Bringing ideas to life

Problem youth: governmentality in action?

Published in Foucault, Self and Identity by Huw Davies on January 16, 2014

(c) Max Nathan

(c) Max Nathan

In this post I will argue the academic problematisation of youth; the processes of identification, description and monitoring of youth’s deficiencies and efforts to guide youth through their problematic transition to adulthood can be understood as governmentality in action. I will begin by establishing a working definition of governmentality. This definition will then be sustained by two assumptions; academic institutions can be described as a form of government and the norms and values of these institutions represent the mentality of this form of government.

Foucault (2002a, p211) in his lecture called Governmentality firstly defined it as:

The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.

The collective noun “the ensemble” seems here to refer to government itself. This could be understood, in layman’s terms, to be government ministers, their departments of state and their civil servants, etc.; our system of government.   However, this definition refers to any ensemble that lays claim to or exercises power. The academy’s institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections; its calculations and tactics can be therefore called an ensemble. Elsewhere, Foucault (2001 & 2002b) suggested these institutional mechanisms as the “apparatus” of the academy which are given a common purpose by the “épistèmé”; the norms, values and practices that binds the ensemble together.  If youth is a ‘target population’ then its academic problematisation is therefore the initialisation of governmentality in action.

Foucault (2002a, p212) secondly defined governmentality as a “type of power called government”:

The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre-eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc.) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of savoirs.

Again, the academy can be accommodated in this definition. In responding to the problematisation of youth, academia, or more specifically its “apparatus” produces “savoirs” or bodies of knowledge generated by expertise which is an expression of power of youth. Foucault is arguing this has replaced or coexists with more visible, less benign forms of power such as discipline.

The secondary literature on Foucault supports this analysis. For Dean (1999) governmentality addresses the different “mentalities of government” (p16). Institutional regimes, knowledges, practices and procedures are said by Wyn & White (1997) to be “structured, internalised and normalised to exercise power over and through certain sectors of society” (p133). However, this is not  top-down directed power, nor is it an all pervasive web of ‘social control’; but the enacting of “assorted attempts at the calculated administration of diverse aspects of conduct” which are “intrinsically linked to the activities of expertise” (Rose & Miller, 1992, p175). Initially, with the help of expertise a “set of problems” is identified that is “specific to the issue of population” (Kelly, 2000, p304).

Foucault argued that this discovery of problematic populations, or more correctly the discursive construction of problems within populations, and of populations within populations, “became central to the art of European government from the 16th century onwards” (Kelly, 2000, p304). Young people have become one of these populations: “community and policy discourse is marked by widespread adult concerns about today’s young people” (Kelly, 2000, p301). Thinking about youth in terms of a population “enables an engagement with long-run historical processes of expert knowledge production about the truths of youth; which suggests that youth can be understood as an artefact” (Kelly, 2000, p306). This then affords a variety of contemporary experts to produce and mobilise further “truths” (p306) to help society deliberate “how young people should be schooled, policed, housed, employed, or prevented from becoming involved in any number of risky (sexual, eating, drug abusing or peer cultural) practices” (p301): how their behaviours and dispositions can be regulated.

Governmentality therefore refers to more of an ostensibly benevolent, “less spontaneous” exercise of power over a problematised population particularly, to enable the “use of techniques and technologies” to intervene and “regulate individual practice” (Hindess, 1996, p106) (Threadgold, 2006, p4).  It intends ‘the self’ to be more accountable to an external agenda; so knowledges, practices and procedures are enacted through self-regulation.   Governmentality aims “to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons” (Gordon, 1991, p2). It therefore seeks to convince its subjects that conformity is an act of rational self-investment. The arguments governmentality deploys to this end are augmented by powerful narratives of ”risk, fear and uncertainty” that structure “a variety of emergent processes and practices aimed at regulating the actions and thoughts of young people”  (Kelly, 2000 p302).

In my next post, I will explore how this analysis can be applied to my area of interest; the digital world.


Dean, M. (1999). Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. (2001). Order of Things (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2002a). Governmentality. In D. Faubion, James (Ed.), Power: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984 (3rd ed., pp. 201–223). Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2002b). The Archaeology of Knowledge. (2nd, Ed.). Routledge.

Gordon., G. (1991). Governmental rationality: an introduction. In G. Burchell, G. C, & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmental Rationality. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Hindess, B. (1996). Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kelly, P. (2000). Youth as an Artefact of Expertise: Problematizing the Practice of Youth Studies in an Age of Uncertainty. Journal of Youth Studies, 3(3), 301–315. doi:10.1080/713684381

Rose, N., & Miller, P. (1992). Political power beyond the state: problematics of government. British Journal of Sociology, 43(2), 173–205.

Threadgold, S. (2006). Habitus , Governmentality and Young People’s Engagement with September 11.

Wyn, J., & White, R. (1997). Rethinking Youth. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.


Huw DaviesI’m a second year Web Science PhD student at the University of Southampton. My thesis is interdisciplinary so I have two supervisors Professor Susan Halford and Dr Nick Gibbins. I am investigating the implications for young people and their (lifelong) education of the democratisation of knowledge on the Web. I am arguing existing research is limited by its positivist methods and its reliance on age as explanation of youth’s vulnerability to misinformation. Age is not self-evident and timeless but a moral classification – a product of over a century and half of social upheaval and productive power in society. I am therefore using a mixture of qualitative and digital quantitative methods to prove that young people’s attitudes to information on the Web is shaped by their social environment or what Bourdieu described as field. @huwcdavies

1 Comment

  1. Cristina Costa

    Fascinating post Huw, even if it’s a hard one to digest :-). I look forward to reading the follow-up post as I’m interested in learning more about your research interests. I must say that my knowledge of Foucault’s theory is rather limited, so I welcome your posts as a good learning opportunity.

    Further to the information on your Bio… I am slowly starting to work with Lisa Harris (from Southampton Uni) on a new research idea around the myths – if you will – surrounding the use of web by Higher Education students. I would like to use some data we are collecting to look at the effect of Capital regarding how “pro-web” mindsets are formed or discarded.

    … just today I was re-reading a text on cultural capital where Bourdieu pointed out that its embodied state is also a “socially constituted form of libido, libido sciendi” (i.e desire to know/ for knowledge). … still need to digest that one! 🙂

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