Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems


Carol Bacchi

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    to Stephen


    The approach to policy developed in this book – a What's the Problem? approach – was fine-honed over several years of teaching undergraduate Policy courses in the Politics Department, University of Adelaide. The students' enthusiasm for the approach and the critical insights it generated convinced me to put it into print. My colleagues in the Department, in particular Doug McEachern, Chris Beasley, Carol Johnson, Greg McCarthy, Clem Macintyre, Marion Maddox and Peter Mayer, offered valuable insights and enthusiastic encouragement. The Office of the Status of Women, South Australia, headed by Carmel O'Loughlin, and the South Australian Health Commission, through Cara Ellickson, provided the opportunity to test the usefulness of the approach amongst those involved in policy making.

    I was based at the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women, in Montreal, between March and June 1997. The congenial atmosphere generated by Shree Mulay, Blossom Shaffer and Monica Hotter enabled me to conduct important research. A Faculty Research Award from the Canadian High Commission made this stay feasible. While in Canada I had the opportunity to test out my ideas on a number of people. I received important critical feedback from Susan Phillips, Pat Armstrong, Rianne Mahon and Marion Palley from the University of Delaware. Back in Australia, Trish Harris from Murdoch University read and commented upon Part One of the book. Her very positive evaluation gave me a much needed boost at a difficult time in the writing. As I mention in Chapter 5, Wendy Bastalich deserves acknowledgement for her insights into the regulatory effects of skills discourse. Two University of Adelaide Research Grants provided some much-needed time for research and writing up.

    I would also like to thank Kate Leeson for her always prompt and efficient research assistance, Jayne Taylor for her unsolicited role as purveyor of key documents, my nieces Kristina and Michelle for help with research and child minding, and Chris McElhinney and Tina Esca for assistance with the final preparation of the manuscript.

    The editorial staff at Sage, especially Karen Phillips, have been most helpful during the production of this volume. The readers provided by Sage, notably Jeanne Gregory, offered encouragement and useful critical insights. Any remaining lapses are, of course, my own.

    And to my dear son, Stephen, eternal gratitude for enriching my life and sharpening my conviction that who we are is not solely a matter of what we get paid to do.


    By clarifying that which we oppose, we set the groundwork for creating a vision of that for which we long.

    Marcia Westkott (1983) ‘Women's Studies as a Strategy for Change: Between Criticism and Vision’ in G. Bowles and R. D. Klein (eds) Theories of Women's Studies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 212

    With the loss of simple answers the questions too have become infinitely more difficult.

    André Brink (1991) An Act of Terror. London: Martin Secker & Warburg. p. 612
  • Conclusion: The Politics of Policy Studies

    This book develops a new way to think about and to approach policy analysis. The approach, called What's the Problem (represented to be)?, is contrasted with conventional approaches to policy in Part One of the book. In Part Two, the emphasis is upon how to apply the approach. To this end I consider a range of topics commonly considered central to resolving the problem of women's inequality. This larger ‘problem’ is also subjected to critical scrutiny.

    The primary challenge I offer to conventional policy approaches is the suggestion that ‘problems’ do not exist out there, in the social world, waiting to be addressed and ‘solved’, but that ‘problems’ are created by the policy community. By this I mean that any policy proposal necessarily contains a diagnosis of the problem to be addressed. The policy proposal by its very nature identifies what is of concern and what needs to change. I call this a problem representation and suggest, as a first step in policy analysis, teasing out the problem representations which necessarily lodge in policy proposals. The argument, put briefly, is that it is impossible to assess policy proposals without doing this since, if in your view the ‘problem’ is misdiagnosed, you are unlikely to find the proposal helpful.

    The book uses a social constructionist approach to policy problems. That is, it suggests that, although there are a range of objectionable conditions which need addressing, any attempt to deal with these conditions necessarily imposes a shape upon them. There is no way to access directly those objectionable conditions; hence we need to direct our attention to competing representations of those conditions. A focus upon representations requires a focus upon discourse. Stuart Hall's (1992: 291) definition of discourse makes this connection explicit: ‘a group of statements which provide a language for talking about – i.e. a way of representing – a particular type of knowledge about a topic’. A What's the Problem? approach calls for attention to the discursive construction of problems within policy proposals and policy debate generally. Through this means, it assists in identifying the frames used to construe social ‘problems’. A simple way to characterize a What's the Problem? approach is to say that it directs attention to problematizations rather than to problems, which are held to be inaccessible outside of the ways they are problematized.

    In contrast to many social constructionist analyses, I insist that it is both possible and necessary to compare and assess competing representations of social problems. The criteria I elaborate for assessment focus on the implications of competing representations. By implications I mean the effects which appear to accompany or follow from particular representations. Three general categories of effects are identified: the ways in which subjects and subjectivities are constituted in discourse; the effects which follow from the limits imposed on what can be said; and the ‘lived effects’ of discourse (see Chapter 2). I highlight in particular how policies addressing domestic violence, sexual harassment and women's inequality recreate existent power relations by constituting their targets as either disadvantaged, sick or lacking in desired attitudes, while ignoring the power of those in positions of influence to designate the nature of ‘disadvantage’ and of ‘desirable’ attributes.

    Chapters 1 and 2 focus directly on conventional policy literature, and some more recent developments in the field. In these chapters I elaborate the claim that we need to see approaches to understanding policy as themselves political. I show that technical rationalists like Herbert Simon (1961) and Eugene Bardach (1981) put their faith in central administration and technocracy, while political rationalists like Charles Lindblom (1980) and Aaron Wildavsky (1979) are pluralists and incrementalists. In different ways both groups imply that policy analysts can stand back from the policy process and offer species of advice to those in government. The kinds of advice offered include either insights into ‘hard’ empirical information and measurement (technical rationalists), or ‘softer’ information about political realities (political rationalism). By way of contrast, authors like Frank Fischer (1980, 1990), John Drysek (1990) and Giandomenico Majone (1989) recognize the analysts' necessarily normative involvement in advice-giving, but try to find ways to ‘manage’ the value dimension of policy analysis. In these accounts, the technical expert of the comprehensive rationalists and the conflict manager of the political rationalists is replaced by the analyst (or in the case of Drysek by the academic) as public critic.

    A What's the Problem? approach sees policy analysis as necessarily involved in the discursive construction of policy problems. In this view, there is no outside to the process. Moreover, it contests any suggestion that governments and their advisers do their best to respond to ‘problems’ which they ‘discover’ or which are brought to their attention. This description of government activity, it is argued, misleads the public by suggesting that neutral arbiters are at work dealing with difficult situations and deciding, among other things, when to ‘intervene’ or when not to ‘intervene’. Recognizing the role of the policy community in discursively contructing ‘problems’ (through policy proposals and political debate) produces a very different vision of the political process. For one, it confirms the incoherence of the intervention/non-intervention dichotomy (see Olsen, 1985). That is, we need to recognize the active role (and hence intervention) of governments in discursively constructing social problems as not requiring intervention. This indeed forms an important part of neoliberal rhetoric (see Watts, 1993/4: 116). Showing that governments, often through relationships with non-state actors, actively shape ‘the background rules that affect people's domestic behaviour’ and the legal rules which allow the ‘free market’ to function (Olsen, 1985: 836–7) subverts this rhetoric. Along related lines, governmentality scholars emphasize framings of problems which create political subjects as self-regulating, obviating the need for more intrusive ‘interventions’. These challenges to the discovery/response model of policy making alter quite dramatically feminist debates about whether feminists should turn to the state or avoid ‘inevitable’ co-option. Recognizing the state's pervasive role in framing problems, and by implication nonproblems, highlights the impossibility of evacuating this discursive space. More will be said about this topic shortly.

    Chapter 3 elaborates the social constructionist approach to social problems, clarifying where and how a What's the Problem? approach offers something new. In particular, I am critical of conventional social problems literature which seems to imply that there exists a number of discrete social problems which require separate analysis and assessment. I also recognize, with Roger Sibeon (1996), that this approach is dominant among American sociologists, illustrating that approaches to studying social problems are context-bound. Although the shape of Part Two, with separate chapters addressed to particular topics, appears to offer an analysis of discrete topics, the focus throughout is upon identifying common themes, illustrating a wider picture or pattern among more specific policy developments. One of the key features of this broader pattern is indeed the pervasiveness of the discovery/response model of interpretation which suggests that we are ‘facing’ discrete ‘problems’ which require discrete and simple ‘solutions’, for example, pay equity legislation or affirmative action legislation.

    I describe Part Two of the book as a guide to method. By this I mean that I use the analyses in Part Two to illustrate the kinds of questions which need to be asked in a What's the Problem? approach. At the same time I impose an analysis. I would suggest that doing anything less would leave the impression that this is just another of those poststructuralist texts which leaves everything floating in the realm of representation. To counter this impression I offer my reading of ‘women's inequality’ and issues commonly tied to this ‘problem’. I also borrow freely from other feminist writings on select topics to illustrate that a number of feminists have already been using the approach I recommend and to bolster my interpretation of particular policy developments. The material from other feminists is never offered in a purely summary fashion; rather it is introduced as part of my analysis.

    It is possible but dangerous to pull together the major themes which emerge from Part Two, dangerous because of the need to simplify and hence to lose some of the nuance which accompanies more detailed study. None the less, it is a worthwhile exercise if only to illustrate that what this book is about is providing insights into the dilemmas of making change. I begin, in the Preamble to Part Two, by discussing the limitations of the dominant framing of ‘women's inequality’ as a labour market problem. That is, I think it important to recognize the extent to which the desire (on the part of governments and feminists) to get more women into paid labour has put its stamp upon the kinds of changes which have been encouraged and allowed. Specifically, measures addressing ‘women's inequality’, when cast in this light, have been incorporationist and insufficiently critical of existing standards and institutions. In the period under investigation, the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Western democracies (the United States, Canada and Australia provide most of my examples) introduced equal pay and pay equity legislation, equal opportunity and affirmative action legislation, equity in education legislation, and some targeted support for child care. A What's the Problem? approach directs attention to the limitations of these legislative innovations. It asks what is problematized and what is left unproblematized in these initiatives. It asks how different groups of women and men are constituted within the discourses shaping these reforms and the debates around them. Put simply, it uncovers the assumption in policy approaches to date that all that women, and men for that matter, require to be free is some form of paid labour. In the process, it highlights the ways in which this normative vision ignores the exploitation of many working people, and the importance of people's nonworking lives.

    Incorporationist policies are readily identifiable by their targets. In each case an incorporationist analysis focuses upon the outgroup and what they require to become ingroups. So, for equal pay, women are to be paid what men are paid. For equal opportunity to exist, women are to be allowed into men's occupations and boys' study areas. Like men, they will be ‘freed’ of child-care obligations to the extent that this is necessary for them to approximate men's lifestyles. If they have difficulty ‘making the grade’, it is because they lack something men have, either initiative or dedication, or because they hold the ‘wrong’ priorities, placing family ahead of work obligations. A What's the Problem? approach opens up an opportunity to question these priorities. It suggests that more attention needs to be focused upon the work and living conditions which women are encouraged to emulate. In the process it allows questions to be asked about who decides which job or study area is worth more, by what criteria, who decides that paid labour is definitive of personhood, who decides that what is desirable is ‘freedom’ from child care. The purpose thoughout is to put unasked questions onto the political agenda.

    A What's the Problem? approach accepts nothing as given. Rather its purpose is to put the given into question. It accepts no delineation of existent social concerns. Rather, it probes the shape of those concerns and the implications of the shapes which are discovered. So, it asks why abortion is called a moral problem, why it is given this character and with what effects. Why is domestic violence called ‘domestic’? What follows from this labelling? What needs to be altered in the implied characterization of the ‘problem’? What is sexual harassment? What kind of a problem is it represented to be? What follows from this particular representation? In abortion policy we see how jurisdictional disputes between the state and the medical profession get played out over women's bodies. In responses to domestic violence we see how feminists' demands to have violence against women recognized as public crime have been co-opted by a law and order lobby. In sexual harassment grievance procedures the problem is created as the bad behaviour of a few deviant men and individual women are held responsible for identifying this behaviour.

    Across the social problems surveyed, we observe the sheeting home of the responsibility for change to individuals. Equal opportunity is paradigmatic here where women are encouraged to develop the ‘skills’ to fit into existing workplace structures. While pay equity demands recognition of women's abilities, again individual women will be assessed by the degree to which they demonstrate characteristics deemed useful to the market. Child care will be offered as a ‘choice’, creating the possibility for some women to have access to ‘men's’ jobs. Education will prepare them for this role. In abortion, individual women will plead their case for sympathy. Battered women and sexually harassed women will be offered the same ‘opportunity’. Meanwhile, the social processes which shape women's lives, which make abortion necessary, which leave them in homes to be battered, which create them as outcasts in particular work environments, go unaddressed.

    I want to confront directly the charge that the kind of analysis offered here is impractical and utopian. It could be said that, while directing attention to the need for broad cultural and organizational change sounds good in principle, realistically we need to take what we can get and be thankful. Moreover, it may seem particularly inappropriate to highlight the limitations of initiatives, like affirmative action, at the very time when these are under attack (see Chapter 5). Does a What's the Problem? approach produce a counsel of despair, highlighting the inevitable limitations of working through the state's categories and hence through legal discourse? What are the practical implications of identifying dominant discursive frames which reduce social to individual problems, and which reveal the power of the market in dictating the conditions of our lives?

    I suggested above that I do not consider it particularly useful to discuss feminist strategies in terms of an either/or approach to the state and to law: either work through it or do without it. This is because, as explained above, our lives are shaped inevitably by the ways in which policy problems are discursively constructed. My argument therefore is that feminists have little option but to engage with the state, and with extra-state institutions such as the law and the medical profession, in contesting constructions of problems which work to disempower women. What's the Problem? offers a tool to assist in identifying what needs to be contested, a task Eileen Fegan (1996: 84) describes as a necessary first step in engaging with the law.

    The insights into the ways in which the problem of women's inequality is discursively constructed, moreover, allow us to see that, in the current attack on reforms such as affirmative action – and here we could add the attack on the welfare state generally – women are not facing some dramatic about-face in policy approach. Rather, the grounds for the swing to the right can be found in the very terms of analysis shaping many of the issues where feminists won concessions. I am thinking here of the disadvantage discourse which continues to shape discussions around equity, except now we are being told that women have indeed achieved equality and are no longer ‘disadvantaged’. The new education discourse which describes the problem as ‘girls beating boys’ provides a poignant example of this (see Chapter 6). So too a construction of the problem of women's inequality as ‘lack of access to paid labour’, by leaving unaddressed the responsibilities of caring which women in the main shoulder, allows welfare cuts to be rationalized as simply the privatizing of care. In this usage, privatizing means getting women to do more caring. In another usage, the increasing tendency to privatize child care (Chapter 7) also fits the market-led model which framed child care services as primarily a means to facilitate women's workforce participation.

    It is at this level that the book hopes to say something useful about feminists' strategies. It highlights the pervasiveness of discursive constructions which can work against the desire for structural change. Moreover, it shows how feminist interventions sometimes get absorbed because of the failure to challenge these discursive constructions. As a tool, What's the Problem? operates to uncover problematizations and their effects. It does not suggest that particular framings can be dispensed with but rather that a sharp eye to their effects can provide a basis for interacting with them. Carol Smart (1997:115) comes to a similar conclusion. She recommends that feminists approach the state the way the women's health movement has approached medicine – challenging its framing paradigms all the while claiming better access to its services. A key point here is the need to recognize that feminist interventions will be shaped by context. Both political climate and specific cultural and institutional factors will affect the opportunity or lack of opportunity for discursive reframing. This means, as Jeanne Gregory says (personal correspondence, October 1998), that ‘the work of identifying the best strategies to suit particular sets of circumstances can only be done by activists on the spot at the time’.

    Elizabeth Kingdom's (1995: 7) insights into the difficulties involved in engaging with rights discourses are useful here. She makes the important point that ‘there may be political contexts in which it is necessary to “play the game”, to present campaigns in terms of right over body, to deploy the terms which the law recognizes’. At the same time she is well aware of the limitations of a rights discourse. Her practical advice (1995: 16) is that feminists ‘consider in detail how various rights discourses are already operating, and what the chances are of supplementing or replacing anti-feminist rights discourse either with feminist rights discourse or with alternatives to rights discourse’. This tactic, which she describes as a ‘conversion strategy’, demands ‘familiarity with exploitable shifts in rights discourse’. Because a What's the Problem? approach operates to unpack problem representations and, in the process, to identify discursive frames, it provides an ideal tool for the strategy Kingdom describes. It assists in providing the background knowledge needed to attempt discursive intervention/s.

    Going further, I emphasize the need to apply a What's the Problem? approach to feminists' analyses of what needs to change. I recommend this because of the difficulties involved in recognizing the ways in which feminists' problematizations reflect deeply held cultural assumptions, given specific historical, economic and cultural locations. A greater sensitivity to the role professional affiliations play in shaping problematizations is also crucial, as we observed in the chapter on domestic violence for example (see Chapter 9). There we saw also the importance of broadening the feminist constituency, either directly or through affiliation, to guarantee that the voices of Black and poor women get heard. The goal here is to prevent the unthinking imposition of frames which enshrine the exploitation of these groups. The example of gender persecution as a grounds for asylum (see Chapter 9) illustrates the danger in allowing any feminist problem representation to stand unscrutinized while the feminist community is dominated by white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon women. If one accepts my diagnosis that the kind of problem women's inequality has been represented to be is inadequate and shortsighted, feminists need to identify more precisely in what ways it needs to be expanded and how to design policies to capture the sorts of change which are desired. The implication of the analysis here is that this exercise is fraught with danger if feminists are unwilling to scrutinize the problem representations lodged within their analyses. The story of the way in which the Butler decision (1992) on pornography in Canada, which enshrined a ‘harm against women’ standard, has been used to harass gay and lesbian communities provides an object lesson here (see Cossman et al., 1997).

    A What's the Problem? approach is a tool of analysis which can be applied to any policy area. It is designed to encourage a particular kind of thinking which is useful in any policy domain. I hope that this is clear in Part One, which generalizes the approach. Any policy proposal needs to be subjected to the kind of critical scrutiny encouraged by the approach. First, proposals need to be screened for problem representations and these then need to be analysed in terms of their effects, practical and discursive. As part of the first step it is useful to examine when and how a particular topic achieved social problem status. This is the point in time when problem representations are likely to be clearest and easiest to identify, because it is at this stage that policy approaches will be outlined and defended. As some social problems have a tendency to reappear in different historical periods, it is useful to identify contrasts and similarities in the shapes given to them at these times. The same is true for cultural variation in the shape and timing of social problem creation. Context is useful not only to identify the distinctive characteristics assigned social problems but also to uncover commonalities in social problem diagnosis.

    This kind of analysis has been called genealogy (see Chapter 2). In their genealogy of dependency, Fraser and Gordon (1994: 332) insist that

    [A] genealogy cannot tell us how to respond politically to today's discourse about welfare dependency. It does suggest, however, the limits of any response that presupposes rather than challenges the definition of the problem that is implicit in that expression.

    Specifically, here, Fraser and Gordon mention as a goal recognizing the problem implicit in key policy terms and discourses such as ‘welfare dependency’. This is precisely the task facilitated through the application of a What's the Problem? approach. In contrast to Fraser and Gordon, however, I believe that we have here a powerful tool of political analysis. Not only does the approach encourage the uncovering of barely disguised political agendas, it compels an analysis of the problem representations which lodge in all, including our own, proposals. This kind of critical analysis of presuppositions sharpens awareness of the extent to which our proposals have inbuilt limitations and biases, while suggesting a method for identifying framings of issues which move us closer to the goal of more egalitarian social relations. Marcia Westkott (1983: 212, cited in Bingham, 1994: 1) makes this point nicely: ‘By clarifying that which we oppose, we set the groundwork for creating a vision of that for which we long.’

    As this book is intended as a guide to the application of the method I call What's the Problem?, it is appropriate to summarize once again the stages in the process. What's the Problem? is intended to provide a tool for uncovering the frames that construct policy problems. Sometimes these are apparent in general public or political debate. Where more precision is required, students are directed to the specifics of policy proposals. The logic here is that these proposals will reveal what is represented to be the problem because what we propose to do will suggest what we believe needs to change. The task then is to open up the problem representations contained in policy proposals to critical analysis, teasing out the presuppositions which lodge there and speculating upon the implications of particular discursive constructions of the problem. Most importantly, there is a need to consider what goes unproblematized in particular discursive constructions. I also recommend applying this approach to feminist proposals for change. This could best be accomplished, I suggest, by encouraging critical exchange among feminists, and between groups of feminists and representatives of other outgroups. I invite and welcome contributions which assist in assessing the adequacy or inadequacy of the problem representations I offer in Part Two of the book. My goal, through focusing on what is represented to be the problem both in policy proposals and in feminist theorizing, is to produce more reflexive feminist analyses and to assist in the difficult task of designing context-sensitive proposals which minimize losses and maximize gains.


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