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Michel Foucault, Social Policy and 'Limit-Experience'

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posted on 2021-11-08, 08:16 authored by Culpitt, Ian

This thesis considers whether the discipline of social policy can validly use the patterns and intentions implicit in Foucault's critique of modernity to develop a new qualitative approach to social theory. He examined the conditions under which various regimes of social and political practice came into being; how they are maintained and the particular manner of their transformation. There are two specific emphases that establish the pattern of my overall inquiry. The first involves a reflection on the troubled and ineffectual place of normative social theory within contemporary social policy discourse. The second is a reconsideration of Foucault's oeuvre in relation to new social theory building within social policy. Both of these concerns offer an opportunity to reflect on the place of social theory within a discursive world that 'appears' cosmopolitan and diverse. Foucault famously declared that the point of philosophical activity involved the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently - to examine the functioning of our ideas as 'limit-experiences'. He coined this phrase 'limit-experience' to outline his critique of the 'forms of rationalizations' that comprise the present practice of politics within modernity. He thought the decisive question was how apparently 'universal, necessary, and obligatory discourses about political and social knowledge shapes that which ought more properly to be regarded as 'singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints'. The former injunctive and 'magisterial' arguments that supported initial patterns of welfare state rhetoric are no longer persuasive. There has been a 'sea-change' in contemporary social ideas - from a welfare state to a welfare society - one that is breath-taking in its hegemonic compass. That world is increasingly depicted as a postmodern social world where there is little apparent respect for, let alone reliance on, the grand metaphors and social themes of classic social policy. This reconsideration of Foucault's ideas from a social policy perspective will not necessarily yield a new compelling normative rhetoric but it will provide an opportunity to think differently about the taken-for-granted nature of so much social policy theorizing. His portrayal of how we might 'think differently' about the multitude of practices involved in the rationalizations and subjectifications of 'limit-experiences' provides an opportunity to reflect on the patterning and practices that construct the current discourses of welfare and social policy. We do need to think differently or at least to see if it is possible to do so. Imagining difference, strategizing for it, and welcoming it, mark us out as constantly restless - a personal style that Foucault embraced with some gusto!


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Social Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Hill, Mike; Pratt, John