Tag Archives: Focault

Exploring Disciplinary Power

When attempting to summarize disciplinary power in my own words, the word surveillance continues to jump at me. It does seem to me to be a collection of modes of surveillance by which “techniques of control and training” or “technologies of the body” are enforced. Surveillance jumps at me because according to Pavlich, disciplinary power is “most efficient when its operations are invisible” (p. 143). The class handout restates this by saying that “disciplinary power is decentralized and often invisible”. This supports the notion of it being an invisible, almost “background” method of observation and control. Beyond the example of the panopticon, CCTV cameras are the most obvious example. I recall in class that many convenience store cameras did not even record because of the inconvenience of changing short-duration tapes constantly.

In summary, I will take the three general characteristics of disciplinary power listed on our handout: Hierarchical observation, normalizing judgments, and micro-penalties and rewards.

Hierarchical observation seems to be surveillance, monitoring, and recording. It operates by way of subjecting people to a “perpetual gaze”, or the idea of potentially being watched “gazed at” at any moment.

Normalizing judgments are a sort of “measuring stick” with goals, standards and expectation that subjects must adhere to. Training, repetition and testing serve to “normalize” these measurement standards.

Micro-penalties and rewards seem to be small incentives. Perhaps an example would be that an inmate in prison receives something extra in a meal or a bit of extra yard time in exchange for their submission to disciplinary power.

So disciplinary power seems to be mechanisms by which subjects are trained to adhere to certain rules and standards, understand that they may be under surveillance to ensure their compliance at any time, and are given small rewards or punishments to match their level of cooperation. Disciplinary power seeks to normalize these rules, and eliminate any deviance from them. It is important to remember as well that disciplinary power does not rely on force and coercion.  This process is how disciplinary subjects are created.

What strikes me is how prison is so often used as an example for this. I immediately question the validity of this. Disciplinary power is supposed to be decentralized and often invisible, yet the authority system in a prison is not entirely composed in this way. There are security cameras, yes, but the main source of authority that prisoners must obey comes from the correctional officers themselves, and these officers most certainly do carry the potential for physical coercion.

If I can use an extreme example, the first prison that pops into my head is… you might have guessed it… Abu Ghraib. Though it has been several years, Iraqi insurgents were imprisoned there and subjected to any kind of torture the American soldiers guarding them could think of. This is a prison where Foucault’s definition of disciplinary power does not apply. The power held over the insurgents there was physical and mental torture, and had nothing to do with “normalizing” them by imposing rules and surveillance.

This week we were shown a new surveillance approach by way of a news article. Professor Kim has resorted to using his students as “snitches” to report on other students’ laptop activity during his class. I see this as effective, yet dangerous.

In Qualitative Research Methods, we learned about “breaching experiments”, or experiments that violate social norms. I certainly think Professor Kim’s approach falls under the category of a breaching experiment. This has the potential to generate some social discomfort… and Kim admits this, hoping that the discomfort not only of being caught but of being the one asked to report on another will help curb the inappropriate use of laptops in his class.

Disciplinary power operates by “rendering its subjects visible to a ‘perpetual gaze’ in which the many are observed by the few”. I agree that this approach will help keep students in line as they will be aware of the perpetual gaze of others who may be asked to report on you at any point in time… However this is ruling by fear, and I see danger in that kind of approach in an educational setting. The only reason the students will “behave” with their laptops is due to the fear of being caught.

The distractions of Facebook and the internet in general are why I do not bring my laptop to class anymore and have not for several years. Paper notes might seem more archaic, but I find I am able to pay better attention when I do not bring my computer and when I put my phone on silent. I agree with the point that it is disrespectful to the professor and other students and so something should be done about laptops in classrooms. While Kim’s approach has merit, I would suggest that an outright ban on laptops, or perhaps some sort of mechanism for blocking their internet access all together during class time would be more effective, rather than the use of a fear tactic.

Also, Foucault said “there is no power without potential refusal and revolt” (Pavlich, 2010, p. 141). So what happens if some students refuse to comply with this practice? Or is the power possessed by the professor (an authority figure) enough to subdue any potential revolt to this strategy?

As for myself resisting disciplinary mechanisms, I do it at work as well. We have CCTV cameras installed throughout the store. These are, however, only allowed to be utilized in cases of theft or any other criminal offence. However, these cameras are the “perpetual gaze” that seeks to stop people from standing around and talking. They are often placed in areas where a shoplifter would never go, and serve as a visual deterrent to the employees. It works too. Employees become well versed with the “blind spots” in the store to avoid this method of hierarchical observation. Even though people know that the cameras cannot be used to discipline us for talking, for example, we are all still very careful and aware of where the cameras are in relation to us if we choose to chat. Also, as one of the union representatives in my store, I wield a form of disciplinary power over management. I observe them (though it is not an instance of the many observed by the few, so it does not quite fit with hierarchical observation), and also make sure to apply normalizing judgments on them. Treating people with respect and dignity, adhering to the rules of the collective agreement, etc… Micro-penalties and rewards? Rewards are that I am not causing trouble, and penalties are that I call my superiors to take things to the next step. It is an interesting dynamic at my work place in that regard where both “sides” have disciplinary power over the other in some way.


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


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