Modern Experiences of Michel Foucault’s Disciplinary Power

Identify and explain an example of a technique of disciplinary power that applies (or likely applies) to you. Your post should ‘unpack’ this technique and explain how and why it reflects disciplinary power. Employ Foucault’s concepts where appropriate.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Michel Foucault was “a French historian and philosopher” with a “strong influence not only (or even primarily) in philosophy but also in a wide range of humanistic and social scientific disciplines” (Gutting, 2013). One of his major works, Discipline and Punishment, focuses on the concept of disciplinary power and how it has evolved over time (1977). Michel Foucault argued that “the rise of parliamentary institutions and of new conceptions of political liberty was accompanied by a darker counter-movement, by the emergence of a new and unprecedented discipline directed against the body” (Bartky, 1988). Foucault’s book explores how army soldiers were once seen as someone who bore “the natural signs of strength and courage” with his body being “the blazon of his strength and valour” (1977). Foucault artistically explains how soldiers were born through experience, learning his profession little by little, generally in actual fighting, marching with poise, strength and honor. However, he contrasts this ideal soldier with one in the late 18th century, where the ‘soldier’ became “something that can be made; out of a formless clay”.  He explains how “one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of a soldier.” He argued that men have become accustomed to holding their heads high, standing upright and always keeping perfect posture. They were taught to “never fix their eyes on the ground” and to “remain motionless until the order is given.” Foucault describes this evolution of a solider as the “classical age [which] discovered the body as object and target of power. It was with this example, that Foucault explained that the body can be manipulated, shaped, and trained to obey, respond, and become skilful in order to increase its forces. In his book, Foucault explains how methods such as coercion and supervision have the ability to meticulously control the operations of one’s body, imposing upon them “a relation of docility-utility” or disciplines. Foucault explains how disciplinary methods have become “general formulas for domination.” By viewing the human body as a “machinery of power”, Foucault explored this new power and how one may “have a hold over other’s bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and efficiency that one determines.” It was noted that “at the core of Foucault’s picture of modern “disciplinary” society are three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination” (Gutting, 2003). According to Sandra Lee Bartky, Foucault pointed to a new kind of ‘disciplinary power’ tied to “modern forms of the army, the school, the hospital, the prison, and the manufactory” with the aims of these disciplines to increase the utility of the body (1988). Systems of surveillance and assessment no longer required force or violence, as people learned to discipline themselves and behave in expected ways.

In regards to today’s modern society, a disciplinary practice I personally am exposed to on a regular basis is at Kwantlen University. As a student, I am constantly enclosed within a classroom to which all the desks are facing the same direction, towards the teacher. My motions, my behavior, and my work ethic are all being watched and monitored not only by my professors, but my peers as well. It is not expected that I remove my body from my desk during lecture, so I sit their patiently until granted to authority to leave for break or the dismissal of class. I do not act out in “irregular conduct”, but remain silent until asked to speak. Like Foucault described, unconsciously my body is left under the control of others. The power my professors and the University has over me is undeniable. I am under constant surveillance whether through the glances of my peers, or by the cameras in the hallways.

Another example where I personally conform to disciplinary powers is at my work. There are rules and procedures that must be followed on a regular basis, with daily tasks needing to be completed before a days end. However, Foucault would argue that these rules are not simply imposed on me, but I make sure that I follow them, while also enforcing them on others. (If I notice a task needs to be completed during shift change, I make sure to tell my co-workers what needs to be done). This is expected behavior, something everyone considers to be normal, especially if one wants to keep an income. However, we also do what we are told because we are fearful of breaking the rules and facing the consequences. At one of my jobs, only one employee is at the workplace at a time. At this job, we are not allowed to have our cell phones out in order to ensure that we give the best customer service possible. However, when days are extremely slow and there are no customers, every single employee will have their phone out, hidden from security cameras under the desk. Why do we keep it hidden? Because we know there is a chance that we are being watched, scrutinized, and later will be punished. However, this is the same reason why we make sure that our daily tasks are finished, for if we don’t, all it takes is a quick look at the security tape to find out if we actually did it or not. Other examples of disciplinary practices at my work include the use of company email (where it is monitored if I use the email for personal uses), the use of computerized “clock in” and “clock out” procedures which monitor exactly when I arrive and leave work, and the use of daily commission reports which shows whether I am doing well for the company, or need to sell more product. (By having permanent residence for this type of data on the screen, it motivates us to do better for fear of punishment or for hope of a reward). Through all these examples, I do what is expected; what Foucault would consider to be my new normal. Through Foucault’s disciplinary power concept, it is not important that I may not actually be under surveillance, it’s the fact that I think I am, therefor in turn, I have learned to monitor and discipline myself. Touché.


Bartky, S. (1988). “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in Feminism and Foucault: Paths of Resistance. Ed. lee Quinby and Irene Diamond. (Northeastern Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 61-86.

Foucault, M., & Sheridan, A. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Gutting, G. (2003, April 2). Michel Foucault. Stanford University. Retrieved November 25, 2013, from



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4 responses to “Modern Experiences of Michel Foucault’s Disciplinary Power

  1. Frustratingly, I left a lengthy reply to this post only to have it vanish into cyberspace. I will try again!

    First, thanks for the interesting post. Both your examples – a student in a university and an employee in a workplace – demonstrate aspects of disciplinary power. Your workplace in particular seems to be a place that is characterized by surveillance and efforts to normalize.

    Regarding the university setting, Foucault would be interested in exploring the ways that students internalize the surveillant gaze and engage in both self-monitoring and the monitoring (and disciplining) of others. Can you identify an example of monitoring others that applies, in your experience?

    Regarding the workplace setting, I wonder if you can think of any examples of acts of resistance that could be applicable. Foucault suggests that disciplinary power – like all forms of power – implies resistance. Without confessing to anything or implicating others, are there examples for resistance in such a setting?

  2. cassiealicia

    In regards to your question surrounding monitoring others in a classroom setting, I would have to say a perfect example is the fact that you are constantly being seen, or are always able to be seen. Due to this, I am always consciously aware of my body, something I would not normally be so focussed on. I try my best not to fiddle or move around too much, as by doing do draws attention to myself and creates judgement or scorn from my peers. Various movements and conduct are regulated in a school setting, to where if one causes a distraction (for example answers their cell phone or talks loudly with a classmate during a lecture) they will suffer a penalty and may be asked to leave the classroom. Students are constantly kept in check from their peers, especially in regards to cheating, as it becomes an issue of fairness in regards to the grading system. Many students may do nothing if they witness a peer breaking a small rule, such as being on Facebook during class; however many would be compelled to tell their teacher if another student was cheating on an exam. This fear of surveillance and punishment resulting from the monitoring of ones peers, deters one from cheating during an exam. Students in this case, subject themselves to the contraints of the disciplinary power, due to the mere possibility of supervision from teachers and peers.

    In regards to resistance in my workplace, many of us escape from the constant camera surveillance by entering rooms without cameras to do the things we normally wouldn’t do while in the cameras view (check our phones, check our hair/fix our makeup). In this sense, we are resisting the power set upon us to not use our cell phones, and to constantly be working or cleaning something. As well, in regards to using the computer, the internet is only allowed for work related activities. However, many of the employees, admittingly myself included, have used the computer on numerous occasions for reasons that were not work related, and simply deleted all evidence from the computers browsing history. With this example, we are resisting authority by breaking the rules and taking back the power held by our authorities. Does this make us bad employees? Not necessarily. However, the fact that such rules regarding internet usage is enforced and monitored, creates an excuse for punishment and stigma if such rules are broken.

  3. Thanks for the excellent follow-up response.

    I wonder – in your opinion, is a thoroughly disciplined educational setting conducive to learning, or does it inhibit learning?

  4. cassiealicia

    I believe it can be both. It is conductive to learning, for it forces students to attend class personally and have a higher chance of retaining information then if left to learn on their own. By having strict rules regarding behavior, it creates a less distracting atmosphere, making it easier to concentrate during lectures. However, it can also inhibit learning for by enforcing such strict rules regarding behavior with ones peers (talking to one another during a lecture for example), can lead to frustration and confusion by students who may have been discussing the lecture or receiving clarification from another student. By not being able to actively communicate to ones peers, many people often feel lost during a lecture or simply become uninterested in the topic. Thoroughly disciplined educational settings also inhibit learning, for most often students are not engaged physically in conversation or debate, but instead are forced to sit quietly and patiently until the end of a lecture. This often impedes learning for many students find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time without being actively involved.