Key term: conduct of conduct

This key term, often cited by Foucault scholars, does not appear in English translations. To find it, we have to look at the French original. Update 5/25/2015: with the provisos in the comments below! Thanks Rebecca and Jim.

Recently, Pam Christie, an Australian scholar at the University of Queensland wrote that “In an often-quoted phrase, Foucault (1982, pp. 220–221) refers to government as ‘the conduct of conduct’, or the power to act on the actions of others.”

Unfortunately no such phrase appears on those pages.

Similarly Colin Gordon uses the phrase on p. 2 of the Foucault Effect.

In a September 2005 call for papers for the AAG, Kurt Iverson and Joe Painter wrote:

Michel Foucault famously identified the ‘conduct of conduct’ as the central problem of modern government. The very idea of liberal government involves a paradox: liberalism asserts the sovereignty of the free individual, yet government requires that individual behaviour be regulated and modified…

The source for these assertions comes indeed from the Subject and Power, but from the original French portion of the essay (called How is Power Exercised?). The Subject and Power, according to a footnote in the Rabinow and Dreyfus book, is comprised on a portion composed in English (Why Study Power: the Question of the Subject) and the portion in French:

‘L’exercice du pouvoir consiste à «conduire des conduites» et à aménager la probabilité. Le pouvoir, au fond, est moins de l’ordre de l’affrontement entre deux adversaries, ou de l’engagement de l’un à l’égard de l’autre, que de l’ordre du «gouvernement».’ Foucault M (1994) Dits et écrits IV (Paris: Gallimard) p.237.

So does any of this matter? Probably not.

The idea is so central to Foucault’s work that if he never used this exact phrase (in work publicly available at this time) then he certainly discussed this idea plenty of times. The title of his last two lecture series was “the government of one’s self and of others.” There’s a whole lecture on conduct on the forthcoming Security, Territory, Population lecture series.

In the English version of the “Subject and Power” Foucault says:

Perhaps the equivocal nature of the term conduct is one of the best aids for coming to terms with the specificity of power relations. For to “conduct” is at the same time to “lead” others (according to mechanisms of coercion which are, to varying degrees, strict) and a way of behaving within a more or less open field of possibilities. The exercise of power consists in guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possible outcome. Basically power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of government.

Thus conduct and the conduct of conduct is an extremely important idea in Foucault’s work. But if you’re going to cite it, cite it in French!


Christie, P. (2006). Changing regimes: Governmentality and education policy in post-apartheid South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 26(4), 373-381.

4 Responses

  1. […] i I use ‘governmentality’ in a Foucaultian sense, as a consideration of the praxes, discourses and institutions that are empowered to govern the ‘conduct of conduct’ («conduire des conduites», Foucault, M. 1994 Dits et écrits IV. Paris: Gallimard, p.237, see Foucault blog). […]

  2. For a reference in English, one can use, as you say, ‘conduct of conducts’ which appears in Faubion’s translation of ‘Subject and Power’ in Faubion (ed), (1994) Power: Foucault, London: Penguin, p.337

  3. Also take a look at the recently published On the Government of the Living Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-1980 (Trans. Graham Burchell, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2014): ” I have then tried to sketch out a bit this notion of government, which seemed to me to be much more operational than the notion of power, ‘government’ being understood, of course, not in the narrow and current sense of the supreme instance of executive and administrativee decision in State systems, but in the broad sense, and old sense moreover, of mechanisms and procedures intended to conduct men, to direct their conduct, to conduct their conduct” (p. 12).

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