What's the Problem Represented to Be?

The power to push an agenda rests in the power to define the problem.

When analyzing any social policy, Carol Bacchi argues that the first question we need to ask is not “What problem does this policy solve?” but “What's the problem represented to be?” Policies implicitly ask us to take the problems they address for granted. Less clear is how policies define the problems they are purporting to address — and whose interests are supported by these definitions.

For example, a new government initiative to expand childcare services might ostensibly claim to solve the problem of parents’ inability to take part in the labour force. This “problem representation” deflects us from considering other potential reasons new parents are not joining the workforce. It furthermore positions childcare as primarily serving the interests of adults and economic growth, subsequently deemphasizing questions of the benefits or implications for children themselves. In Carol Bacchi's words, “policy is not the government's best effort to solve ‘problems’; rather, policies produce ‘problems’ with particular meanings that affect what gets done or not done, and how people live their lives.”1

Bacchi's question, “What's the problem represented to be?” has far-reaching applications beyond government policy. For instance, try asking, “How do digital media platforms represent the problems they exist to solve?” We might begin by examining their advertised assertion to help people connect with one another. If framing the problem as a lack of human connection, what solution do they proffer? Ostensibly, they define social disconnection as a data circulation issue. If everyone knows what everyone else is doing constantly, people wouldn't feel isolated. (After all, what are “friends” if not people who are constantly in the know regarding one another's business?) Putting aside this remarkably narrow and impoverished concept of friendship — as if human intimacy is a byproduct of filling out and reading surveys — the crucial issue for our analysis is determining who benefits by this definition? The reason for asking, “What is the problem represented to be?” is to interrogate, “Who’s interests are served when we all see and define the problem in the same way?”

1

Angelique Bletsas & Chris Beasley (Eds). (2012). Engaging with Carol Bacchi : strategic interventions and exchanges. Adelaide : The University of Adelaide Press. p. 22