If you’ve tuned into my blog over the past couple of years you’ve probably seen me occasionally drop the idea of governmentality, especially in connection with my dissertation research. I guess having worked close to a decade in government before starting this research it’s not surprising that I came to focus on a concept like governmentality. As I reviewed the literature of appraisal in archival studies I couldn’t shake the feeling that the concept of governmentality had a useful way of connecting various, sometimes divergent, or even antithetical, ideas of how archives were constructed. If you are interested in the full arc of this argument you can see it summed up in my prospectus which is largely available here.

But it wasn’t without some trepidation that I’ve done this, because governmentality as a concept is straight out of Foucault’s later work, and Foucault (along with other critical theorists like Derrida) often get criticized for using the term archive as a metaphor for memory, while activily dismissing, or accidentally ignoring, the history and practices of archives as well as the research literature of archival studies. However, at the same time Foucault is credited for helping create the necessary critical space where the politics of archives could be analyzed, and new forms of archives that respond to silences and oppressions could be conceived, especially in light of feminist theory (Cifor & Wood, 2017).

One of the things I’ve struggled with in my reading about governmentality is its positive aspect. I’ve been pretty comfortable reading critiques of power, especially in the context of archival studies (Ham, 1984 ; Ketelaar, 2002; Zinn, 1977 ). While reading work that interprets Foucault’s governmentality I’ve been struck by the creative aspect that governmentality takes on (Lemke, 2019 ; Rose, 1999). This isn’t meant to be positive in the sense of right vs wrong, but in the sense of making some things possible, which were previously not possible. I am personally much more comfortable thinking of power negatively, as creating inequities or injustices that need to be addressed, or mobilized against.

Governmentality is somewhat famously referred to as “the conduct of conduct” or the way that power organizes and expresses itself in order to make populations legible. The idea of biopower and governmentality go hand in hand because they are concerned with the technologies and practices that create what it means to be human. I don’t often see them connected, but the work of governmentality seem to resonate pretty strongly with Scott (1998) as well. In reading Rose (1999) I have been struck by his argument that our ideas of what it means to be a subject, or a self, are the result of the sciences of psychology and sociology that emerged largely out of warfare and then modern workplace. This whole blog post was really just an excuse to transcribe an extended quote of his, where he is in turn quoting Foucault–because I think it is a motivation (albeit an oblique one) for my own research project:

Governmentality, as Foucault has termed it, has become the common ground of all our modern forms of political rationality, insofar as they construe the tasks of rulers in terms of calcuated supervision and maximization of the forces of society. Governmentality is “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 as has its target the population (Foucault, 1991, p. 102)”. For all systems of rule in the west since about the eighteenth century, the population has appeared as the terrain of government par excellence. Not the exercise of sovereignty–though this still plays its part. Not the management of the life of the nation as if it were a family, though the family itself is a vital instrument of rule, but the regulation of the processes proper to the population, the laws that modulate its wealth, health, longevity, and its capacity to wage wars and to engage in labour and so forth. Rather than the state extending its sway throughout society by means of an extension of its control apparatus, then, we need to think in terms of the “governmentalization of the state”–a transformation of the rationalities and technologies for the exercise of political rule.

With the entry of the population into political thought, rule takes as its object such phenomena as the numbers of subjects, their ages, their longevity, their sicknesses and types of death, their habits and vices, their rates of reproduction. The actions and calculations of authorities are directed towards new tasks: how to maximize the forces of the population and each individual within it, how to minimize their troubles, how to organize them in the most efficacious manner. The birth and history of the knowledges of subjectivity and intersubjectivity are intrinsically bound up with programmes which, in order to govern subjects, have found that they need to know them. The questions posed by governmentality come to mark out the territory on which the psychological sciences, their conceptual systems, their technical inventions, modes of explanation and forms of expertise will come to play a key role.

… The invention of programmes of government depended upon and demanded an “avalanche of printed numbers”, which rendered the population calculable by turning it into inscriptions that were durable and transportable, that could be accumulated in the offices of officials, that could be added, subtracted, compared, and contrasted. The term given to these practices of inscription was “statistics”. From the seventeenth, through the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, statistics–the sciences of state–began to transcribe the attributes of the population in to a form in which they could enter into the calculations of rulers. Persons in the land, their ages, their places and forms of habitation, their employment, their births, illnesses, and deaths–all these were noted and transcribed. They were turned into figures, and collected together at central points; the unruly population was rendered into a form in which it could be used in political arguments and administrative decisions. (Rose, 1999, pp. 5–6)

Of course those “central points” were (and still are) archives. But I think Rose’s argument goes deeper for my research project if you substitute “the knowledges of subjectivity” with memory practices (like those of archives). In what ways do statistical practices, and notions of population (rendered as a state, city or community) become possible because of archival practices–or what an archive is? It’s remarkable how much Rose, writing in 1990, anticipated concerns such as the role of algorithms, machine learning and data practices such as those found in so called “smart cities”. These are technologies of population measurement, that render and predict individual behavior through large amounts of data. Big Data is really just another word for archive, but one in which individual records are not read by a person, but by an algorithm that generates representations for a human to read. However these algorithms and representations are designed (explicitly or implicitly) with particular goals and outcomes in mind.

In my field work I’m specifically examining a case where explicit notions of measurement and file fixity are deployed with very specific goals in mind (forensic analysis), which (I argue) then work to articulate the larger field of how digital preservation is conceived (Kirschenbaum, Ovenden, Redwine, & Donahue, 2010). These are concepts that are that are then translated (with some difficulty) from paper records, to physical digital media, to the networked resources of the web–so I think they are directly relevant to questions about how web archives are constructed and conceived.

The issues of trust and authenticity in archival studies are arguably as old as archival records themselves (Duranti, 1994). But in what ways has this juridical framing of archives worked to shape what it means to archive the web? Furthermore my research is interested in studying practices of web archiving that fall outside the familiar stack of technologies the archives profession has become familiar with (web crawlers, WARC data, and playback technologies like the Wayback machine) to see how they shed light on the variety of web archiving projects that are underway, and their social/political impacts.

So this post is really just a note to my future self (who will be actively doing data analysis and writing in the first half of 2020) so as not to forget how governmentality provides a useful angle on (web) archives. If you’ve got some favorite readings about how governmentality intersects with archival studies please drop me a line.


Cifor, M., & Wood, S. (2017). Critical feminism in the archives. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, 1(2).

Duranti, L. (1994). The concept of appraisal and archival theory. The American Archivist, 328–344.

Foucault, M. (1991). The foucault effect: Studies in governmentality. In (pp. 87–104). University of Chicago Press.

Ham, F. (1984). Archival choices: Managing the historical record in an age of abundance. The American Archivist, 47(1), 11–22.

Ketelaar, E. (2002). Archival temples, archival prisons: Modes of power and protection. Archival Science, 2(3-4), 221–238.

Kirschenbaum, M. G., Ovenden, R., Redwine, G., & Donahue, R. (2010). Digital forensics and born-digital content in cultural heritage collections (No. 149). Washington, DC: Council on Library; Information Resources.

Lemke, T. (2019). Foucault’s analysis of modern governmentality: A critique of political reason. (E. Butler, Trans.). Verso.

Rose, N. (1999). Governing the soul: The shaping of the private self. Free Association Books.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.

Zinn, H. (1977). Secrecy, archives, and the public interest. The Midwestern Archivist, 2(2), 14–26.