Constituting reality: studying policy, the political subject and more

By Rebecca Hewer (Editor)

“It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.” 
Henry Kissinger

When curious people discover I research prostitution policy they tend to jump to the very reasonable, though largely inaccurate, conclusion that my focus rests on the sellers of sex. Indeed, my parents – though routinely disabused of the notion – continued to believe that I was interviewing women in prostitution until very recently. Many are therefore perplexed, perhaps even disappointed, when they learn that my work concentrates not on people in prostitution, but on the activities of policy influentials: elected officials, journalists, civil servants, activists and so on. Their initial bemusement is warranted: what can a person learn about the sex trade by speaking to a removed and somewhat elite political class? Couldn’t any information obtained be more easily discovered by speaking to those engaged in prostitution directly? And by favouring research performed in the corridors of power, rather than in the rooms of a hidden brothel, aren’t I just entrenching an already well established hierarchy of opinion, a hierarchy which makes some voices audible whilst silencing others?

These are all reasonable quandaries, quandaries I can only really address by referencing somewhat esoteric debates about the nature of ‘reality’ or, more technically, ontology. In short, the position a scholar takes on ‘reality’ inevitably informs the way they understand policymaking and – specifically – the tasks and activities engaged in by those responsible for it. Some academics, for instance, take a rationalist approach. They believe that it is the job of the policymaker to objectively identify an objectively existing problem and then, subsequently, identify an objectively desirable (evidence based) method of redress. More commonly, scholars argue that policymakers accurately identify an objectively existing problem and then construct a politically shaped method of redress designed to achieve some politically desirable outcome. Anyone familiar with the political arena will probably recognise this model of ‘reality’ as conforming to everyday understandings. Some scholars alternatively believe we’re all living in the Matrix, but they tend to be pretty unhappy and that’s a disturbing discussion for another day.  I, personally, like to be as difficult as possible. I take a ‘critical realist’ standpoint and view policymakers as involved in a process of ‘policy as discourse’[1].

A critical realist position suggests that a problem such as prostitution exists materially and objectively in the world, but that we cannot objectively know and understand it. For those au fait with the lingo – that’s a realist ontology coupled with a relativist epistemology. I believe that whenever we encounter a ‘thing’, we construct a whole constellation of subjective and intersubjective meanings to understand it - contextual meaning, contingent on time, place, person and a variety of other variables. I believe that those meanings correspond, but do not necessarily ‘accurately’ represent. Thus, I argue that policymakers aren’t merely obtaining and representing an objective definition of a problem but, rather, that they are engaged in the important process of constituting and creating a political reality which is, then, naturalised as ‘true’.

At this juncture it’s worth saying that scholars tend to engage in a dogmatic adherence to their ontological position: with nothing but belief to guide their way (it’s a philosophical not factual question) they must simply grasp the courage of their convictions and continue on regardless. Natural scientists, immersed within the traditions of positivism (I can accurately observe something and identify universal laws regarding it), find this to be both troubling and fecund ground for criticism, but even their understandings of reality rest on ontological assumptions which cannot be conclusively evidenced[2]

In any event, by studying activists I seek to better understand how policymakers verbally constitute the problem of prostitution and which (if any) inter-subjectively constructed ideological narrative they use to do so (e.g. liberalism, socialism, Scientology). In so doing, I am searching for signs of how diffuse but dominant social ideas (on the macro-level) influence the understandings and utterances of politically engaged individuals (on the micro-level) and vice versa[3]. I thus view the world as constituted by an endless loop of cultural production and reproduction. It’s actually pretty cool, if you think about it long and hard enough. Promise.

I am, by way of illustration, interested in how policymakers understand the ‘subject’ of prostitution – by which I mean the individuals involved – those who buy, sell and facilitate the sale of sex. Specifically I am interested in the analytical link drawn, by policymakers, between the social (macro) and the individual (micro) (it’s important to be consistent!).

Different ideological narratives (e.g. liberalism, socialism) construct the citizen subject differently, and in ways which appear consistent with how they construct society. For instance, the ‘liberal subject’ is understood to be inherently self-governing, rational, unencumbered and largely unaffected by the social world or by her own physical embodiment (many will be familiar with this Cartesian dualism, the dichotomisation of the body and the mind)[4]. The liberal subject always pursues his own best interest and is thus best served by an unrestrained capitalism. Only the most tyrannical of laws or oppression mitigate this subject’s ability to negotiate the social world[5]. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, assumes that self-governance, economic rationality and autonomy from ones context are all morally desirable traits which are not necessarily inherent. Similarly, it views capitalism as the best way to structure the economy, rather than an organic system naturally arising from the unrestrained movement of actors. The neoliberal state thus aims to create and shape the subject of its dreams[6]. More structuralist accounts of the citizen subject focus on (somewhat unsurprisingly) the impact of social structures, institutions and ideas on the individual. For instance, Martha Ann Fineman argues that human beings are inherently and universally vulnerable – vulnerable to their own inevitable death, to bodily harm but also, on a more social level, to the behaviour of the state and its agents[7]. This vulnerability is experienced differently by different subjects and is largely mediated by a state which favours some (at present the white, able bodied, heterosexual male) whilst neglecting others. Thus, whilst the liberal subject is detached and ahistorical, Fineman’s subject is invariably vulnerable, irrevocably relational (affected by people and society), and conditional on whatever configuration of institutions exists in her locale. Some scholars would go even further and the venerable Pierre Bourdieu (sociologist rock star) constructs the citizen subject in a way that provides evidence of this. Whilst Fineman’s subject is impacted upon by the social, Bourdieu’s subject is determined by the social. The Bourdieusian subject is – without knowing it – inculcated, shaped and at least partially constructed by the social. His desires, opinions, ‘dispositions’ and habits are heavily influenced by his immersion in various fields of the social – academic fields, professional fields, class fields and so on. This, Bourdieu argues, accounts for our apparently innate ‘practical sense’ – our knowledge of how to behave and conduct ourselves in any given social context[8].

But what does any of this matter? What does it matter whether policy makers represent or constitute reality? And indeed, why does it matter whether they conceive of the individual involved in prostitution as a liberal, neoliberal, vulnerable or Bourdieusian subject? Is my research nothing but a florid exercise in self-serving navel gazing? Some would say so. I really hope not but – probably more importantly – I don’t think so.

Particular constructions of reality demand particular methods of redress. The liberal subject performs best when unrestrained, when set free to pursue her interests. Policies responding to her should, therefore, construct a small government and be ‘laissez faire’. Fineman’s subject, in contrast, is in dire need of a government which understands his relationship to the state and to others. Fineman’s subject might well flounder in a state built around capitalism – a state which ameliorates the vulnerabilities of the precious few, whilst neglecting the needs of the masses[9]. If the liberal subject is desired, but not assumed to exist inherently, then the neoliberal state is ushered in and policies are designed with the hope that they will create an artificial liberal subject – people are disincentivised by promises of sanction or punishment (benefit conditionality) and made to engage in a capitalist system which may severely disadvantage them (zero-hour contracts)[10], entrenching any vulnerability which may – in fact – exist (woops, letting my politics show). And God only knows what a Bourdieusian state would look like – he didn’t tell us, as far as I know. It would have to, I imagine, take into account not only how institutions and cultures impact upon subjects, but how they work through them. It would – I imagine - probably resemble feminist organisations which seek to problematize how things like objectification and body shaming cause women to understand themselves as important only insofar as they are sexy.  

And though based on an inter-subjectively (rather than objectively) defined reality, policies do have a material impact on those they are intended to address. Take, for instance, the Coalition Government’s treatment of benefit claimants. Their choice to apply harsh sanctions on those failing to comply with the conditions placed upon them has, arguably, resulted in unnecessary suffering and suicide. And it was a choice they made in adherence with a subjective, neoliberal understanding of the citizen subject, and the crass behaviouralist psychology so often used to achieve neoliberal aims. We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that politically defined problems accompanied by politically circumscribed methods of redress have anything but material and actual outcomes. How we frame those outcomes (e.g. as morally good, bad or indifferent) is subjective, but the outcomes themselves are very real indeed.

[1] Thomas Schwandt, “Three Epistemological Stances for Qualitative Inquiry,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Second Edition edition (Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2000); Sara E. Shaw, “Reaching the Parts That Other Theories and Methods Can’t Reach: How and Why a Policy-as-Discourse Approach Can Inform Health-Related Policy,” Health: 14, no. 2 (March 1, 2010): 196–212, doi:10.1177/1363459309353295; Professor Martyn Hammersley, The Politics of Social Research (SAGE, 1995).

[2] Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, New Ed edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[3] Norman Fairclough, “Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Policy Studies,” Critical Policy Studies 7, no. 2 (2013): 177–97, doi:10.1080/19460171.2013.798239.

[4] Martha Albertson Fineman and Anna Grear, Vulnerability, New edition edition (Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013); Pamela Sue Anderson, “Autonomy, Vulnerability and Gender,” Feminist Theory 4, no. 2 (August 1, 2003): 149–64, doi:10.1177/14647001030042004.

[5] Rebecca Stringer, Knowing Victims: Feminism, Agency and Victim Politics in Neoliberal Times (Hove, East Sussex: Routledge, 2014).

[6] Wendy Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7, no. 1 (2003), doi:10.1353/tae.2003.0020.

[7] Fineman and Grear, Vulnerability.

[8] Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: Polity Press, 1992).

[9] Fineman and Grear, Vulnerability.

[10] Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.”