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.


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