Security Territory and Population Part 5: Governmentality And Introduction to Foucault’s Method

In the fourth lecture in Security, Territory and Population, Michel Foucault introduces the idea of governmentality. He begins this lecture with a discussion of the change in the idea of governing that began in the 16th Century, when writers of the day began saying that the word covers a number of different relationships.

There is the problem of government of oneself…. There was of course the problem of the government of souls and of conduct, which was, of course, the problem of Catholic or Protestant pastoral doctrine. There is the problem of the government of children, with the emergence and of the great problematic of pedagogy in the sixteenth century. And then, perhaps only the last of these problems, there is that of the government of the state by the prince. How to govern oneself, how best to be governed, by whom should we accept to be governed, how to be the best possible governor?

Foucault sees these issues as the intersection of two trends, the breakup of feudalism and its gradual replacement by a centralized state; and the dispersion of religious belief brought on by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Foucault says that the leading text is Machiavelli’s The Prince, both for its own ideas and for the range of texts disputing it. He says that the central idea of The Prince is that the Prince’s position as sovereign is external to his principality. He took the position by force, or by connivance with others, and his central object is retaining his power, protecting it both from external and internal threats.

Those reacting to Machiavelli emphasized the art of governing, as opposed to the art of neutralizing opposition. They observe that many people are in a position of governing, the father with the family, the teacher with the child, the master with the apprentice or employee, the judge, the mayor, the superior in a convent. Foucault points to a typology of government identified in the 16th Century by the French writer La Mothe Le Vaver. There are three levels of government, the governance of the self, which is the subject of morality; the governance of the family, which becomes identified with the economy; and the governance of the state.

These levels of governance bear on each other. If the self is well-governed, then the family is well-governed, and the state will be well-governed. If the State is well-governed, that leads to the good governance of the family and of the self. Foucault says that in this idealized arrangement the idea of the economy as a principle object of government begins to emerge. He traces this development through the 18th and 19th Centuries as the idea of the economy begins to take on the meaning it has today.

Foucault points to another writer, Guillaume de La Perriere, who wrote “Government is the right disposition of things arranged so as to lead to a suitable end.” This means first that governors act primarily on things, and not specifically on people. A suitable end is not necessarily the best end, but one that is achievable. The important point to Foucault is that government has to do with the relations between people and things, and the steps those who govern take with respect to those relationships.

There is a good bit more of this kind of exegesis of texts on the art of governance from the 16th to the late 18th Centuries, all in a similar vein. But for this theory to come into full practice, various obstacles had to be removed, and the apparatuses of security had to be developed more thoroughly. One of the barriers was the idea of sovereignty.

But we could also say that it is thanks to the perception of the specific problems of the population and the isolation of that level of reality that we call the economy, that it was possible to think, reflect and calculate the problem of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

Another important factor was that the model of the economy should be the family. Foucault says that as the focus of government became the population and not the individual subject, the family lost its status as the model and became simply an element of the population, one useful for achieving some of the goals of the government.

And then, of course, there was the need to develop better understandings of the world and thus better apparatuses of security.

Finally we get to the definition of governmentality. Foucault says that it means three things.

1. “…[T]he ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit very complex, power that has population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”

2. The pre-eminence of government as the dominant form of power, which has led to the development of a series of specific apparatuses … and the development of knowledges.”

3. The process by which the state of law in the Middle Ages was transformed into what Foucault calls the security state, the form of government we have in the West today.

Governmentality becomes the focus of the rest of the lectures.


1. I think the first definition is directly useful for understanding what Foucault is driving at. If so, why doesn’t he use a term like “art of government” or “governmental practice”? That leads me to think that the idea of mentality is important. There is a mental state that is conducive to the application of the security regime, both for the governor and for the governed. In the next lectures we take up the question of what that mentality might be.

2. In the second definition, Foucault uses the terms “knowledges” and “apparatuses”. Foucault’s method is described briefly in Section 4.3 of this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

…[S]ystems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

There is much more at the link. Apparatus is described here.

Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.

From the text, I would have described it as the institutional and operational forms of knowledges in a specific society, so the difference is the addition of last phrase relating to exercise of power. To that end, we get this description of “power-knowledge”

One of the most important features of Foucault’s view is that mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge which collate information on people’s activities and existence. The knowledge gathered in this way further reinforces exercises of power.

That explains his method of looking at old texts. He is trying to see the forms that knowledge took in prior times as a way of understanding the past and then teasing out the changes in ideas from time to time. It helps to see this because the lack of empirical data in the text might put off those people who see “facts” as the only form of knowledge.

3. Knowledges change from time to time, and the first part of Foucault’s method is to understand those changes; that’s the historical or archeological part. Why they change is the more difficult problem. Foucault takes that up under the term genealogy. The Stanford site has this:

Foucault intended the term “genealogy” to evoke Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, particularly with its suggestion of complex, mundane, inglorious origins—in no way part of any grand scheme of progressive history. The point of a genealogical analysis is to show that a given system of thought (itself uncovered in its essential structures by archaeology, which therefore remains part of Foucault’s historiography) was the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends.

As a simple example, for a number of years, Keynesianism was the form of knowledge about the economy. Then it was replaced by neoliberalism. That’s the historical situation as I see it today. Why it changed, the genealogy of that change, is open to discussion. One strand of the discussion can be found in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

4. Foucault suggests that the family as a model for the economy had to be overcome and replaced by operations on the population as a whole. As we know, the idea of the family as model for both government and for government of the economy as a whole has not died out, but like most bad ideas will never die.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

5 replies
  1. Ed Walker says:

    I’ve been on the road for the last month or so, and out of reach of the internets for much of that time. I’m back, and will be in one place for a couple of weeks before moving on again.
    This post takes up two issues, the definition of governmentality, and one brought on by discussions with traveling companions on Foucault generally. The part about method is introductory, and I hope to do more with it as this series continues. Long-term readers may remember the discussion of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That may be a helpful way to think about Foucault’s views.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Welcome back, Ed, and thanks for all your work.

    Bad analogies are the stuff of legend, propaganda and mischief. A nefarious one, which survives any amount of sunshine and any number of stakes in the heart, is that government must “balance its books” just as any family needs to balance its checkbook. Such homey analogies are designed to stop people thinking and to mislead them about the functions and powers of government, usually so that an elite can continue to use governmental resources for their own ends rather than to promote the ends of the governed.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Bill Moyers, in an article in today’s Guardian, talks about mis-governance and inequality. Two excerpts that will sound familiar to most readers here:

    “‘Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.’”

    Referring to a 2004 article in the Economist (“the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world”), he says, “The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the US reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society”.”

    Exactly, The whole article is well worth a read.


  4. Ed Walker says:

    Looks like some problem with my internet connection. Maybe it’ll get fixed; otherwise back to spotty posting.

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