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Disciplinary Power and the Science of Persuasion

The following post was written by Zahra Sunderani, a CRIM 3305 Law & Society student:

Food for Thought: Select a contemporary example of a mechanism of disciplinary power. Briefly introduce your example – with reference to supporting sources. Then explain how it exemplifies disciplinary power, drawing on Pavlich (2011) and other relevant sources. Finally, explain the relationship between this mechanism of disciplinary power and law. You will find Pavlich (pp. 144-145) and the excerpt from Hunt and Wickham (1994) helpful.

Foucault’s disciplinary power is a mechanism of power that does not use force or coercion to obtain compliance, but instead relies on everyday institutions and interactions to allow individuals to govern their own behaviour. It is stated that disciplinary power works very differently, as it functions through “variable and changing (statistical) norms rather than laws, [and] spreads itself across a social network in highly ramified, decentralized fashion,” (Pavlich, 143).There are three key aspects to this mechanism of disciplinary power.

The first is of hierarchical observation, which explains the idea that subjects are under the impression that they are being constantly watched by superiors, when the reality is that they are only sometimes being watched. This constant fear of being monitored forces individuals to always act as if it were the case that they are being watched, in the occasion that they actually are. The second is of normalizing judgments, which sets standards to which individuals are compared with in order to determine the norm, as well as the abnormal. The third, is that of motivational and discouraging techniques. These are small actions that encourage individuals with rewards, or discourage them with penalties. (Pavlich, 143)

The animated video that I chose to relate to Foucault is called “Science of Persuasion,” and it describes the six universal Principles of Persuasion that have been scientifically proven to be effective by the research in Dr. Cialdini’s text: Influence: the psychology of persuasion. In his text, Dr. Cialdini notes that there are six shortcuts which allow persons persuade others to form decisions. These are: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking and consensus. I note that based off of Dr. Cialdini’s research, these social persuasion techniques, specifically reciprocity, create a mechanism of disciplinary power. The first, reciprocity explains how if an individual acts on the behalf of another, the other individual will feel obliged to return a favour. In a study outlined in this text, the tip percentage with relevance to the number of mints left for guests by a waiter at a restaurant was measured. In the study, giving one mint at the end of a meal increased tips by 3%, while giving two increased it by 14%. Most shocking though, were the results found when a server left a mint at a table, started to walk away, but then turned back to leave another while mentioning how pleasant their company was. This action increased tips by 23%, and the study concluded that actions where an individual is the first to give, with personalized unexpectedness will receive the same or even greater rewards in return.

This study, and specifically the tactic of reciprocity can be seen to be a mechanism of disciplinary power. Persuasion is a very strong sort of power which allows persons to act without force or coercion. When a person persuades another, there is a hierarchical power dynamic between the two, where one wants something from another, and when it is given, the power dynamic shifts. Since the server hopes for a large tip from every customer, they monitor their behaviour accordingly. They socially interact to the standards of their customers, and in this way, towards the end, they receive their reward. The standards that the customers have of their servers can be seen as the normalized judgments. If a server is not living up to those standards, they will be penalized with the lack of a tip, and if those standards are surpassed, they will be rewarded generously with a tip. The tip then represents the form of motivator for the server, which guides their behaviour up to the normalized standards.

The law acts as a disciplinary power in the following ways with relation to reciprocity. It is a hierarchical power for it allows and persuades persons to follow the rules and laws even when persons know they are not being watched. I note that part of the reason for why persons do so is because they agree with the standards that the laws hold them to. If a large group of persons did not agree with the standards of the laws, there would be uproar over them, but for the most part, in Canada, most persons are in compliance with the standard. In this way then, as the system of laws function in a way that persons want them to, they reciprocate it by complying to the law as well- creating a hierarchical power. Reciprocity also allows persons to normalize their judgments in accordance with the law as they note that everyone does the same. Following the law is so normalized, that persons who, for example, blow stop signs, are seen to be outliers. As persons reciprocate the idea of following the law to the state, this act becomes the norm. With regards to the example of blowing a stop sign, said person can receive a ticket, and they will be socially condemned by other drivers for doing so. These two negative actions form discouragements that uphold the standard of the law. When persons view that others are following the law, they reciprocate this action by doing the same, in turn creating a hierarchy of power that governs their actions.



Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Collins, 2007. Print.

Pavlich, George. Law & Society: Redefined. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Science of Persuasion. Influence Network. 2012. Youtube Video.


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