Foucault: Could Power be a Bad Thing?

Disciplinary power is built around three main concepts: Observation, judgements and penalties and rewards. Observation grants the hierarchy the ability to be perceived as “always watching”. In the example of the Panopticon, it doesn’t matter if one guard is in the “tower” or fifty guards are inside, the inmates always have the perception that they are being watched. The Observation component of disciplinary power is just that, the perception that the public holds that they are being watched constantly, or as Foucault said, we’re under the “perpetual gaze” of those in power. Judgements are in a sense precedent so that when a person is being judged they have certain outlines and a basis to work on to give the fairest and most justified response. Without the normalization of judgements, there could be the instance where unfair and terribly unjust (both too severe and too lenient) judgements are being given without considering what happened in other cases with similar facts. For penalties and rewards, it’s in a way just like conditioning. There are rewards for displaying favourable behaviours and punishments for displaying unfavourable behaviours; when someone displays those favourable behaviours they are given privileges,   such as if a child does their homework before dinner their parents will allow them to watch the hockey game, whereas if they don’t get their homework done they have to do extra chores or don’t get their allowance for a week and perhaps they have their Nintendo taken away for a few days. It’s all a way for those in charge to target trouble makers and deviance and to try and produce or create the norms that the majority of the community adheres to on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

A clear example of disciplinary power being applies is at the workplace. When you apply for a job (usually) you go through an arduous interview process where you do everything in your power to stand out from all the other applicants, and once you actually get the job you spend all of your training learning the rules and regulations laid down by the company, telling you how to do your job, why you do it that way, why those methods are the most practical and efficient and how failure to comply with those rules and regulations could lead to your immediate suspension or outright dismissal from the company. For some perspective, when working in a grocery store, workers are shown by “trainers” how to properly stock the shelves, restock produce and how to maintain an organized work space in the coolers in the dairy section so that work can be done quickly, efficiently and properly to maximize the potential for an optimal amount of sales. Thus, when that person sees other newer people working in a section they have just been trained in, they will keep their eyes open to “give advice” when really they themselves are telling the employee how to properly do the job. We all do it without thinking and without consciously meaning to, but when we’re shown how to do something we try to impart our knowledge onto others to help them be successful, when really it’s simply to ensure that when we have to do it later it’s not a total disaster in the workspace. Employers will notice this “taking under the wing” of new employees by experiences workers and will tend to reward it, whether by “employee of the month” accolades or simply a congratulatory pat on the back. They condition the good behaviour with rewards of varying capacities and they penalize poor/bad behaviour with warnings, lessened weekly hours, perhaps suspension and/or even dismissal.

One example of how I personally have been subjugated to disciplinary power is when it comes to driving laws in BC. When I was learning how to drive, the three principles of disciplinary power were out in full force; you’re told how fast you’re allowed to go, you’re penalized if you drive contrary to what the prescribed regulations are, and (when learning) you’re rewarded for good driving technique and for following the rules of the road by getting your license (whether it be your L, N, or full license). When I was going through the process of taking driving lessons before taking my road test to get my “N”, the instructor hammered home paying attention to the speed limit, and shoulder checking oh GOD FORBID you forget to shoulder check, reverse-stall and parallel parking, all of the things that you need to know to be a competent driver, and yet despite some of the rules being rather tedious or arduous, especially when it comes to when you’re allowed to drive (N drivers technically aren’t supposed to drive with more than one passenger outside of their immediate family under the age of 25 and without a full license and how the smallest of things could result in you failing your road test altogether. I suddenly found myself critiquing both my parents when we’d be out, telling them how basically they’d both fail the road tests were they each to take them today, not because they’re bad drivers, but simply because when they were my age learning to drive, the rules/regulations of the road were much more lenient and there wasn’t so much focus on the small things, most people took 6 weeks learning and then were on the road by themselves, whereas now you’re looking at at-least 6-to-12 months before you can even take the test to be legally allowed to drive alone, and that’s assuming your parents grant you access to their vehicle (which they always say they will, “oh when you can drive you can go to the store for me, do my errands for me” but that never happens). But there again, if you follow the rules you can get your license, or keep your license and have a good driving record, perhaps have your car insurance be less than some people because you haven’t had any demerits, and yet if you step out of line, say are caught over the legal limit with alcohol in your system, your car gets impounded, your license taken away for x-amount of days, and you get a fairly large fine, all of which I’ve heard from friends of mine in the RCMP can amount to upwards of $10,000. (

One way that I have managed to maybe “avoid” disciplinary mechanisms, especially at work, is simply thinking up and discussing with management or simply implementing myself until someone complains about it, ways of doing the job that are just as or perhaps even more effective than the common practices whether it be because they are more time effective, perhaps it frees up space to fit in more product or simply to get more done, or perhaps it’s just an easier way of doing the job the same way that doesn’t say, cause as much back pain or as much strain on the body. One example, at work I sometimes work in the dairy section of the store, and when I have to unload the dairy delivery trucks, and then sort the milk and such in the coolers, you have to haul the crates off the skids and organize them by type (1%, 2%, Skim etc.). They also have an elongated hook for pulling certain things off the skids to help move things along, with after a few cuts, scraps and rather gruesome injuries to my hands, I simply had the idea of bringing work gloves to help protect my hands from further injury. Nobody during my training had said I could or couldn’t do it, but they just didn’t do it themselves, and so that was my way of working around the prescribed method of doing things to make it easier on myself and so far at least, I’ve done so without incurring the wrath of my boss/managers and have thus become faster and more productive at getting things organized, sorted, and stocked. I’ve also come across little tricks of the trade so to speak that help do things faster and still safely which I’ve been able to pass along to my fellow co-workers simply to help them out, sort of a “hey just on the off chance you’d like a tip” or a “hey one thing that I’ve found to help” and I find that when it’s approached that way, they still have the option of doing it the way they were shown themselves during training or they can at least try my way, if they like it, they do it and if they don’t well they still have the original method.

-Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.



1 Comment

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One response to “Foucault: Could Power be a Bad Thing?

  1. Interesting post, and great use of personal examples.

    Regarding normalizing judgements, you write “Judgements are in a sense precedent so that when a person is being judged they have certain outlines and a basis to work on to give the fairest and most justified response. Without the normalization of judgements, there could be the instance where unfair and terribly unjust (both too severe and too lenient) judgements are being given without considering what happened in other cases with similar facts.”

    To clarify, when Foucault talks about ‘normalizing judgements’, he is referring to disciplinary techniques that involve the constant assessment of individuals, and the comparison of individual cases to a standard that represents ‘normal’ conduct.

    Your example of the workplace as a site of disciplinary power is effective.

    Drivers’ licensing regimes seem to reflect a combination of disciplinary power and governmentality, the latter because they seek to shape conduct by responsibilizing drivers and creating an awareness of risk.