Michel Foucault – The Dynamics of Power

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French historian, philosopher, and political activist who received a PhD for his study A History of Madness (1961). In particular, Foucault gained a reputation for his original thinking on the subjects of power and sexuality. According to Will Buckingham,

“Foucault is interested in how our discourse — the way in which we talk and think about things — is formed by a set of largely unconscious rules that arise out of the historical conditions in which we find ourselves. What we take to be the “common sense” background to how we think and talk about the world is in fact shaped by these rules and these conditions. The rules and conditions change over time, and consequently so do our discourses” (1)

On Power Through Classification

A primary interest of Foucault’s was on power that he said led to the economic and social management of populations (2). He raises important questions about power in various contexts; in particular, he raises questions on how it influences and determines relations between people and between people and the political realm. One feature of power is in language and how it is deployed through classification. Foucault refers to this as “dividing practices”, namely the means of categorizing and separating persons according to distinctions, such as sane and insane, normal or abnormal, and the permitted and forbidden. These categories provide people with identities through which they recognize themselves and are recognized by others; for example, an individual can be categorized as crazy or mad. This insight motivated Foucault to examine the role of power over human bodies in institutional facilities such as asylums, clinics, army barracks, and prisons. In such places power is deployed in such a way that causes the subjugation of people. According to Foucault, every social arrangement results in some form of domination.

Scientific classification is another phenomenon to interest Foucault. People, Foucault claims, are classified by scientific classification that defines and objectifies persons within the human and social sciences; for example, diagnosing someone as ill or schizophrenic based on medical or psychological criteria can function in a totalizing way: “that person is schizophrenic”. Foucault tackles this topic in his The Birth of the Clinic (1963) in which he attempts to demonstrate how the establishment of the medical sciences in the nineteenth century led to the human body becoming viewed as an object to be analyzed, labelled, and cured.

On Power in the Prison

In his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Foucault focuses on the prison system, in particular the panopticon that was designed by Jeremy Bentham (d. 1832), to demonstrate how power, or “biopower”, could be used to dehumanize people. Biopower is understood to be that which aims to manage and administrate humanity and “discipline” the human body. The panopticon is an excellent example of the power of “disciplinary technology.” The panopticon is designed in such a way that it can function whether or not guards are present within it. According to this design, the prison cells are built around a central courtyard with a tower in the center. This mean that prisoners needed to behave as if surveillance was constant and never-ending. Essentially, prisoners disciplined themselves by becoming their own guards, which is an insight Foucault parallels to general society. In society the state exercises control over its population to the extent that people begin policing themselves. James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom explain that according to Foucault, “If everybody accepts the discourses and practices of moral, sexual, and psychological normality, then behaviour becomes regimented in entirely predictable ways. This is the beauty of biopower: without resorting to the spectacle of negative power, it allows for the “subjugations of bodies and the control of populations”” (3).

On Subjectification and Sexuality

To Foucault, the notion of subjectification refers to the specific classification and shaping of individual human beings into subjects, including heroic and ordinary, “normal” and “deviant.” In The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault studies the desire for peoples’ self-understanding that leads them to describe or confess themselves and their innermost thoughts and feelings to others. The result is that people entangle themselves within networks of power relations alongside authority figures, such as doctors, priests, psychiatrists, police, and so on. Such authorities believe themselves to be in a position to make sense of our confessions and to reveal the truth about us. People become objects of knowledge, of themselves, and of others.

Foucault further contributed to an understanding of the history of Western sexuality by observing how sexuality becomes essential in determining a person’s moral worth, desire, health, and identity. He claims that sexuality increasingly became controlled, repressed, and subject to censorship, particularly in the Victorian era. He then looks at sexuality in the nineteenth century and at studies on particular aspects of modern sexuality involving children, women, “perverts,” etc. He argues that sexuality had become an object of a new kind of discourse that involves the juridical, medical, and psychological. He observes how neuroses were the result of repressed sexuality, given society developed what it deems natural sexuality that all people share simply by virtue of being human. Foucault strongly believes that there should be freedom of sexual choice.

An Archaeology of History

Foucault also searched for an archaeology that would unearth the limits and conditions of how people thought and spoke in previous ages. He argued that modern people could not take contemporary concepts of, for instance, “human nature” and extrapolate or read them back into history as if they are eternal. Similarly, it is mistaken to use the terms “mankind” and “man” in this way. Foucault argues that our idea of what it means to be human beings is a recent invention, rather than something fundamental and unchanging. Foucault maintains that the modern notion of “man” actually goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth century around the time of the birth of the natural sciences. Foucault concludes that the idea of man is paradoxical because “we see ourselves both as objects in the world, and so as objects of study, and as subjects who experience and study the world — strange creatures that look in two directions at once” (4)

Influence on the Academic Study of Religion

Foucault’s ideas have been influential in the area of religious studies. Many theorists, particularly liberationist scholars whose work focuses on power in the interests of human liberation, have viewed the essence of religion as power. These scholars focus on the possible roles religion plays in the domination of human beings and how it has helped or harmed people who have been marginalized by the powerful. Primary interests rest with the vulnerable, impoverished, racial minorities, women, and the subjects of colonial and imperial rule. According to scholar of religion Ivan Strenski,

“A new, good-hearted generation seized upon power, typically in the interests of defending victims of power and domination. Whether it be black liberation theology, women’s liberation, or third world liberation, Foucault’s articulation of the logic of domination at the roots of racism, sexism, and such has been seminal to many thinkers” (5).

Thinkers such as Talal Asad, Robert Orsi, Cornel West, and Allan Grapard have shown interest in Foucault’s ideas concerning the dynamics of social power. Liberationist scholars tend to focus their work in the areas of racism, sexism, sex/gender inequality, and inequality brought on by imperialism. Grapard has studied Japanese shamanism and explored how the “power” of Japanese women within shamanic religion actually owes itself to social domination within a social network of male domination, despite appearances to the contrary.

Some Critical Reflections

Some thinkers have criticized Foucault’s views, especially of his understanding of power; according to Garvey and Stangroom,

“This position is not without its worries. In particular, it is haunted by the spectre of relativism. The problem is this. If power is everywhere — if for example the treatment of mental illness is all about the control of a particular population, and not necessarily about making people’s lives better — then it seems to rule out the possibility of any genuinely benevolent or emancipatory impulse. Thus, for example, in Foucault’s terms, it seems we cannot really claim that the move away from barbaric forms of punishment to imprisonment and rehabilitation is progress, since the latter is a manifestation of the desire to exercise more effective control over a population” (6).

According to Patrick West,

“The pervading theme in Foucault’s philosophy is that human relations are defined by the struggle for power. Right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are illusions. They are the creation of language and the will to dominate… Thus, there is no such thing as benevolence: men have created hospital, schools and prisons not to cure, educate and reform, but to control and dominate ‘the Other’. The rationalism of Enlightenment was merely a mask for this malevolent impulse” (7).

Garvey and Stangroom nonetheless maintain that Foucault’s “importance is that he showed how power can operate; that is, to create human bodies, human subjects and populations that in various ways are surveyed, categorized, disciplined and controlled” (8).


  1. Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House. p. 190.
  2. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought. London: Hachette UK. p. 343-348.
  3. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 343-348.
  4. Buckingham, Will. et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 191.
  5. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 161.
  6. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 347.
  7. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 347.
  8. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 347-348.

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