Michel Foucault


Theorist Web Project


CCJ 5606 Fall 2000


Scott McGaha





Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Century. Discipline and Punish, written in 1975, gave people a new way to view the prison system.  In this book, Foucault describes the history of prisons.  He explained why prisons continue to be popular even when they are not successful.  Foucault believed prisons serve a greater purpose than just incarcerating criminals.  He described how prisons really enslave everyone to a life of government-imposed discipline.  Today, Foucault's theories are still popular in all areas of academia. 




            Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France in 1926.   As a young man Foucault studied history, philosophy and psychology.  Foucault started off his career as a French teacher at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.  He later taught French at the University of Warsaw and the University of Hamburg.  Foucault later was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Cermont-Ferrand.  In 1968, after two years of teaching in Tunisia, Foucault returned to France and directed the department of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII at Viennes.  In 1970, Foucault was elected to the College de France as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought.  In 1972, he joined with GIP (Group for Prison Information) to support prisoners’ rights.  Foucault died at the age of 57 in 1984 (Shumway, 1989).


            During his life, Foucault, published numerous books including Maldie Mentale et Personnalite in 1954, Histore de la Folie A L’age Classique in 1961, The Birth of the Clinic in 1963, The Order of Things in 1966, The Archaeology of Knowledge in 1969, Discipline and Punish in 1976, History of Sexuality, Volume 1 in 1976, Herculine Barbin in 1980, and The Use of Pleasure and The Care of Self both in 1984.


            At first glance, Foucault’s work appears to be an eclectic group of writings with no connection to each other.  However, Foucault’s writings did have a central theme.  Foucault’s central topic was the struggle of individuals against the power of society (Hoy, 1986).  During his twenty-five years of writing, Foucault concerned himself with the technologies of power and the reasons why individuals conform to the rules of society  (Martin, 1988).  This central idea is easily lifted from his theories on the role of prisons in society.

            Foucault is considered one of the most influential of the postmodern philosophers.  The modern era is commonly described as the period from mid- 18th century (time of European Enlightenment) to the mid-20th century.  “Modernity is fundamentally about order:  about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos.  The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function)”  (Klages, 1997: 3).


            Postmodernism is the critique of this view.   “In other words, every attempt to create ‘order’ always demands the creation of an equal amount of ‘disorder’”  (Klages, 1997:  4).  Modernism creates a mirage to mask the creation of this “disorder”, Postmodernism also rejects the idea that there is a “grand scheme” to things.  Postmodernists believe things are always situational or temporary and there is no universal truth or stability  (Klages, 1997).  Foucault’s postmodern ideas paralleled Friedrich Nietzsche, who “marked the beginning of the end of Modernism”  (Thiele, 1990: 909).  Like Nietzsche, Foucault believed the most important role of a person is their “true self”.  He believed “humanity has no stable identity, no intrinsic nature waiting to be realized, Foucault rejected moralistic discourse focusing on norms and standards”  (Thiele, 1990: 915).


Little is written about the impact of World War II on Foucault’s thinking. 

Foucault was an adolescent during the occupation of France by Germany.  In 1981 Foucault said,


“I cannot experience pleasure.  I have very early memories of an absolutely threatening world that could crush us.  To have lived as an adolescent in a situation that had to end, that had to lead to another world, for better or for worse, was to have the impression of spending one’s entire childhood at night waiting for dawn.  That prospect of another world marked the people of my generation, and we have carried with us, perhaps to excess, a dream of Apocalypse” (Friedrich, 1981: 148).


World War II greatly influenced Foucault’s thinking toward the struggles of power and knowledge.  This early turmoil is why Foucault fits into the postmodern stream of thought.  Growing up in a time of great chaos and anarchy, Foucault imagined a world with no predestined plan or set course.   Foucault believed order in society is impossible.


            “Foucault described his experience of the French educational system as a form of initiation in which the secret knowledge promised was always postponed to a later date.  In primary school he learned that the really important things would be revealed when he went to the lycee; at the lycee he found that he would have to wait until the ‘class de philio’ (the final year).  There he was told that the secret of secrets was indeed to be found in the study of philosophy, but that this would only be revealed at the university stage, that the best place to find it was the Sorbonne and that the holy of holies was the Ecole Normale Superieure” (Sheridan, 1990: 2-3).


            This constant search for the “ultimate answer” also explains why Foucault’s writings covered such a wide range of topics.  While he did not find the “secret knowledge” he sought, he continued the search until his death in 1984.


Foucault was a proponent of suicide.  He believed suicide to be a great personal victory.  The taking of one’s own life was an event, like a great play without an audience.  Foucault first attempted suicide in 1948.  His death in 1984, from a neurological infection, is believed to be AIDS related.  Foucault often frequented bathhouses in the San Francisco area during the early 1980s.  It has been suggested Foucault knew about the risks of contracting AIDS and this was possibly his elaborate scheme to intentionally take his own life (Maier-Katkin, 2000).


              Foucault believed people are not the originators of ideas, but merely the conductors through which ideas are expressed.  Ideas are always floating around independent of the person who expresses them.  Ideas are important, not who expresses them.   Foucault believed after death, a person should fade away into the background and be forgotten (Maier-Katkin, 2000).


Foucault’s Theory


             Discipline and Punish (1975) is considered Foucault’s most important and lasting work because it represents his “decision to explicitly take up politics and social theory, areas that his earlier work addressed mainly by implication” (Shumway, 1989: 114).  This book shows how Foucault arrived at his major theme of power and domination.  Discipline and Punish lays out Foucault’s thoughts on how the elite in society dominate and control the rest of society.  Foucault believed no societal advancements have occurred since the Renaissance, only technology has grown, further enslaving the human spirit.  Foucault is almost an anarchist in his dislike of societal rules and their affect on the human spirit.  For Foucault there was no higher purpose than being your own unique person.  The ideas forced upon us by society do not allow this to happen (Maier-Katkin, 2000).  Even as a social philosopher, Foucault’s ideas about government’s role in oppressing people’s behavior and true identity have been related to why people commit crime (Burchell et al., 1991).   All of Foucault’s central ideas can be seen in this book.


            When reading Foucault’s works one immediately realizes his passion for history.  In Discipline and Punish, he details the history of the French penal system during the mid-18th Century.  Foucault’s interpretation of historical events identifies the domination of the human spirit.  He theorizes as to why the penal system evolved into the system it is today and how it allows for the control of the masses in society.



















Discipline and Punish begins with a very detailed account of the torture and execution of Damiens in March of 1757, a regicide (someone who kills the King or Queen).  Next, Foucault lists the timeline of daily activities in the House of Young Prisoners in Paris.  This timeline was written 80 years from the time of Damiens’ execution.   Foucault’s point is to show how drastically the penal system changed in those 80 years.


            Foucault then details the age of torture.  He states during this time the right to punish was directly connected to the authority of the King.  Crimes committed during this time were not crimes against the public good, but a personal affront to the King himself.  The public displays of torture and execution were public affirmations of the King’s authority to rule and to punish.


            As public tortures and executions continued, the people subjected to torture became heroes, especially if the punishment was too excessive for the crime committed.  The convicted person was given a chance to speak prior to the execution.  This gave him an opportunity to repent for his crimes, but often it was used as an occasion to speak against the throne and the executioners.  On many occasions the crowds gathered around to view the event would riot against the executioner, stopping the event from continuing.


            Toward the end of the 18th Century, protests against public execution and torture continued.  The public cried out for punishment without torture, which led to the invention of prison.  Deprivation of liberty became the main form of punishment.  Liberty is the one thing that is equal to everyone.  Fines hurt the poor more than the rich, but taking away freedom caused the same level of discomfort to all.


            Prisons became more than just places were liberty was deprived; they were places where discipline could be instilled.  Discipline was a drive to instill useful, social qualities into the convicts.  It was an attempt to reform the criminal so upon his release, he would be less likely to re-offend and more likely to be a contributing member of society.


            The discipline that prisons tried to install in criminals was similar to the discipline in military units.  The basic idea of discipline is that one will be rewarded for achievement, and be punished for lack of achievement or non-conformity.  Forcing the prisoners to live and work under strict guidelines instilled discipline.  The prisoners were forced to “constructively” use every minute that they were awake.  This was social training to prepare criminals for a life of productivity when released.


            To monitor the progress of prisoners required constant supervision.  A prison warder monitored criminals at all time to ensure they followed the guidelines.   Constant supervision led to the development of institutional designs like Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.  The panopticon had cells built around a central tower.  The cells opened in the front so the guards in the tower could see inside.  The cells had windows in the rear of the cell backlighting the prisoner making him easy to watch.  The windows of the tower had Venetian blinds allowing the guards to see out, but preventing the inmates from seeing inside.  The prisoner never knew at any given moment if he was being supervised or not, therefore he constantly obeyed the rules.















            Foucault said constant supervision and forced discipline broke the will of the criminal and made him into a “docile body”.  The “docile body” was easy to control by people in authority.


            Prison’s major goal was to reduce crime by punishing the criminal.  Prisons should also deter others from committing crimes.  According to Foucault, prisons did not meet their objective; in fact they made criminals worse.


            “Prisons do not diminish the crime rate:  they can be extended, multiplied or transformed, the quantity of crime and criminals remains stable or, worse, increases...”  (Foucault, 1975: 265)  “Detention causes recidivism; those leaving prison have more chance than before of going back to it; convicts are, in a very high proportion, former inmates;  38 per cent of those who left the maisons cetrals were convicted again...”  (Foucault, 1975: 265)  “The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents.  It does so by the very type of exercise that it imposes on its inmates:  whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment, it is, in any case, not ‘ to think of man in society; it is to create an unnatural, useless and dangerous existence’...  The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power.  The arbitrary power of the administration...” (Foucault, 1975:  266)  The prison makes possible, even encourages, the organization of a milieu of delinquents, loyal to one another, hierarchized, ready to aid and abet any future criminal act...(Foucault, 1975:  267)  “The conditions to which the free inmates are subjected necessarily condemn them to recidivism:  they are under the surveillance of the police; they are assigned to a particular residence, or forbidden others...” (Foucault, 1975:  267)  Lastly, the prison indirectly produces delinquents by throwing the inmate’s family into destitution...” (Foucault, 1975:  268)


             Foucault recognized these flaws in the prison system from the beginning.  His theory on crime begins with this idea.  Foucault states there must be a reason why prisons are still around today, if they are clearly unsuccessful at preventing crime.


             “But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticized;  the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organization of a closed milieu of delinquency.  Perhaps one should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution which after purging the convicts by means of their sentence, continue to follow them by a whole series of ‘brandings’ ...and which thus pursues as a ‘delinquent’ someone who has acquitted himself of his punishment as an offender?  Can we not see here a consequence rather than a contradiction?  If so, one would be forced to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that is not so much that they render docile those that are likely to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection.”  (Foucault, 1975: 272)


            Foucault theorized the reason the prison system has lasted so long is it benefits the ruling social class.  He believed the ruling class used criminality as a way of preventing confrontations that could lead to revolution. 


            According to Foucault, the dynamic groups of the lower social class commit crime.  By committing crimes, they were calling for a change in the social system and rebelling against the social elite.  The ruling class used the law as a means to diminish the power of these uprisings.


 “...It would be hypocritical or naive to believe that the law was made for all in the name of all; that it would be more prudent to recognize that it was made for the few and that it was brought to bear upon others; that in principle it applies to all citizens, but that it is addressed principally to the most numerous and least enlightened classes...”  (Foucault, 1975: 276). 


The legal systems segregated the most dynamic of the lowest social class from the rest of society, then forced them together as a group of outcasts, thus rendering them politically harmless.  Foucault also stated by marking this group as criminals they are easier to supervise and keep disorganized by keeping the members flowing in and out of the prison system. 


“For the observation that prison fails to eliminate crime, one should perhaps substitute the hypothesis that prison has succeeded extremely well introducing delinquency, a specific type, a politically or economically less dangerous -and on occasion, usable- form of illegality; in producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal, but in fact centrally supervised milieu; in producing the delinquent as a pathologized subject”  (Foucault, 1975: 277).


            The ruling class placed a brand on the delinquent class posing them as a separate group from the normal lower class.  This allowed for the separation of the most dynamic group from the rest of the masses of oppressed, further restricting the likelihood the lowest class could affect social change.  “To this was added a patient attempt to impose a highly specific grid on the common perception of delinquents:  to present them as close by, everywhere and everywhere to be feared.”  (Foucault, 1975: 286).  The ruling class accomplished this through the media (newspapers and printed novels about crime).


            Foucault believed the dominant class used the delinquent class as a means of profiting themselves.


“Delinquency, controlled illegality, is an agent for the illegality of the dominant groups.  The setting up of prostitution networks in the nineteenth century is characteristic in this respect:  police checks and checks on the prostitutes’ health, their regular stay in prison, the large-scale organization in the prostitution milieu, its control by delinquent-informers, all this made it possible to canalize and to recover by a whole series of intermediaries the enormous profits from a sexual pleasure that an ever-more insistent everyday moralization condemned to semi-clandestineity and naturally made expensive; setting a price for pleasure, in creating a profit from repressed sexuality and in collecting this profit, the delinquent milieu was in complicity with a self-interested Puritanism: an illicit agent operating over illegal practices”  (Foucault, 1975: 279-280).


         Foucault related how the penal system with its outreaching arms affects society as a whole.  Foucault believed other governmental programs, such as welfare and new educational techniques, expanded from the penal system. He called this expansion of disciplinary control the carceral archipelago.  It created a whole society of docile bodies submitting to the will of the state.  “We have seen that, in penal justice, the prison transformed the punitive procedure into a penitentiary technique; the carceral archipelago transported this technique from penal institutions to the entire social body“  (Foucault, 1975:  298).


With the expansion of disciplinary techniques to all of society, Foucault believed prison would eventually decline in importance.


“The second process is the growth of the disciplinary networks, the multiplication of their exchanges with the given penal apparatus, the ever more important powers that are given them, the more massive the transference to them of judicial functions; now, as medicine, psychology, education, public assistance, ‘social work’ assume an ever greater share of the powers of supervision and assessment, the penal apparatus will be able, in turn become medicalized, psychologized, educationalized; and by the same token that turning-point represented by the prison becomes less useful...”  (Foucault, 1975:  306).


            In summary, Foucault believed the prison system is not a failing system designed to decrease crime by punishing criminals and deterring others.   The prison system instead functions very effectively at accomplishing its goals.  The prison system allows the upper class to continue the subjugation of the lower class.  The prison system effectively incarcerates, isolates and economically controls the most dynamic members of the lower class.  The continuous cycle of segregation and supervision renders this most volatile group both politically and socially harmless.  The discipline of the prison system has spilled out into all of society.  This spillover causes a struggle for each member of society.  People either struggle and resist the discipline of society and may be labeled criminal, or submit to it and lose their own identity.  For Foucault the losing of ones own identity to the discipline of the state is the real crime (Foucault, 1975).




            Critiques of Foucault focus mainly on his ideas of the struggle for self-freedom from discipline.  Foucault believed the sole purpose of existence is to be your “true self”.  He believed to accomplish this one must constantly struggle against the “disciplines” of society.  Critics of Foucault claimed he carried the idea of struggling for an independent self too far.  If one is to believe Foucault’s idea, following any rule of society is submitting to the discipline of society.  In an article titled Foucault and the Imagination of Power, Edward W. Said States:


            “Many of the people who admire and have learned from Foucault, including myself, have commented on the undifferentiated power he seemed to ascribe to modern society.  With this profoundly pessimistic view went also a singular lack of interest in the force of effective resistance to it, in choosing particular sites of intensity, choices which, we see from the evidence on all sides, always exist and are often successful in impending, if not actually stopping, the progress of tyrannical power.  Moreover Foucault seemed to have been confused between the power of institutions to subjugate individuals, and the fact that individual behavior in society is frequently a matter of following rules of conventions.  As peter Dews puts it:  ‘[Foucault] perceives clearly that institutions are not merely imposed constructs, yet has no apparatus for dealing with this fact, which entails that following a convention is not always equivalent to submitting to a power...But without this distinction every delimitation becomes an exclusion, and every exclusion becomes equated with an exercise of power’”  (Hoy, 1986:  151).


            Other critics of Foucault argue he did not go in depth when explaining the struggle between individuality and society.  Foucault did not give a purpose for the struggle or a goal to be obtained.  Why should complete individuality be the ultimate purpose in life?


            “Among the prominent critics who think Foucault gets trapped in his methodological strategy are Jurgen Habermas, Michael Walzer, Steven Lukes, Charles Taylor, Fredric Jameson, and Clifford Geertz. ...Habermas Contends that Foucault’s critique of modernity loses his sense of direction. ...Habermas cites Nancy Fraser’s pointed questions, ‘Why is struggle preferable to submission?  Why ought domination not be resisted?  Only with the introduction of normative options could he begin to tell us what is wrong with modern power/knowledge regime and why we ought to oppose it’”  (Hoy, 1986:  8).


            In an essay called The Politics of Michel Foucault, Michael Walzer continued the criticism of Foucault’s theory as over extending the role of discipline in everyday life.


            “For Foucault there seems to be no focal point, but rather an endless network of relations”  (Hoy, 1986: 55)  “So we all live to a time schedule, get up to an alarm, work to a rigid routine, live in the eye of authority, are periodically subject to examination and inspection.  No one is entirely free from these new forms of social control.  It has to be added, however, that subjection to these new forms is not the same thing as being in prison:  Foucault tends to systematically underestimate the difference, and this criticism, which I shall want to develop goes to the heart of his politics”  (Hoy, 1986:  59).    


Walzer goes even farther to criticize the depth of Foucault’s argument.  Walzer saw Foucault’s ideas as nihilistic [the belief that all existence is senseless, there is no possibility of an object truth, or laws (Random House, 1991)].  In this view, Foucault did not believe there was any purpose for society and all laws are unnecessary.


            “Foucault is not a good revolutionary.  He isn’t a good revolutionary because he doesn’t believe in the sovereign state or the ruling class, and therefore he doesn’t believe in the take-over of the state or the replacement of the class.”  (Hoy, 1986: 55)

            “It is precisely the idea of society as a system, a set of institutions, that must give way to something else- what else, we can’t imagine.  Perhaps human freedom requires a nonfunctionalist society whose arrangements, whatever they are, serve no larger purpose and have no redeeming social value.  The nearest thing to an account of such comes in an interview first published in November 1971. ‘It is possible,’ says Foucault, ‘that the rough outline of a future society is supplied by the recent experiences with drugs, sex, communes, other forms of consciousness and other forms of individuality.’  In that same interview, with some such vision in mind, he repudiates the likely reformist results of his own prison work:  ‘The ultimate goal of [our] interventions was not to extend the visiting rights of prisoners to 30 minutes or to procure flush toilets for the cells, but to question the social and moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty’”

            “As this last passage suggests, when Foucault is an anarchist, he is a moral as well as a political anarchist.  For him morality and politics go together.  Guilt and innocence are the products of discipline.  To abolish power systems is to abolish both moral and scientific categories:  away with them all!  But what will be left?  Foucault does not believe, as earlier anarchist did, that the free human subject is a subject of a certain sort, naturally good, warmly sociable, kind and loving.  Rather, there is for him no such thing as a free human subject, no natural man or woman.  Men and women are always social creations, the products of codes and disciplines.  And so Foucault’s radical abolitionism, if it is serious, is not anarchist so much as nihilistic.  For on his own arguments, either there will be nothing left at all, nothing visibly human; or new codes and disciplines will be produced, and Foucault gives us no reason to expect that these will be any better than the ones we now live with.  Nor, for that matter does he give us any way of knowing what ‘better’ might mean (Hoy, 1986:  61).


            This is the most disturbing part of Foucault’s theory.  The idea people should simply do whatever they want, whenever they want.  Foucault did not believe in God, and was completely amoral.  He believed in a world without God, where the individual is the only purpose in life.   He believed people should strive to be whatever they want, even to the harm of others (Maier-Katkin, 2000).  These ideas of Foucault suggest all laws are creation of society and should be disregarded. 


            In many societies, laws protect individuals, and do not necessarily enslave them.  These laws may not be perfect, and may be skewed heavily in favor of the upper class, but without them the weak would be totally dominated and destroyed by powerful.  Without laws, it would merely be survival of the fittest.  We would have endless and total domination of the weakest humans by the strongest humans. “...Foucault fails to see clearly the real problem is that the legal means for securing freedom also endanger it”  (Hoy, 1986: 9).


Current Usage


            Foucault wished to fade away into obscurity after his death.  This has not happened.  In fact, since his death, his academic stock has increased.  Publishers have translated his works into at least sixteen different languages (Maier-Katkin, 2000).  Searches in any academic setting will reveal references to Foucault's work.  Below are just a few examples of recent works using his theories.


            Foucault’s work can be found referenced by academics in many disciplines.  However, because Foucault’s theories examined the control of individuals by society, the recent works using his theories are by criminologists examining conflicts within society.  Researches examining Feminist issues are currently the largest, but not only, group using Foucault’s theories.


            Cahill, in Foucault, Rape and the Construction of the Feminine Body, attacks Foucault’s theory on rape.  In a 1977 roundtable discussion of his theories from Discipline and Punish, Foucault proposed that rape was not any different than other form of physical assault.  He claimed,


“…in any case, sexuality can in no circumstances be the object of punishment.  And when one punishes rape one should be punishing physical violence and nothing but that. …[If rape is punished differently] what we are saying amounts to this:  sexuality as such, in the body, has a preponderant place, the sexual organ isn’t like a hand, hair or a nose.  It therefore has to be protected, surrounded, invested in any case with a legislation that isn’t that pertaining to the rest of the body. …It isn’t a matter of sexuality, it’s the physical violence that would be punished, without bringing in the fact that sexuality was involved”  (Foucault quoted in Cahill, 2000:  43).


Cahill then argues,


 “that rape can not be considered merely an act of violence because it is instrumental in the construction or the distinctly feminine body.  Insofar as the threat of rape is ineluctably, although not determinately, associated with the development of feminine bodily comportment, rape itself holds a host of bodily and sexually specific meanings” (2000:43).


            An article in the American Criminal Law Review uses Foucault’s ideas about punishment to call for legal guarantees of equal punishment for both stranger and nonstranger rape (Shanahan, 1999)


“Foucault asserts that the penalty for a crime should be calculated in terms of its possible repetition; the penalty should account for the future disorder, not the past offense.  The penalty should ensure that the particular criminal has no desire to recommit the crime and that the crime does not spawn imitators.  …More recent estimates suggest, however, that nonstranger rape may pose the greater risk to women because ‘in most rapes the victim and her assailant were familiar to each other.’ …Foucault’s measure of the injury a crime inflicts upon society supports imposing severe penalties on nonstranger rapists.  The current system of punishing nonstranger rape less harshly (if at all) than stranger rape violates two of Foucault’s basic tenets:  current rape law neither deters an individual rapist from repeating the crime nor discourages imitators” (Shanahan, 1999:  1375-1376).


Westlund uses Foucault’s definitions of power to examine domestic violence.  She claims that women experience both pre-modern and modern forms of power (according to Foucault’s definitions of power), “the former in the primal acts of violence and the latter in contemporary interpretations of her mental health as pathological” (1999:  1045).


“Women discipline their bodies through an elaborate system of self-surveillance; rituals of cosmetics, fashion, hair and skin care, diet, and exercise furnish innumerable examples of how women internalize panoptic relations of power and regulate themselves before and anonymous male gazer….Battered women, I argue, experience pre-modern and modern forms of power side by side:  not only do they have to deal with instigation of terror by an all-powerful ‘sovereign’ but they are also often compelled to turn for help to modern institutions of such as medicine and psychiatry, police, courts and so on.  These institutions revictimize battered women by pathologizing their condition and treating them as mentally unhealthy individuals who are incapable of forming legitimate appraisals of their situations and exercising rational agency over their lives” (Westlund, 1999:  1045).


            Hequembourg and Arditi use Foucault’s ideas about resistance of power to discuss the position of Gays and Lesbians in the United States (1999).


“One of the major paradoxes raised by Michel Foucault’s work concerns the meanings of resistance and agency in the context of a dominant and generative field of power. …It can be succinctly summarized in two questions:  What does resistance mean when the power to be resisted is conceived as generating the very conditions of resistance that opposes it, when, as Foucault writes, ‘resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power’?  What does it mean to be an agent when, as most of Foucault’s oeuvre suggests, the subject that resists is but a product of this generative power? …The aspiration to be recognized as a normal couple, normal mother, normal father, normal family, involves a ‘normalization’ of gay identity.  It forces the formulation and experience of gay identity from one grounded on desire—an unstable, nonrational, multiple ground that ‘escapes’ the practices of categorization in terms of which mainstream society defines sexuality—to on that embraces and makes mainstream categorization of power its own” (Hequembourg, Arditi, 1999:  663).


            An article outside of feminist discourse uses Foucault’s theory to examine other forms of social control.  Arrigo and Williams use his theory on institutions (penal and psychiatric) as a means of social control in a study of “psycho-legal controversies” (1999:  177).


“One of the most influential and time honored criticisms is associated with Michel Foucault’s social control thesis.  Foucault’s critique of institutions (i.e. psychiatric, penal) viewed confinement of the noncriminal as a method of controlling (or isolating) the socially undesirable….Given Foucault’s position, a number of important issues arise that yield alarming, or at least troubling, effects.  Specifically, psychiatric and legal systems of control (e.g., the hospital and prison) promote legitimate social welfare interests; however, these interests are based on questionable and, in some cases, inaccurate science….This article examines the present-day vitality and utility of Foucault’s social control thesis as revealed in several enduring psycho-legal controversies” (Arrigo, Williams, 1999: 177-178).


            As the literature demonstrates Foucault has not faded away into obscurity.  From his birth in 1926 until his unfortunate death in 1984, Foucault saw the world in a unique way.  This vision allowed him to use history as a tool for explaining his theories about power relationships.  His ideas, brought to light in Discipline and Punish, continue to be used by many current scholars.  These theories about society, social control and the functions of prison to maintain control were revolutionary when Foucault first expressed them in 1975, and today they continue to be debated in academic settings around the world.  Even Foucault’s critics cannot deny that he is one of the most influential thinkers of our time.


Links to Foucault Sites



































Arrigo, Bruce A., Christopher R. Williams (1999).  Chaos theory and the social  

  control thesis: a post Foucauldian analysis of mental illness and involuntary civil  

  confinement.  Social Justice.  26(1):  177-198


Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (ed.) (1991).  The Foucault  

  Effect:  Studies in Governmentality.  Chicago.  The University of Chicago 



Cahall, Ann J. (2000).  Foucault, Rape and the Construction of the Feminine    

  Body.  Hypatia, 15(1): 43-56


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