In the last entry I reflected briefly on the possible uses of ethnographic methods in a WPR analysis, specifically in relation to “lived effects” (Question 5 see Bacchi WPR CHART). I found some common spaces to explore via the work of Dorothy Smith (2005), George Smith (2014) and Georgina Tsolitis (2008), and forecast the possibility of others. In this entry I propose to look briefly at the argument that research approaches such as WPR and governmentality studies absolutely NEED ethnography, that, without ethnography, they are sadly lacking as analytic strategies due to their top-down perspective.

There are many versions of this argument. I intend to focus on the debate between Michelle Brady and Mitchell Dean (2015) to illustrate what is at stake in these positions. Brady (2014: 11) describes governmentality studies as “succumbing to a more general tendency among social scientists to present neoliberal transformations in monolithic and linear terms”. She recommends “combining an analytics of governmentality with ethnographic and quasi-ethnographic methods” in order to “avoid deterministic, homogenous and static accounts of social transformation”.

Dean challenges Brady’s characterization of governmentality accounts of neoliberalism as monolithic, stressing that, in his own work, he emphasized the plurality of liberalisms (Dean 1999: 55-56). He objects to Brady’s interpretation of Foucault and to the “epistemological imperialism of her claims for ethnography” (Dean 2015: 360). On the latter, he challenges the assertion that ethnographic studies “allow a critical engagement with the ‘real’, always in scare quotes”, given that such studies ignore the dependence of ethnography on concepts – e.g. resistance, agency, freedom, among others – “to access its ‘real’” (Dean 2015: 365).

The debate between Brady and Dean hinges on some key methodological and theoretical issues, most notably:

Ÿi) competing conceptions of “reality” (see Hammersley 1992), with connections to the so-called “new empiricism” (Clough 2009) and “new materialisms” (Gullion 2018);

ii) Ÿthe use of texts in research; and

iii) Ÿconceptions of subject “agency”.

The need to consider competing conceptions of “reality” was forecast in the entry on critical realism (Research Hub 1 February 2019).  There I mentioned Stenson’s (2008) work on “realist governmentality”, which is endorsed by Kim McKee (2009; see last entry 28 February). According to McKee (2009: 482), “By adopting a ‘realist’ approach attention can be accorded to the messy actualities of the empirical world”, offering a “more grounded, ethnographic analysis of the exercise of power in situ that is sensitive to both time and place”.

Dean (2015: 359; emphasis added) explains how Foucault engages thinking about “reality”. As he says, Foucault “seeks not the real, but the effects in the real of how we think about or ‘name’ the real” (Dean 2015: 359). As Dean explains, Foucault  is not concerned with

gaining access to how things really operate, but with something he admits is more irritating and troubling, how our “finely grained pictures” of reality are produced and the diverse realm of effects they have within certain practices.

To gain access to these “finely grained pictures” Foucault turns to governmental “programmings of behaviours” (texts). These are to be studied as “fragments of reality that induce such particular effects in the real as the distinction between true and false implicit in the ways men (sic) ‘direct’, ‘govern’ and ‘conduct’ themselves and others” (Foucault 1991; emphasis added).

On the other side both Brady (2014: 13-14) and McKee (2009: 479) are critical of what they describe as the “exclusive reliance” of governmentality studies on the use of texts or documents as research tools. However, not all ethnographers share these views. In the previous entry I drew attention to the useful contribution of Institutional Ethnography to the place of concepts in governing practices, an analysis that starts from governmental texts. And, Tania Li (2007a and 2007b), well known for encouraging productive dialogue between governmentality and ethnography, notes pointedly why documents (texts) are useful:

First, documents have effects: … Second, a close reading of documents can reveal an ethos, a way of defining problems and connecting them to solutions, that takes even the authors by surprise. (Li 2010: 234)

As explained in the last entry (28 February), WPR shares this conviction that documents/texts provide springboards for investigating governmental practices; they open up a range of questions about how governing takes place rather than bracketing out “this multiplicity and complexity” (Brady 2014: 14).

For Brady and McKee a particular “complexity” is omitted from governmentality studies – specifically the reactions of subjects (people) to governmental prescriptions. And this is precisely where ethnographic studies are deemed to be useful, recognizing “strategies from below which aim to resist governmental ambitions” (McKee 2009: 479). I would suggest that this creation of a subject outside governmental processes, reacting to those processes, reinforces a structure/agency binary that has outlived its usefulness. As Dean (2015: 365) explains, what are needed are studies that “connect how people govern themselves to how they are governed in a broader institutional set of arrangements” – “how techniques of the self might interact with techniques of governing”. This, of course, is precisely the research terrain anticipated in the concept of “lived effects”, located in Question 5 of WPR, together with discursive and subjectification effects. It could even be argued that, far from producing an overly-determinist and “simple” view of the subject, as critics imply (see Brady 2014: 11), such an approach complicates the picture, producing a “messier” understanding and a “messier” subject.


Brady, M. 2014. Ethnographies of Neoliberal Governmentalities: from the neoliberal apparatus to neoliberalism and governmental assemblages. Foucault Studies, no. 18, pp. 11-33.

Clough, P. T. 2009. The New Empiricism: Affect and Sociological Method. European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 43-61.

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

Dean, M. 2015. Neoliberalism, Governmentality, Ethnography: A Response to Michelle Brady. Foucault Studies, no. 20, pp. 356-366.

Foucault, M. 1991 [1982]. Questions of Method. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller (Eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gullion, J. S. 2018. Diffractive ethnography: Social sciences and the ontological turn. NY: Routledge.

Hammersley, M. (1992). Ethnography and Realism.  In M. Hammersley, What’s Wrong with Ethnography?  Methodological Explorations.  London: Routledge.

Li, T. 2007a. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Li, T. 2007b. Practices of assemblage and community forest management. Economy and Society  36(2): 263-293.

Li, T. 2010. Revisiting The Will to Improve. Annals of the Association of American Geographers  100(1): 233-235.

McKee K. (2009) Post-Foucauldian Governmentality: What Does It Offer Critical Social Policy Analysis? Critical Social Policy, vol. 29, no 3, pp. 465–486.

Smith, D. E. 2005.Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. NY: AltaMira Press.

Smith, G. W. (2014) [1988]. Policing the gay community: An inquiry into textually-mediated social relations. In D. E. Smith and S. M. Turner (Eds) Incorporating Texts into Institutional Ethnography.Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stenson, K. (2008). Governing the Local: Sovereignty, Social Governance and Community Safety.  Social Work & Society  6(1): 1-14.

Tsolidis, G. 2008. The (im)possibility of poststructuralist ethnography – researching identities in borrowed spaces”, Ethnography and Education  3(3): 271-281.