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Michel Foucault’s Subject of Power Essay


Power is present in all spheres of life. Michel Foucault has enormously shaped the idea of power present in institutions. According to Foucault, power is often used as a means of coercion. The main philosophy that he delineates is that power is everywhere and it gains eminence through regimes of discourse (Foucault 778). This paper is an exercise to understand the presence of power within a university campus.

The first part of the paper will discuss the philosophy of power as presented by Foucault. Power is defined by Foucault as a relation between groups and forces within a social institution:

The term “power” designates relationships between partners (and by that I am not thinking of a zero-sum game but simply, and for the moment staying in the most general terms, of an ensemble of actions which induce others and follow from one another) (Foucault 786).

The power as Foucault defines is not imposed from within the structure of the institution. Instead, it arises from relations in the society. Foucault states that there are different modes of power – disciplinary modes of power and social power (Foucault 53). Power is not related to any institution nor does it arise out of force. Power does not exist individually.

It is present with other powers institutionalized by other bodies. According to Foucault, power is passes through the institutions and does not belong to individuals. Furthermore, Foucault also demonstrates that the concept of modern discipline has developed through this new understanding of power within institutions.

The panopticon system is the way power is institutionalized within a modern setting (Foucault, Power/Knowedlge 155). Foucault states that there is no “exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth” (Foucault 93). The concept of power as delineated by Foucault has certain facets:

  1. Power is found in relation to the social body and these two things co-exist,
  2. Power relations are interlinked with other forms of relations,
  3. These relations do not dictate the nature of “prohibitions and punishments”,
  4. These discourses are unified into a unitary form of domination. (Foucault 142)

Power can be used for establishment of power, knowledge, and competency (Foucault 781). Further, these struggles can be used against the group of “domination and exploration” (Foucault 782). The question that arises is that how the power is exercised. Foucault presents the answer to this question:

Power relations, relationships of communication, and objective capacities should not therefore be confused. This is not to say that there is a question of three separate domains.

Nor that there is, on the one hand, the field of things, of perfected technique, work, and the transformation of the real; on the other that of signs, communication, reciprocity, and the production of meaning; and finally, that of the domination of the means of constraint, of inequality, and the action of men upon other men (Foucault 786-787).

The presence of power within institutions requires obedience through recognition of power relations. The discipline of apprenticeship is necessary for appropriate communication of power, according to Foucault. The next section of the paper will discuss how power is structured within universities.

This section will delineate the issues of power that is evident within a university campus. Universities are structured in three broad groups. The first group of people is the educators or the professors. They are the ones who are in possession of knowledge and therefore, due to their abundance of knowledge, they hold a specific power over others in the institution.

This group also has an institutionalized superiority in the mind of the other groups in the university. For instance, students realize the power that the professors have through popular discourse of teacher’s superiority. The second group is that of the students. This the largest group within the educational institution.

They are the ones who are present in the university to gain knowledge and therefore, they hold a position of submissiveness. Further, the third group includes other people associated with the university. These may include the accounting staff, people at the library, and so on. These three are the broad groups; however, there are many other subgroups within these broader groups.

Who has power in the universities? In any educational institution, considering that they are the institutions of knowledge, power is present among the people who have more knowledge. According to Foucault, individual professors do not have the power.

The power they have does not come from their individual knowledge or positions. It is the institution of the professors. In other words, the group of people who control the dissemination of knowledge in an educational institution is the group that probably holds the maximum power within a university.

Foucault states “power exists only when it put to action” (789). In case of the group of students, the power originates from the groups that are formed. For instance, a student’s body, which has been elected to represent to the administrators, holds the power. The members of this body instantly hold the greater power than the other members of the students’ body.

Further, these people hold greater power because it is discoursed by the institutional machinery that they are the ones who represent the others to the administration, and therefore possess the greater power. Therefore, even the others within the students’ body feel that these students are important. The power of the students in the university is almost similar to that of papal power, which they hold over other students.

The others consider the students’ body almost as a group of priests who have remarkable power to transfer the wishes of the students to the administrators. Therefore, the belief that they are the only people who can transport the ideas to the others is a possible way in which the students’ body derives power.

The other possible source of power within the educational institution is observable in the student-teacher interaction. Students are the subjects and the objects of submission, while the teachers are the source of power.

The teachers’ body, due to greater knowledge available to them, holds a higher position and is the one who watches over the students through instruments such as projects, presentations, and examinations.

The power that the teachers hold is again the one that is discoursed to them, rather than the ones which arise out of position. Hence, Foucault rejects the concept of positional power, and fosters the belief that power is one that is created through the confrontation of the two bodies, in this case , the students and the teachers’ body. Foucault has explained the existence of power in relation to civil authorities and the criminals as:

Basically, power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of government. … “Government” did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; … to govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others. (Foucault 786)

Hence, the power one attains within the government is also the one that the others should abide. Had there been no discourse of the existence and the perceived superiority of the government, power would not have become such an important tool (Fanon 176).

The power that the governing bodies assumed, or any other bodies within the universities, was not derived from the structure of the institution, but from the mode of actions of the people.

The main issue is that the groups in the university provide that power emerges as a game of freedom. The process in which one group or the other within the university seeks freedom is a method in which power is created within the organization. As one tries to attain freedom, the other tries to bind it using the rules and regulations of the institution.

In this way, the governing bodies of the universities again hold power over the students as well as the teachers’ body. This is a spiral chain of power and the effect of it extends to all the bodies within the institution. The presence of the power within the organization, be it an educational intuition or any other, power arises from the beliefs and perception of people and through the hierarchical machinery.

Power is a system that is enforced through ages of discourse. Thus, the case study of a university shows that power, as Foucault asserted, arises not from the structure of the organization but through various methods of interaction and actions.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Paris: Grove Press, 1963. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowedlge. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982): 777-795. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, April 23). Michel Foucault’s Subject of Power. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/michel-foucaults-subject-of-power-essay/

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1. IvyPanda. "Michel Foucault’s Subject of Power." April 23, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/michel-foucaults-subject-of-power-essay/.


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IvyPanda. 2019. "Michel Foucault’s Subject of Power." April 23, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/michel-foucaults-subject-of-power-essay/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Michel Foucault’s Subject of Power'. 23 April.

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