Genealogy and Governmentality

Thomas Biebricher

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The essay aims at an assessment of whether and to what extent the history of governmentality can be considered to be a genealogy. To this effect a generic account of core tenets of Foucauldian genealogy is developed. The three core tenets highlighted are (1) a radically contingent view of history that is (2) expressed in a distinct style and (3) highlights the impact of power on this history. After a brief discussion of the concept of governmentality and a descriptive summary of its history, this generic account is used as a measuring device to be applied to the history of governmentality. While both, the concept of governmentality and also its history retain certain links to genealogical precepts, my overall conclusion is that particularly the history of governmentality (and not necessarily Foucault's more programmatic statements about it) departs from these precepts in significant ways. Not only is there a notable difference in style that cannot be accounted for entirely by the fact that this history is produced in the medium of lectures. Aside from a rather abstract consideration of the importance of societal struggles, revolts and other forms of resistance, there is also little reference to the role of these phenomena in the concrete dynamics of governmental shifts that are depicted in the historical narrative. Finally, in contrast to the historical contingency espoused by genealogy and the programmatic statements about governmentality, the actual history of the latter can be plausibly, albeit unsympathetically, read in a rather teleological fashion according to which the transformations of governmentality amount to the unfolding of an initially implicit notion of governing that is subsequently realised in ever more consistent ways. In the final section of the essay I turn towards the field of governmentality studies, arguing that some of the more problematic tendencies in this research tradition can be traced back to Foucault's own account. In particular, the monolithic conceptualisation of governmentality and the implicit presentism of an excessive focus on Neoliberalism found in many of the studies in governmentality can be linked back to problems in Foucault's own history of governmenality. The paper concludes with suggestions for a future research agenda for the governmentality studies that point beyond Foucault's own account and its respective limitations.
TidsskriftJournal of the Philosophy of History
Udgave nummer3
Sider (fra-til)363-396
Antal sider37
StatusUdgivet - 2008
Udgivet eksterntJa


  • Foucault
  • Genealogy
  • Governmentality
  • Governmentality studies
  • History