foregrounds and calls attention to the need to analyze how dynamics of power operate in policy making processes, especially given the historic tendency to marginalise those from affected communities. The ‘WPR’ approach serves as a necessary interruption to the presumption that ‘problems’ are fixed and uncontroversial starting points for policy development, and it reminds us that the banal and vague notion of ‘the problem’ and its partner ‘the solution’ are heavily laden with meaning. The approach primarily revolves around 6 guiding questions outlined below.

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As a methodology, WPR opens up a range of questions that are seldom addressed in other approaches and offers a framework for examining gaps and silences in policy debates by interrogating what remains unproblematized in certain representations. In answering each of the above questions, context is paramount. This is because 'problems' are often constituted differently due to location­ specific, institution-specific and history-specific factors. To date, Bacchi’s approach has been used analyse pay equity, antidiscrimination legislation, affirmative action policy, education, child care, abortion, sexual harassment, children and domestic violence, inclusive development and disability mainstreaming, gender and education, food security, gendered evidence in family law, problem solving courts, addiction, mental illness and impairment among others.

An illustrative example of the application of Bacchi’s work that showcases some of the strengths of the approach is Carson and Edwards exploration of prostitution/ sex work policy in relation to sex trafficking. The issue is arguably one of the most vexed and contentious areas of policy, particularly among feminists. The type of terminology used is political and can automatically signal different sides of the debate. The different problematisations of the issue has implications for how governments and policy makers respond to the issue of sex trafficking and vice versa. There is a significant amount of scholarship on how to combat sex trafficking, but there are vastly different and often polarising perspectives on what the most suitable approach is. For policy makers, trying to make sense of the issue can be difficult without a deeper understanding of the political nature of evidence and advocacy surrounding the issues.

Bacchi’s approach helps to make sense of competing policy approaches by showing how different framings and understandings lead to differing policy responses and perceived solutions across contexts. For example, in the Australian state of Victoria, ‘prostitution’ is framed as ‘sex work’ within a dominate labour rights framework. In this legalised environment ‘sex work’ is not seen as related to sex trafficking, which dealt with separately in legislation. Whereas in Sweden, the practice is framed as ‘prostitution’ and is viewed as inherently exploitative, as a gendered form of violence, and counter-intuitive to long term gender equality. This framing, ‘prostitution’ is viewed as inextricably linked to sex trafficking in terms of normalising and fuelling demand. This dual approach of viewing the issues as linked is often referred to as the ‘Nordic’ model, with only ‘buyers’ criminalised. Thus, each context has a different framing of what the ‘problem’ is, and what the relationship between ‘prostitution/sex work’ and sex trafficking is, which is informed by different political, ideological and advocacy perspectives. This shows how what constitutes ‘evidence’ and ‘advocacy’ is born from the problem framing of a policy issue, which reveals the underlying values and assumptions that are held by government and policy makers in the maintenance of a particular problem frame.

Mainstream policy makers may be skeptical about using such an approach that can appear to provide more complexity than clarity, but a deeper understanding of the political nature of policy framings is necessary to help ensure that the most suitable and contextually appropriate response is provided. Bacchi’s framework helps make sense of fraught policy areas and better equips policy makers to decipher and understand the political nature of different forms of ‘evidence’ and advocacy, and how it fits with different theoretical and ideological perspectives and agendas. It also has significant implications for activists and advocacy organizations by exposing what kind of ‘evidence’ and understandings are likely to gain traction within a particular setting. However, as with any methodological approach, caution and reflection is always needed. The extent to which any analysis is generalizable is historically contingent and coincides with the contextual richness of a particular issue. As Bacchi has emphasized herself, using a gender frame for understanding problem representations needs to be considered as a starting point for analysis, not an end point. Ultimately, her approach shows how policy 'responses' need to be understood as part of a discursive construction of the 'problem'. In regard to ‘evidence based policy’, this type of interest in the effects of research frameworks and the interventions that flow from them, remind us of the political nature of research practice and the responsibility for those involved to be attentive to what is included and excluded in their understandings of the social world and subsequent responses to policy issues.