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The Governable Person
by Jack Boulton

‘The examination combines the techniques of an observational hierarchy and those of a normalising judgment. It is a normalising gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them.’ (Foucault 1975: 184)

Going to work is no longer as simple as doing a particular job in a particular place. By taking part in the hierarchical system of the office, the worker also takes on responsibilities to other people and departments that are not directly linked to his line of work. The designer, for example, indirectly becomes associated with the accountant as soon as his or her work efficiency comes under scrutiny.

Time management is one of the most important aspects of the work environment. In the capitalist economy our time becomes worth money and therefore also becomes accountable to others. Personal accountability (in particular the concept of the audit as discussed briefly last issue) is a relatively new field in anthropology; however there are several important issues to consider when looking at this topic: How is efficiency measured? Who creates these rules? Are they based on historical evidence or on present day circumstances? This essay will address these questions using evidence from Douglas, Power and Strathern, amongst others.

Efficiency in the Light of Failure
‘When transaction costs mount for one reason or another, a bureaucratic organisation offers an employment relation which can produce trust, develop expertise, and provide flexible continuity, and these combined can outweigh its insufficiencies.’ (Douglas 1992: 71)

Douglas points out that regulating bodies are employed when costs, or outlay, become too high or are unjustifiable for the product that is being sold. In some respects this can be seen as the introduction of a standardised system to regulate a transaction which, at least in terms of financial efficiency, has failed. In layman’s terms, someone is not doing their job properly to the extent that costs are spiraling to the point where the finished product is not worth the asking price.

This is similar to Illich’s (1978) idea of crisis. He suggests that in times of misfortune personal liberties are withdrawn and supervisory power from further up the social hierarchy is bought into play in order to rectify the situation. Perhaps one of the ways that this ‘higher power’ takes form is with the audit which, according to Power (1997), is one of the most important methods of assessing the efficiency of an organisation. In principle this is a method of verification and checking, and Powers defines the crucial aspects of this:
  • Independence from the matter being audited
  • Technical work in the form of evidence gathering and the examination of documentation
  • The expression of a view based on this evidence
  • A clearly defined object of the audit process (Power 1997: 5)
Established, examinable systems of audit exist in the fields of both health and medicine, and teaching. Whilst in some ways the implementation of audit systems can be seen as positive - by imposing clear regulations of high standards - some people argue that the new managerialism involved in maintaining these standards instills insecurity in the workplace (Shore and Wright 2000, Power 1997).

Making Auditees
It is one thing to suggest that an audit system should be bought in at a time of crisis but another that it should remain in place indefinitely. Foucault (1997) suggests that the consequence of continual observation – a la the panopticon, the glass prison in which the prisoners are constantly visible to the guards although not vice-versa – is to ‘instill anxiety such that inmates come to scrutinise their own behaviour and eventually adopt the norms of conduct desired by the disciplinary institution whether or not the guards are in the watchtower.’ (Shore and Wright 2000: 77).

Strathern (2000) puts forward that by moving from its’ birthplace in the world of accounting to the professional world, the audit brings with it a whole new range of cultural ideas and values upon which institutions can be rendered culturally legitimate. Moreover, she suggests that ‘procedures for assessment have social consequences, locking up time, personnel and resources, as well as locking into the moralities of public management.’ (2000: 2). Shore and Wright elaborate this, suggesting that audit practices ‘are agents for the creations of new kinds of subjectivity: self-managing individuals who render themselves auditable.’ (2000: 57).
The relevance to the modern workplace is obvious; as we are given criteria to fit into – for example, spending x amount of time doing y on a particular day, between particular times – we either conform and keep our jobs, or we do not, and run the risk of losing them. By conforming we are constructing an idea of a professional person, which is by no means natural, and, perhaps more disturbingly, is based on meeting someone else’s yardstick.

We can see then than one of the clearest ways of measuring efficiency is the audit: a systematic and controlled method of verifying externally that all systems within an organisation are operating in the most efficient manner. If they are not, then inefficient or financially overburdening elements can be identified and steps taken to correct this.
The audit has many peculiarities, with its’ explosion over the years, we can see that as the extensiveness of these cultural processes increases, patterns of behaviour change with it. However, as Shore and Wright point out, the audit is not a voluntary scheme. Therefore we are constructing an idea of an efficient, professional person using coercion (2000).

Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of implementing an audit is its’ effect on trust. Although Douglas (1992) implies that bureaucratic systems are employed when, essentially, trust has broken down, Shore and Wright’s argument would suggest that their utilisation actually works to break down trust relationships even further.
Therefore it seems that these imposed methods of checking and verification have consequences that are more far-reaching than simply keeping the accountant happy. As the audit and the concepts behind it become commonplace, so cultures change, and new moral codes are created with it.


Douglas M. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. 1992; London, Routledge.

Foucault M. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975; London, Penguin Books Limited.

Illich I. The Right to Useful Unemployment and it’s Professional Enemies. 1978; London, Marion Boyars Publishers Limited.

Power M. The Audit Explosion. 1994; London, Demos.

Power M. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. 1997; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Shore C and Wright S. Coercive Accountability: The Rise of Audit Culture in Higher Education. IN Strathern M (Ed) Audit Cultures. 2000; London, Routledge.

Strathern M. New Accountabilities: Anthropological Studies in Audit, Ethics and the Academy. IN Strathern M (Ed) Audit Cultures. 2000; London, Routledge.

About the Author
Jack Boulton is the editor of Stimulus Respond, the E-Zine for Urban Anthropologists (www.stimulusrespond.com). You may reproduce this article with permission (obtained by emailing jack@stimulusrespond.com) and on the condition that the author is credited along with a link to Stimulus Respond.