What is society? Social thought and the arts of government

Mitchell Dean*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

9 Citations (Scopus)


Following conservative politicians, neoliberal philosophers and radical critics, different strands of social science, including those using Foucault's governmentality approach, joined the questioning of the salience of 'society' and ideas of 'the social' over the last decades. When the social reappeared, it was often in the moral domains of community and civil society. This argument re-evaluates the contribution of Foucauldian histories, or 'genealogies', of the social to these fundamental questions. Drawing upon them, it attends to their arguments concerning the place of social thought on the modern episteme in relation to economics, the emergence of the idea of 'society' with the modern arts of government of the state, and the formation of the 'social question'. The argument here allows that preconditions of formation of 'society' lie in the legal and political techniques of the territorial sovereign state. However, the literature under investigation indicates the implicit normativity of an idea of 'society' as a 'problematic unity' and the enduring necessity of a social domain in a law-governed state with a relatively independent economic sphere. This discussion thus seeks to contribute to the wider revaluation and redeployment of these terms in today's context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)677-695
Number of pages19
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010

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