Foucault argues that discipline is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behavior of social actors through subtle means. In contrast to the brute, sovereign force exercised by monarchs or lords, discipline works by organizing space (e.g. the way a prison or classroom is built), time (e.g. the set times you are expected to be at work each day), and everyday activities. Surveillance is also an integral part of disciplinary practices. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that modern society is a “disciplinary society,” meaning that power in our time is largely exercised through disciplinary means in a variety of institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, militaries, etc.).

Governmentality and Biopower

In his later work, Foucault coined the now influential concept of governmentality. According to Foucault, governmentality is the “art of governing,” not simply at the level of state politics, as we generally think of it, but the governing of a wide array of objects and persons such as entire populations at the most abstract level and one’s own desires and thoughts at a more micro level. Foucault was especially interested in how, in contemporary times, the governing of conduct was increasingly focused on the management of populations. Unlike disciplinary power aimed at the training of individual bodies, the management of populations relied on biopower, understood as the policies and procedures that manage births, deaths, reproduction, and health and illness within the larger social body.

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Reading Foucault is always fascinating, but rarely easy. Foucault’s work covers a wide range of institutions, historical periods, and themes, and his theories contain several difficult concepts. Luckily, there are some good introductory texts to help you make your way through. See, for example,

Sara Mills’ Michel Foucault, part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series:

and Gary Gutting’s blessedly brief Foucault: A Very Short Introduction:

To hear Foucault explain his argument in Discipline and Punish in his own words, check out the clips below:

Foucault challenges the idea that power is wielded by people or groups by way of ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination or coercion, seeing it instead as dispersed and pervasive. ‘Power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’ so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure (Foucault 1998: 63). Instead it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society, and which is in constant flux and negotiation. Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’:

‘Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1991).

These ‘general politics’ and ‘regimes of truth’ are the result of scientific discourse and institutions, and are reinforced (and redefined) constantly through the education system, the media, and the flux of political and economic ideologies. In this sense, the ‘battle for truth’ is not for some absolute truth that can be discovered and accepted, but is a battle about ‘the rules according to which the true and false are separated and specific effects of power are attached to the true’… a battle about ‘the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays’(Foucault, in Rabinow 1991). This is the inspiration for Hayward’s focus on power as boundaries that enable and constrain possibilities for action, and on people’s relative capacities to know and shape these boundaries (Hayward 1998).

Foucault is one of the few writers on power who recognise that power is not just a negative, coercive or repressive thing that forces us to do things against our wishes, but can also be a necessary, productive and positive force in society (Gaventa 2003: 2):

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