Power Structures & Foucault

The idea behind Foucault’s theory of power structures is that power is what makes society what it is. Power exists everywhere and comes from man’s concept of what his or her definition of everywhere is. Given that power is derived from everywhere, it is not a structure, but rather an overarching influence that exists in society. The idea of power according to Foucault is intertwined with the subject of knowledge. Using the term, power/knowledge, Foucault identifies that the concept of power is accepted in society through the idea that within knowledge lies truth.

Truth, to Foucault is what induces the effects associated with power. As such, truth is a thing that is produced in accordance with society’s operations. The essence of truth or what is true is whatever society accepts as the truth, and not a specific notion or definition. It is consistently and constantly in flux – this truth. Those in society can only distinguish between truth and falsehood based on the level of discourse that exists within that society or group about what their particular acquisition of truth happens to be. Since truth is entangled with power and knowledge, it can be said that Foucault’s assessment of power structures is that this acceptance of truth is based on the conformity within society. In other words, since the truth is centered on how it is viewed within a particular regime or group, then power is a considerable source of conformity in society. It is both a productive and destructive force because it according to Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, represses, abstracts, excludes, conceals and produces (194). The reason that knowledge is applied or rather discussed in terms of power is that this knowledge that an individual in society gains or comes to know is based on the truth that they have come to accept or believe based on the power phenomenon within that group or society. A significant amount of philosophical studies have expressed that Foucault’s critique of power structures is a departure from other works on the subject.

In their article “Foucault’s Discourse and Power: Implications for Classroom Management,” Victor Pitsoe and Moeketsi Letseka consider how important Foucault’s discussion on power is to multiple subjects. Specifically, they highlight that his work evokes the subject of communication, or what is referred to as discourse. They articulate that discourse is a social construct that is created through a means of both communication and power. “For example, those who are in control decide who we are by deciding what we discuss. […] In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (24). Essentially, there cannot be discourse without power and communication. Moreover, the authority associated with discourse fluctuates based on who is speaking and thinking within a particular society.

The authors state that “discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who can speak, when, and with what authority. They embody meaning and social relationships” (Pitsoe & Letseka 24). The idea is that discourse is what keeps knowledge and subsequently, power in place. Individuals in society accept knowledge because of discourse, and this discourse is controlled by the particular power structure that may be in operation. There is no overarching power structure, but instead there are multiple structures in play at any given time because power is a phenomenon that exists everywhere as opposed to be manufactured or created by a solitary entity. Since discourse is seen as being extremely powerful in the level of knowledge that an individual obtains, it is arguably one of the most powerful concepts within the discussion on communication – at least from Foucault’s perspective.

The authors go on to state that communication is an essential ingredient to power relations as well as other subjects such as culture, gender, class, disability, sexuality and age in society. As such, every society operates on a specific discourse, and power mechanism even though there are no specific structures of power. The concept of power becomes even more complex and intricate as it relates to communication in the meanings behind truth and falsehood. This in turn creates issues of oppression. Foucault believes that the more discourse is focused within both knowledge and power, the more opportunity for a repression of people within a particular society. Power, then, is a form of control, because individuals have access to certain forms of knowledge based on their positions. “Those in positions of power are responsible for the assumptions that underlie the selection and organization of knowledge in society” (Pitsoe & Letseka 24). The idea here is that knowledge is power, and the more knowledge that an individual in society has, the greater their power.

It is in the interest of those in power to maintain a certain level of knowledge and consequently, discourse in said society in order to keep people oppressed or relegated to a specific area of society. An example of this is the top 5% of the United States, who are said to be running the country behind the scenes, and orchestrating certain maneuvers in the federal government. These individuals are said to relay and express just enough to the general population for certain knowledge to be gained and absorbed. Another example of this is the media’s construction of the narrative and how it portrays certain individuals within society in order to cause opinions to be formed. It is responsible for the public’s view of the current political candidates, and a host of other issues. Those who control the media, and frame the narrative thoroughly understand the potency of power, and its ability to influence an individual’s level of knowledge about something – and affect their truth.

Pitsoe & Letseka write that communication, or rather discourse is what keeps knowledge and power joined. Power is an instrument that allows for a certain level of reality to be constructed among a society. Foucault’s argument here is that because of the nature of discourse, that a certain level of maintenance of control is highlighted by power – and this exists across multiple industries and fields (25). Certain fields are often discussed more than others such as education and the prison system. The author’s comment that education is a powerful instrument that affords individuals in society, an opportunity to gain access into a discourse and therefore, obtain a certain level of power (Pitsoe & Letseka 25). For example, there is a certain degree of discourse that is given to people in society who hold a Master’s degree versus those who only have a high school diploma.

Foucault’s outlook is that educational institutions are “apart of the power struggle to establish, expand, and sustain a particular notion of truth through control over the power of legitimacy” (Pitsoe & Letseka 25). In other words, because of the nature of discourse as it relates to education, there is a considerable effect that education has on individuals and the respective levels of power. Educational institutions, then, provide only a certain extent or level of discourse to individuals so that they do not become too powerful or knowledgeable. This is the crux of the Foucault argument regarding power and educational institutions. Individuals are ultimately only taught so much – even those who hold a PhD degree because those at the top of society deem it necessary for the majority to understand only so much – and only have access to a certain amount of information in order to limit the participation in discourse.

Another heavy focus of Foucault’s critique of power structures is centered on the prison system. A major part of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is to extend earlier positions on the subject of power. He considers that the emergence of the prison system in society is yet another way to discipline or control bodies through power. “The major effect [of the prison system is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault). What Foucault is arguing here is that the implementation of the prison system is more for showing off as opposed to being representative of a disciplinary measure.

The level of knowledge and truth that an individual gains, while in prison is based on the distribution of power within that prison. In essence, certain prisoners have more power than others because of they have gained access to the discourse that operates within the prison. This is regardless of the structure of that prison. Foucault is explaining that the level of power that a prisoner has is not necessarily based on the any kind of structure that the prison is under, but the interaction that the prisoners have with those who are deemed to be in power – and after, the ability they are able to use to obtain knowledge and access into the discourse.

He also presents another argument regarding power, writing:

“so to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so” (Foucault).

What he is referring to is that while it is assumed that the prisoner should be monitored because of the ways in which he or she can get access into the discourse – and therefore, power, it does not behoove the inspector to continually check them because the individual(s) is/are made to feel that they are relegated to a certain level within the prison because of their knowledge and truth about the power they hold. The idea is that the prisoners are more powerful than they realize, but because of their knowledge about what it means to be a prisoner within society, and the prison structure, they do not go outside of the boundaries of this truth. This is a prevailing revelation within the Foucault perspective on prisons and their final meaning.

Foucault asserts that the prison is less of a power structure, and more of a mechanical architecture that serves as an experimental laboratory for observing the extent by which an individual will try to enter the discourse. The mechanism behind the prison system is that it is does serve to affect the mind of the people within it and thus, extract some kind of power but its presence in terms of functionality (i.e. reformation) only marginally satisfies what it sets out to do. He writes:

“at one extreme, the discipline-blockade, the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the other extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come. The movement from one project to the other, from a schema of exceptional discipline to one of a generalized surveillance, rests on a historical transformation: the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society” (Foucault).

Arguably, what he is stating here is that the prison’s main aim is to constrict, restrict, and rehabilitate through the form of locking people out of access to discourse, and therefore, power. However, because power exists everywhere and is not necessarily constricted because of its overarching aspects, the prison only marginally addresses the issue of power in society. In other words, individuals in society – prison included – will still have some form of power irrespective of the construction of the prison system and its specific framework of control.

Critique of Foucault

Some studies consider whether the Foucault’s approach to the notion of power is a practical one in post-modern society. Panneerselvam observes that Foucault’s perspectives on punishment, knowledge and truth are plausible and reason – they only hold substantive weight in the historical era. There appears to be a considerable amount of disconnect for Foucault in his approach to understanding discourse and its connection to knowledge, truth and power. He finds that there is no acceptable interpretation or one perspective that works in terms of addressing the subject of power. Since power is such a vast subject, that offer different meanings to different cultures, and societies, there is no one type of practice that Foucault applies to the subject (15-17). Basically, the critique of Foucault is that the thoughts or rather argument that he makes tend to be all over the place and does not cement a sole rationale. He makes references to many subjects (i.e. education, the prison system, etc.), discussing how they are important to the subject of power, but does not find that there is an acceptable practice in terms of one gaining access to knowledge.

Foucault expresses that “a distinctive feature of power is in its concern with what people have not done with that is a person’s failure to reach required standards” (Gutting 1). Panneerselvam does not believe this is the case with modern society and the definition of power. Power is not a specific identity, as Foucault reasons it to be. Foucault believes that “an individual is not the agent who puts power into play; [but they are] the element of power’s articulation” (21). Yet, as society has become more and more technologically advanced in terms of its knowledge and overall discourse, so has the power of people and thus, these entities have put power into play in certain situations despite Foucault’s argument.

Woermann considers that Foucault’s understanding of power as it relates to society can only be partially accepted because it reasons, although legitimately, that power is the same in all situations. However, power means different things to different societies, and can be said to be more relevant to certain dimensions and sets of ideology. Moreover, power may be applied to future situations, but not necessarily past ones by a person, or a unit in society (112). Therefore, it is not viable or reasonable for Foucault’s perspective on power to be wholeheartedly accepted as fact or truth in all situations. His conceptualization of power, discourse, knowledge and truth should only be accepted in certain situations as it relates to subject and in society.

Personal Critique of Foucault & The Theory’s Applicability to Individuals

It might be asked if Foucault’s theory is applicable to society, and people in particular. From the perspective of the writer, it is not necessarily applicable to people and communication. Specifically, because the theory of power structures appears to be all over the place in its construct. Foucault reasons according to Gutting, that the goal of both knowledge and power cannot be separated (1). Yet, to argue that one only seeks to be knowledgeable in order to execute a powerful place is a bit nonsensical. For example, an individual who seeks to learn how to bake a red velvet cake through researching several cookbooks and family recipes, does not necessarily contend that once they understand how to bake one that they are trying to be in a more powerful position over someone who bakes red velvet cakes, or that they are trying to outdo the family or cookbook recipes.

Foucault’s assertion is that there is always an ulterior motive in the discussion on power as it relates to people. While it is true that knowledge is power, and being forearmed with certain truths is essential to operating in society, by accepting Foucault’s perspective, it suggests that people are always trying to do a proverbial one up’s on someone, or take advantage because of the construct of power, and the inherent selfish nature of man. Foucault is assuming to a certain degree that man will always try to use the knowledge to usurp or use it in a way that seeks to control someone else. This is not the case from the perspective of the writer.

There are situations where Foucault’s reasoning is applicable. These situations where it is applicable are when one has an extensive repertoire of knowledge and understanding about something and can so use that knowledge to gain power, or a more powerful position than they might have presently. The theory would need to be improved with the argument that knowledge and power will always be linked in order for it to be applicable to all situations, fields and situations – and to be used in practiced by each individual. What the critics of Foucault of his power structure theory see is that he is bent on making the case that because power is an overarching phenomenon, in society, that every time one gains knowledge and uses it in their discourse with others, that they are trying to outdo or be seen as being more informed about something. While this is the case in some areas of society, and in certain fields – it puts forth the notion of dog eat dog and every person for himself, which as noted, is not always the case.

Foucault’s theory on power structures is a potent one, and very plausible in terms of understanding the intertwining of power and knowledge, and how having a thorough and extensive comprehension of something when communicating with others in society is both critical and important. As with all philosophers, there are pros and cons to their perspectives on certain subjects and Foucault is no different in this regard.

Works Cited

  • Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism. Class Handout/PDF, 1977.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. reprint. Pantheon Books, 1991. Print.
  • Gutting, Gary. “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 22 May 2013. Web. 5 May 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/#4.4.
  • Pitsoe, Victor, and Moeketsi Letseka. “Foucault’s Discourse and Power: Implications for Instructionist Classroom Management.” Open Journal of Philosophy 3.1 (2013): 23-28. Web. 2 May 2016. http://file.scirp.org/pdf/OJPP_2013020811451567.pdf.
  • Panneerselvam, S. “A Critique Of Foucault’s Power And Knowledge.” Indian Philosophical Quarterly XXXVII.1&2 (2000): 13-28. Web. 6 May 2016. http://www.unipune.ac.in/snc/cssh/ipq/english/IPQ/26-30%20volumes/27-1&2/27-1&2-2.pdf.
  • Woermann, Minka. “Interpreting Foucault: an evaluation of a Foucaldian critique of education.” South African Journal of Education 32 (2012): 111-120. Web. 5 May 2016. http://www.scielo.org.za/pdf/saje/v32n1/v32n1a09.pdf.

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