British Association for South Asian Studies

Research Groups

South Asian Governmentalities

Convenors: Deana Heath (University of Liverpool) and Stephen Legg (University of Nottingham)




The original concept for this Research Group was as follows:

"Since the work of Michel Foucault the concept of governmentality has become central to understanding power not simply as repression but as an epistemological phenomenon that normatively produces subjects. Enacted through the aegis of a series of institutions, discourses, and procedures and analyses, the chief concern of governmentality is to apply economy to the maintenance of a healthy and productive population. What is distinctive about this form of power is its point of application, which is the conditions in which the body is to live and define its life. In subjecting them to ‘rational’ principles governmentality seeks to foster an identification of interests, a contract between the technologies of domination of others and those of the self, that ensures that subjects are obliged to transform themselves in an ‘improving direction’ to do as they ought. It thus serves to construct the normative regularities of civil society.

Although not a universal form of power — it emerged, as Foucault made clear, in European society at a specific time and then became gradually more important — a growing body of scholarship has traced the emergence of governmental power in colonial India through the projects of modernization initiated by the British and its appropriation, in turn, by Indians in their efforts to ‘purify’, ‘strengthen’ and reform Indian society as a means of challenging the project of colonial modernity and making colonized subjects capable of self-rule. Numerous questions remain, however, about the nature of governmentality — if indeed we can talk of this in the singular — in South Asia. Since the colonizers sought both to deny difference (to justify their rule) and to promote it (to maintain hierarchies), how was the identification of interests necessary for governmental power to operate cultivated? Or did such tensions imply that it could only operate in relation to certain contexts and targets? Was the colonial regime in fact capable of fulfilling the criterion of representativeness necessary for governmental power to be interiorized as self-discipline? How did governmental power operate in relation to sovereign and disciplinary power? To what extent was it adapted and transformed by Indians, particularly in light of the nature of Indian civil society, in which many of the instrumentalities and institutions deemed necessary for the operation of such power (public opinion, the division of labour, private property, a judiciary) did not exist, or co-existed with other political, economic, legal and social systems? What were the similarities and divergences between colonial Indian and metropolitan governmentalities, and between colonial and post-colonial? How, in short, did governmental power acquire its legitimacy or universal character in South Asia — or did it?

This research group will appeal to, and draw together, scholars not only from our own disciplines of History and Geography, but from those of Law, Political Science, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, English, Anthropology and Sociology. Our aim is to bring together not only those scholars whose work draws explicitly upon governmentality theory but those whose work does not yet that raises questions about the nature and operation of power in South Asia. This will make possible an exploration of the validity of the very concept of governmentality and its limitations in the study of South Asia. We hope to use the group as a means of forming a research network, applying for research funding, and developing collaborative research, including a workshop or conference and an edited volume on South Asian governmentalities".