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A Review of Foucault's Work on Power

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Power/ knowledge

The relationship between power and knowledge is fundamental to Foucault’s analysis of power. Knowledge can be gained from power and vice versa: 'there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations’ (Discipline and Punish, p. 27). Discipline and Punish essentially documents how the techniques of power are reorganized and how the development of various bodies of knowledge interacts with those techniques. One of the ways Foucault explores the power/knowledge concept in Discipline and Punish is through the example of the Panopticon, where power and knowledge are gained from observing the actions of others, and which reinforce each other. Foucault says that "by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process”. The examination is another illustration of the power/knowledge concept- it combines “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (p. 184). For example, in schools, the examination elicits the ‘truth’ about examinees (by testing their knowledge) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study). The examination locates individuals in a ‘field of documentation’, where results of exams provide information about examinees and allow them to be ‘characterized and made into a case’ (p. 192). The individual thus becomes "an effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge" (ibid.).

Section 2

As illustrated in the section above, Foucault offers us a new conceptualization of power in several ways. McCarthy (1990) argues that through Foucault’s expansion of the concept of power (by rejecting questions of who possesses power or who suffers from it), ‘we gain a greater sensitivity to the constraints and impositions that figure in any social order, in any rational practice, in any socialization process’ (p.446). Furthermore, ‘any regime of truth involves privileging certain types of discourse, sanctioning certain ways of distinguishing true from false statements, underwriting certain techniques for arriving at the truth, according to a certain status of those who competently enjoy them and so forth. In this sense, there is indeed a ‘political economy’ of truth, as there is of any organized social activity; this insight is the principal gain of Foucault’s generalization of the concept of power’ (ibid).

However, Foucault’s analysis does leave us with several questions, for which he does not provide satisfactory answers. McCarthy (1990) argues that generalizing the concept of power blurs the distinction between just and unjust social arrangements, legitimate and illegitimate uses of political power, etc. As Fraser (in McCarthy 1990, p. 447) puts it, “the problem is that Foucault calls too many different sorts of things power and simply leaves it at that. Granted, all cultural practices involve constraints. But these constraints are of a variety of different kinds and thus demand a variety of different normative responses.” Fraser goes on further to point out that by ignoring distinctions between notions such as authority, domination, legitimation, by lumping together all these concepts, Foucault ‘surrenders the potential for a broad range of normative nuances and the results is a certain normative one-dimensionality’ (ibid).

McCarthy (1990) is critical of Foucault’s dismissal of the role of individual beliefs, intentions or actions: ‘Foucault’s genealogical method does not concern itself with power at the level of conscious intention or decision’ (p.446). McCarthy contends that it is not possible to adequately understand most varieties of social interaction by treating agents ‘simply as acting in compliance with pre-established and publicly sanctioned patterns (Foucault’s ‘docile bodies’). He argues that ‘individuals’ interpretation of social situations, understanding what is expected of them, anticipating reactions to conformity or deviance are basic elements of interaction in disciplinary settings, too’ (p.449). Since Foucault fails to take this into account, while he does insist on the interdependence on the notions of power and resistance, he is not able to adequately account for ‘just what it is that resists’ (ibid). Foucault does not help us understand why resistance is needed at all, or adequately explain how and in what form, resistance might take place: ‘whether Foucault’s rhetoric does the job of suggesting not simply that change is possible but also what sort of change is desirable (Fraser 1989, p. 43). Fraser (1989) also argues that since Foucault’s method lacks a normative standard, he leaves himself open to misunderstanding: ‘without a non-humanist ethical paradigm, Foucault cannot make good his normative case against humanism. He cannot answer the question, why should we oppose a fully panopticized, autonomous society (p.53)?” Foucault thus paints us a picture of power that is inadequate in that it leaves it mostly to us to create a process of resistance and generate tools to resolve conflict.


Foucault, Michel (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Selections)

Foucault, Michel. “Two Lectures” pp. 78-108 and “Truth and Power,” pp. 109-133 and “Power and Strategies,” pp. 134-145 in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings (edited by Colin Gordon), 1980.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power,” pp. 8-26 in Readings in Contemporary

Political Sociology ed. Kate Nash. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000.

Fraser, Nancy. “Michel Foucault: “Young Conservative”? Pp. 34-54 in Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

McCarthy, Thomas. “The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt

School,” pp. 243-282 in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas

Debate. Ed. Michael Kelly. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.



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