Archive for the ‘theoretical’ Category


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.

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.