5 Understanding and addressing social ‘problems’

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

After reading this Chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and apply the concept of ‘framing’, including by using Bacchi’s WPR approach to analyze and evaluate the framing of various contemporary social issues,
  • apply the concept of framing as a basis for critically analysing media headlines.

What is a social problem, what is public policy?

When seeking to understand and address social problems, several broader questions emerge for us as social scientists. Firstly, what are social problems? Any answer to this question is always underpinned by different theories of the social world, what it means to us, and how it could be organised differently.

Evan Willis (2004:8-9) presents a distinction between sociological problems and social problems. Sociological problems are of an intellectual nature, something that needs to be understood or explained. Such problems tend to be more general, questioning the broad structuring of society and how certain social formations operate. Social problems, on the other hand, are more specific, focusing on a particular aspect of society that can be said to be problematic and in need of a solution. Often these two kind of problems overlap when explaining a social issue. One example is the issue of affordable housing. The sociological problem would be to consider how the housing market and capitalist economy broadly manufactures a shortage by artificially inflating house prices, withholding vacant properties, and engaging in market speculation. The social problem would lead us to consider what could be done to provide more affordable housing, through policy changes and concrete solutions that address the problem at this point in time. Both are necessary tools for social scientists to both understand the root of social issues, and to practically improve the real conditions of society.

Ultimately, social scientists observe the specific features of society and its organisation. These elements include structures, institutions, and role of human agency. Identifying problematic elements then allows us to ponder the question: how should the world look? From this, certain areas of society may need to be reconceptualised. One example could be the class structure, where the working class produces profit for the class that own property and the means of production. A solution could be to reorganise labour so that those that work receive what they have earned. Whilst such a solution may seem unlikely, the job of social scientists is to see past the barriers that prevent change by striving for a better world for all. This kind of ‘blue sky thinking’ is what allows society’s to progress, by imagining an ideal world without social problems and then endeavouring to get as close as possible.

Reflection exercise

After reading the above section, take a piece of paper and write down what you believe are the five most important social problems in your society. Then ask yourself:

  1. How might we approach these issues as sociological problems? What kinds of questions might we ask, and how might we find the answers?
  2. How might we approach these issues as social problems? What kinds of questions might we ask, and how might we seek to address them?

‘What’s the problem represented to be’ – ‘WPR’ approach to policy analysis

What do we mean by ‘policy’?

A ‘policy’ is just a person or organisation/institution’s stance on a particular issue. We mostly talk about policy in relation to government — that is, the government’s formal position or stance on a range of issues constitutes its policy. A government might express and/or implement their policy position through a range of instruments, such as a white paper (i.e., a formal document expressing a policy position), legislation (e.g., creating law to enforce a policy position), money (e.g., creating a new tax to support a policy position) or more. Political parties that do not hold office will also have policies, though will often have fewer resources at their fingertips for implementation.

We will return to the concept of policy in more depth later in the semester.

Important: Bacchi (2009) uses her WPR approach to unpack government policy in particular, but we can also use it to unpack the framing of a number of different social issues — not just those that constitute government policy.

Bacchi (2009) introduced a ‘What’s the problem represented to be’, or ‘WPR’ approach to policy analysis in order to analyse how policy problems are constructed and represented by different actors in the policy-making process. Bacchi (2009: 1) states, “rather than reacting to ‘problems’, governments are active in the creation (or production) of policy ‘problems’.” So, Bacchi’s (2009) WPR approach essentially boils down to asking six questions of a policy ‘problem’ (or other social ‘problem’):

  1. What’s the ‘problem’ (e.g. of ‘problem gamblers’, ‘drug use/abuse’, domestic violence, global warming, health inequalities, terrorism, etc.) represented to be in a specific problem?
  2. What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?
  3. How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?
  4. What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?
  5. What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?
  6. How/where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted or replaced?

In her blog entry, Carson (2018) also unpacks each of these questions in a helpful table on The politics of the problem: How to use Carol Bacchi’s work. While Bacchi focuses particularly on government policy, we can also apply the WPR approach to unpack framings of social issues that are apparent elsewhere — like in the media.

The media obviously reacts to social issues — it ‘holds a mirror up to society’. However, the media can also be active in the creation of social issues insofar as it can:

  • perpetuate the kinds of ‘frames’ that governments (or others) employ,
  • leave important information out of its reporting (e.g., active bias, or perhaps time constraints in getting a story to press), and
  • can also have a stake in sensationalising stories (e.g., ‘if it bleeds it leads’ — stories that draw attention or are sensational in nature tend to get more reads and ‘clicks’ — there is a financial imperative here).

Good social scientists cast a critical eye over how issues are ‘problematised’ and what is left out of the ‘frame’.  Cairney (2015) gives a helpful overview of the concept of ‘framing’. You can read through his post ‘Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing‘, as well as listen to his podcast (embedded in the blog page).

As Cairney (2015) explains, “Framing is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand and use language selectively to portray policy problems…” Cairney (2015) uses the image of hands to the right to indicate how different ‘frames’ can cause us to focus on some parts of the world, while other parts fall outside of our ‘frame’. It can also be helpful to think of a picture frame. While some parts of a ‘problem’ fall inside the picture frame (and are captured / focused on), other parts do not for various reasons.

2 hands making a frame shape.
Considering ‘the frame’
A frame with the tile Youth crime showing a person in a hoody with headlines - Wildest Ones Yet, Catch-and-release court, Melbourne's Teen-Age Hoodlums
Framing ‘youth crime’

For instance, consider how youth crime is ‘framed’ in the example headlines to the right.

Use the six questions in the WPR approach to think about:

i) What is included in the frame?

ii) What is excluded from the frame?

iii) How might the ‘problem’ of youth crime be framed differently?

Reflection exercise

Watch the below video, which provides a brief overview of Bacchi’s view of public policy (YouTube, 2:02):

As you watch the above video, think about whether its explanation of the WPR approach aligns with your own understanding. Were there any bits of the reading or approach you found particularly difficult or confusing?

Reflection exercise

Access and read/listen to the blog and podcast by Cairney, below:

After reading/listening to the above, complete the following activities:

  1. After completing the reading/podcast, write a short paragraph (e.g., 100 words) outlining your understanding of the concept of framing.
  2. After thinking about the above framing of youth crime, including what is included/excluded from the frame, and how the ‘problem’ of youth crime might be framed differently, share and discuss your answers with your peers.

Reflection exercise

Think about Foucault’s conception of power and knowledge, which was discussed in Chapter 3. How might this relate to Carol Bacchi’s ‘WPR’ approach? In particular, how can ‘frames’ construct ‘truth’, and how can/does this relate to power?

We can use the WPR approach – particularly questions 1 and 4 – to help us unpack the ‘framing’ of a range of social issues, including those framings that are reflected in media headlines. Read through the below practice headlines and complete the exercises attached to them to support your understanding of framing.

Reflection exercise

Have a look at your local newspaper coverage of asylum seekers and refugees and check online for news stories about people seeking asylum.

Now, consider the headline “Smiling asylum” on the media report pictured from an Australian newspaper.

Then consider the questions below.

    1. How does the headline frame the issue of asylum seeking?
    2. What is missing from this framing of the issue?
    3. Rewrite this headline to reflect a ‘fairer’ and ‘fuller’ framing of the social issue at hand.
    4. Write a few short paragraphs to justify your revised headline.

Resources to support further learning



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