Exploring Disciplinary Power

When attempting to summarize disciplinary power in my own words, the word surveillance continues to jump at me. It does seem to me to be a collection of modes of surveillance by which “techniques of control and training” or “technologies of the body” are enforced. Surveillance jumps at me because according to Pavlich, disciplinary power is “most efficient when its operations are invisible” (p. 143). The class handout restates this by saying that “disciplinary power is decentralized and often invisible”. This supports the notion of it being an invisible, almost “background” method of observation and control. Beyond the example of the panopticon, CCTV cameras are the most obvious example. I recall in class that many convenience store cameras did not even record because of the inconvenience of changing short-duration tapes constantly.

In summary, I will take the three general characteristics of disciplinary power listed on our handout: Hierarchical observation, normalizing judgments, and micro-penalties and rewards.

Hierarchical observation seems to be surveillance, monitoring, and recording. It operates by way of subjecting people to a “perpetual gaze”, or the idea of potentially being watched “gazed at” at any moment.

Normalizing judgments are a sort of “measuring stick” with goals, standards and expectation that subjects must adhere to. Training, repetition and testing serve to “normalize” these measurement standards.

Micro-penalties and rewards seem to be small incentives. Perhaps an example would be that an inmate in prison receives something extra in a meal or a bit of extra yard time in exchange for their submission to disciplinary power.

So disciplinary power seems to be mechanisms by which subjects are trained to adhere to certain rules and standards, understand that they may be under surveillance to ensure their compliance at any time, and are given small rewards or punishments to match their level of cooperation. Disciplinary power seeks to normalize these rules, and eliminate any deviance from them. It is important to remember as well that disciplinary power does not rely on force and coercion.  This process is how disciplinary subjects are created.

What strikes me is how prison is so often used as an example for this. I immediately question the validity of this. Disciplinary power is supposed to be decentralized and often invisible, yet the authority system in a prison is not entirely composed in this way. There are security cameras, yes, but the main source of authority that prisoners must obey comes from the correctional officers themselves, and these officers most certainly do carry the potential for physical coercion.

If I can use an extreme example, the first prison that pops into my head is… you might have guessed it… Abu Ghraib. Though it has been several years, Iraqi insurgents were imprisoned there and subjected to any kind of torture the American soldiers guarding them could think of. This is a prison where Foucault’s definition of disciplinary power does not apply. The power held over the insurgents there was physical and mental torture, and had nothing to do with “normalizing” them by imposing rules and surveillance.

This week we were shown a new surveillance approach by way of a news article. Professor Kim has resorted to using his students as “snitches” to report on other students’ laptop activity during his class. I see this as effective, yet dangerous.

In Qualitative Research Methods, we learned about “breaching experiments”, or experiments that violate social norms. I certainly think Professor Kim’s approach falls under the category of a breaching experiment. This has the potential to generate some social discomfort… and Kim admits this, hoping that the discomfort not only of being caught but of being the one asked to report on another will help curb the inappropriate use of laptops in his class.

Disciplinary power operates by “rendering its subjects visible to a ‘perpetual gaze’ in which the many are observed by the few”. I agree that this approach will help keep students in line as they will be aware of the perpetual gaze of others who may be asked to report on you at any point in time… However this is ruling by fear, and I see danger in that kind of approach in an educational setting. The only reason the students will “behave” with their laptops is due to the fear of being caught.

The distractions of Facebook and the internet in general are why I do not bring my laptop to class anymore and have not for several years. Paper notes might seem more archaic, but I find I am able to pay better attention when I do not bring my computer and when I put my phone on silent. I agree with the point that it is disrespectful to the professor and other students and so something should be done about laptops in classrooms. While Kim’s approach has merit, I would suggest that an outright ban on laptops, or perhaps some sort of mechanism for blocking their internet access all together during class time would be more effective, rather than the use of a fear tactic.

Also, Foucault said “there is no power without potential refusal and revolt” (Pavlich, 2010, p. 141). So what happens if some students refuse to comply with this practice? Or is the power possessed by the professor (an authority figure) enough to subdue any potential revolt to this strategy?

As for myself resisting disciplinary mechanisms, I do it at work as well. We have CCTV cameras installed throughout the store. These are, however, only allowed to be utilized in cases of theft or any other criminal offence. However, these cameras are the “perpetual gaze” that seeks to stop people from standing around and talking. They are often placed in areas where a shoplifter would never go, and serve as a visual deterrent to the employees. It works too. Employees become well versed with the “blind spots” in the store to avoid this method of hierarchical observation. Even though people know that the cameras cannot be used to discipline us for talking, for example, we are all still very careful and aware of where the cameras are in relation to us if we choose to chat. Also, as one of the union representatives in my store, I wield a form of disciplinary power over management. I observe them (though it is not an instance of the many observed by the few, so it does not quite fit with hierarchical observation), and also make sure to apply normalizing judgments on them. Treating people with respect and dignity, adhering to the rules of the collective agreement, etc… Micro-penalties and rewards? Rewards are that I am not causing trouble, and penalties are that I call my superiors to take things to the next step. It is an interesting dynamic at my work place in that regard where both “sides” have disciplinary power over the other in some way.


Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Canada: Oxford University Press.


1 Comment

Filed under Musing

One response to “Exploring Disciplinary Power

  1. An excellent, wide-ranging post.

    Regarding hierarchical observation, Foucault’s Panopticon is often described as an arrangement in which the few watch the many (hence the hierarchy). A small number of watchers exercise a surveillant gaze that encompasses a much larger group of ‘watched’ subjects. This is important to note, because later work on surveillance identified alternative ways of mobilizing the gaze. Mathiesen, for example, famously described the ‘synopticon’ or viewer society, in which the many watch the few. This reflects the structure of mass media and image-based cultures. Other researchers look at sousveillance, in which the subjects of the panopticon engage in practices of organized surveillance directed at the hierarchies of observation (your union rep example would fit here).

    Regarding micor-penalties and rewards, I think it is important to note that the ‘micro’ preface is meant to distinguish these practices from the spectacular displays of punishment associated with sovereign power. Some micro penalties and rewards can be extraordinarily meaningful, especially in the context of information societies. The penalty for refusing to ‘opt in’ to a regime of surveillance may be exclusion from a meaningful social sphere, for example.

    You make an interesting and important point with regards to the applicability of prison as an exemplar of disciplinary power. Abu Grhraib is a particularly effective example.

    Next week, we will study the work of Judith Butler, who speaks about the re-emergence of sovereign power within the field of governmentality. She uses Guantanamo as an example. Abu Ghraib would be a more extreme example (though it is important to note that the practices of abuse at Guantanamo were normalized and organized, whereas the Abu Ghraib case involved predictable violations of official policy).

    There is much to be made of the idea of a ‘post-disciplinary prison’. Piché and I wrote about this in our 2010 article in Contemporary Justice Review, ‘The Moving Targets of Penal Abolitionism’.

    Regarding immigration detention, we write:

    “As with preventative detention, one of the key issues here is the proliferation of carceral spaces that are peripheral to the penal system that remains the primary target of abolitionist efforts. Further, the expanding archipelago of immigration detention camps operates according to a nondisciplinary logic that strips away the pretense of “corrections”, leaving nothing “but the walls, the barbed wire, the controlled gates, the armed guards” (Bauman, 2004, p. 78). Immigration detention is based on incapacitation and exclusion (Hallett, 2009). Its purpose is not to discipline the carceral body, but to separate it from the political community and purge it from the sovereign territory. This rationale has definite parallels with the penal system, as discussed in Young’s (1999) work on exclusive societies.”

    Regarding the case of Prof. Kim, you ask “what happens if some students refuse to comply with this practice? Or is the power possessed by the professor (an authority figure) enough to subdue any potential revolt to this strategy?”

    This is an important question. If you read the comments left in response to the original Toronto Star article, you get a sense that some people would be willing to engage in such resistance. From my perspective, such resistance could be an excellent pedagogical opportunity – perhaps, as Durkheim would put it, an opportunity for norm clarification.