Foucault, Michel Essay

Michel Foucault (1926–84) was a French philosopher who made significant contributions to the academic discourses of continental philosophy, social theory, and the history of ideas, literary criticism, and criminology. Additionally, Foucault’s arguments have greatly informed significant debates in areas such as history, sociology, political theory, feminism, linguistics, cultural studies, and psychoanalysis. His 1975 book Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, translated and first published in English in 1977 as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is a historical narrative of the micropower struggles that developed in Western society from the start of the 18th century and focuses especially on social institutions such as prisons and schools.

In Foucault’s study, the prison is essentially a prototypical model of the modern, disciplinary society. Accordingly, the emergence of the prison that Foucault historically narrates in his study functions at the level of the institution as a microcosm of such a modern, disciplinary society. Foucault outlined and characterized a shift in historical epochs, a transformation from a sovereign society to a disciplinary society, in his work on the prison. Through the 1970s and 1980s, his study strongly influenced social control theories in a number of Western countries. Among Foucault’s most significant contributions were his relentless efforts to understand and document the historically contingent but, nonetheless, normalizing techniques of power, social control, and domination that had become characteristic of European and North American culture.

Discipline and Punish

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is not simply a historical treatment of punishment. The study represents a structural analysis of power, which in its purely modern form Foucault designates as “discipline.” It aims to describe how domination is achieved and the way individuals are socially constructed in the modern world. Foucault begins his study from a penal history point of view, which helps bring into light his study’s theme of the way repressive forms of governance, such as execution, dissolved over time into new, milder reforming techniques represented in the birth of the prison. He finds that gentler forms of control such as inspection, discipline, and “normalization” have come to take the place of repressive violence in strategies of law and government. In such fashion, the prison is conceptualized by Foucault as epitomizing all of the former social forms, not because of its institutional structure but rather because it is a place where modern techniques of control are commenced in full capacity. Consequently, a close analysis of the machinery of imprisonment, and the knowledge on which it is based, forms the basis for a general anatomy of modern form of power and control. It is an approach to imprisonment that conceives it exclusively as a form of control.

Discipline and Punish revolutionized the study of crime and punishment, particularly in Foucault’s argument that criminology is a discourse/ practice that in a sense creates the category of criminality. This category is then imposed punitively on behaviors that formerly were viewed as socially legitimate or simply ignored as bizarre. Foucault helps sociologists view deviance in terms of the experiences and meanings that construct it. Foucault’s postmodern theory of discipline stresses the inherent resistances that people mount against their labeling and differential treatment. He uses cultural and historical data in a novel way to assemble a theory of social control that neglects neither aggregate nor microlevel phenomena.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault examined the prison as generating the conditions for modes of productive surveillance and inventive control. Foucault found that the expansion of the disciplinary powers had enabled the psychiatric control of the underclass in his earlier study Madness and Civilization. He argued that the disciplinary power of prisons and psychiatric institutions resides in the applications of technical knowledge (including forensic psychiatry and epidemiology) to justice. In such cases, the aims of these scientific truths are commenced in the normative practices of objectification, classification, and quantification. Foucault found that it is not so much the actual danger that the individual represents, as much as his/her embodied difference in psychiatric and penal settings.

For instance, governments may attempt to regulate such a difference through sustained intervention practices (including prescription drug therapy) in times of confinement. These practices are deemed appropriate given the existing medical knowledge of modern society. Foucault finds that such knowledge, as an extension of power engaging certain scientific truths, is just. Foucault’s critique of modern society in part rests on the idea that mental illness is not a phenomenon that can be historically situated. In relation to the institutionalization of potentially dangerous individuals, imprisonment is not justified unless a crime has been committed. According to Foucault, the formation of the psychiatric institution and its normative and prescriptive, purportedly therapeutic value was an attempt to justify the deprivation of an individual’s freedom, which was formally administered in the imposition of punishment.

Foucault’s Contributions to Social Control Theory and Criminal Justice Ethics

Foucault’s critiques of institutions, such as psychiatric and penal institutions, viewed confinement of the noncriminal as a method of controlling, or isolating, the socially undesirable individual. In line with other justice systems, Foucault argued that institutionalization was a means of policing public hygiene, or better, eliminating a society of difference. Foucault argued that the involuntary confinement of the mentally ill and dangerous productively and inventively advanced the state’s regime of power in the name of the privileged science of truth. The historically informed social theory of Foucault was instrumental in developing a critique of the psychiatric institution, medical justice, and the means by which society disciplines difference. Foucault intended to provide an account of the various, yet similar, roles institutions assume in society. In doing so, he systematically traced the development of social control, as linked to science or scientific truths, to demonstrate the widening of disciplinary practices in contemporary society. The function of law, psychiatry, and confinement, as differing modes of societal surveillance, is to attain control.

Foucault argued that modern and inventive mechanisms of disciplinary control originated in discourse itself. Discursive techniques of power activated by language displaced the rational, reasonable, self-same subject of the early modern world. Influenced by the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault commenced his “genealogical” attempt to provide specific institutional support for the historical transformation of modes of domination and control, conveyed through discourse, with the publications of his studies such as Discipline and Punish. Societal institutions of the modern world such as the prison, the school, the hospital, the workplace, and the military were all noteworthy for their complicity in promoting the production of docile bodies through novel mechanisms of control. Established through technologically evolving aspects of everyday life, the functioning of these social structures demonstrated how power could be efficiently inserted into discourse itself. Foucault’s theories and qualitative methods entailing techniques of power and knowledge, employed to interrogate subjects and bring out their deeply held secrets, proved to be an invaluable source of information for social institutions aiming to boost the predictability and regulation of non-normative behavior. Such theories and methods lent themselves to the development of sociological and criminological studies of deviance.

As Foucault described, advances in the social and natural sciences, or what he described in the context of the human sciences earlier in his career, were critical to the task of acquiring such data. He argued that the transformation of disciplinary techniques in modern society was driven by the desire for more effective punishment and disciplinary control. Foucault found that discourse itself is the disciplinary mechanism in which docile bodies are created and bodies of utility are stabilized. In this manner, governance is linked to disciplinary forms of power.

Where Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization (1964) is mostly concerned with psychiatry and the mentally ill, and the study Discipline and Punish with penal institutions and the life of the prisoner, a social control theory is evident at their intersection. There is significant overlapping in these two studies, with their interrelatedness representing an aggregate knowledge of the policing of difference in modern society. These contributions of Foucault to social control theory characterize how justice is employed in the modern world at the intersections of law and psychiatry, criminal justice and mental health. Foucault found that it was the intervention of psychiatry into law that sanctioned, produced, and legitimatized such a causal link between insanity and crime. In the wake of psychiatry’s participation with the law, the idea of dangerous individuals emerged in full. Foucault documented that psychiatrists historically had often regarded themselves as civil servants concerned with public hygiene. Toward this goal, such an idea as the dangerous individual found itself in legislation. Foucault highlights how people were confined in this new, modern historical epoch of disciplinary institutions, because they had been labeled, depicted, or stereotyped as dangerous, for reasons not entirely owing to criminal behavior. Foucault argued that police and psychiatry are social institutions designed to react to danger in a modern world. Psychiatry can become social police in such context, rather than public hygienists. Such a theory of modern disciplinary society is evident in other areas of Foucault’s body of work and is a theme of his scholarship.

Foucault argued that the emergence of modern society occurred in full in the developing of connections between the objectivity of legislation and discipline’s normalizing effects. In such a reliance on law and order were developed mechanisms of political control derived from practices of judgment. It is in such a sense that Foucault relates governance to disciplinary forms of power. Modern administrative and political environments were intended to characterize a full emergence of the disciplines that rested on the normative judgment associated with the disciplinary knowledge. Foucault’s arguments characterizing the categorization and repression of deviants, such as the mentally ill and the criminal, as based on somewhat haphazard assumptions concerning knowledge and normative discourse have proved especially significant for constitutive legal theory. The applications of Foucault’s work in law, criminology, and social justice have been substantial. Foucault’s postmodern theory has been linked to a great deal of contemporary social science beyond social control theories. Examples of his postmodern influence are seen in areas such as cultural and discourse analysis and the study of sexuality, despite Discipline and Punish representing a direct, empirical contribution to contemporary social science.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A. and Dragan Milovanovic, eds. Postmodernist and Post-Structuralist Theories of Crime. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011.
  2. Arrigo, Bruce A., Dragan Milovanovic, and Robert Carl Schehr. The French Connection in Criminology: Rediscovering Crime, Law, and Social Change. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
  3. Arrigo, Bruce A. and Christopher R. Williams, ed. Philosophy, Crime, and Criminology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  4. Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford Press, 1991.
  5. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977.
  6. Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. New York: The New Press, 1998.
  7. Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
  8. Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. New York: Vintage, 1980.
  9. Henry, Stuart and Dragan Milovanovic. Constitutive Criminology: Beyond Postmodernism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
  10. Pavlich, George. Critique and Radical Discourses on Crime. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Dartmouth, 2000.
  11. Tadros, Victor. “Between Governance and Discipline: The Law and Michel Foucault.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, v.18/1 (1998).
  12. Williams, Christopher R. and Bruce A. Arrigo. Theory, Justice, and Social Change: Theoretical Integrations and Critical Applications. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2004.

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