Michel Foucault Essay

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Michel Foucault was a French philosopher whose work has greatly influenced sociologists, particularly in the areas of crime and deviance, gender and sexuality, health and illness, organizational theory, and social welfare.

Foucault was born in Poitiers, France. He received his Doctorat es lettres in 1960 for Folie et de raison: Histoire de la folie a l’age classique, a history of mental illness that focused on the relationship between madness and reason (this would be published in English as Madness and Civilization in 1961). In 1966, his book Le Mots et les choses (published in English as The Order of Things) became a bestseller in France, launching Foucault to international prominence. In 1969 Foucault was elected to the College de France, where he became Professor and Chair of the History of Systems of Thought. Foucault published perhaps his most influential and overtly political book, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, in 1975 (translated into English as Discipline and Punish in 1977). Soon after, he began his multi-volume history of sexuality: Histoire de la sexualitee,1: la volonte de savoir was published in France in 1976, and is considered one of the founding texts in queer theory. The second and third volumes were translated into English shortly before Foucault’s death in 1984.

Themes In Foucault’s Work

Foucault once explained that the goal of his work was ”to create a history of the different modes by which . . . human beings are made subjects” (Foucault 1983: 208). The first way that Foucault’s work accomplishes this is through the lens of power-knowledge. The human sciences, Foucault argues, are disciplines in both senses: they are fields of expertise (i.e., in the sociological sense, they are ”professions”), but they also are implicated in a particularly insidious form of power, whereby man becomes ”the enslaved sovereign, the observed spectator” in the production of knowledge (Goldstein 1984). Heavily influenced by and indebted to Nietzsche, Foucault’s work critiques the will to knowledge inherent in the human endeavor to understand ourselves. Foucault’s illumination of the power-knowledge dynamic challenges linear narratives that regard advances in knowledge as part of a clear path to emancipation. As a result, Foucault is frequently characterized as a ”postmodern” thinker, although he rejected that description of his work.

A second theme in Foucault’s work is the concept of normalization, in which a field of study functions to enact a normative divide between one half of a binary (for example: healthy, sane, law-abiding, heterosexual) and the other (sick, insane, criminal, and homosexual). In his studies on human sexuality, for instance, Foucault contends that as the human sciences make sex an object of study, they serve to normalize various forms of sexual behavior, and thus produce and police the limits of our understanding of ourselves as sexual beings.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Foucault’s work for sociologists is disciplinary power. In Discipline and Punish Foucault famously described Bentham’s unrealized and yet enormously influential design for prisons, the Panopticon. In contrast to earlier forms of power, the Panopticon was organized so that a maximum number of people can be observed at a minimum cost. In its ideal form, all the prisoners require is the possibility of being watched in order to monitor their own behavior; that is, the Panopticon fashions subjects who internalize the force of an authoritative gaze. Panopticism is not limited to prisons and prisoners; according to Foucault, the kind of power exemplified in the Panopticon has been replicated across the modern world in all kinds of institutions.


Some of the most energetic critiques of Foucault have been directed at his account of power and agency. Foucault rejects what he calls an ”economic” model of power, whereby power is something that some ”have” and others do not. Instead, Foucault sees power as ”something which circulates … never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appraised as a commodity or piece of wealth” (Foucault 1980: 98). For Foucault, power is a field in which we are all implicated. Sangren (1995) argues this conception of power reduces people and institutions to mere objects (rather than subjects) in Foucault’s analyses; power thus assumes the status of an explanatory telos. For this reason, Foucault has been taken to task for either being too deterministic (and thus incapable of providing an account of resistance to power) or not deterministic enough.

The second critique asks if social science is even possible if we take Foucault’s work seriously. Foucault’s work challenges the very assumptions that make social science possible. For Foucault, the difficulty with the social sciences lies in the fact that modern ”man” comes to know himself both as the empirical object and the transcendental subject of knowledge. This leads Foucault to make one of his most controversial claims: that the era of ”man” is drawing to a close, and eventually man will disappear, ”like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1972: 387). As his supporters argue that his work helps pave the way for a new kind of social science, perhaps Foucault’s greatest influence may be felt in debates about the future of the discipline itself.


  1. Alford, C. (2000) What would it matter if everything Foucault said about prison were wrong? Discipline and Punish after twenty years. Theory and Society 29: 125—46.
  2. Berdayes, V. (2002) Traditional management theory as panoptic discourse: language and the constitution of somatic flows. Culture and Organization 8 (1): 35—49.
  3. Dreyfus, H. & Rabinow, P. (eds.) (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  4. Epstein, S. (2003) An incitement to discourse: sociology and the history of sexuality. Sociological Forum 18 (3): 485—502.
  5. Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. Pantheon, New York.
  6. Foucault,     (1980)    Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews   and   Other   Writings   1972—1977, ed. C. Gordon. Pantheon, New York.
  7. Foucault,    (1983)  The subject  and  power. In: Dreyfus, H. & Rabinow, P. (eds.), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 208—26.
  8. Goldstein, J. (1984) Foucault among the sociologists: the ”disciplines” and the history of the professions. History and Theory 23 (2): 170—92.
  9. Sangren, P. S. (1995) ”Power” against ideology: a critique of Foucaultian usage. Cultural Anthropology 10 (February): 3—40.

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