ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University


Tristan Biehn, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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The concept of “regime” is one which was not developed in anthropology, and instead was carried over to the discipline to refer mainly to a system of government or a particular government, as well as “a regular pattern of occurrence or action (as of seasonal rainfall)” (Merriam-Webster, 2013). The word has been used in English since the latter 18th-century and has its roots in the Latin regimen, meaning “rule, guidance, government, means of guidance, rudder” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2013). The word was adapted from the French, whose usage of the word is strongly connected to the 1789 French Revolution and the overthrow of l’ancien régime (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2013). Modern usage of this term has a distinct negative connotation, and it is used outside of anthropology to refer to governments or administrations in order to mark them as “non-democratic”. Examples of this usage can be found extensively, especially in journalism, and is reflected in definitions of the word, such as that of the Oxford English Dictionary which states that a regime is “a government, especially an authoritarian one” and that regime change is “the replacement of one administration or government by another, especially by means of military force” (Oxford, 2013b, emphasis added). Another telling entry is that in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which suggests neutral synonyms, such as administration and government, and proceeds to list such “related words” as supremacy, domination, dictatorship, and tyranny. A search of Britannica Academic Edition reveals a similar pattern, with top results such as the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. This is notable because this connotation of authoritarianism is evident within anthropological work as well, both with reference to forms of government and specific governments as well as to speak of systems of ideology, particularly in criticisms.

Althusser (1970) speaks of the “capitalist regime” and the “regime of parliamentary democracy” while discussing Ideological State Apparatuses (pp. 88, 96). Foucault (1975) uses the concept of regime to talk about disciplinary regimes and forms of government, “political regimes, apparatuses, and institutions” and “parliamentary, representative regimes” in reference to disciplinary mechanisms (p. 12). More famously, Foucault uses it to refer to ideologies, such as when describing the concept of a regime of truth:

“Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true”. (Quoted in Rabinow, 1991, p. 73)

A regime of truth, as described above, and disciplinary regimes, are powerful tools of hegemony. In the same vein as Althusser and Foucault, to refer to systems which are coercive or hegemonic, many writers choose to mark this via the utilization of “regime”.

Recently, the concept has been used along these lines to describe a wide variety of systems. Writers refer to the neoliberal regime, colonial regime, communist regime, property regime, food regime, human rights regime, minority rights regime, gender regime, sensory regime, and the regime of mobility. Many alternate in speaking of specific governments and of ideological concepts, using “regime” to refer to each. Examples of this mixed usage are common. One article, discussing DIY fashion in Indonesia, speaks about the “regime of global brand” as well as the “authoritarian regime” under which this “do it yourself” strategy is being implemented (Luuvas, 2013, pp.135, 137). Since use of this concept in anthropological work gravitates toward critiques of hegemonic systems, it is unsurprising that it is often used to reference neoliberalism and related global ideologies which appear alongside, such as that of food, human rights, and so forth. The separation of these meanings of “regime” is not to suggest that they are unconnected. These various ideological “regimes” are related to political “regimes” through the interrelationships of government and ideology.

Another common usage of the concept is to speak of “regime change,” whereby the old regime is replaced by the new regime. This is a process which is often associated with revolution, however it can also refer to, as when the term is used to talk of elected government parties or politicians (the “NDP regime”), a peaceful, expected, and regular exchange of one group for another. The mechanisms of regime change will depend on the way “regime” is being used. John Borneman outlines three ways regime change can be conceptualized: as the “mere overthrow of the government,” “colonial military occupation,” or the intent “to change the internal fabric, the culture and patterns of a society…the values, norms, and rules of governance” (2003, pp. 31-32).


Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation. In A. Sharma and A. Gupta (Eds.), The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (pp. 86-111). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Borneman, J. (2003). Responsibility after Military Intervention: What is Regime Change? Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 29-42.

Foucault, M. (1995). Panopticism. In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Luvaas, B. (2013). Material Interventions: Indonesian DIY Fashion and the Regime of the Global Brand. Cultural Anthropology, 28 (1), 127-143.

Merriam-Webster. (2013). Regime. In Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved from

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2013). Regime. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=regime&allowed_in_frame=0

 Oxford. (2013a). Regime. In Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved from

 Oxford. (2013b). Regime Change. In Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved from

Rabinow, P. (Ed.). (1991). The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. New York, NY: Penguin Books.