Foucault and the Law

Michel Foucault is said to be one of the most influential philosophers to ever exist. Foucault is a believer that power is knowledge. He has many beliefs, but one of his more popular beliefs is that of disciplinary power. He believes that “the chief function of disciplinary power is to ‘train’” (Hunt & Wickham, 1994). Disciplinary power has three general characteristics according to Foucault: Hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement, and lastly the examination (Pavlich, 2011). Hierarchical observation stems from Foucault’s work on a prison where surveillance was a key principle (Hunt & Wickham, 1994). This would refer to the fact that inmates were constantly being watched by the authority figures in charge. Normalizing judgement is operated through ‘norms’ which are used to define a good or obedient child (Hunt & Wickham, 1994). Normalized judgements are directed against faults in behaviors. Lastly, is a combination of the previous two forms for it is a mix of micro-penalties and rewards (Hunt & Wickham, 1994).

When applying this to reality, there is one main idea that it can be applied to: work. Work contains all these different elements of Foucault’s theories. First would be starting off with the hierarchical aspect of this theory.  Since this theory is that authority is always observing the people lower down on the hierarchical chart, it would appear that supervision is occurring on various elements. My supervisor would fit the hierarchical observation for she is constantly keeping “surveillance” on me.  She is constantly observing my work ethic and keeps track of what I am doing and how it is done. However, this could also apply to students as well for my job is student-orientated. So these students could also be my supervision.  I am always conscious of the fact that I am being observed. This is most evident when my supervisor’s bosses are in town. When they come visit my workplace, I am much more vigilant and more careful with how I do my work. I believe I am being watched every second that I work, even though I may not actually be observed every second. This is what Foucault would refer to as panopticon.  Panopticon is an addition of Bentham’s work where he believed that “power should be visible and unverifiable” (Pavlich, 2011). He believed the inmate should never know when he was being watched; just that he knows he is being watched. This would fit perfectly into a work environment.

The next step in Foucault’s disciplinary power is normalizing judgement. Normalizing judgement in a work environment would look at the ‘norms’ of working. This would mean that you actually do the work assigned. In my experience, it would refer to helping students and organizing forms that I am given. Breaking the norm would be for me to sit down and not respond to phone calls or help the students. This would be considered disobedient behavior and disciplinary power would need to take its course and ensure I am working efficiently and properly. Another norm would be also dress accordingly, and abide by all work rules. When my supervisor tells me to do a task, I know I should do it for the work norm is to listen to your superiors.

The last form is a mix of micro-penalties and rewards.  Micro-penalties differ from criminal offenses by their way of punishment (Hunt & Wickham, 1994). These punishments escalate from minor losses to major losses. For example, one could consider a minor loss to be for a child where they are told to “not play with that toy until you’ve learned your lesson.” However, this can gradually increase to fines at school or work for being late. This form is defined by numerous situations. The most apparent way this can apply at work is through money. For example, my supervisor can give me a micro-penalty for unwanted behavior. If I decide to come late to work, she has the option of giving me a penalty in the form of taking away my money. She also can do the opposite and reward me for my work by giving me a bonus in my paycheck. This would cause me to realize that I need to be on time for work so I don’t lose money on my paycheck.  Michel Foucault was, and continues to be, an influential philosopher in criminal law. His theory of disciplinary power shows that his work continues to apply to our lives even decades after his passing, and will continue to apply to the lives of mankind in the future.


Hunt, A. & Wickham, G. (1994). Foucault and Law: Towards Sociology of Law as Governance. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

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


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One response to “Foucault and the Law

  1. This is an interesting discussion of disciplinary power in everyday life.

    When considering your work environment, are there opportunities to resist or subvert the apparatus of monitoring and discipline? Foucault notes the power implies resistance.