I just took part in the first Western Political Science Association brown bag meeting with Mobilizing Inclusion authors Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson. Aside from being a wonderful talk, this blog post is a testimonial to how you can actually learn something useful for your own work when you take part in discussions of this nature.

For me, the most intriguing part of the talk was the discussion of Arjun Appadurai’s idea of governmentality from below. Appadurai is inverting Foucalt’s view of governmentality as a process by which citizens are identified and counted and thereby subject to control. While Foucault is wary of this identification process, Appadurai is interested in how, in a world of unmanageable global flows, some people’s become engaged in a process of self-counting or self-identification. His conclusion is that for those without voice, autonomy is less important than becoming voiced and empowered.

To those familiar with Foucault’s ideas, this may seem to be a worrisome form of auto governmentality, a combination of self-surveillance and self-enumeration, truly insidious in its capillary reach. But my own view is that this sort of governmentality from below, in the world of the urban poor, is a kind of counter-governmentality, animated by the social relations of shared poverty, by the excitement of active participation in the politics of knowledge, and by its own openness to correction through other forms of intimate knowledge and spontaneous everyday politics. In short, this is governmentality turned against itself (Appadurai 2001, 37).

While Garcia-bedolla and Michelson use it in referenced to sustained voter mobilization, I find this to be a useful distinction in my own emerging work on civic hacking, or the use of new technologies to gain access to and productively use government data. I think those engaged in advocacy of civic hacking see it as “governmentality from below” while it’s critics are more prone to see it as an extension of self-surveilance. Appadurai’s framing helps reorient our thinking from whether civic hacking is or isn’t governmentality from below to “when is it governmentality from below”? I tend to think that this is the rub on the democratizing effects of technology. Are there instances where elected officials in city governments freely give away information that can be used to eventually reduce their power? or is it always an exercise in managing the perception of openness and solidifying power through the expansion of governmentality.

Here is the talk. Give it a listen 🙂