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The Foucault’s Notion of Power and Knowledge

The issues of power and knowledge have occupied a key position within sociological analysis. From the work of Weber the exercise of power and domination has been conceptualized within sociology as a constitutive feature of social life, although formulated in different and at times opposing ways, and from the work of Mannheim on ideology and knowledge, derived in part from a central principle of Marxist theory and analysis, sociologies of knowledge (of art, literature, science and even of sociology itself) have turn out to be commonplace.

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Likewise the conception of human beings as both subjects and objects, of action and of knowledge, has occupied an important position within sociological discourse, giving rise to a range of different analyses and to attempts to falsify a synthesis between competing perspectives to resolve the sociological dualism of subject and object into a unified theory of human agency. As will become evident, Foucault’s work on both the question of relations of power and knowledge plus on the modes of objectification through which human beings are made subjects takes a fundamentally different form to that which is to be found within the discourse of sociology.

Perhaps the most motivating contemporary theorist of power is Michel Foucault. Michel Foucault is often regarded as inaugurating a completely new discourse about power. In one sense, this asserts has some justification; in that Foucault’s studies of the development of social institutions and scientific discourses from the Renaissance to the present illustrate the workings of power in a powerful and unsettling manner. We can see that this is the case by considering the following claim that Foucault makes about the relation between power and truth:

“There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operate through and on the basis of this association. We are subject to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.”(Foucault, 1980, p. 93).

For Foucault social domination requires a particular form of truth, of “knowledge”, without which it could not exist. However equally importantly, a particular form of knowledge or truth can merely be conceived of in relation to a particular structure of domination.

Foucault has made several significant contributions to our understanding of the nature of power and domination. Foucault’s stress upon the particular interactions among human beings through which domination is accomplished marks an imperative corrective to theories of domination that are uttered at a group level. Further, his claim that power is both repressive and constituting is an important corrective to views of power that see it simply as a form of social domination.

“Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access to the body”. (Foucault, 1978, 142-143).

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In passages such as this one, Foucault attributes to power the structure of human agency–that is, the ability of performing actions with planned intent.

The connection between Foucault and institutions looks like an obvious one, but not since he wanted to make the institution the basic unit of analysis. On the contrary, Foucault situated institutions within the thin but all-entangling web of power relations. He did so unambiguously in Discipline and Punish, and he afterward read his later analysis between the lines of his earlier works. Power is the thin, inevitable film that covers all human interactions, whether inside institutions or out.

Institutional structures are saturated with sexual relations, economic relations, social relations, etc., and are always established of these power relations: relations between men and women, old and young, senior and junior, well-born and starved, colorless and colored, Occident and Orient.

Institutions are the means that power uses, and not the other way around, not sources or origins of power. The analysis of power is thus always more fine-grained than any analysis of classes, of states, or of institutions in their own terms would be. That is why for Foucault — and for all of the studies that follow here — the workings of power cannot be described from the standpoint of a master discipline, especially a perspective that would seek an origin for power, or take political power to be its initial or privileged form.

But we ought not to speak of power in the substantive, for there is no such thing. Instead, sets of “power relations” bathe the structures and edifices of human life, without power ever amounting to a thing or substance. It is not the very substance-and-subject of the historical process, like the Hegelian spirit; not the driving movement of contradictory social relations, as in Marx; not the unifying-gathering power that holds sway over all in Heidegger’s history of Being. Power is not one thing, but multiple and multiplied, scattered and disseminated.

This means that power is not concentrated at a central point of organization and domination. Power is not first of all the power of the sovereign. There is power over freedom, and action on the action of others, but this is a domination that traverses the fields of power, that operates variably in various relationships.

“In so far as power relations are an unequal and relatively stable relation of forces, it’s clear that this implies an above and a below, a difference of potentials.” (Foucault, 1980, 200-201).

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These potentials of power cannot be understood as brute force, though brutality is among their possible outcomes — as is seduction. Power relations are embedded in the very heart of human relationships, springing into being as soon as there are human beings. Power need not be harsh and abrasive or constrain narrowly and painfully; without overt violence it seeks its objectives in the more subtle, thus all the more effective, mode of “suasion,” of “conduction.” Power relations clear the ways for human behavior (conduire) to be subtly conducted (conduit), so that human actions are led as surely and as effortlessly through their channels as water through a “duct” (ducere).

Power has not always been conducive to such gentle persuasions; Foucault locates a shift in the workings of power between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The mode in which power was previously exercised could essentially be defined in terms of the sovereign-subject relation. But as power relations evolved new techniques and instruments incompatible with relations of sovereignty, power passed from the physical existence of the sovereign to a tightly knit grid of material coercions, to continuous and permanent systems of surveillance: disciplinary power.

Where sovereignty had held lord over the land and its bounty, disciplines now directed the eyes of power to bodies, allowing meticulous control over their operations by a strategy distinct from repression. Disciplines introduced the power of norm, and from that point forth power has demanded the productions of truth that its new techniques make possible. Power is no longer repressive but productive; does not say no but yes; does not prevent but invent; does not prohibit but promote; does not negate but affirm; does not annihilate but create. (Sheridan, 1990).

Where power takes the form of normalization it does not bend our virtues to a narrow Aristotelian mark, a pinpoint standard to be hit dead center. Normalization does impose homogeneity, but at the same time makes it possible to individualize, to measure gaps, to differentiate according to the norm whose function is to make differences intelligible as such. The norm has tolerances for a vast range of individuals, ample enough to promote diversity even as it constrains all deviations by its standard measure.

Normalization keeps watch over the excessive and the exceptional, delimiting the outcasts who threaten the order of normalcy. There are institutions to contain these outcasts and — if possible, this is at least the idea — to redirect their course to the latitudes of the normal. Institutions will form and well-adjust the young into supple, happy subjects of normalization. Institutions will reform the abnormal that stray beyond the limits.

But normalization proceeds by way of confession rather than repression. Far from abolishing the individual, power’s strategy is to produce legions of adapted, ambient individuals to move easily through the manifold channels of modern social relations. Patients are brought out of the dark chamber of the prison and endowed with the power to speak a language that experts understand. By wanting to know everything, all about the childhood, the personal history, the fantasies of the patient/inmate/believer, the “subject” is produced. And power produces its subjects in an unlimited, interminable subjectification, by exceedingly detailed personal dossiers, elaborate records of the individual life and personal history.

Foucault isolates the technologies of power/knowledge (he also refers to them as the “disciplines” or “disciplinary technologies”) not by writing an internal history of either the human sciences or prisons, but by analyzing the human sciences and penal law in relation to a matrix of nonscientific practices and discourses. It is significant in this light that Foucault locates the practices of power/knowledge at the “micro level” of society, for by this term he wants to refer to the diffuse, deep, and often hidden character of the practices he describes.

Furthermore, Foucault’s critique of the human sciences, which, he claims, are inseparable from disciplinary technologies, is not based on the assumption that they are false. Instead, he investigates the power of discourses that are regarded as true. But more than this he wants to describe how it was that certain questions became important, how an entire domain of true-or-false statements (that were taken as serious scientific hypotheses and played a role in public policy) were produced.

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Foucault does not question science or technology in terms of traditional epistemology, but in terms of their relations to other practices. In other words, he is not interested in assessing the correctness of scientific representations, but rather in analyzing the social effects of our taking them so seriously. One distinguishing feature of Foucault’s analyses is that he does not simply refer to background practices; instead he describes them in concrete detail.

First, he claims, power and knowledge are not external to one another. The knowledge that Foucault describes takes the form of technical control. Disciplinary technologies are not simply neutral instruments; they are inextricably linked to practices of domination. Second, the form of power exercised through such knowledge is not primarily repressive. It is productive. Indeed, productivity is the distinguishing feature of modern technologies of the body as compared to those of the sovereign power that preceded it. Modern technologies do not control the body by conquering it (as did the techniques of torture and execution under sovereign power), but by simultaneously rendering it more useful and docile. (Deacon, 2003).

Foucault locates specific events in the history of disciplinary technology that make the constitution of the individual possible: a new distribution of bodies in space brought about through the use of architectural designs and an overall analysis of spaces; a new coding of activity that regulates movements, imposes timetables, correlates body and gestures (writing) and body and object (rifle drills), i.e., a series of techniques for training the body.

In addition, techniques of surveillance, documentation, organization, administration, and examination emerge that increase the visibility of the individual and make possible an increasing normalization and standardization of the population. In particular, Foucault isolates techniques of examination such as comparison, measurement, differentiation, and classification that issue in normalizing judgments and thereby facilitate the discovery of the “abnormal ” The more abnormal the individual, the more individuated he or she is likely to become, and the more likely the abnormal type itself to become the subject of further scientific inquiry. (Deacon, 2003).

Thus, for Foucault, power is “power/knowledge.” Beyond the Baconian theme that power is applied knowledge, Foucault contends that knowledge is applied power. Knowledge is what power relations produce in order to spread and disseminate all the more effectively. Against the liberal notion that truth is something that will “out” (emerge as truth) if all distortive power is removed, Foucault holds that without power no “truth” could be brought forth at all. It is not as if, were power removed, the truth of an undistorted subject would be liberated. Quite the opposite: it is power that produces the science of subjectivity in order to produce subjects.

Consider Foucault’s analysis of “madness” (folie). When in the nineteenth century enlightened reformers declared the mad “mentally ill” and placed them in the hands of the physicians, medical professionals found it necessary to produce the science of mental illness. It was incumbent upon them to invent a knowledge parallel to the science of bodily illness, one that cures and normalizes behavior the same way that medical science cures and straightens broken limbs.

Foucault’s first study of sexuality shows the same pattern. Freud did not liberate sexuality from Victorian repression but rather, being himself a “new Victorian,” produced “sexuality” as the most intimate secret of behavior, as the hidden key to conduct, as the code that the physician reads in order to unlock the secrets of subjectivity for the patient. Scientia sexualis produces the patient as one who is to be liberated from sexual repression.

Psychiatrists and psychologists, criminal justice professionals and social workers, confessors and spiritual directors: all produce the knowledge they apply. They create the knowledge they require in order to fashion functioning, well-formed individuals. They do not discover but invent; they do not “liberate from” but “produce for.” (Smyth and Williamson, 2004).

But, for Foucault, the same agents of normalizing might also be instigators of critique. There is no formula for critique in Foucault’s varied texts, but from the genealogical perspective, critique must begin from an analytic of relations of power. It is those most immediately caught up in these fields of power who can best expose them for what they are. To expose the intelligible structure of a local power regime, to show how the differentials in power relations work from their microstructures to their larger effects, is to expose a regime to criticism, to assist resistances not yet imagined.

So, if a narrow claim to “expertise” allows one to operate machineries of domination, that person is also positioned to leak the secrets of the machine, even to calibrate its parts toward opposite functions. This is why Foucault was particularly interested in the historical emergence and recent ascendency of the “specific intellectual.” Unlike the “universal intellectual” who would speak as a master of truth and justice, the specific intellectual operates her intelligence where she is already situated, at the precise points of her own conditions of life or work.

The eternally recurring complaint is that criticism by intellectuals of any kind comes to naught. But Foucault was able to address that charge by providing a new conception of what the work of criticism is. Problems are not always already there — not as problems, anyway. It has taken the work of hundreds and thousands of people for problems like the prison, medical power, and the like to come onto the agenda. The problem is to the mature Foucault what the question is to Heidegger: not something to be taken for granted as an occasion to produce a solution, but something that must be wrested forth by the highest activity of thought.

But this is also how the post structural liberations of a specific intellectual can be turned to overtly political ends. In the all-extensive fields of power, the battle is always already under way. Where there is power, there is resistance or, better, points of resistance all through the power network, each one a special case. The specific intellectual will not suppose a sovereign point from which power exercises dominion or domination.

Foucault thought that the very idea of power-as-right serves to hide the fact of domination and all that domination effects. Therefore to give due weight to domination, to show its callousness, requires this new analytics of power to expose the domination with in lateral relations of power: “the multiple forms of subjugation that have a place and function within the social organism.” (Foucault, 1980, p.96).

That is where criticism of institutions comes in. Institutions are where power “becomes embodied in techniques, and equips itself with instruments and eventually even violent means of material intervention.” (Foucault, 1980, p.96). Criticism tries to flush out the thought that animates even the most stupid institutions so as to try to change both thought and institution, to demonstrate as much that it can be changed as that it must be:

“to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult”. (Foucault, 1988, p. 155).

For these specific resistances, a global theory of revolution proves not only unhelpful but in fact disabling. The logic of Marxism terrorizes every local action with this dilemma:

“either you attack on a local level, but you must be sure that it’s the weakest link, the one whose breakage will demolish the whole structure; or else, since the whole structure fails to collapse, the link wasn’t the weakest one, the adversary needed only to re-organize his front, and a reform has reabsorbed your attack.” (Foucault, 1980, p. 144).

The alternative strategy Foucault calls genealogy would combine erudite knowledge and a popular knowledge, in order that “a painstaking rediscovery of struggles together with the rude memory of their conflicts” (Foucault, 1988, p. 83) could be used purposefully today. Criticism can merely perform its work by recovering this popular knowledge: this “differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force to the harshness of everything surrounding it….” (Foucault, 1988, p. 82).

For Foucault, then, critique is always a planned exercise within networks of power (/knowledge). If power is all over the place as Foucault says it is, and if wherever there is power there are differentials of power, and if we have any care for those on the wrong end of inequalities, then critique calls us to an incessant vigilance. Although Foucault has himself been subject to critique, and a recurring objection from the modernist left is that his account of power leaves no way for truth to discover a clearing and no privileged ground for political (or ethical) intervention. (Smyth and Williamson, 2004).

Foucault in a number of his writings is concerned to set up the interconnectedness of power and knowledge and power and truth. He illustrates the ways in which knowledge does not only come out from scholarly study however is produced and maintained in circulation in societies through the work of numerous different institutions and practices. Consequently, he moves us away from seeing knowledge as objective and dispassionate towards a view which sees knowledge always working in the interests of particular groups.


Deacon, A. R. (2003). Fabricating Foucault: Rationalizing the Management of Individuals; Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1988). Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. New York: Routledge.

Sheridan, A. (1990). Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth; New York: Routledge.

Smyth, M. and Williamson, E. (2004). Researchers and Their “Subjects”: Ethics, Power, Knowledge, and Consent. Bristol: Policy Press.

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