Sociological Theorists: Michel Foucault

By | February 10, 2016

Where to start and end with Michel Foucault, a true innovator? This blog is another toe dipped into the water. Foucault, let’s recognize at the outset, rejected the notion that history unfolds in a linear and unidirectional fashion. In what I will here insist we should call his ‘grand narrative’ at the end of grand narratives, he emphasized discontinuity and incoherence rather than continuity and coherence. He decried sociologies of origins and development and focused instead on social realities and phenomena at discrete points of time. He was especially drawn to the analysis of the ‘internal contradictions’ and the ruptures, reversals and hiccups that characterize the history of humankind.

A special source of interest was the changing nature of governmentalities, that is, the practices and techniques by means of which control is exercised over people. Pivotal here is the control exercised by states over their citizenries. Foucault argued that such control was exercised by agencies outside of the state, extending to sociology and its companion social sciences. Indeed, there is a clear sense in which people govern themselves.

In Discipline and Punish Foucault examined the prison system between 1757 and the 1830s. One form of punishment was – hiccup-by-hiccup – displaced by another. Torture, often practiced in public settings, was replaced by non-public and non-publicized control by prison ‘rule-following’ in what was commonly interpreted as a humane and progressive transition. For Foucault, however, this new form of punishment promised and delivered greater and more binding control. It became possible to do in private what had not been possible in public, notably, to punish more people more discretely over a longer period.

How were prison rules underwritten? Foucault famously drew on Bentham’s notion of the panopticon. Consider a prison constructed with a central tower occupied by prison officers and surrounded by a circular arrangement of cells. This would allow for a system of continuous surveillance. Prisoners would feel under permanent observation from the tower whether they were actually being watched or not: hence Foucault’s concept of ‘the gaze’. Prisoners would in effect control themselves. In another context, women on the street at night typically feel troubled by a ‘male gaze’ whether or not any men are actually in the vicinity. The panopticon is at the core of what Foucault called the disciplinary society. The panopticon, Ritzer maintains in his Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots (which I draw on here), is a specific example of hierarchical power: the superordinates construct the panopticon, the subordinates are its ‘inmates’. What disciplinary power also does is afford ‘normalizing judgements’. What does this mean? Those with power can determine what is normal (and acceptable) and abnormal (and unacceptable).

If the disciplinary society has its roots in the prison system, it has also ‘swarmed’ out and into other aspects of society. More and more of our institutions – schools, hospitals – have come to resemble prisons (there are parallels with Goffman’s ‘total institutions’ here). However, Foucault also emphasized the constant oppositional testing of hierarchical power. This is part and parcel of what he termed the ‘microphysics of power’. In Madness and Civilization he built on these foundations, again stressing that while psychiatrists make occasional determinate judgements, patients themselves can and do judge themselves continuously.

And on sex? Well, Foucault maintained that the insistent, uncompromising Victorian repression of sexuality led, paradoxically, to a preoccupation with it. Witness the fascination with (the evils of) masturbation. I cannot resist a quick digression! Victorian physicians held that epilepsy was caused by persistent masturbation. They prescribed bromide because it dampened sexual impulses, and it just happened to be the first effective anticonvulsant! One more case study: in mid-19th century, Dr Langdon Down noticed that a bevy of female patients consulting him in his out-patient clinic at the London Hospital with nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting etc worked at the same local sewing factory. His deduction:? Not that they were working long hours closeted in a poorly ventilated Dickensian hell-hole, but that they were becoming over-excited (masturbating) whilst working treadle sewing machines. On balance, he opted not to recommend genital surgery, but it was a close-run thing.

Foucault’s take on sex in modernity? He saw a different kind of (disciplinary) control in post-Victorian times. Qualifying 20th century notions of progression and emancipation, he accented: (a) a novel focus on the individual and his/her body, plus an expectation of/requirement for self-control; and (b) a no less novel focusing on the regulation of populations ‘as a whole’, legitimized through notions of population growth, health, life expectancy and so on. New and wider-reaching systems of surveillance and control replaced more primitive and abrasive, but more circumscribed, predecessors.

I began by suggesting that Foucault was a genuine one-off theorist. In my view a number of positives accrue from his theories. First, he rightly documented post-Hobbesian and ‘post-sovereignty’ modes of rule or governance. His accounts of the real-life, diffuse operations of power are subtle and instructive. With his early concept of ‘technologies of the self’, for example, he showed how smokers, the sedentary and users of alcohol and other drugs feel guilt and police themselves (they might now even accept deferral for healthcare). Technologies of the self imply governmentality, or rule via a family of ‘gazes’.

And the negatives? For me at least there are several. Foucault’s post-structuralism/postmodernism leads him into what Habermas calls a ‘performative contradiction’. Foucault does indeed promote a grand narrative at the end of grand narratives. His disguised relativism – involving ‘incommensurable’ successive governmentalities – is ultimately self-refuting. There is no way that an argument ‘for’ relativism can be other than non-relativistic. Moreover, as Habermas contends, post-structuralist/postmodernist relativistic stances are neo-conservative in that they allow for no rationally compelling opposition to the status quo.

Less philosophically and more sociologically, I would suggest that Foucault is stronger on how power works than on why. Foucauldian ‘power’ is often contrasted with the idea of ‘domination’ promulgated by conflict, Marxian and critical theory. But domination goes missing in Foucault’s writings. His notion of governmentality, for all its purchase, glosses over what people with capital and the power it purchases ‘do’ to those unable – largely due to what Archer calls their natal or ‘involuntary’ placement in society – to resist being exploited (via relations of class) or oppressed (via relations of state/command).

But there you go. Do read Foucault. In his later reincarnation he retraced his theoretical steps towards his former leftism.


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