Governmentality: Notes on the Thought of Michel Foucault

Key Concept


The title of Foucault’s lecture series of 1977-78 Security, Territory, Population was poorly chosen; the series should, as he acknowledges, have been called ‘Governmentality’, since the concern of these lectures is with the overarching ‘problem of government’ – that is, ‘how to govern oneself, how to be governed, by whom should we accept to be governed, how to be the best possible governor?’1 He is thus interested in the how of government – both how governing happens and how it is thought.

The 1977-78 lectures start with the theme of biopower, one of Foucault’s thought ‘fragments’2 (as opposed to cohesive theory) on the how of power. Biopower referred to a set of procedures, or relations, that manipulate the biological features (for example, birth rate, fertility) of the human species into a political strategy for governing an entire population. Whilst the theme of biopower is largely dropped, population figures heavily in the lecture series as a novel, ‘absolutely modern’ idea key to the functioning of political power. ‘Population’ in this sense refers not simply to ‘people’ but to phenomena and variables,3 such as birth rate, mortality rate and marriage statistics. It thus encompasses the whole field of ‘the social’,4 a phrase which describes the network of social relationships and the site at which political power operates. Political power thus becomes omnes et singulatum – ‘of all and of each’.

How are we to understand the problem of population, its relation to the state and to that defining feature of modern liberal society that Foucault identifies as ‘security’? This question prompts the need for a new thought fragment which problematizes population-government-security as a ‘problem of government’: governmentality.

The neologism is obviously a play on the word ‘government’;

This word [government] must be allowed the very broad meaning it had in the sixteenth century. ‘Government’ did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather, it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed – the government of children, of souls, of communities, of the sick … To govern, in this sense, is to control the possible field of action of others.5

How can we translate the verb ‘to govern’? The French verb gouverner covers a range of different of meanings;6 it can have a material and physical meaning of ‘to direct or move forward’, or ‘to provide support for’. It can have a moral meaning of ‘to conduct someone’ in a spiritual sense or, tangentially, to ‘impose a regimen’ (on a patient, perhaps) or to be in a relationship of command and control. A focus on ‘conduct’ perhaps leads to the most concise definition of ‘governmentality’ as the ‘conduct of conducts’7 – or, in my own words, the regulation (conduct) of behaviors (conducts). Governmentality operates to produce a (governmentable) subject (hence the relation between ‘the subject and power’ and the continuation of Foucault’s broader and always central theme: ‘to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects’).8

The ‘problem of government’ then, does not refer only to the government of the state (by the Prince); it is not one but many problems. The many problems concerned the government of children (through the interest in pedagogy as it emerged in the sixteenth century), the government of souls and of conduct (here Foucault draws on the problem of Catholic or Protestant pastoral doctrine which, as he explains, is where governmentality was born) and, finally, the government of oneself (he refers here to the sixteenth century return to Stoicism. The government of the self as an inevitable part of governmentality becomes the focus of Foucault’s later work as he develops the idea of self-government as a care of the self and even an ethics that manifests itself as a practice of parrhēsia, or truth-telling).9

So, as a mélange of many problems concerning children, souls, communities, the sick, ‘governmentality’, Foucault elaborates, means three things:10 first, ‘the ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses, reflections, calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population’. Second, governmentality refers to ‘the tendency that, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led to the pre-eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline and so on) of this type of power, which may be termed “government”’. Third, governmentality is the (result of the) process by which the state gradually ‘becomes governmentalized’. In referring to the ‘ensemble’, Foucault is talking about an art of government; the activities or practices of government, or even ‘the game of government’11 – an art by which some people are taught the government of others and some let themselves be governed.

Two rules of the game are worth highlighting: one, that government relies on freedom and, two, that government can be observed by looking not at the state as an institution engaging in government but at looking at the practices of government within institutions that exist in the state (i.e. how the state becomes governmentalized). The game, or art, of government draws, furthermore, on discipline; far from disciplinary technologies of power being removed from the governmentality relation, there is now a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government. Thus governmentality, though concerned with a macrophysics of power (which has a collective subject, the population, as its target – rather than a microphysics, which targets a singular body – such as the body of the soldier which can be made docile by being ‘subjected, used, transformed and improved’),12 retains from discipline a concern with a ‘multiplicity of often minor processes [which] … gradually produce the blueprint for a more general method’.13 The focus remains therefore on the mundane; on ‘meticulous, often minute techniques’,14 which control the behavior of a collective. In this governmentalized space, tactics – and not laws – are what is important to observe the relations of power that produce governor/governed identities.

Why the need for this ‘ugly word’?15 Why not simply call this ‘new government’ or even ‘governance’? The word ‘govern/mentality’ refers to both the processes of governing and a mentality of government – i.e. thinking about how the governing happens. It is thus both an art (a practice) and a rationality (a way of thinking about) government.16 As a way of thinking, governmentality represents an important methodological tool (not theory) within Foucault’s ‘tool-box’ that he offers to ‘users’, not ‘readers’.17 Arguably, the most attractive feature of governmentality is its creativity18 – it provides a flexible and open-ended lens through which the minor tactics of governing are magnified. So, a whole field that can be described a ‘governmentality studies’ can now be identified, where the ‘problem of government’ is tackled in, for instance, the areas of crime control (Garland; Rose), healthcare (Rose), asylum, migration and borders, (Bigo; Darling; Walters) and human rights (Sokhi-Bulley).19

Interest is also becoming endemic in the other side of governmentality – that is, in ways in which to counter the form of being governed in that way and in the notion of counter-conduct. ‘Counter-conduct’ refers to Foucault’s more preferable term signifying ‘resistance’ (see Security, Territory, Population for the problem of vocabulary that Foucault faces with respect to how better to label ‘resistance’).20 Can we use this as a means to understand political struggle in today’s age of riot and revolt?21 This remains a fascinating area of study.

This continued study is the legacy of the ‘Foucault effect’. To persist to explore ‘the different ways in which an activity or art called government has been made thinkable and practicable’.22 ‘Why study governmentality?’ is a question Foucault asked in 1978; to tackle the problem of state and population, was his reply. But the answer goes also to the question of ‘why critique?’ – so that, by interrogating the ‘how’ of government, we might perform ‘the art of not being governed quite so much’.

Dr Bal Sokhi-Bulley, Lecturer, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast 

Call for contributions to ‘Key Concepts’.

Show 22 footnotes

  1. M Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 (M Senellart, ed; G Burchell, trs) (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2007) 88.
  2. M Foucault, ‘Two Lectures’ in M Foucault, Power/Knowledge (C Gordon, ed; C Gordon and others, trs) (Longman, London 1980) 78, 79.
  3. M Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: The Will To Knowledge (R Hurley, trs) (Penguin, London 1998) 11.
  4. C Gordon, ‘Governmental Rationality: An Introduction’, in G Burchell et al, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1991) 1, 28 and 34.
  5. M Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’ in M Foucault, Power: Volume 3: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 (J Faubion, ed; R Hurley, trs) (Penguin, London 2002) 326, 341. My emphasis.
  6. Foucault, above n1, 121-2.
  7. Foucault, above n5, 337. Note also Gordon’s adaptation of the phrase to ‘conduct of conduct’, above n4 at 2.
  8. Foucault, above n5.
  9. See further M Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983 (F Gros, ed; G Burchell, trans) (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke 2010; M Foucault, Fearless Speech (J Pearson, ed) (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles 2001); M Foucault, The Courage of Truth (F Gros, ed; G Burchell, trans) (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke 2011).
  10. Foucault, above n1, 108.
  11. Ibid 151.
  12. M Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A Sheridan, trs) (Penguin, London 1991) 136
  13. Ibid 138-39.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Foucault, above n1, 115.
  16. See further Gordon, above n4, at 3.
  17. M Foucault, ‘Prisons et asiles dans le méchanisme de pouvoir’ in Dits et Ecrits, t II (Gallimard, Paris 1994) 523-4.
  18. N Rose et al, ‘Governmentality’ (2006) 2 Annual Review of Law and Social Science 83.
  19. D Garland, ‘Governmentality and the Problem of Crime’ (1997) 40 Theoretical Criminology 173-214; N Rose, ‘Government and Control’ (2000) 40 British Journal of Criminology 321-339; N Rose, The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2007); D Bigo, ‘Security and Immigration. Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease’ (2002) 27(1) Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 63-92; J Darling, ‘Domopolitics, governmentality and the regulation of asylum accommodation’ (2011) 30(5) Political Geography 263-271; W Walters, ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven, Domopolitics’ (2004) 8(3) Citizenship Studies 237-260.; B Sokhi-Bulley, ‘Government(ality) by Experts: Human Rights as Governance’ (2011) 22(3) Law and Critique 251.
  20. Foucault, above n1, 191-216.
  21. C Death, ‘Counter-Conducts: A Foucauldian Analytics of Protest’ (2010) 9(3) Social Movement Studies 235; B Sokhi-Bulley, ‘Counter-Conduct or Resistance? The Disciplining of Dissent in the Riot City of London’, paper presented at Counter-Conduct in Global Politics Workshop Brighton, University of Sussex
10-12 September 2013 – available at
  22. G Burchell et al, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1991) ix.
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