A Problem with Problematize

By Erika Suffern

Though some writers still consider it jargon, the word problematize has gained general acceptance, at least in academic writing. However, it has a particular meaning, and writers should take pains to use it correctly.

When a writer says that her argument “problematizes the concept of power in postcolonial discourse,” she means that she is going to question the assumptions that underlie a certain concept of power. This is an appropriate use of problematize. It means throwing doubt on the core understanding of something that is taken as established truth or calling into question the status of something that is considered unproblematic. It can also mean taking a hard look at who or what is included or excluded in a discipline or a discourse and the reasons behind those inclusions and exclusions.

But when a writer says that her argument “problematizes the infringement of free speech in democracies,” problematize isn’t the right word if the writer is simply identifying, or pointing out, infringement of free speech as a problem. She’s not questioning fundamental truths about the status of free speech in democracies. And she’s probably assuming that her audience already agrees with her that the curtailment of free speech is a problem.

Here’s another example I encountered recently: a review of “journalism that problematizes torture,” which examined journalistic writing addressing cases of torture. Journalism looking at the problem, or issue, of torture does not necessarily “problematize” the issue. But problematize could well be the right word when making a case for or against the justness of torture or, say, its effectiveness in intelligence gathering.

The difference may be subtle, but it’s important. If torture is already considered, well, problematic, it’s difficult to problematize it. But you could problematize assumptions about torture—like the assumption I just made that most people think torture is a problem.

To use problematize correctly, be sure that you mean “to make a problem” of something—usually something that is accepted as truth or considered unproblematic—rather than “to point out a problem” or “to shed light on a problem.”

Published 8 June 2017

2 comments on “A Problem with Problematize

  1. So my district is going to “personalize, humanize, and problematize” education. If this means they are going to address underlying assumptions, then I guess it is being used correctly. I don’t like it though because it seems as if they are saying that they consider education a problem. Am I just being a curmudgeon?

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, it sounds like that is indeed sound usage, if the intention is to ask big, challenging questions about education. I understand what you mean, though, about it seeming like education is being considered a problem; this is part of what makes “problematize” a tricky word.

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