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What is Governmentality?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term governmentality is a combination of the words govern and mentality, and is frequently defined as the “art of government” or governing. It is a concept studied in social sciences, a social theory credited to Michel Foucault, a philosopher from France. It includes the practices of governments and their affects on the people who are governed. Governmentality should not be confused with the simple act of governing however, at least not in a strict sense, because it also includes the way people govern or conduct themselves, as well as how these two issues are intertwined.

Foucault coined the term governmentality and continued to expand upon it throughout the last decade of his life. He died in 1984. It was in lectures during the late 1970s and early 1980s that he established his theory of governmentality as a basis for determining the theme of a given society’s practices of governance and the personal governance of its citizenry and the interaction of the two.

Foucault gave a lecture in the late 1970’s that bore the title "Governmentality" or Gouvernementalité, in French. Related works created a stir and the concept grew more popular throughout academia. The translated text of the lecture as well several other written works by Foucault and other scholars and an interview with Foucault were contained in the book The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller.

There are several terms useful in helping to define further the concept of governmentality. Technologies of power, technologies of self, and technologies of the market are the main points of interest. Technologies of power are the resources used to help develop good behavior with the idea of creating positive attitudes and attributes while attempting to avoid negative ones.

Technologies of self revolve around the capacity of individuals to control and therefore govern themselves. This means restricting their own negative behaviors while promoting positive behaviors because of personal and societal benefit rather than the rule of law.

Included in the Technologies of Self are responsibilization, healthism, normalization, and self esteem. Responsibilization indicates personal responsibility, and healthism is another aspect of it, in that people are expected to live healthfully. Both of these are for personal and societal benefit and without dependence on government. Normalization, in its simplest sense, means living according to established norms. Self-esteem means self-empowerment, but this is based on an earned respect of self through continual self-evaluation, personal discipline, and self-improvement.

The concept of the Technologies of the Market is described as being “governed” into buying things both wanted and needed due to psychological manipulation and personal identity based on the types of items people purchase. Clearly, each of the technologies represented in the concept of governmentality can work together or even overlap at times, helping to establish the roles of both the government and the governed in a particular society.

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Discussion Comments
By anon956768 — On Jun 16, 2014

Foucault's governmentality is all about how governance in political reality interacts with how ordinary people govern themselves. How do you get synergy? How do you stop problems when the two overlap each other?

By anon927789 — On Jan 26, 2014

@Cyril I would be happier if you could vibrate in plain English please.

By anon351079 — On Oct 10, 2013

"Governmentality" is not a combination of government and mentality, but is more like "governmental-ness."

By anon10918 — On Apr 05, 2008

The Faucauldian concept of "Governmentality" shares key methodological commonalities with the approach used by historian economists of the NIE (New Institutional Economics)in their characterization of the concept of "Institution". While Foucauld advances the idea of "Technologies of Self", Douglass North, for example lets vibrate the one of "Informal Norms of Behaviors".

I will be happy if you could engage in in-depth debates about this comparison aspect.

By Cyril FEGUE

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