"Discipline and Punish" by Michel Foucault

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault deals with the disciplinary institutions and practices that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While Discipline and Punish is concerned with the birth of the prison in modern Europe, it has far wider implications for the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Notions such as micro-power, disciplinary institutions, panopticism - which I will discuss in this paper - help us to understand how modern western society organizes itself, and regulates people's thoughts and behavior.

Foucault developed Discipline and Punish through the research methods he called archaeology and genealogy. Basically, both methods work to uncover the discursive formations and practices of different historical periods, but genealogy has a greater focus on questions of power, and the ways in which discursive power works on bodies. Power shows itself on a subject's body because various events or happenings are 'written' on the body - they shape the way we perform, or act out, our bodily selves.

In focusing on the body Foucault traces the workings of power at a micro-level. He explicitly distinguishes his approach from studies of power that focus on the dominating role of important individuals and institutions. Foucault wants to 'cut off the king's head', as it were, so that we can recognize power not as a property of the mighty (kings, presidents, generals, accountants), but rather as a set of forces which establishes positions and ways of behaving that influence people in their everyday lives. (Foucault, p.17)

Foucault's notion of micro-power can be distinguished from the concept of hegemony as outlined by Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that powerful groups don't necessarily have to impose their values on the less powerful by the use of direct force. Often, less powerful groups come to accept that the differences in levels of power and economic wealth within a society are natural and just, and so will consent to the rule of their 'betters'. When working class people vote for conservative parties (as happened in the United Kingdom at the time of Margaret Thatcher), they are effectively agreeing that the status quo (their relative disadvantage) is the best way to organize society, and are consenting to the rule of the more privileged class. That is to say, hegemony works at the levels of people's minds, because they come to believe or think that the operations of power in society are natural and just, rather than being forced to accept social relations. One is tied to punishment -- for instance, the idea of disciplining a disobedient child. The second relates to a body of skills and knowledge's: we can identify an academic discipline such as history or sociology, or we can speak of the variety of disciplines to be mastered if you want to become a rock guitarist, a ballet dancer or a professional footballer. So the first meaning understands discipline as a verb -- an action we perform on other people or ourselves. The second meaning sees discipline as a noun -- a set of qualities that we need to master in order to be recognized and valued within a particular field. The first meaning also views discipline as a negative force, tied up with punishment and coercive behavior. The second values discipline as a positive force, something tied up with self-empowerment and achievement. ...

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