September 11, 2014

Foucault used the term “panopticism” to describe a (the?) form of power that exists in modern society. As he suggested in a 1973 lecture, “we live in a society where panopticism reigns” (1994, p. 58). In outlining how this form of power differed from those that operated previously, Foucault described a shift in the penal justice system occurring in the nineteenth century – a shift that involved exercising control over not just what individuals did (i.e., punishing an offense that was committed), but over what they might do or were capable of doing (i.e., controlling people’s behavior). Such control of individuals at the level of their potentialities could not be performed by the judiciary itself, but by a network of institutions, including the school, psychological or psychiatric institutions such as the hospital, the asylum, the police, and so on (Foucault, 1994). Foucault described this as an age of “social orthopedics,” a “disciplinary society” that differed from the penal societies known previously (p. 57).

Specifically, Foucault identified Bentham’s concept of the “panopticon” as the idealized representation of this form of power. The panopticon is a “ring-shaped building in the middle of which there is a yard with a tower at the center. The ring is divided into little cells that face the interior and exterior alike” (p. 58). Foucault suggested that the panopticon served equally well institutions such as “schools, hospitals, prisons, reformatories, poorhouses, and factories” (p. 58). Thus, in each of the cells in the ring of the panopticon there is, depending on its purpose, “a child learning to write, a worker at work, a prisoner correcting himself, a madman living his madness” (p. 58). In the central tower, meanwhile, there is an observer who watches through shuttered windows so as to be able to see everything without anyone being able to see him/her. Further, since each cell is open to both the inside and outside, the observer’s gaze can traverse the entire cell, making everything the individual does exposed to the observer.

Unlike previous forms of judicial power that rested upon the inquiry, a procedure in which one tried to ascertain what has happened via evidence and testimony, panopticism involved “supervision and examination” – specifically, a “constant supervision of individuals by someone who exercised a power over them–schoolteacher, foreman, physician, psychiatrist, prison warden–and who, so long as he exercised power, had the possibility of both supervising and constituting a knowledge concerning those he supervised” (p. 59). Panopticism involves a knowledge that “was no longer about determining whether or not something had occurred”, but “whether an individual was behaving as he should, in accordance with the rule or not, and whether he was progressing or not” (p. 59).

Perhaps a current example of panopticism an be found in the trend toward “evidence-based sentencing”, in which courts use predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences (Starr, Aug. 10, 2014, New York Times). In other words, the severity of individuals’ sentences are determined not just by the offense committed, but by such factors as ” unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history”. Notably, “at least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision”.

Source: Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

Foucault and post-structuralism

December 10, 2013

Foucault is often identified as a “post-structuralist.” But what exactly is post-structuralism? I have found this to be a much-discussed question in courses about social theory. In a lecture delivered in 1973, Foucault discussed how his intellectual approach differs from that of structuralists. Specifically, he noted that he is not concerned with what is traditionally called “structure”:

Neither Deleuze, nor Jean-François Lyotard, nor Guattari, nor I ever do structural analyses; we are absolutely not “structuralists.” If I were asked what I do and what others do better, I would say that we don’t study structures; indulging in wordplay, I would say that we study dynasties…I would say that we try to bring to light what has remained until now the most hidden, the most occulted, the most deeply invested experience in the history of our culture–power relations. (p. 17)

Foucault went on to suggest that, “curiously,” economic structures have received much more critical attention than power relations. However, this is a problem, because there are certain phenomena “that can be explained only if they are related not to economic structures, to the economic relations of production, but to the power relations that permeate the whole fabric of our existence” (p. 17).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

Knowledge and the world to be known; the politics of truth

October 26, 2013

What is the connection between knowledge and the world to be known? In considering this question, Foucault (1973: 8-9) provides a comparison between the views of Kant and Nietzsche. He notes that Kant was the first (among Western philosophers) to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzche, on the other hand, believed that there is no resemblance or prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known  that there is human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or natural tie between them. In other words, there is not necessarily any connection between human knowledge and the world to be known. Rather, knowledge must struggle against a world without order, connectedness, form, or law.

So how to best understand knowledge? Given the discord between knowledge and the world to be known, Nietzche declared that philosophers are the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, because they tend to think of knowledge in the form of congruence. Rather, if we truly wish to understand knowledge, Foucault (1973: 12) suggested we must look not to philosophers, but to politicians; we must understand what the relations of struggle and power are. In other words, one can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining relations of power  the manner in which people fight one another, try to dominate one another, and seek to exercise power relations over one another. This is a key aspect of what Foucault (1973: 13) refers to as the “politics of truth.” Rather than knowledge and power being separate entities, behind all knowledge is a struggle for power; “political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it” (Foucault 1973: 32).

In examining the politics of truth, Foucault (1973: 14) highlights the importance of understanding the “perspectival character” of knowledge. By this Foucault (through his interpretation of Nietzsche) means that there is knowledge only in the form of actions by which human beings violently take hold of things, react to situations, and subject them to relations of force. In other words, knowledge is always a certain strategic relation in which humans are placed  there is a battle, and knowledge is the result of this battle.

Foucault’s view of knowledge differs from the traditional Marxist concept of ideology, in which the subject’s relation to truth is understood to be obscured and violated by conditions of existence, social relations, or the political forms imposed on the subject of knowledge from the outside. In contrast, Foucault (1973: 15) suggests that the political and economic conditions of existence are not a veil or an obstacle for the subject of knowledge but the means by which subjects of knowledge and, in turn, truth relations are formed. Political conditions are the very ground on which subjects of knowledge and relations of truth are formed. What Foucault seeks to do in his work is examine the history through which models of truth have come into existence (e.g., truths regarding juridicial forms, punishment, insanity).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

A proper level of modesty

February 3, 2013

How to go about beginning a lecture with a proper level of modesty? Here is one idea:

What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress. (Foucault, 1973, p. 1)

This was how Foucault opened a series of lectures about truth and juridical forms at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1973. By using the term modesty, I refer to a postmodern-inspired idea about recognizing the limits of any epistemological stance. This is a modesty which recognizes that although we may develop a stance that is valid, it may not be possible to develop an epistemological position that is fully complete. This is, of course, not to say that “anything goes”; recognizing the validity of multiple positions does not necessitate declaring that all positions are equally valid. Rather, all positions must be appropriately justified and supported. However, maintaining a certain level of modesty in our claims is key in leaving ourselves open to the possibility of growth and learning.

The process of learning about sex/gender

October 1, 2012

To what extent are men and women different because of biological factors? What role do social/environmental factors play? Those who claim the superiority of biological influences may point to studies showing that gender differences emerge at an early age for support. As a father, I often hear other parents talking about just how different boys and girls are (assuming, it appears, that these differences are simply natural). However, considering the concept of schema processing helps us see that children adopt particular sex roles as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema during a process that occurs over many years.

As a point of comparison, Fausto-Sterling (2000) discusses the process through which children learn to smile — a behavior that, like gender, people may assume is simply natural. At first, newborns exhibit a behavior in which the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up (this has been observed in fetuses as early as 26 weeks of gestation), which suggests there is initially a basic set of neural connections that enable a developing human to “smile”. Within a few weeks after birth, a more complex smile develops in which the lips curl up farther, cheek muscles contract, and the skin around the eyes wrinkles. By around three months of age, babies generally have begun to smile in non-random bursts in response to stimuli. Over the next two years of life, smiling begins to be accompanied by other facial expressions (e.g., nose wrinkles, blinks, brow raises) used to express emotions ranging from pleasure to mischief. While the muscles and nerves that govern smiling develop and become more complex during the first two years of age, so too do the functions and social contexts that elicit smiling. Thus, what may seem like a simple physiological response becomes “socialized” as a child develops.

With respect to gender, a similar social developmental process exists in which children adopt particular roles and behaviors as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema. For example, children younger than 1.5 years of age generally do not yet have a working knowledge of gender; they cannot correctly label photos as “boy” or “girl” (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). By age 2.25 years, however, about half of children can correctly label people as “boy” or “girl”. These “early labelers” tend to receive more positive and negative feedback from parents regarding appropriate or inappropriate gender-typed play than do children who learn sex-based labeling at a later time. This suggests there are social influences upon what we might often assume are biological sex differences. Further, children seem to base their initial understandings of sex primarily on cultural markers. For example, children under the age of three, when asked to correctly identify sex in a set of photos where babies were either naked or clothed, had much more success labeling those who were clothed, suggesting that their knowledge of sex tended to rely on an understanding of cultural differences as opposed to anatomical differences (Bem, 1989). Overall, these examples should remind us that “who we are” is determined by a constant interplay of the social and the biological. Or, as I remarked upon previously, nature and nurture are inseparable.

Nature vs. nurture

September 7, 2012

Why are we who we are? Why do we do what we do? Why do we think what we think? In response to such questions, a commonly discussed topic in the academic and public sphere is the issue of “nature vs. nurture”. In other words, to what extent are individuals determined by genetic and biological factors (“nature”), and to what extent are individuals shaped by social and environmental forces (“nurture”)? Specifically in reference to questions of gender, Fausto-Sterling (2000) describes how we are really asking the wrong questions when we focus on “nature vs. nurture”, because claiming that there is a separate “nature” and “nurture” is an artificial dualism. Specifically, she suggests that we must “switch our vision…, so that we see nature and nurture as an indivisible, dynamic system” (p. 228). As an example, all animals develop in an environment. During the earliest stages of development in utero, that environment includes the mother’s body chemistry, which is impacted by such factors as what she eats, how much stress she encounters, and how her hormones respond to such experiences. These factors are impacted by broader social forces, such as socioeconomics, race, religion, and culture. Thus, trying to isolate an individual’s biology from the context in which it exists will involve an artificial process of separating the inseparable.

Defunding Higher Education

May 12, 2012

Tuition at Mississippi State University will increase 7.9% for the 2012-13 academic year. This represents an increase from $5,805 per year in 2011-12 to $6,264 in 2012-13 for in-state undergraduate students.

Broadly speaking, this can be seen as part of a larger trend toward the defunding of higher education. For example, in the fiscal year 2000, 56% of Mississippi public university budgets came from state appropriations, while 32% came from tuition dollars. In 2012, 57% came from tuition dollars and 37% came from state appropriations.

Source: Gregory, N. (2012, May 10). College students face tuition hike. Starkville Daily News. Page 1.

Women’s World Cup TV Ratings

July 25, 2011

The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan on Sun., July 17 drew a rating of 7.4, which equates to about 13.5 million viewers according to Sports Media Watch. Here are a few comparisons to put this figure in perspective:

  • It was the second-highest rated women’s soccer match ever, behind only the 1999 U.S/China World Cup final (17.975M viewers), which aired on broadcast network ABC.
  • It was the most-viewed soccer telecast (regardless of gender) ever on ESPN, the sixth-most viewed soccer telecast ever on a single network (again, regardless of gender), and the second-most viewed daytime program in the history of cable television.
  • Compared to other recent sporting events, the match drew more viewers than the 2011 Pro Bowl (13.406M, FOX), 2011 MLB All-Star Game (10.970M, FOX), and Game 3 of the 2010 World Series (SF/TEX G3: 11.460M, FOX). Notably, all three of these events were on network television.
  • The match also topped the most-viewed MLB game in cable history (NYY/TEX G6: 11.863M, TBS), the most-viewed NBA game in cable history (MIA/CHI G1: 11.109M, TNT), and the most-viewed Stanley Cup Final telecast in 38 years (BOS/VAN: 8.540M, NBC), each of which took place within the past year.

Sport, stratification, and ideology

July 17, 2011

Rather than simply being a frivolous way to pass one’s spare time, sport has many “uses” in society. One common use throughout history involves sport’s ability to stratify people by separating and creating distinctions between them. For example, sport is most commonly structured into sex segregated teams, leagues, and competitions. While such a structure is often justified as a means to promote female participation, in some ways, it exists for men’s protection by preventing the possibility that men will be bested by a woman. This allows male superiority to exist unchallenged.

Somewhat similarly, a relatively unchallenged belief in white physical supremacy existed in the past. As Carrington (2010) describes, the core ideas that whites were intellectually, aesthetically, and physically superior became dominant components of racial ideology as classical racial science cohered during the 19th century. Sport, usually practiced in segregated settings, became a key component of “proving” white superiority. However, as black athletes, such as heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, defeated white athletes in competition, beliefs about innate superiority were challenged. As Carrington writes, “if that central aspect of racial ideology [physical superiority] proved to be false, then where did that leave the theory of white supremacy itself, founded as it was, in part, upon the ‘facts’ of physical preeminence?” (p. 75). In response to such a question, Carrington suggests the success of people of African ancestry in sport became a “problem” to be investigated and the racial troupe of “the black athlete” emerged. However, the point I wish to make here is that it was through integrated competition that dominant racial ideology was challenged. If more sport leagues and events were to integrate with respect to sex, how might this lead people to rethink aspects of dominant gender ideology?


  • Carrington, B. (2010). Race, sport and politics: The sporting black diaspora. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Who drives regulation?

May 2, 2011

In a framework where issues must be black and white with no shades of gray, it may make sense from a progressive perspective that any form of regulation on business enacted by government is a “win” on behalf of workers and consumers. However, in the current age when we often hear politicians discuss deregulation, it is important to understand how reality is much more complex than this.

For example, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 made it illegal to form a “combination or conspiracy” to restrain trade in interstate or foreign commerce. However, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the act in such a way as to make it largely harmless with decisions like U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co. in 1895, which held that a monopoly in sugar refining was a monopoly in manufacturing, not commerce, and, thus, could not be regulated through the Sherman Act. During the “progressive era,” meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt gained a reputation as the “trust-buster” and signed into law such legislation as the Meat Inspection Act, the Hepburn Act to regulate railroads and pipelines, and the Pure Food and Drug Act.1

So, were such cases of regulation “wins” for workers and consumers? Well, certainly many citizens benefited to some extent from these changes. Were these new regulations “losses” for corporations? Well, certainly some corporate elites opposed such regulation. However, in some ways, the reforms of this era were an attempt at achieving stability after the financial panic of 1907, while perhaps being sped up by the growing strength of the Socialist party, the IWW, and other trade unions. As opposed to fighting against regulation, it was a “qualitative shift in outlook” toward “enticements and compromises” among many corporate elites2 that facilitated Roosevelt’s partnership with business leaders to guide relatively modest reform. As Roosevelt explained about his reform strategy to his concerned brother-in-law on Wall Street, “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country” (p. 351).1 In other words, many reforms of this era can be viewed as proactive measures crafted by corporate and political elites working together in an attempt to achieve stability and ward off the potential for more radical reforms that might be forced upon them if workers organizations continued to gain momentum.

The self-regulation of markets by corporate elites is noted by David Harvey, who explains that “unbridled competition among the capitalists has the potential to destroy the work force, the very source of surplus value itself. From time to time, the capitalists must in their own interest constitute themselves as a class and put limits upon the extent of their own competition” (p. 30).3 He notes that Marx interpreted the early English factory acts as an attempt “made by a state that is ruled by capitalists and landlord” to “curb the passion for a limitless draining of labour power” which had “torn up by the roots the living force of the nation.”4 Harvey suggests, “there is, then, a distinction – often rather hazy – between regulation of this sort and regulation obtained through victories of the working class and its allies in the struggle to obtain a reasonable working day” (p. 30).3 Such complexities are important to consider as we think about regulation in the 21st century and ask questions such as: when republicans and democrats “battle” over reform, does one party represent the interests of corporations and the other the interests of workers, or do the two parties represent slightly different strategies for continuing the conditions for maximum corporate accumulation?

Sports Connection: The NCAA is, perhaps, a useful case study in self-regulation. The NCAA formed, in effect, when Teddy Roosevelt threatened to intervene in college sports if changes were not made (he had summoned college athletics leaders to two White House conferences to encourage reform). In order to ward off external regulations that might be placed upon college athletics from the outside, 62 colleges and universities formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (precursor to the NCAA) in 1906.


1. Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1942-present. New York: HarperCollins.
2. Wiebe, R. H. (1966). The search for order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill & Wang.
3. Harvey, D. (2006). The limits to capital (new and fully updated edition). New York: Verso.
4. Marx, K. (1887). Capital: vol. 1.