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Technology and citizenship

Barns, I. (2005) Technology and citizenship. In: Barns, I., Dudley, J., Harris, P. and Petersen, A., (eds.) Post-structuralism, Citizenship and Social Policy. Routledge as part of the Taylor and Francis group, pp. 145-187.

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The renewal of a discourse of active citizenship1 in western liberal democratic polities in recent years has been in large part a reaction to the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in social policy and its consequent corrosive impact on public life and social institutions (Meredyth 1997; Mouffe 1988). Recent poststructuralist analyses of this renewed civic discourse has been critical of the abstractness of notions of ‘civil society’, ‘citizenship’ and the like and has focused on developing more detailed genealogical accounts of the ways in which these and other such notions have functioned within the government of populations (Burchell 1995). In this chapter I’m interested in two rather different features of such discourse. The first is the sometimes explicit, though mostly implicit (and in the case of poststructuralists rather more muted), moral concern which animates much of the critical response to neo-liberalism and the advocacy of active citizenship. Notwithstanding our critical reservations in an academic context about moral discourse, when it comes to public policy issues, those of us who come from a more or less leftist, feminist or social democratic background feel a sense of moral dismay when we observe the effects of neo-liberal social policies on people: the growing inequality of wealth, income and life chances, the increasing surveillance, the dismantling or reconstruction of public institutions as profit making companies, the growing callousness and meanness of public life. We have a perhaps poorly articulated but deeply felt sense of the unfairness of it all, a sense of dismay at the erosion of human dignity and the withdrawal of social rights, especially for the poorest and the most vulnerable. We still believe that government should act for the ‘common good’ (however difficult that may be to define), providing resources for health, education, welfare and employment generation to enable ordinary people to flourish as individuals and as communities. We still have an intuitive sense of citizenship as a moral practice, of the virtues of being involved in civic issues, of the rightness of fighting developers, cost cutting governments and so on. Yet in the context of postmodern and poststructuralist critiques of modernist grand narratives we find it hard to develop any rational foundation for such moral feelings. Indeed, we are uncomfortable, even suspicious, of normative discourse altogether. We deconstruct the language of morality as a technique of governmentality, ethics as a moral technology (Rose 1990). Thus, despite our moral feelings, in the end we are uncertain as to whether it is possible to talk about citizenship as a moral practice at all. As a consequence, in so far as our responses are typical of academics on the left more generally, by default the language of morality in public life ends up being coopted by conservatives and reactionaries for the cause of moral prohibition, racism and sometimes xenophobic nationalism.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Inquiry
Publisher: Routledge as part of the Taylor and Francis group
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