Foucault’s Disciplinary Powers

From the moment we are born we experience disciplinary powers being exercised upon us. We are constantly watched, monitored, and “imprisoned” within the walls of our homes. From birth we are placed inside cribs, then into playpens, and barred behind gates; all designed to keep us within certain boundaries and impose limitations. Michel Foucault looks at disciplinary power in the sense that there are three main characteristics, hierarchical observation, normalizing judgements, and micro-penalties and rewards. Hierarchical observation is essentially having someone constantly watching you and others, many are observed by the few. For example in a hockey arena, the rows of seats are positioned to not only fit as many people in the arena but also for security and other agencies to be able to observe the crowd. Normalizing judgements have specific goals, standards, and expectations and to determine if you meet these requirements those in power provide you with training, and test your skills using exams. Micro-penalties and rewards are sanctions designed to create a set of rules which if followed provide incentives, and if broken disincentives.

Disciplinary power applies to myself in my workplace where I am constantly being monitored, assessed, and rewarded. Prior to being hired I had to go through a process which determined if I had the necessary skill set and experience to deal with high stress situations and the general public. After various background checks were conducted I had to take an oath in which I promised to uphold the values and standards of the organization. After the initial hiring, I was provided with a few days of training and repetition of tasks was instilled. Also every few months we are given an assessment on things we are doing correctly and on the things we can improve upon. In Foucault’s terms this is the normalizing judgements characteristic of disciplinary power, where specific goals, standards, and faults are measured. Every few months we also receive a series of training simulations we need to complete. Even though they are very simple to complete, it is a constant reminder of the organizations values and ethics we must uphold. The organization is essentially trying to have us normalize its values and ethics.
At work there are usually three supervisors in power at any given time, all of whom are able to monitor myself. At work having to deal with the public can become stressful at times. Through surveillance and monitoring, the organization I work for ensures we maintain a certain standard of service. Integrity, honesty, and professionalism are essential in providing the services we provide. At work there are the lower level supervisors who I interact with on a daily basis and then those much higher in the hierarchy who I might only see a few times a month. There are dozens of cameras around the workplace which constantly monitor and observe our actions. Many of the top level supervisors have access to live video cameras, and video footage for the past several months, all of which can be reviewed. For the most part the only time the cameras are really reviewed is when there is an incident, and a review is done to ensure the appropriate steps were taken by my coworkers and myself to ensure our safety. Even though the cameras are primarily used to view the public’s behaviour and movement, in the back of our minds we always know we are being watched as well. There are many of us who are visible to the “perpetual gaze” of the few. This is a display of Foucault’s hierarchical observation at its finest.

Along with the training we are required to complete every few months, we are also given evaluations in the workplace. Those in power give us a set number of tasks and goals we need to complete and at the end of the work term we are assessed on whether or not we met, exceeded, or did not meet the criteria. If we met or exceeded the criteria established at the beginning of the work term then we are rewarded with further employment, if we fail to meet the standards then we are let go. I’m sure my actions in the workplace have an effect on how those in power view me, but so far I have not had any major penalties imposed. There have been times were I have sat down with someone in power and received tips and guidance on how I can improve for the future, which some might say looks at the characteristic of micro-penalties and rewards of Foucault’s disciplinary power. Whether we realize it or not we are under constant surveillance whether we are at work, school, or even in the home, someone is always watching.

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One response to “Foucault’s Disciplinary Powers

  1. One of Foucault’s observations regarding disciplinary surveillance is that it, like all forms of power, implies resistance. Your workplace is carefully monitored and in many ways panoptic. I wonder – would there be opportunities for employees to resist or subvert the system of monitoring that is in place?