Food for Thought: Disciplinary Power

Michel Foucault describes Disciplinary power as a sort of tool that is used to regulate the behaviour of individuals in society. Foucault differentiates disciplinary power from sovereign power by stating that disciplinary powers rely more on techniques of control and training to regulate an individual’s behaviour, whereas sovereign power is more reliant on force and coercion. According to Foucault, Disciplinary power also differs from sovereign power because the administrative powers are distributed throughout numerous authorities.

Another central parts of disciplinary power are the three general characteristics. These characteristics include; “Hierarchical observation”, this characteristic is mainly focused on the monitoring and surveillance of individuals. Along with the surveillance, detailed records are created and kept. The second of these characteristics is “ Normalizing judgment”; this aspect of disciplinary power is more concerned with the use of standards, goals, faults, and expectations as ways to measure individuals. A few of the tools used in this process include examinations, repetition, and training. The third and final characteristic is “Micro-penalties and rewards”, according to Foucault, these are subtler than legal sanctions. They are designed to create an individual regime of incentives, disincentives, privileges, and denials.

We as members of society are subject to this disciplinary power from an early age. When it comes to disciplinary powers, it is not that difficult to find an example in ones everyday life. There are numerous forms of disciplinary powers that influence how we behave in society and what we consider to be normal behaviour. The way we are brought up from an early age seems to have a strong influence on how we begin to submit to authority. Schools are an example of disciplinary powers that we are introduced to from an early age.

When we first begin to go to school we are placed in an environment where we are constantly being monitored and told what we are allowed to do and what we cannot do. This is evidence of the presence of the first characteristic that we discussed, “Hierarchal observation”. For example, I recall the first few years of elementary school, being placed in an environment where teachers in the classroom constantly monitored us, kept track of attendance, where we were at specific times, all this information was being recorded. When we the teachers did leave us, we would be placed in the care of another teacher. During lunch periods the teacher would leave us in the care of lunch monitors. During lunchtime while we played outside, we would still be monitored by lunchtime supervisors who patrolled the fields and ensured that no child would leave school grounds without permission.

The second characteristic (Normalizing judgments) was also present during our time at school. We were slowly taught which kinds of behaviour were acceptable through various processes. We began to slowly understand what was an acceptable way to behave in society and what was deemed to be bad behaviour.  Individuals who followed the rules and behaved in what was deemed an acceptable manner were looked upon with more favour and viewed as normal, while individuals who disobeyed rules and misbehaved were punished to certain degrees and looked upon as being abnormal, one of the rules I remember being taught early on and being refreshed every year was that of walking in a straight line and remaining silent while doing so. Lastly the final characteristic present at schools is “Micro-penalties and punishments”, this was evident through teachers rewarding certain children who obeyed the rules, did well on tests and quizzes by giving the certain rewards. For example I recall my grade 3 teacher rewarding good behaviour with tokens, which could later be used to purchase candy. Those who misbehaved would be denied tokens and be unable to purchase candy. Other forms of discipline were punishments such as staying after school, staying in at lunch, or being sent to the principles office. The children that were punished using any of these techniques were usually the same ones that showed consistent patterns of misbehavior and disregard for rules. Most children in the classroom obeyed the rules and directions of the teacher out of fear of having their playing time taken away or having to stay after school.

The presence of disciplinary powers is present in almost every aspect of our lives, from our early years as children it is ingrained in us what is an acceptable way to behave and function as part of a community, along with the consequences of not conforming to what society considers normal behaviour. This process continues on after elementary school through high school, and even when we gain employment. The characteristics are still present throughout all of these stages in our lives but simply just change in their forms and degrees of intensity.


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One response to “Food for Thought: Disciplinary Power

  1. This is a good discussion of disciplinary power in the context of an elementary school setting. Worth noting is the role of report cards and grades in the ‘normalization’ process. Foucault emphasizes the centrality of observation, measurement, and knowledge to the operation of disciplinary power. A student is monitored in school – physically, as you note, but also in terms of performance, capabilities, and attitudes.