Michael Foucault, Disciplinary power and WE!

“Power is not an institution and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attribute to a complex strategical situation in a particular society”-Michael Foucault

Imagine how utopic life would have been, had there been no ‘play’ of power! Power and power relations constitute an integral part of our everyday life. Be it political, personal, social or economic sphere – power is all over. If we look at the historical narratives that bear witnesses to our past, they are also filled with stories of power relations exercised at individual as well as organizational level.

Now, what is power? In its simplest sense, it is the ability to influence or regulate the behavior of others.  It is exercised by the powerful individuals to regulate/ control the behavior of subordinates. That some people powerful and have the capacity to control the lives of others is the most intense fact of human existence. Power and power relationships are two things that have always been a part of any debate in social science, and they have been explored in various disciplines.  A number of “structuralist” and “post-structuralist” thinkers such as like Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Michael Foucault, and Jacques Derrida have analyzed power and its function in different contexts, drawing inputs from sociology and human psychology.  Among all scholars, who have contributed enormously to this field of discourse, Michael Foucault’s writings seem extremely influential in shaping the understanding of power. The contemporary relevance of his thoughts on “disciplinary power” is immense, and they seem to have a close resemblance to situations that we face in our everyday life.

Michael Foucault

Before delving deep into what Foucault says about power, let’s know a few things about him. Michel Foucault was born in 1926 in France. He was French historian, philosopher and social theorist whose writings has had a strong influence on various disciplines. The History of Madness, The Birth of Clinic, The Order of Things, Madness and Civilization, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality are some of the major books published by Foucault. The central point of discussion in majority of his writings is power in relation to socio-political contexts, and how power and knowledge have been used in society to develop various discourses and control.

Foucault on Power/Disciplinary power

According to Foucault, power is diffuse rather than concentrated. He offers a relational concept of power where different individuals/agents occupy a precise function in system of power and tactical arrangement allow power to be applied. Defining power Foucault says “power is never something that someone possess, anymore that is that emanates from someone. Power does not belong to anyone or even to a group; there is only power  because there are dispensations, relays, networks, reciprocal supports, differences of potential discrepancies etc. it is in this system of differences, which have to be analyzed, that power can start to function( 2006). The definition clearly reveals the relational aspect power. Power is not centralized. It is not confined to a ‘center’. It is diffused and embodied in discourses. Rather than executed by a central agent, power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge and truth. It is neither and agency nor a structure.

In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison published in 1975, Foucault talks about disciplinary power – a concept of power which is different from sovereign exercise of power discussed in his previous writings. Unlike the sovereign exercise of power that was used in feudal states to control people, the disciplinary power is a new form of power that  was used Prisons, schools and mental hospitals – the administrative systems and social services created in 18th century Europe.  It is a modern form of power that controls us by “surveillance” and “gaze”.

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault uses the metaphor of “panopticon” to discuss how disciplinary power functions in the modern society. Panopticon is an architectural design of a building designed by Jeremy Bentham – an 18th century philosopher and social theorists for prisons, insane asylums, schools, hospital.  The idea behind his panopticon is to control all the inmates of a building without using any physical power or violent means, and putting them under constant observation. The panopticon model used in prisons stands for powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion, which is achieved through the constant observation of prisoner/people, each separated from the other having no interaction and communication among each other. This modern form of control allows a single watchman to see inside each cell from a high central tower unseen by the prisoners. Such continued surveillance by the guard acts as control mechanism spreading a sense of fear among the prisoners who are conscious of being monitored all time. Such constant awareness of being controlled compel them control their behavior. Although, this blueprint of prison by Bentham’s was never adopted completely for prisoners, for Foucault it becomes a metaphor to explore the power relations in society where such disciplinary practices are actually used for regulation and docility.

Disciplinary Power and the Current Context

So far, we see that disciplinary power works through surveillance and panoptic discipline that compel human beings to conform to established /dominant rules.  The constant awareness of observation make people conform to disciplinary practices; we are afraid of breaking rules because we know that we are being monitored all time.

Michael Foucault argument that disciplinary power works that discipline creates “docile bodies” which is ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age is quiet relevant in today’s context.

Let’s take an example from our everyday life and see how disciplinary power works. If we look back and recollect our school days, we can easily relate how disciplinary power works. Conformity to disciplinary power is quite obvious in schools that control students by adhering to disciplinary mechanisms. From the time moment we get inside our school campus, we become conscious of the fact we need to follow certain codes of conduct and behave accordingly. Starting from the uniform we wear to the way we behave – everything is set in order and we are being watched.  We get enclosed within a classroom where we seat facing our teacher. We are not supposed exhibit any irregular conduct or move out of the class, but to sit silently until our teacher grants us a break or the class is dismissed.  In fact, we don’t utter a word unless we are told to speak.  The very thought of being monitored compel us to internalize the norms/rules set up by the school authority and thereby by exhibit desired behavior. Because, if we violate any norms set by the school authority, we should be ready to faces consequences.  Any deviation from these established rules or violation of discipline would lead to punishment. This is exactly what Foucault says – that we unconsciously subscribe our body to these disciplinary practices and turn ourselves into docile bodies that can be easily controlled.

It has already been mentioned that disciplinary power no longer need the force of violence to control people. People on whom disciplinary power is exercised, they learn to discipline themselves and behave as expected ways. However, to construct disciplinary /docile bodies, disciplinary institutions like schools must be able to constantly observe and record the bodies they control, and ensure they internalize these norms. Disciplinary power molds human bodies into the correct/ desired form.

Let’s take another example – an example of our work place where behavior is disciplined in such a way that any deviation from such disciplinary behavior is followed by adverse consequences. The very movement we swipe in and get inside our workplace, we become conscious of the fact that we are being watched; we exhibit desired behavior. As and when the day starts, we conform to certain predetermined set of practices – such as completing daily tasks, meeting deadlines, getting work done etc. There are hardly any reminders; we know our daily deliverables. Rules are not imposed, yet we make sure we follow them, and also enforce others to follow the same.  The above-mentioned behavioral traits within an organization are expected behavior set by an organization. This disciplined behavior is considered as normal behavior within an organization, and deviation from such normality is usually followed by consequences such as warning, PIP (Performance Improvement Pool) or loss of job.

Now, how does disciplinary power work in school and business organizations? As Foucault says, it works through networks, relays, and reciprocal supports. In school, it works through the network and reciprocal support between principal and associate teachers; and in a business organization, it works through layers of hierarchy and the network of association between different teams and levels.

Now, is disciplinary power is negative term because it represses or controls? Well, we cannot condemn this power as something bad or negative. Here again, I would like to quote Foucault, according to whom power is the transformative capacity – the ability of an individual (organization in this context) to influence the actions of subordinates to realize certain goals. Disciplinary power is important for the modern society to be operative; for schools to control students; for organizations to run businesses. As against what most people perceive of power – that it is predominantly evil and repressive, Foucault points out that power is the ability to bring social change; it is a productive force.

Now, another noticeable aspect associated with power is that it is always followed by resistance; where there is power, there is always resistance. Power is a type of discourse that produces both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic subject positions; and resistance always come from the counter-hegemonic forces. Now, if we go back to the previous example of work place, we notice that there are times when employees raise their concerns against certain organizational processes/policies put in place by management. This is what we call resistance – resistance that comes from those on whom power is exercised; the counter- hegemonic forces. However, power and resistance are co-relative terms; resistance is also a kind of power. But, based on the perspective from which power relation is judged, we call it either resistance or power.

Coming back to disciplinary power where no physical force is involved, resistance is not overt. This is because people conform to this power, and it becomes a habit. Here, disciplinary power seems to resemble what Lousi Althusser calls ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) – one of the tools used by a state to control its citizens. Power exercised via ISA makes the functioning of power appear so normal that any individual is hardly aware that he/she is being controlled. Ideological State Apparatuses are seen being used in school, church, trade unions and media that control the society and individuals indirectly.

To conclude – Michael Foucault writings may sound theoretical to many of us. But when we read them carefully and pause for a while, we can easily find the connection; and realize that his writings talk about nothing but what we encounter in our everyday life. They are very much into realism!


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth Of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. Psychiatric Power.Ed.by Jacques Lagrange.Trans.by Graham Burchell. Hound mills: Palgrave Macmillans, 2006.

***  A published piece.