Michel Foucault 15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984 was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, philologist and literary critic. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Though often cited as a post-structuralist and postmodernist, Foucault rejected these labels, preferring to present his thought as a critical history of modernity. His thought has been highly influential both for academic and for activist groups, especially those working within contemporary sociology, cultural studies, and critical theory.
Foucault has served as theoretical inspiration across a multitude of disciplines, so much so that the term “Foucauldian” is often applied to analyses that utilize his theoretical approach. Outside of academia, Foucault’s work is of interest to anyone looking to better understand and appreciate the subtle ways that power works in social life, particularly with regard to how seemingly mundane practices and ideas structure our personal experiences and senses of self. History for him was a store house of good ideas. He wanted to raid it rather than keep it pristine and untouched. We should use Foucault as an inspiration to look at dominant ideas and institutions of our times and to question them by looking at their histories and evolutions.
For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power). It is important to note that Foucault understood power/knowledge as productive as well as constraining. Power/knowledge not only limits what we can do, but also opens up new ways of acting and thinking about ourselves.
Foucault argues that discipline is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behavior of social actors through subtle means. In contrast to the brute, sovereign force exercised by monarchs or lords, discipline works by organizing space (e.g. the way a prison or classroom is built), time (e.g. the set times you are expected to be at work each day), and everyday activities. Surveillance is also an integral part of disciplinary practices. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that modern society is a “disciplinary society,” meaning that power in our time is largely exercised through disciplinary means in a variety of institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, militaries, etc.).