Technologies of power in policy and practice

This post is from David Hodgson, who completed his PhD in 2014. David studied the knowledge and reasoning behind the WA increase to the school leaving age, and how this has shaped practitioners work with young people disengaged from school. David is Senior Lecturer in social work in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University and can be contacted on

In my PhD research into the raised school leaving age policy in Western Australia, I drew on governmentality theory to explore the knowledge, power and practices operating with certain groups of young people who were deemed to be disengaged from school, or at risk of not completing school or meeting the new leaving age requirements. Many social workers and youth workers were employed to work with young people to meet the aims of the policy. One such theoretical concept I drew to help frame the inquiry was technologies. This was a helpful way to understand and critique the formation and application of power in the policy context, particularly the way that it operated in discreet practice settings. This concept could be applied and adapted to investigate other social policies and practices.

Technologies are not simply things like computer systems or databases, although these are certainly part of the way that governmental programs and policies are translated into practice. Technologies more broadly are the distinctive forms of practices, tools, intellectual ideas and processes that are invented and developed in the context of the forms and functions of governing (Ball, 2001; Dean, 1999). In this sense, the “techne” of government refers to the “means, mechanisms, procedures, instruments, tactics, techniques, technologies and vocabularies [in which] authority [is] constituted and rule accomplished” (Dean, 1999, p. 31). The researcher following this line would be concerned to study policy as it manifests in myriad forms of everyday practice.

Vector design technology, Network background.
Image via @teerayuttae at Fotolia

In any policy field, enclaves of professional knowledge and expertise will reside (Foucault, 2007). These professionals are organised in systems and they develop and draw on specific kinds of knowledge and expertise to do their work in a calculated way (Foucault, 1980a; 1980b). This is the case for lots of social policy areas, such as child protection, housing, health or social security. Social workers and human service workers are examples of professionals who may work in these areas using specific kinds of knowledge in a calculated way. So, conceptualising the technology of policy means to critically investigate these forms of knowledge and how this used in practice.

Rose and Miller (1992) cite Latour in explaining two methods of the technologies of government: inscription devices and centres of calculation. Inscription refers to the procedures by which phenomena are translated into information. Think of case notes, reports, evaluation studies, statistical data-sets about service users, and so on. Centres of calculation refer to the collection and organisation of information in ways that make visible certain individual or group characteristics or descriptions (Rose & Miller, 1992). Think of assessment tools, diagnostic concepts, terms and labels. These calculative technologies are instrumental to the governmental power of policy. Investigating these means examining the records of practice—how they are produced, by whom, what form they take, what effects they have on the lives of professionals and services users alike. This form of knowledge will reveal much about the way power circulates in policy and practice settings.

To summarise, here are four concepts of governing technologies that I used in my PhD research, which could be adopted as a research framework to establish a through-line from policy to practice.

  1. Legislative technologies – the form and function of legislation, its concepts, rules, requirements and stipulations, including how and why it has come about, arguments for or against it.
  2. Programmatic technologies – data-sets and reports on the phenomena being intervened in, conferences, meetings and symposia, contracts and agreements, sector-wide or geographically dispersed service delivery points, funding arrangements.
  3. Procedural technologies – paper and digital forms and the methods for filling them out, intervention methodologies, service compliance requirements, assessment and reporting tools and methods, the daily routines and methods of practice.
  4. Intellectual technologies – theoretical ideas and propositions, concepts, practice terminology and vernacular, diagnostic and assessment concepts and associated criterion.

These four points above provide a way to examine the practical translation of policy into practice. This contributes to a rich critique of the formation and application of power and knowledge in social policies.


Ball, S. (2001). Global policies and vernacular politics in education. Curriculo sem Fronteiras, 21(2), xxvii-xxliii.

Dean, M. (1999). Governmentality: Power and rule in modern society. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Foucault, M. (1980a). Truth and power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977 (pp. 109-133). New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Foucault, M. (1980b). Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Foucault, M. (2007). Security, territory, population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978 (G. Burchell, Trans.). Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave, MacMillan.

Rose, N. S., & Miller, P. (1992). Political power beyond the State: Problematics of government. The British Journal of Sociology, 43(2), 173-205.


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