Governmentality is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault, and refers to the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace. Governmentality also refers to the way in which people are taught to govern themselves, shifting power from a center authority, like a state or institution, and dispersing it among a population. Govermentality can therefore be understood as how conduct is shaped, making "the art of governing" and embodied experience. According to Foucault, governmentality allows for the creation of “docile bodies” to be used in modern economic and political institutions[1] . While governmentality can broadly focus on the process of governing individuals, Foucault was specifically interested in neoliberalism as a form of governmentality, and he focused on neoliberalism during his lectures at College de France where he introduced governmentality. Neoliberal governmentality was of particular interest to Foucault because of the way in which it involved individuals in the process of governing. Through neoliberalism, Foucault argued that individuals were taught to govern themselves, showing how the power of governing becomes embodied.
Anthropologists have described how neoliberal governmentality includes scenarios in which a group of people is controlled through institutions or taught to govern itself. Medical anthropologists in particular have been useful in showing how the U.S. health care system is a form of neoliberal governmentality. For example, by emphasizing individual responsibility and behavioral health as a critical component of wellbeing, the health system as a whole attempts to have individuals govern their own bodies. Similarly, anthropologists have shown how market-based medical systems in which health care is thought of as a commodity serve as a form of neoliberal governmentality. Conceptualizing health care as a commodity changes the relationship the state has with the individual: individuals must govern their own access to care rather than relying on the state to provide a necessary and desirable service[2]


Foucault introduced governmentality during his lectures on biopolitics at the College de France in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his lecture at College de France on January 10, 1979, Foucault explains that he was interested in learning "the art of government," or the way an individual's conduct is shaped and controlled. He further explains that his interest in the art of government was beyond an interest in how it guided actions for men and women, but to understand how the "reasoned way of governing best"[3] and how social institutions contribute to that best form of governing. Governmentality, to Foucault, is directly related to how people act in society and are expected to act, and the art of governing occurs through various social policies, institutions, and ideologies.

Critiques of governmentality include Derek Kerr’s critique that the concept only views power as “top-down” and does not account for struggle and transformative power processes.[4] Kerr, in his 1999 article titled "Beheading the king and enthroning the market: A critique of Foucauldian governmentality," argues that the idea of governmentality ignores individuals' subjective experiences and choices. For Kerr, governmentality places too much of an emphasis on the way institutions of power shape human beings. He writes that the idea of governmentality "beheads social subjectivity," and "gives rise to the notion that humanity can never escape from systems of power and governmentality.[5]

Governmentality has been used in the work of Nikolas Rose, Francis Fukuyama, and Thomas Lemke. Rose has been helpful in explaining how governmentality works and expanded upon what Foucault called a "technology of power." Technologies of power, as Rose describes them, are processes designed to shape the behavior of a population[6] . Technologies of power include any institution that shapes behavior, like a prison or school, or any concept that is considered the "normal" or "natural" way of doing things. Together, Nikolas Rose and Francis Fukuyama have used governmentality to explain processes of neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism emphasizes open markets and fewer state-provided social services. Rose and Fukuyama have described how neoliberalism functions as a form of self-governing, since individuals must govern their own access to social services rather than rely on a government to provide the services for them[7] . Similarly, anthropologist Jeff Maskovsky has written about how neoliberalism's efforts to shrink state services requires individuals to govern their own access to social services like health care[8] .

Outside of the United States, medical anthropologist Matthew Kohrman has used governmentality to explain cigarette smoking cessation efforts among Chineese physicians, and how physicians' smoking habit is increasingly being blamed for wide scale suffering. Kohrman explains that cigarette smoking among Chinese physicians increased since it serves numerous functions, such as unifying disparate providers, offering a rite of passage for new providers, and helps develop mentorships[9] . As tobacco use increased among physicians, smoking cessation programs from Public Health organizations in China have specifically targeted physicians, and the campaigns have blamed doctors for widespread tabacco-induced suffering. In this respect, a Public Health institution attempts to persuade physicians to govern their own bodies by pressuring them to stop smoking.


One example of governmentality as a way to control bodies is the way in which some prisons are designed. In “Discipline and Punish,” Foucault explains that early prisons designed by Jeremy Bentham were designed as a ring of cells observed by a single guard tower in the center. Bentham called this design a panopticon, and the
Example of a panopticon style prison, with guard tower in the center.
panoptic design of prisons allows for a single guard to observe many prisoners. The prisoners are never fully aware of whether or not they are being observed, and since prisoners are never sure if they are being watched or not, they are forced to assume they are being observed and control their behavior even when a guard is not on duty. The panopticon example can also be used to metaphorically describe how a population self-censors or embodies forms of control.

Medical anthropologist Linda Green uses the panopticon as a metaphor to explain how fear of violence serves to censor some Mayan populations in Guatemala. Following political violence in the 1980s and 1990s, Green describes how a military presence became routine in some Mayan communities, resulting in widespread fear of additional political violence. This fear resulted in populations censoring their behavior in an effort to avoid possible violence. Green describes how the commonplace threat of violence relates to power and censorship: "The routinization of terror is what fuels its power. Such routinization allows people to live in a chronic state of fear with a facade of normalcy, while that terror,at the same time, permeates and shreds the social fabric." She further writes that "Self-censorship becomes second nature: Bentham's panopticon internalized"[10]

As Green describes, self-governance is second nature among this population because the people live under threat of political violence and constant surveillance. The threat of political violence and terror functions as a form of self-governance: the population self-censors to avoid violence just as prisoners in Bentham's panopticon control their behavior to avoid repercussions from a guard on duty.

Related Terms

Related terms to governmentality include biopower and ecogovernmentality. Biopower, according to Foucault, is the way in which a state or institution exerts power over the body of a population. Similarly, ecogovernmentality involves how states and agencies construct the environment and regulate the natural world[11] .

Online Resources

For another overview of governmentality, see the wikipedia page on the term:

To further understand Foucault's ideas about the nature of power, also refer to the embedded video of an interview with Foucault and Noam Chomsky. In the video, Foucault explains how power rests in the hands of government and is exerted through institutions that seemingly have nothing to do with political power.

Further Reading

Foucault, M. (1997) Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, New York: New Press.

Foucault, M.(1982) 'Technologies of the Self', in Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, pp. 16–49. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Foucault, M.(1984) The History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.

Foucault, M.(1984) The History of Sexuality Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Foucault, M. (2004), Naissance de la biopolitique: cours au Collège de France (1978-1979). Paris: Gallimard & Seuil.

Foucault, M. (1991). 'Governmentality', trans. Rosi Braidotti and revised by Colin Gordon, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, pp. 87–104.. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


  1. ^ Foucault, Michel.(1977) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.
  2. ^ Maskovsky, Jeff. (2000)“Managing” the Poor: Neoliberalism, Medicaid HMOs and the Triumph of Consumerism among the Poor. Medical Anthropology 19:121-146.
  3. ^ Foucault, Michel. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979. Ed. M. Snellart, F. Ewald, A. Fontana, and A. I. Davidson. Translation by G. Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  4. ^ Kerr, Derek (1999) Beheading the king and enthroning the market: A critique of Foucauldian governmentality. Science & Society 63 (2): 173-203.
  5. ^ Kerr, Derek. (1999) Beheading the king and enthroning the market: A critique of Foucauldian governmentality. Science & Society63 (2): 175.
  6. ^ Rose, N. (1999) Powers of Freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ Rose, N. (1999) Powers of Freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Maskovsky, J. (2000) “Managing” the Poor: Neoliberalism, Medicaid HMOs and the Triumph of Consumerism among the Poor. Medical Anthropology 19:121-146.
  9. ^ Khorman, Matthew. (2008) Smoking among Doctors: Governmentality, Embodiment, and the Diversion of Blame in Contemporary China. Medical Anthropology, 27(1):17
  10. ^ Green, Linda. (1994) Fear as a Way of Life. Cultural Anthropology 9(2): 277-256.
  11. ^ Luke, Timothy W. (1999) “Environmentality as Green Governmentality.” in Darier, E. ed. Discourses of the Environment. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers. 121-151