Michel Foucault (1926 –1984) is often described as a ‘historian of ideas’, a broad term that reflects his eclectic and extensive output.
There are different phases to Foucault’s work (Macey, 2014) and while this work has been categorised using labels such as structuralism, post structuralist or post modern Foucault himself resisted labeling. One consistency, however, in Foucault’s work was an interest in power and control (Mills, 2003). He wanted to examine how power was exercised in everyday relationships, rather than power as the direct physical oppression of the powerless by the powerful. In Foucault, power (or the power in which he is interested) is more like a strategy – a web of expectations about what is allowed - rather than a direct one to one domination.
Foucault is interested too in to how these power relationships are internalised and how we develop control over our desires. For example Foucault popularised Bentham’s idea of a panoptican. For Bentham the panoptican was a proposal for an observation room right at the centre of an institution from which all other peripheral rooms could be monitored. The point is that everyone in the institution could be monitored from the panoptican but, more than this, inmates would know that they might be monitored at any one time. It was the possibility of control that constituted control, not always its direct application. Using the panoptican as a metaphor, Foucault felt it was as though we had our own internal monitor which kept control over what we could or could not do.
A further key idea in Foucault is the idea of discourse. He was interested in ways in which some statements are allowed to carry meaning and others not. It was not simply that some statements were more coherent, or packed a better argument than others, but that there were filters on discourse practices which allowed some statements through and excluded others. For example, while there were all manner of events taking place at any one time, discourse practice meant that only some of these events were discussed and given significance. His general point is that while many different types of statements were possible, in practice the scope of discourse was quite limited and predictable. This was to some degree inevitable. While discourse practice was controlled, Foucualt did not see this control as all pervasive, and all discourse practices created their own resistance. How is discourse controlled? Foucault discusses the role of taboo (what cannot be talked about), the distinction between mad and sane (discourses which could be ignored on grounds or irrationality) and the distinction between true and false. The latter is highly provocative as rather than suggesting criteria for truth or trustworthiness Foucault tended to see truth in terms as what is authorised. This position extends to academic knowledge and Foucault sees such knowledge as governed by discourse rules; he would not accept that academics were in pursuit of disinterested truth.
Control on discourse happens at an internal level too. We draw on commentaries to understand texts; we see coherence in an author’s work when such coherence is an invention, we create disciplines boundaries to control what is admissible and not admissible and we lay down rules as to who can speak. A key term in respect to discourse is the idea of an archive. For Foucault these were the written rules which lead to certain types of statements and discourse of formations circulating at any one time. He is primarily interest in archives as impersonal systems rather than exploring the intentions or experiences of those within these systems. Foucault has been influential in literary studies and in some fields of social research, particularly sociology. It is quite clear that he does not give us one methodology to follow and even the idea of presenting his work as a coherent body of knowledge appears quite contradictory from his perspective on authorship. However we can take away two key implications for social research (again see Mills, 2003).
First, if following Foucault, we might be interested in tracing the way discourses are arranged. This would lead us to explore where discourses began and how they changed, noting, along the way, the potential for further change.
Second, Foucault’s stance on knowledge suggests we should have an extreme scepticism about claims to truth, including claims made by academics, and scepticism too in regard to causality (he sees phenomena much more as convergences of events rather than sequential cause and effect). Foucault also leads us to be sceptical of the great works of social theory, we would better try to capture the discourse practice of the time, rather than the work of one particular author.
There are several problems with Foucault and his ideas have provoked very strong reactions. For some, his relentless focus on discourse practice has led to a disregard for material conditions. Some see Foucault as underplaying, or perhaps by passing, the concern for looking at material conditions in society and the way groups have different access to wealth and power. He also underplays the way that power might by physically exercised. For others, Foucault’s interest in discourse has led to losing focus on the individual. Here it is claimed that personal agency is downplayed and it is almost as though we do not need to worry too much about the contribution of the individual as the system will generate its own resistance.
The key problem that many have with Foucault is, however, that he seems to rule out the possibility that judgements about accuracy and trustworthiness can be made. Many of us would like to rule out classical notions of truth and falsehood but, at the least, feel we can divide accounts which strive for objectivity and those that do not and we think about this in ways that Foucault would critique.
Examples of studies
There are very many articles and papers which claim to be following a Foucauldian approach to social research (indeed there are many more in the field of literary studies but these are not covered here).
Hodges et al (2014), for example, give a good overview of Foucauldian key terms and the applicability of Foucault’s ideas to medical practice, in particular as ways of understanding how everyday interaction carries a relationship of power.
Kavoura et al (2015) offers an example of using Foucault’s ideas in the context of female athletes (in this case female judo practitioners). This is an appealing paper as the authors draw flexibly on Faucauldian principles to explore what is established in discourse in regards to femininity and a feminine ideal. Such discourse creates tensions for women interested in sport, for example they might experience a tension between an idealised female body and the sportswoman’s body as athletic and muscular. The authors see body ideals as controlled by discrimination and stigmatisation. Discourse about sport is about putting women in their place by promoting certain ways of thinking and behaving. The authors discuss how female athletes negotiate their identities and find a way through this tension.
Kavoura, A., Ryba, T. V., & Chroni, S. (2015). Negotiating female judoka identities in Greece : A Foucauldian discourse analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 17, 88- 98.
Hodges, B. D., Martimianakis, M. A., McNaughton, N., & Whitehead, C. (2014). Medical education… meet Michel Foucault. Medical education, 48(6), 563-571.
Macey, D. (2014). Michel Foucault. London: Routledge. Mills, S. (2003). Foucault: London: Routledge.
The clip below offers a brief introduction to his background and his key works including those on madness, medicine and punishment.
Foucault shows the value of taking a historical view when coming to explore contemporary phenomena. He also takes up what seems at times to be a deliberately contrarian viewpoint. What do you see as the value / shortcoming of his approach?