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Foucauldian Discourse on Punishment

Foucauldian Discourse on Punishment

It is noteworthy that the power and techniques of punishment depend on knowledge that creates and classifies individuals, and that knowledge derives its authority from certain relationships of power and domination (Sparknotes, 2006).

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However, it is in the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault on penal institutionsthat the idea of punishment as part of a discourse of power is made explicit. In this paper, I will critically assess Foucault’s discourse concept on punishment as well as Bentham’s panopticon theory demonstrating the extent of Foucault’s concept towards punishment.

Disciplinary institutions are, by and large, places where power is exercised and coursed through various mechanisms. Without doubt, it is in Discipline and Punish (1977) that Foucault’s concern with discipline and surveillance becomes even more pronounced than his other genealogical works. In this work he examines the progressive sophistication of disciplinary mechanisms such as punishments employed in prisons that are in fact, upon closer scrutiny, representative of the same progression of disciplinary mechanisms in society. He undertook an examination of power relations using the penal institution as a take-off point, for the primary reason that it is here where the different disciplinary techniques used in the exercise of power are more evident.

At the outset, he shows how torture and execution was made a public spectacle; with the condemned man being paraded in a manner deemed suited to the crime he committed. Interestingly however, public tortures and executions soon became a ‘hidden’ affair, with the condemned man being transferred secretly from one place to another in a manner as inconspicuous as possible, using plain carriages with no particular distinguishing mark indicating that the cargo was a convicted felon. Nevertheless, Foucault points out the concern that the institution has with the ‘body’, a preoccupation that the prison has in common with the asylum and the hospital and, upon close examination, with other institutions as well(Foucault, 1977, p.25).

The shifting of torture and execution from the public to the private realm (resulting in more economical disciplinary techniques) subtly demonstrates how mechanisms of discipline evolve and take other forms. In an interview, Foucault states:

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What I wanted to show is the fact that, starting from a certain conception of the basis of the right to punish, one can find in the work of penal experts and philosophers of the 18th century that different means of punishment were perfectly conceivable. Indeed in the reform movement… one finds a whole spectrum of means to punish that are suggested, and finally it happens that the prison was in some way, the privileged one (Foucault, in Lotringer, 1989, p.286).

Using the prison as an example, Foucault demonstrates how such disciplinary institutions utilize different techniques to form ‘docile bodies’: a direct coercion of the body to produce both productive subjects and instruments with which to channel power (Foucault, 1977, p.136). This is a positive perspective of power, because through subjection and subjugation, the individual at once becomes a productive body through direct bodily training. There is a purpose to an institution’s exercise of power, depending upon the nature of that institution; at most, what can be said insofar as purpose is concerned is that institutions all aim at producing ‘docile bodies’ in whatever form the latter may take. Again, this depends on what type of individual an institution intends to fashion. Docile body simply refers to the type of individual that is trained and disciplined in the context of a power relation in an institution.

In discussing productivity, it can be understood to refer to the capacity of institutions to produce individuals of a specific type, utilizing punishments as mechanisms. In their book, Michel Foucault (1984), Cousins and Hussains write “that imprisonment is also enveloped in a mechanism of power” (p. 173). Foucault sees discipline, therefore, as combinative: it functions to combine elements, in this case, individuals, into a uniform mass not through the individual variables found in each element, but through the characteristics imposed upon it because of the space it occupies. Hence, the space defines the capabilities of each individual, which in turn contribute to the collective function of the mass. As it were, the individual is trained through its designation or position, the series that is relevant to his codified space, and through the issuance of a systematic order or command from the authority (Foucault, 1977, p.166).

In the following part, it will be made evident that for Foucault, the institutional role of the prison-model of society paves the way for control and observation. At the end of the chapter entitled Panopticism, Foucault explicitly stated:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, and its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (p. 228).

In this particular passage, Foucault outlines the mechanisms that the prison uses in controlling criminality. On closer examination, what he in fact outlines are the mechanisms that operate within different social institutions. This is a noteworthy point, since the institutions that he mentioned, i.e. factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, all function in essentially the same way as the modern prison. These all use specific procedures and techniques to discipline subjects.

Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the “Panopticon” became an influential model for modern day architectural efficiency. In short, the prison that he envisioned in the late 18th century was to be constructed in such a way as to have the individual cells arranged in a circular manner, with an observation tower at the centre of the formation, light coming from the outside of the cells illumines the inmate for whoever is staying at the observation tower, while the observer in the tower itself remains hidden from the cells’ occupants (See. Figure 1). This arrangement reverses, yet makes even more powerful, the traditional notion of incarceration that is, the putting away of criminality. Thus, to assume that someone is in the observation tower even if there is no one there is the full effect of the “Panopticon”. Foucault (1977) further clarified:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary… in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (p. 201)

It can be seen that central to the effective use of the panoptic principle is the efficiency of surveillance mechanisms. The latter should function in such a way as to force the recipient of disciplinary power to keep watch over his/her own actions, because of the fact that s/he is being observed by the authority figure. The concept of the gaze is what makes discipline work. In the panoptic model, visibility becomes the central principle that governs incarceration. In other words, For Foucault, the “Panopticon” represents the way in which discipline and punishment work in modern society. It is a diagram of power in action because by looking at a plan of the “Panopticon”, one realizes how the processes of observation and examination operate (Sparknotes, 2006).

To my way of thinking, by and large the foucauldian concept of discourse towards punishment is an explicit, objective and realistic extensive concept with an array of persuasive arguments and insights on power and techniques of punishment that reflect the modern penal system and simultaneously the various mechanisms of observation and examination.

On the whole, what is made evident at this point is that punishment in Foucault should be understood as something much broader than simple retribution. Instead, punishment is an act that is subsumed under the notion of discipline, or training. As such, the prison institution is designed to re-form a criminal into an individual who can be reintegrated into mainstream society, in order to be made useful and productive once more. As already mentioned, the mechanisms used by society are by and large the same mechanisms of discipline used in institutions such as the prison. Within this larger framework, it is implied that the notion of punishment, in all its forms, operate as a part of a purposeful social design within which all other theories become possible. What is positive about such a societal setup is the fact that techniques such as punishments are not entirely negative or prohibitive. Relations of power are important for Foucault because of the positive effects borne out of it. As a final positive note, consider what he says that is summed up best in an interview:

It seems to me that power is ‘always already there’, that one is never ‘outside’ it… But this does not entail the necessity of accepting an inescapable form of domination… To say that one can never be ‘outside’ power does not mean that one is trapped and condemned to defeat no matter what (Foucault, 1980, p.141).

While Foucault did not agree with the prison per se as the best form of punishment, he saw in the prison a mechanism that, as used by the society, functions as a state mechanism for internalizing discipline. That means the individual would be responsible for governing or disciplining himself from within. Every time the person “feels the gaze” (i.e. domination), he would be forced to govern himself. In other words, the effects of discipline are felt even though the disciplinary power is absent. The prison is therefore not simply a place for punishment, but a model of an effective mechanism.


Cousins, M. & Hussain, A. (1984)Michel Foucault. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Macey, D. (1994) The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Vintage.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. Alan Sheridan Trans. New York:

Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1989.) What calls for Punishment? In: Lotringer, S. ed. Foucault Live.

New York: Columbia University, pp. 279-292.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power and Strategies. In: Gordon, C. ed. Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon, pp. 134-145.

Sparknotes. (2006). Michael Foucault: Discipline and Punish. Available: Last accessed 1 March 2007.

Panopticon (Prison’s Plan)

Figure 1

From Discipline and Punish, 1977

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