Michel Foucault portrait

Who was Foucault?

French philosopher (1926 – 1984) born into an  upper-middle-class family,  educated at the Lycée Henri-IV, at the École Normale Supérieure where tutors included Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser, and at the University of Paris Sorbonne gaining degrees in philosophy and psychology. Worked as a cultural diplomat then lecturer at University of Tunis and university of Paris VIII. Active in left-wing groups campaigning against racism, human rights abuses and penal reform. Published The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976). Died in Paris of neurological problems compounded by HIV/AIDS.

Why does Foucault matter?

I’m no Foucauldian expert and there’s plenty of critiques of Foucault’s approaches and work online, but I can identify with many of his ideas around social and institutional power. I acknowledge his views are dated and best read in context of his time and place – but the same can be said for anyone whose work has lasted beyond their lifetime. If you’re of a critical persuasion, have an interpretivist rather than positivist world view or are interested in the constructed elements of social reality, Michel Foucault is worth investigation.  His primary writings were in the areas of

  • crime and punishment,
  • madness and the asylum,
  • sexuality

Foucault in one sentence

Foucault presented a conception of coercive power related to social and institutional discourse which individuals appear to willingly conform to through their adoption of daily practices and routines described as ‘technologies of the self’

Key Concepts

‘Biopower’ was used by Foucault in reference to both structure and agency. It described systems of social control whereby power was distributed through social discourse (Structures) and the daily practices and routines of individuals (Agency). Previously, the church and state (judiciary, military etc) were seen as imposing domination and control through concepts like original sin and interventions via the legislature, while cultural custom and convention, social taboos, and censorship all had a part in enforcing compliance. The Enlightenment bestowed science with the verification of knowledge and truth but Foucault claimed mechanisms of control were not objectively coercive but subjectively discursive – social controls were replicated and reinforced through individual compliance with perceived attitude and behavioural norms. Foucault claimed power in all its forms (cultural, political, economic, religious etc) was shaped by institutions such as schools (e.g. educational discourse, national curriculum), hospitals (medical discourse, medical models etc), prisons (discourses of crime and punishment), and sexuality (the expectations of gender and its consequences for family life, marriage, parenthood etc). These controls over individuals were embedded and threaded through their personal habits and practice. Conformity to discursive norms constitute processes of subjugation which are voluntary albeit unconscious. Most individuals re unaware of the structured nature of social and cultural controls, perceiving them uncritically as normalities.

Power is everywhere – rather than imposed in a top-down structure, Foucault suggested power should be seen as bottom-up with expectations of ‘norms’ existing in both large and small interactions of everyday life. Power is not repressive. It is productive of discourse for example in medicine and psychiatry, the legislature and judicial systems, and in education. Discursive knowledge is constructed knowledge for example the existence of widespread beliefs around sex and gender as innate and natural are in fact constructed. A baby’s genitalia are used to determine their sex yet there is growing evidence the given category does not always align with internal character and personality.

Foucault describes the medical categories of normality and deviance as forms of social control (Birth of the Clinic, 1975). Here the supporting medical science shows power producing rather than repressing knowledge e.g. the it produced the medical model where individual bodies/minds are at fault and need to be restored to what is perceived as ‘normal. This contrasts with the ‘social’ model developed by those with disabilities who objected to their differently-abled bodies being stigmatised.  The social model claims the built environment discriminates against the differently-abled and disabling features such as steps into public buildings should be adapted with ramps or lifts being provided as well. This has led to tokenism. Lifts which are not big enough for large electric wheelchairs or unable to accommodate a carer. Lifts with controls which cannot be accessed. Ramps which are too steep or have twists and turns which are unnavigable to individuals in wheelchairs who are travelling alone.

One fundamental consequence of a Foucauldian view is knowledge cannot be seen as neutral; instead it always reflects the ambitions of the dominant sections of society. Also the distribution of discourse via the media becomes a site of great power (e.g. the Murdoch empire) as do the people involved in the processes of institutional decision making. Foucault’s writings on power remain relevant to this day as do the mechanisms he described for replicating and reiterating the processes whereby power remains a dominant shaper of social reality.

Examining Gaze and the Panoptican; the processes of selfregulation ensures conformity at both cognitive and corporeal levels. Regulation occurs through ‘Technologies of the Self’ which are the processes of self-surveillance and self-discipline through which citizens exercise control over their passive and ‘docile bodies’ . These bodies then become sites of oppression. For Foucault, Jeremy Bentham’s vision of the Panoptican was the ultimate surveillance and self-regulation tool. From the central tower, one person could watch over an entire prison population but the prisoners never knew if they were being observed. Hence, they self-policed and adjusted their behaviour to the prison’s expectations as if they were being watched all the time.

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A criticism of Foucault is his work is overly abstract with insufficient attention to historical analysis or examples supporting his claims. He has also been critiqued for ignoring gender disparities, in particular the position of women, for being over fixated on a limited view of power, and being unable to deal with challenges or criticism. He writes about power as though it were external and objective rather than a conception and gives it humanistic qualities.

“Its [power] success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (Foucault 1980a:86)

” … power can retreat here, re-organize its forces, invest itself elsewhere … and so the battle continues” (Foucault 1980b:56).

Foucault’s views on social construction appear to fit within a postmodern paradigm but he consistently denied any attempts to align him with post structuralist or postmodernist theory.

Relevance of Foucault to my research

It’s easy to see conflicting discourse around Technology Enhanced Learning; the drivers for adoption and subsequent usage and resistance. Examples include dominant discourse making rhetorical promises of increased enhancement, efficiency and decreased costs while the reality of increased admin and technical staff,  systems which don’t connect to each other and lack of research evidence to show TEL improves student learning is marginalises as is staff resistance. Business interests are clear; Companies promote uncritical use (Blackboard, Canvas, Microsoft etc) while critical approaches are in the minority (Neil Selwyn, Donna Laclos, Audrey Watters, Bonnie Stewart, Sian Bayne etc) to be continued…  

Reflections on Foucault

Reflecting on society through a Foucauldian lens, it’s not difficult to identify areas which fit his theories. While the examples below might be critiqued as being too generic or unsupported, they show the existence of conflicting discursive positions.  Reflections only, they lack citations and represent my own views rather than those of any team or institution I’m associated with.

Most individuals are aware of gender norms of appearance, in particular dress codes and body shape. The media has constructed pressure on individuals to conform or aspire to discursively produced, but often unrealistic, identities. This manipulation of desire can clearly be seen in the marketing and advertising industries which adopt discursive disguises such as effective parenting, enhanced attraction and advantageous, higher status lifestyles through which to sell not only products but to privilege certain ideas and values over others.

Challenges to core structural changes – such as feminism and postmodernism – are clear. Rather than make their lives more fulfilling and authentic, feminism has increased social and cultural pressure on women to achieve. Women in 2018 are expected to be wives and mothers with careers while conforming to a prescribed body image and identity.  Postmodernism, while having clear fault lines and weaknesses,  was successful in exposing structured inequalities and teaching students to deconstruct and ‘read between the lines’. Critical discourse analysis is a useful skill but is taught less often as is critical reflective questioning. In 2018 positivist STEM subjects are being privileged over the arts and humanities, people with disabilities are having their hard-won benefits and Independence taken away while ‘big data’ has become the new industry standard. One of many problems is the collection and analysis of data (e.g. learning analytics) is not being aligned with essential research skills and methodologies. The risk is quantitative data sets being analysed without essential contextual information and decisions made about people’s futures without understanding the fuller picture.

The government has a discourse of citizens being better off in work than on benefits but fails to include the detail of that work which is often low paid, monotonous, unsocial and hard. The detail is missing and quantity privileged over quality.

Power is capable of manipulating perceived resistance by changing its guise and in doing so defeat any attempts at challenge.  For example, public health intentions are diluted and in places destroyed by actions condoned by those whose role is to protect the citizens of the future.

  • Increased rate of child obesity are encouraged by supermarkets piled ceiling high with chocolate and still having rows of sweets at checkouts. If the government were serious about reducing obesity it could tackle the issue of high fat and sugar in processed food rather than give the food manufacturers responsibility for public health. As it is, there was no agreement on food labeling. This resulted in different – arguable more confusing – systems. Today information has often been reduced to tiny print on the underside of packaging where it can’t easily be seen, and even being printed on the packaging fold where it is effectively invisible.
  • The government issues recommendations for maximum amounts of alcohol consumption per week. Supermarkets promote giant multipack offers which bring down the price of individual cans or bottles. Advertisements continue to associate alcohol with quality lifestyles. Despite the evidence alcohol has a negative effect on motor and cognitive co-ordination, the government refuses to ban drink driving, condoning a prescribed level of alcohol in the bloodstream instead and in a mismatch of gigantic proportions,  permitted garages to be licenced to sell alcohol.
  • Research evidence shows the proliferation of high street betting shops, in particular in areas of economic deprivation, is related to an increase in problem gambling yet the government recently refused to drop the fixed betting price to £2 as requested and setting it at £50 instead. For those on fixed incomes this is no deterrent at all.
  • The media promotes expensive lifestyles enjoyed by fit, thin bodies while levels of poverty are rising, children are arriving at school unfed and hungry. The cheapest food is often the most processed, with high levels of fat and sugar and provided in ready-meal or take-away form. Parents are blamed for making poor food choices as if it were that simple to learn to cook and make the necessary changes. Children (and parents) are being given too many mixed messages about diet and lifestyle.
  • Views on the purpose of higher education have shifted from education for the public good with higher order thinking skills like critical, Scocratic questioning and reflective practice, to an employability discourse whereby graduates are seen as having advantages in the job market. However, graduates can be found in non-graduate jobs while employers are reported as saying many graduates do not have the basic skills they need from their employees. The system is broken but no one seems willing or able to admit or reconstruct it.
  • Widening participation policy has offered opportunities for students from non-traditional backgrounds to go to university. I am a WP student. However, HE has done little to support changes in student cohort. HEI are continually cutting funding to learning development and skills services which an increasing number of students need – while academics report students are arriving without adequate subject preparation at A level and being unprepared for the difference between school/college and university. WP is creating rather than solving problems.
  • Since the Dearing Report in 1997, HEI have invested in VLE and other digital technologies whose discourse offers rhetorical promise of greater efficiency, cost cutting and enhanced student learning. The reality is systems which don’t connect and increased numbers of administrative and technical support staff when there is still no research evidence to show technology makes any improvement to student outcomes.
  • The social, cultural and political impact of the Internet in 21st century, the positives and negatives of digital connections across time, place and device of choice is massive yet there is still no agreement or provision of coherent and relevant support for staff and students to develop a baseline of digital skills and literacies.


Foucault, Michel 1980a The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Vintage.
Foucault, Michel 1980b Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Colin Gordon, ed. Brighton: Harvester.

Further resources available online

Technologies of the Self transcript from lectures at Vermont University, October 1982 Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.”, edited by Luther H. MartinHuck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton, pp. 16-49. Univ. of Massachusets Press, 1988.

Technologies of the self: a seminar with Michel Foucault edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (1988)