The concept of ‘Governmentality’ was developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the later years of his life between the late 1970’s and his death in 1984. His concept provides an understanding of power, not just in terms of the power of the state from a top-down approach, but in the “more subtle forms of power exercised through a network of institutions, practices, procedures and techniques which act to regulate social conduct” (Joseph 2010:225). Power is noticeable in a positive way through the production of knowledge and discourses that are internalised by individuals, guiding the behaviour of populations and leading to more efficient forms of social control. Parton (1994) cited in Pease (2002) writes how individuals permit government at a distance through being encouraged and supported to exercise freedom and choice. Because power is de-centred individuals play a role in their own self-governance.
Criticisms of Foucault argue that he fails to recognise that power is not equal to all. It can also be argued that he lacks reference to the exercise of power in relation to race, age, gender and class, especially how accessible power is between different social groups. Cooper (1994: 450) argues about the “character” of the technologies of power regarding racist and gendered discourses being used. It was argued that Foucault was not attentive to how people respond to discourses in their daily lives (Lupton: 1999 b: 102). Critics also believed that Foucault lacked awareness in the power institutions had over individuals and that individuals behaviour in society was down to following rules of conventions (Hoy: 1986:151). Feminist critics such as Hartstock (1990:171-172) believe Foucault’s understanding of power diminishes individuals to objects of power than individuals able to resist.
Foucault’s work on defining the relations and mechanisms of power like governmentality can support social workers to think about their position of power within the structures (that maintain the oppression of service users) in their work. Empowerment uses social science to solve social problems and is a social justice discourse in social work. It allows social workers to redistribute power and knowledge in their practice, whilst challenging and combating injustice and oppression. Empowerment develops capacities of individuals, whilst emphasising individual responsibility. Pease (2002:137) argues that there is an assumption that power is something that can be given and empowering someone is to confer. Therefore as Braye and Preston-Shoot (2003:100) discuss, empowerment is about “oppressed people taking the power and demanding to be heard”. Because knowledge is central to understanding power within society, in order to empower service users there must be a reallocation of knowledge, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledge” as indicated by Foucault (1977). Listening to service users and allowing them to have more control over seeking solutions to their problems or identifying their needs within the wider social context, is another example of empowerment. We belong to many social groups, some by choice and some because they are forced upon us. Within these groups, some have more or less power over others. Social workers need to be aware of difference and diversity and develop a greater sense of self awareness about the risks of labelling, stereotyping and holding subjective beliefs.