ⓘ Governmentality is a concept first developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the later years of his life, roughly between 1977 and his death in 198 ..


ⓘ Governmentality

Governmentality is a concept first developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the later years of his life, roughly between 1977 and his death in 1984, particularly in his lectures at the College de France during this time.

The concept has been elaborated further from an "Anglo-Neo Foucauldian" perspective in the social sciences, especially by authors such as Peter Miller, Nikolas Rose, and Mitchell Dean. Governmentality can be understood as:

  • the organized practices through which subjects are governed

Governmentality may also be understood as:

  • "governmental rationality"
  • The reasoned way of governing best and, at the same time, reflection on the best possible way of governing
  • "a guideline for the analysis that Michel Foucault offers by way of historical reconstructions embracing a period starting from Ancient Greece right through to modernity and neo-liberalism"
  • "the techniques and strategies by which a society is rendered governable"
  • the "how" of governing that is, the calculated means of directing how we behave and act
  • the "art of government"

1. Semantics

This term was thought by some commentators to be made by the ".linking of governing "gouverner" and modes of thought "mentalite". In fact, it was not coined by uniting words "gouvernement" and "mentalite", but simply by making gouvernement into gouvernementalite just like musical into musicalite. To fully understand this concept, it is important to realize that in this case, Foucault does not only use the standard, strictly political definition of "governing" or government used today, but he also uses the broader definition of governing or government that was employed until the eighteenth century. That is to say, that in this case, for Foucault, ".government also signified problems of self-control, guidance for the family and for children, management of the household, directing the soul, etc." In other words, for our purposes, government is ".the conduct of conduct."


2. Basic definition

In his lectures at the College de France, Foucault often defines governmentality as the "art of government" in a wide sense, i.e. with an idea of "government" that is not limited to state politics alone, that includes a wide range of control techniques, and that applies to a wide variety of objects, from ones control of the self to the "biopolitical" control of populations. In the work of Foucault, this notion is indeed linked to other concepts such as biopolitics and power-knowledge. The genealogical exploration of the modern state as "problem of government" does not only deepen Foucaults analyses on sovereignty and biopolitics; it offers an analytics of government which refines both Foucaults theory of power and his understanding of freedom.

The concept of "governmentality" develops a new understanding of power. Foucault encourages us to think of power not only in terms of hierarchical, top-down power of the state. He widens our understanding of power to also include the forms of social control in disciplinary institutions, as well as the forms of knowledge. Power can manifest itself positively by producing knowledge and certain discourses that get internalised by individuals and guide the behaviour of populations. This leads to more efficient forms of social control, as knowledge enables individuals to govern themselves.

"Governmentality" applies to a variety of historical periods and to different specific power regimes. However, it is often used by other scholars and by Foucault himself in reference to "neoliberal governmentality", i.e. to a type of governmentality that characterizes advanced liberal democracies. In this case, the notion of governmentality refers to societies where power is de-centered and its members play an active role in their own self-government, e.g. as posited in neoliberalism. Because of its active role, individuals need to be regulated from inside. A particular form of governmentality is characterized by a certain form of knowledge "savoir" in French. In the case of neoliberal governmentality a kind of governmentality based on the predominance of market mechanisms and of the restriction of the action of the state the knowledge produced allows the construction of auto-regulated or auto-correcting selves.

In his lecture titled Governmentality, Foucault gives us a definition of governmentality:

"1. The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target: population, as its principal form of knowledge: political economy, and as its essential technical means: apparatuses of security.

2. The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre-eminence over all other forms of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of savoirs.

3. The process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes governmentalized."

As Foucaults explicit definition is rather broad, perhaps further examination of this definition would be useful.

We shall begin with a closer inspection of the first part of Foucaults definition of governmentality:

This strand of the three-part definition states that governmentality is, in other words, all of the components that make up a government that has as its end the maintenance of a well-ordered and happy society population. The governments means to this end is its "apparatuses of security," that is to say, the techniques it uses to provide this society a feeling of economic, political, and cultural well-being. The government achieves these ends by enacting "political economy," and in this case, the meaning of economy is the older definition of the term, that is to say, "economy at the level of the entire state, which means exercising towards its inhabitants, and the wealth and behavior of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and his goods". Thus, we see that this first part of the definition states that governmentality is a government with specific ends, means to these ends, and particular practices that should lead to these ends.

The second part of Foucaults definition presents governmentality as the long, slow development of Western governments which eventually took over from forms of governance like sovereignty and discipline into what it is today: bureaucracies and the typical methods by which they operate.

The next and last part of Foucaults definition of governmentality can be restated as the evolution from the Medieval state, which maintained its territory and an ordered society within this territory through a blunt practice of simply imposing its laws upon its subjects, to the early Renaissance state, which became more concerned with the "disposing of things", and so began to employ strategies and tactics to maintain a content and thus stable society, or in other words to "render a society governable".

Thus, if one takes these three definitions together, governmentality may be defined as the process through which a form of government with specific ends a happy and stable society, means to these ends "apparatuses of security", and with a particular type of knowledge "political economy", to achieve these ends, evolved from a medieval state of justice to a modern administrative state with complex bureaucracies.


3. History of the term

The concept of governmentality segues from Foucaults ethical, political and historical thoughts from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. His most widely known formulation of this notion his lecture entitled "Security, territory and population" 1978. A deeper and richer reflection on the notion of governmentality is provided in Foucaults course on "The Birth of Biopolitics" at the College de France in 1978-1979. The course was first published in French in 2004 as Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au College de France 1978-1979 Paris: Gallimard & Seuil. This notion is also part of a wider analysis on the topic of disciplinary institutions, on neoliberalism and the "Rule of Law", the "microphysics of power" and also on what Foucault called biopolitics. In the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality, namely, The Use of Pleasure 1984 and The Care of the Self 1984, and in his lecture on "Technologies of the Self" 1982, Foucault elaborated a distinction between subjectivation and forms of subjectification by exploring how selves were fashioned and then lived in ways which were both heteronomously and autonomously determined. Also, in a series of lectures and articles, including "The Birth of Biopolitics" 1979, Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of Political Reason" 1979, "The Subject and Power" 1982 and "What is Enlightenment?" 1984, he posed questions about the nature of contemporary social orders, the conceptualization of power, human freedom and the limits, possibilities and sources of human actions, etc. that were linked to his understanding of the notion of "governmentality".

The notion of governmentality not to confuse with governance gained attention in the English-speaking academic world mainly through the edited book The Foucault Effect 1991, which contained a series of essays on the notion of governmentality, together with a translation of Foucaults 1978 short text on "gouvernementalite".


4. Further developments of the concept

Hunt and Wickham, in their work Foucault and Law. All of these various reasons and technologies are underpinned by the mentality of government that seeks to transform us into a free, enterprising, autonomous individual: Neo-liberalism. Furthermore, Neo-liberalism seeks to create and disseminate definitions of freedom, autonomy and what it means to be enterprising that re-create forms of behavior amenable to neo-liberal goals.


4.1. Further developments of the concept Ecogovernmentality

Ecogovernmentality or eco-governmentality is the application of Foucaults concepts of biopower and governmentality to the analysis of the regulation of social interactions with the natural world. Timothy W. Luke theorized this as environmentality and green governmentality. Ecogovernmentality began in the mid-1990s with a small body of theorists the literature on ecogovernmentality grew as a response to the perceived lack of Foucauldian analysis of environmentalism and in environmental studies.

Following Michel Foucault, writing on ecogovernmentality focuses on how government agencies, in combination with producers of expert knowledge, construct "The Environment." This construction is viewed both in terms of the creation of an object of knowledge and a sphere within which certain types of intervention and management are created and deployed to further the governments larger aim of managing the lives of its constituents. This governmental management is dependent on the dissemination and internalization of knowledge/power among individual actors. This creates a decentered network of self-regulating elements whose interests become integrated with those of the State.


4.2. Further developments of the concept Crises of governmentality

According to Foucault, there are several instances where the Western, "liberal art of government" enters into a period of crisis, where the logic of ensuring freedom which was defined against the background of risk or danger necessitates actions "which potentially risk producing exactly the opposite."

The inherently contradictory logics that lead to such contradictions are identified by Foucault as:

  • Liberal freedom requires disciplinary techniques that manage the individuals behaviour and everyday life so as to ensure productivity and the increase in profit through efficient labour, e.g., Benthams Panopticon surveillance system. Liberalism claims to supervise the natural mechanisms of behaviour and production, but must intervene when it notices "irregularities."
  • Liberalism depends on the socialization of individuals to fear the constant presence of danger, e.g., public campaigns advocating savings banks, public hygiene, and disease prevention, the development of detective novels as a genre and of news stories of crime, and sexual anxieties surrounding "degeneration".
  • Liberalism must force individuals to be free: control and intervention becomes the entire basis of freedom. Freedom must ultimately be manufactured by control rather than simply "counterweighted" by it.

Examples of this contradictory logic which Foucault cites are the policies of the Keynesian welfare state under F.D. Roosevelt, the thought of the German liberals in the Freiburg school, and the thought of American libertarian economists such as the Chicago School which attempt to free individuals from the lack of freedom perceived to exist under socialism and fascism, but did so by using state interventionist models.

These governmental crises may be triggered by phenomena such as a discursive concern with increasing economic capital costs for the exercise of freedom, e.g., prices for purchasing resources, the need for excessive state coercion and interventionism to protect market freedoms, e.g., anti-trust and anti-monopoly legislation that leads to a "legal strait-jacket" for the state, local protests rejecting the disciplinary mechanisms of the market society and state. and finally, the destructive and wasteful effects of ineffective mechanisms for producing freedom.


4.3. Further developments of the concept Application to health care

Scholars have recently suggested that the concept of governmentality may be useful in explaining the operation of evidence-based health care and the internalization of clinical guidelines relating to best practice for patient populations, such as those developed by the American Agency for Health Care Research and Quality and the British National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence NICE. Recent research by Fischer and colleagues at the University of Oxford has renewed interest in Foucaults exploration of potential resistance to governmentality, and its application to health care, drawing on Foucaults recently published final lectures at the College de France.


4.4. Further developments of the concept Beyond the West

Jeffreys and Sigley 2009 highlight that governmentality studies have focused on advanced liberal democracies, and preclude considerations of non-liberal forms of governmentality in both western and non-western contexts. Recent studies have broken new ground by applying Foucaults concept of governmentality to non-western and non-liberal settings, such as China. Jeffreys 2009 for example provides a collection of essay on Chinas approach to governance, development, education, the environment, community, religion, and sexual health where the notion of Chinese governmentally is based not on the notion of freedom and liberty as in the western tradition but rather, on a distinct rational approach to planning and administration. Such new studies thus use Foucaults Governmentalities to outline the nature of shifts in governance and contribute to emerging studies of governmentality in non-western contexts.