May 24, 2008

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Source: Immigrants demonstrating, 1973 (Magnum). From the Michel Foucault.com site

In book one Understanding Everyday Life Foucault pops up early on pp xi-xii.

This introduces us to the idea of cultural technologies such as photography, cinema, TV, the Internet. Not only do these technologies provide an opportinity to extend cultural representation but thay can also be used as new forms of social discipline and provide new forms of surveillance. Foucault did a lot of work on modern disciplinary systems such as the prison, the school, the asylum, the hospital.

The book takes us into the makings of a new disciplinary society where visual communications has an aspect to it which has been described as 'ocular penetration' as people are more and more watched by anonymous powers. People are made visible in different ways through bureaucratic means such as statistics as well as visually based systems of surveillance such as security cameras. Here you might want to think about how the American censuses managed to construct and reconstruct "race" see page 161 book two Social Differences and Divisions. you can also find reference to Foucault's notion of biopower, on page 352 of book 3 Social Change. Here a reading from Donna Haraway describes what she understands by this term:

I understand Foucault's (1978) concept of biopower to refer to the practices of administration, therapeutics and surveillance of bodies that discursively constitute, increase and manage the forces of all living organisms. 

Haraway points to the invention of particular terms in the 19th century as examples such as:

  • The masturbating child
  • The Malthusian couple reproducing far too many children
  • The 'hysterical' woman
  • The homosexual 'pervert' 

For Foucault this tendency of descending individualisation marked a change from earlier societies where the Kings & Queens etc were very much on display whilst the plebs were largely invisible. Making ordinary people visible to invisible powers made them more governable.

On page 69 of book 1 Understanding Everyday Life you will find some discussion about foucault and his ideas on discourse. You will find more on both in your dictionary of sociology as well:

discourse refers to the social rules practices and forms of knowledge that govern what is sayable and doable in any given context (p 69)

Think about how this concept can be applied to ideas such as:

  • Race
  • Romance
  • Gender 

We can also think about Foucault when we come to book 4 The Uses of Sociology when we contemplate the role of sociology. The political perspective of sociology (p106) can be seen through the light of Foucault's expression 'power is always present'. The social knowledge generated by sociological thinking and research means that sociology is inevitably connected with social change usually in terms of emancipation and social change.  

For your exam try and think how the work of some key theorists can be related to the various threads across all the books rather than just thinking of the books as discreet entitities.  


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