Citizenship and Governmentality, Rural


In its most straightforward sense, citizenship is understood as bestowing upon individuals a legal status as members of a national polity, enacted by state apparatus and defended by legal and administrative rule and regulations. As members of that polity, individuals are entitled to certain political, civic, economic, and social rights, including individual freedom of speech, rights to property, the right to vote, and the right to live according to the prevailing standards of society – regardless of race, sex, or social class. At the same time, these rights are accompanied by a reciprocal set of obligations to the collectivity so that the rights of others can be secured.

It is more constructive, though, to consider citizenship not only in terms of legal status, but also as a device for understanding the relationship between the individual and the state in how society is governed. This relationship is not fixed and universal, but subject to change and contestation as particular definitions are enforced downwards by the state, and upwards by individuals and communities demanding an extension of their rights. Moreover, while in legal terms, citizenship is considered a universal entitlement for members of a nationality, experience shows us that citizenship rights have not been extended to all members of a society even when they hold formal citizenship status. For some social groups – women, indigenous people, and homosexuals – the granting of their citizenship rights has not occurred without significant struggle, but there are others too for whom the ability to participate as active and autonomous members of society is circumscribed by conditions of unemployment, poverty, and general social exclusion. Thus, we should see citizenship not as an automatic entitlement for all those bestowed with the legal status of belonging to a nation, but as something enacted, performed, and, increasingly, conditional upon the ability of individuals to conduct themselves in a way that is deemed morally and ethically responsible. As a concept, therefore, citizenship refers to a suite of rights and responsibilities that are negotiated between the state and the individual, but it is also a set of practices that constitute subject identities through material and institutional arrangements.

Such thinking is influenced by the governmentality writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and his ‘analytics of government’. From this perspective, entities such as state, society, and ‘citizen’ are social constructs developed under certain regimes of government that are historically specific. An analytics of government examines how these different regimes come into being, and the various govern mentalities that arise as those responsible for exercising rule pose questions about the appropriate domains of government (citizen, market, population, and community) and the means through which they might best be governed. What makes an analytics of government distinct from other approaches to the history of ideas, however, is that it moves beyond an examination of abstract political ideologies to examine the ways that certain categories of subject are constituted through the application of various techniques, instru ments, and institutions of material intervention.

Since the mid 1990s, there has been considerable growth in the adoption of a governmentality perspective for exploring the changing form and function of the modern state and, by extension, the modern citizen. While there is nothing uniquely rural in these processes, there is a burgeoning body of literature on ‘rural governance’ that examines these changes in the context of rural societies of the advanced Western world. What follows is an overview of the construction of rural citizenship as an object of concern for political authorities, a brief outline of the key concepts and ideas that are common to governmentality analyses, and a discussion of the way this work has been applied to the field of rural studies.

Understanding Rural Citizenship

The concept of citizenship is not necessarily readily associated with rural societies. The term ‘citizen’ shares an etymological route with ‘city’ in the Latin word ‘civitas’ and, throughout history, citizenship has been primarily associated with urban societies, such as Greek and Roman city states and mediaeval boroughs. The countryside, in contrast, was associated with rigid social hierarchies supported by institutions such as the church and landed estates, and underpinned by particularistic relations between tenants and landowners. The application of ideas of citizenship in the countryside can therefore arguably be considered as part of the urbanization of rural society.

The remaking of rural people as ‘citizens’ began with the rise of modern nation states from the late eighteenth century, and the promotion of ideas of national citizenship. However, the rights and responsibilities of national citizens are not set, but open to political contestation and negotiation. In particular, the British sociologist T. H. Marshall suggested that states balance the rights of citizens in varying degrees according to ideology and stage of historical development. Thus, in the twentieth century, broadly social democratic states in Europe, including Britain, emphasized social rights through the creation of welfare states. In a rural context, this meant that rural residents gained the same rights of access to public services such as health and education as urban residents, despite the often higher costs of delivery; and the state took an interest in protecting farm populations from fluctuations in the agricultural economy through various price support schemes. Claims to similar social rights can be seen in rural politics and policies in North America and Australia, notably in campaigns for electrification and other infrastructure provision, and in some elements of agricultural support.

More recently, the ideological drive of state restructuring and the consequences of social and economic restructuring in rural areas have combined to reconfigure citizenship in rural society in a number of ways. First, as neoliberal states have retreated from their commitment to social rights, rural activists have mobilized to assert their ‘right’ to public services threatened by rationalization, or to demand state intervention to protect farms and rural communities from adverse economic pressures. At the same time, the inequalities of public service provision have been highlighted by in migrants who demand the same level of service provision in their new rural communities as previously experienced in towns and cities. Second, claims to ‘citizens’ rights have been used by external pressure groups to challenge some established features of rural societies. These include the promotion of a right of public access to open countryside in Britain, which has challenged the historic privileges of landowners.

Third, some governments have sought to redefine the rights of citizens as akin to the rights of consumers, notably by introducing the right to choose into public service provision. Economies of scale have meant that this has been less successfully achieved in rural areas than in urban areas, creating a geographical disparity. The blurring of citizens’ rights and consumers’ rights has also been reflected in the assertion of consumer interests in food, agricultural, and environmental policy networks. Finally, the neoliberal state has also re imagined the balance between citizen rights and citizen responsibilities. While the focus of citizenship has traditionally been on the rights it embodies, the last two decades have seen a renewed emphasis on the responsibilities that citizenship also implies. The concept of active citizenship has become engrained in rural policy across a range of domains, including rural development, conservation, resource management, public service provision and housing, and can be positioned as part of shift in the mode of governmentality, as discussed further in the remainder of this article.


Throughout the course of his work, Foucault came to use the term government in various ways. In his earlier writings, he defined it in broad terms as the conduct of conduct: a set of actions upon actions to shape, guide, or change the course of behavior. In later work, however, government came to refer more specifically to the exercise of political power by the modern state, as outlined in his famous essay on ‘governmentality’. In this and subsequent accounts of his work, two key themes on governmentality can be discerned. The first relates to what he called a ‘problematics of government’ whereby those seeking to govern pose questions about how this might best be achieved – who should be governed, by whom, to what ends and by what means? Consistent with Foucault’s interest in government as practical activity, these questions were both discursive and technical in that they constituted reality in particular ways that made it amenable to intervention via the application of a broad range of practical techniques and procedures.

The second area of interest in the governmentality literature refers to the emergence, from the seventeenth century onwards, of a novel form of political power known as biopower. Biopower was distinct from sovereign forms of power in that it demarcated a new sphere of interest for political authorities – known as the population – and a new area of concern regarding the health and welfare of that population. This evolved in two basic forms. First, a disciplinary power, which targets itself at specific individuals, seeking to create mute and docile bodies through the application of certain disciplinary techniques of training and surveillance. The second, a biopolitics of the population, seeks to manage the population as a whole through techniques of normalization. In order for these new forms of governing to take place, the life of this population had to be made ‘knowable’ and measureable. Thus, an explosion of discourses about the problems of public health, housing, sexual activity and so forth occurred, accompanied by new techniques of calculation, audit, and inscription that brought the formerly hidden life of the population into the domain of state activity.


Contemporary governmentality theorists such as Nikolas Rose have extended Foucault’s ideas on biopower to link its emergence with the rise of a new liberal regime of government, which sets limits on the extent to which the state can intervene in the workings of the market and civil society. As a ‘practice’ of government, liberalism involves the development of new techniques for governing which enable political authorities to govern people, events and places without destroying their freedom. It seeks to achieve this by modeling its own techniques of governing upon the self regulating mechanisms that occur naturally within civil society. These techniques, which are readily apparent today, include exposing state administration and private individuals to the self regulating principles of market competition; nurturing the norms and values that are believed to exist naturally in the sphere of civil society; and implicating private actors and nongovernmental agencies in the activity of governing. Central to all these techniques are practices of self-government, with liberal forms of rule relying upon the construction of a new kind of active citizen who is imbued with the skills and sensibilities of rational self-government, thereby rendering the direct imposition of state will unnecessarily.

Governing through the Social

During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, governments of advanced Western societies have experimented with various forms of liberalism in pursuing more effective means to achieve their ambitions for a well ordered society. Two such models have been discerned over the last century, each conceiving the various domains of governmental concern in quite different terms, and each embodying a changed relationship and corresponding demarcation of responsibilities, between the state and citizen. The first is a ‘managed liberalism’, which manifested itself most clearly in the Keynesian welfare state of the mid twentieth century. Where classic liberalism governed through the rational choices of autonomous individuals, welfarism demarcated a new object of government interest – known as the ‘social’ – which acted upon the well being of individuals in the name of society. For social forms of government to work, it was necessary to nurture the collective ties of solidarity that linked individuals to wider society and to infuse those individuals with the norms of social obligation. In return, they were accorded equal rights to political representation and economic and social security via a national welfare state.

Advanced Liberalism

Empirical observation shows us that this form of government is no longer dominant. In its place is what has been referred to as an ‘advanced liberal’ rationality of rule, or a post welfarist regime of the social, which contains elements of both classic liberal and social governmentalities. As with its earlier manifestation, advanced liberalism reconfigures the subjects of rule as autonomous and free actors, responsible for guiding their own conduct, but also as members of subnational communities and networks rather than as members of society as a whole. This suggests there has been a rescaling of citizenship, with allegiance to others enacted in the context of localized family and community obligations. Additionally, however, there is an increased emphasis on the performative aspect of citizenship, with rights increasingly contingent upon individuals demonstrating a willingness to accept personal responsibility for their own future. Here, it is possible to see a melding of the two poles of liberal and social citizenship. The first pole – what may be termed economic citizenship – relates to the required conduct of citizens in the sphere of the market as responsible and informed consumers, capable of managing their lives in an entrepreneurial and prudential manner. The second pole revolves around an ethic of citizenship that is more community based and invokes ties of obligations to others.

Governing Rural Citizens

The adoption of a governmentality perspective has done much to shed light on the changing practices of rural citizenship, albeit under the much broader heading of rural governance. Since the mid 1990s, governmentality analyses have become increasingly popular in rural studies as researchers have sought to understand the changing relationships between rural areas and the state, and the discursive practices through which the various domains of farmer, rural citizen, and community are demarcated as objects of government concern. In many parts of the advanced Western world, significant changes have occurred in the way rural areas are governed, underpinned by a broader shift from a welfarist to an advanced liberal rationality of rule. As evidence of this trend, researchers point to the dismantling of many of the social and economic forms of protection that were traditionally afforded to rural areas, and their replacement with new policy discourses centered around the promotion of self help and self reliance in farm and natural resource conservation and management, rural service provision, and community renewal. For many observers, such moves are symptomatic of attempts by governments to divest themselves of their responsibility to rural areas, particularly at a time when so many are experiencing economic and social decline. Yet, we are reminded that advanced liberalism constitutes a new mode of rule, as opposed to an absence of rule, and that the enrolment of rural actors into the domain of governing has been accompanied by new governmental technologies that reconfigure rural citizenship into something that is active. This has also entailed the formation of a new category of citizen whose conduct does not accord neatly with prevailing standards of responsible conduct.

In one of the earliest papers to examine state intervention in rural matters using a governmentality perspective, Murdoch and Ward present an historical analysis of the practices through which British agriculture came to be established as a sector of interest to the state. Through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this interest in farm matters was enacted through the lens of a national rural policy framework organized around the domestic production of food and/or minerals, or in the case of the Antipodes, for export back to the home country. The prevailing rationality of this social form of government was the importance of farming to the national economy, and a commitment by the state to ensure its prosperity was assured. In accordance with these goals, a whole regime of material and institutional farm support structures was established, which collectivized farm risk in the name of the social. This protectionist agenda also extended to rural areas more broadly, with rural citizens conceived as having equal rights to the same level of services and infrastructure as their urban counterparts, which the state was prepared to meet. In the pioneering nations of Australia, the US, and Canada, governments were even more ambitious in their interventionist strategies as attested by the establishment of closer settlement and other regional development programs, such as the Tennesee Valley Authority in the US, and the new inland towns of Albury Wodondga in Australia.

In line with recent moves toward advanced liberalism, governments across the Western world have begun dismantling the protectionist regimes of the last century amid criticisms that they have fostered a handout mentality in rural communities and perpetuated inefficiencies in agriculture. Compounded by economic rationalist arguments that subsidized rural service provision is no longer cost effective, the result has been a withdrawal of state support in rural areas as rural people are encouraged to play a more active role in providing those services for themselves. To a large extent, this new agenda of rural active citizenship has been driven by political authorities and embodied in a range of new institutional and funding arrangements that reconstruct rural people as partners of the state rather than as passive recipients of welfare. Yet, at another level it has also been embraced by rural people who have responded to reduced state support by mobilizing into local action groups and formulating their own, sometimes novel, solutions to the problems they face.

The reconstruction of citizen identity around the two poles of market and community is discernable within the rural sphere. With regard to the former, this is most apparent in the realm of farming where collective problems for the state have been reconstituted as problems for individual farmers. As Higgins has revealed in his study of Australian agriculture, citizenship can no longer be viewed in terms of social obligations, but becomes individualized and contingent upon the self governing capacity of farmers as manifested through their farm management skills. Moreover, in order for state agencies to assess these capacities, they must first be brought into the realm of the knowable through various techniques of calculation and farm audit and, for those considered lacking such qualities, enhanced through the application of farm business training and counselling schemes. If these strategies fail to reconstruct unviable farmers into rational business managers, the only kind of state assistance likely to be forthcoming are farm exit payments designed to facilitate their adjustment out of the industry.

Attempts to harness the self governing properties of individuals to economic imperatives can also be observed in governmental approaches to rural and regional development, which are imbued with a similar discourse of increased self reliance and personal responsibility. For agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the problems facing declining rural areas arise from their lack of integration into the global economy and are rooted in the supposed deficiencies of rural people themselves: they are unskilled or have the wrong skills, they lack a self reliant mindset and, perhaps understandably, they have been rendered powerless and demoralized by their experiences of rural industry and community decline. With the causes of rural decline constructed in this way, the solution is seen to lie in the provision of ‘capacity building’ that directly works on the attitudes and values of rural people to build their self esteem, imbue them with a spirit of entrepreneurship and reconstitute them as self responsible and active citizens. While capacity building has been touted as a source of empowerment for rural people by providing them with the skills to articulate their own needs, it has also been seen to operate as a vehicle through which rural development initiatives can be governed according to state ambitions for a globally competitive rural economy. This is exemplified by Cheshire’s study of the Building Rural Leaders Program: a training course in Australia designed to assist rural people in building their leadership and rural development skills. Drawing on Foucault’s writings on disciplinary power, she suggests that Building Rural Leaders seeks to create economically productive but politically ‘docile’ rural leaders through its efforts to enhance their entrepreneurial disposition while simultaneously directing those efforts toward embracing, rather than resisting, the changes they face.

While market rationalities are often viewed as contradictory to the sentiments of community, the latter remains a central pole of action within advanced liberalism and often complements economic discourses of citizenship in unexpected ways. This has been referred to as ‘governing through community’, and plays out in rural areas in a number of ways. First, in the way community is deployed as a means of imbuing individuals with a collective, rather than an individualized conscience, thereby encouraging enterprising citizens to engage in rural development or natural resource management activities that benefit the rural community as a whole. Often referred to as ‘social’ or ‘community’ entrepreneurs, they are the consummate active citizen: imbued with all the enterprising qualities of rational self management but community minded enough that they voluntarily elect to channel their skills into community, rather than individualistic, endeavors. Second, governing through community discursively reconstructs rural issues as local community, rather than state concerns. In the realm of natural resource management, the advent of community-based natural resource management schemes such as the Australian National Landcare Program demonstrates how responsibility for managing the problem of environmental degradation has been diffused throughout the rural community, with rural people now viewed as ‘partners’ of the state. Once again, though, research has suggested that such partnerships constitute a form of ‘government at a distance’, with state agencies continuing to exert considerable power in determining the type of action taken by local community groups. In the case of Landcare, it has been suggested by Lockie and others that the discourse and funding of Landcare works to deal with the negative environmental externalities of an increasingly intensive agricultural imperative, rather than encourage any profound reassessment of current farming practices to take place.

Third, in policy discourses, the economic and social well being of rural areas is frequently understood in terms of the presence or absence of a community culture. So called ‘can do communities’, which take active responsibility for their own well being, are commonly viewed as possessing a positive outlook in life and a consensual approach to solving problems. Conversely, struggling communities are viewed as an aberration to this and require the application of remedial or expert intervention to re establish the community culture that has been lost. In practice, this deployment of community frequently begins with the administration of a community audit or skills workshop in which local residents are encouraged to identify their own problems and collectively develop appropriate solutions using local skills and resources. While practices of community development and community capacity building are not unique to rural areas, the strong historical association between rurality and community serves to bolster the claim, not only that rural people should be expected to help themselves, but also that it is part of their culture to do so, and their right to expect this. Finally, it is argued that such discourses work to normalize particular ways for rural communities to think and behave, thereby creating a distinction between the civilized members of society who understand their obligations to self and others, and those who have failed to exercise their citizenship in a responsible manner. Those seen to lie beyond this normative framework are often considered beyond help and – in a policy climate of ‘picking winners’ for marketable rural development opportunities – government assistance often passes them by.

Finally, it is important to note that the reordering of rural citizenship has not been restricted solely to those who live in rural areas, but equally to the conduct of all citizens in how they relate to the countryside. Codes of conduct established specifically for nonrural dwellers visiting rural regions exhort a similar ethos of good (countryside) citizenship based on commonsense notions of responsible behavior and respect for other users. Recent work by Parker examines the various practices of self-government that underpin the British Country code, which not only sets out a code of conduct for visitors to the British countryside but, importantly constitutes a new category of country citizenship: that of the nonrural dweller. With parts of the contemporary countryside increasingly becoming sites of consumption by nonrural citizens, the governance of these new populations, and the potential conflicts over land use and values, will become matters of increasing concern requiring new, unprecedented forms of intervention.


Studies of contemporary citizenship have advanced significantly in recent years as a result of the adoption of a governmentality lens through which the fundamental categories of state, citizen, and society, and the relationship between them, can be problematized. In the field of rural research, this approach has been adopted predominantly in the context of the changing governmentalities of the state and the emergence of an advanced liberal mode of rule which seeks to govern through the rational market orientated conduct of the enterprising farmer and/or the redefinition of rural dwellers as ethically informed community members. Empirically, this has led to a proliferation of studies examining the mentalities of rule as articulated in rural policy documents and – in fewer cases – exploring how they become embodied in material interventions such as rural leadership, community capacity building, and farm financial counselling programs. What has been missing, until recently, is a greater consideration of the way that rural people engage with these discourses of active citizenship – not merely as objects of political power, but as potential sources of resistance or contestation through which challenges to the new policy frameworks might occur. If the inclusion of rural people into the networks of the state has enabled political authorities to govern their conduct more directly, then it has also created a space for a much closer engagement of rural people with government policy. Indeed, more recent research has also suggested that the mobilization of rural people around protest activities can also be perceived through the lens of citizenship and understood as attempts by rural people to reassert themselves – as citizens – in response to the perceived erosion of their rights. What this new research reminds us is that citizenship remains a contested field – one that required a more detailed and ongoing analysis.