Foucault: power is everywhere

Art work by Raul LeonMichel Foucault, the French postmodernist, has been hugely influential in shaping understandings of power, leading away from the analysis of actors who use power as an instrument of coercion, and even away from the discreet structures in which those actors operate, toward the idea that ‘power is everywhere’, diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1991; Rabinow 1991). Power for Foucault is what makes us what we are, operating on a quite different level from other theories:

‘His work marks a radical departure from previous modes of conceiving power and cannot be easily integrated with previous ideas, as power is diffuse rather than concentrated, embodied and enacted rather than possessed, discursive rather than purely coercive, and constitutes agents rather than being deployed by them’ (Gaventa 2003: 1)

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):

‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’ (Foucault 1991: 194).

Power is also a major source of social discipline and conformity. In shifting attention away from the ‘sovereign’ and ‘episodic’ exercise of power, traditionally centred in feudal states to coerce their subjects, Foucault pointed to a new kind of ‘disciplinary power’ that could be observed in the administrative systems and social services that were created in 18th century Europe, such as prisons, schools and mental hospitals. Their systems of surveillance and assessment no longer required force or violence, as people learned to discipline themselves and behave in expected ways.

Foucault was fascinated by the mechanisms of prison surveillance, school discipline, systems for the administration and control of populations, and the promotion of norms about bodily conduct, including sex. He studied psychology, medicine and criminology and their roles as bodies of knowledge that define norms of behaviour and deviance. Physical bodies are subjugated and made to behave in certain ways, as a microcosm of social control of the wider population, through what he called ‘bio-power’.  Disciplinary and bio-power create a ‘discursive practice’ or a body of knowledge and behaviour that defines what is normal, acceptable, deviant, etc. – but it is a discursive practice that is nonetheless in constant flux (Foucault 1991).

A key point about Foucault’s approach to power is that it transcends politics and sees power as an everyday, socialised and embodied phenomenon. This is why state-centric power struggles, including revolutions, do not always lead to change in the social order. For some, Foucault’s concept of power is so elusive and removed from agency or structure that there seems to be little scope for practical action. But he has been hugely influential in pointing to the ways that norms can be so embedded as to be beyond our perception – causing us to discipline ourselves without any wilful coercion from others.

Contrary to many interpretations, Foucault believed in possibilities for action and resistance. He was an active social and political commentator who saw a role for the ‘organic intellectual’. His ideas about action were, like Hayward’s, concerned with our capacities to recognise and question socialised norms and constraints.  To challenge power is not a matter of seeking some ‘absolute truth’ (which is in any case a socially produced power), but ‘of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1991: 75). Discourse can be a site of both power and resistance, with scope to ‘evade, subvert or contest strategies of power’ (Gaventa 2003: 3):

‘Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it…  We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby a discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy.  Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart’ (Foucault 1998: 100-1).

The powercube is not easily compatible with Foucauldian understandings of power, but there is scope for critical analysis and strategic action at the level of challenging or shaping discourse – for example taking the psychological/cultural meaning of ‘invisible power’ and ‘hegemony’ as a lens with which to look at the whole. Foucault’s approach has been widely used to critique development thinking and paradigms, and the ways in which development discourses are imbued with power (Gaventa 2003, citing the work of Escobar, Castells and other ‘post-development’ critics).

At a the level of practice, activists and practitioners use methods of discourse analysis to identify normative aid language that needs more careful scrutiny, and to shape alternative framings. An example of a very practical tool for doing this is included in the IIED Power Tools collection, called the ‘Writing Tool’, and in NGO workshops we have used a simple method of discourse analysis to examine mission statements and programme aims.

Thanks to Jonathan Gaventa (2003) for his contributions to this section.

References for further reading

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: the birth of a prison. London, Penguin.

Foucault, Michel (1998) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.

Gaventa, John (2003) Power after Lukes: a review of the literature, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Hayward, Clarissa Rile (1998) ‘De-Facing Power’, Polity 31(1).

Rabinow, Paul (editor) (1991) The Foulcault Reader: An introduction to Foulcault’s thought, London, Penguin.

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