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Panopticism in Michael Foucault’s Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” Analytical Essay


The theory of panopticism is very crucial for social and political development in society. This theory is built around the concept of a panopticon. This is a circular building that has an observation tower at its center and an outer wall surrounding it. The wall of the panopticon has cells for its occupants.

It seeks to explain the concept of security in the society. The modern era embraces the use of technology in almost all societal aspects including security (Backer, 2008; Tække, 2011). This paper explores the theory of panopticism as expounded by Michel Foucault.

It links this theory to several aspects in society. These include surveillance in a technology conscious society and power. Also, it relates the concept of synopticism as explored by Methiesen to panopticism by Foucault. It uses simple, best, and updated prevailing societal examples to explore this concept.

Panopticism theory by Michel Foucault

The theory of panopticism as expounded by Michael Foucault explains how power relations take place in society. The society is characterized by power systems that determine many political and social relations in society. Foucault explains this theory in his book titled “Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison”.

This book is written metaphorically where life is likened to a panopticon. According to Foucault, all aspects of life in the society are controlled by the authority. Therefore, the actions of people in the society are shaped, not by the strength of the locus of authority, but the fear of sanctions from those in power.

This is a real concept and can be likened to the theory of power by Gene Sharpe among many other political theorists. Foucault uses the example of the ancient cities in which lepers were separated from the healthy population by the authority. People in early societies were separated by the authority that led to the formation of classes in cities.

The authority discovered that it was easy to control people when they are subdivided into segments. Each segment has its characteristics, behaviors, and preference. This is the basis on which the Panopticon was developed (Backer, 2008).

The panopticon is used metaphorically and denotes a circular building that has multiple rings of cells on top of one another. There is a tower situated in the central part of the building that is used for monitoring the activities of the occupants. The occupants are prisoners.

The cells have enough space for more than a single prisoner and are separated from each other by walls to destruct prisoners from seeing each other. This is meant to bar the prisoners from meeting one another and acting collectively. They are left to work individually so that they can be easily manipulated.

The front of the cells is sealed by bars so that prisoners can easily be monitored from the monitor-tower. The back of the cells has windows that allow light into the cells thus prisoners cannot hide. The prisoners are powerless inside the panopticon.

They can see the person at the tower, which according to Foucault, has no use since there are enough restrictions to prisoners from escaping. The prisoners always have a fear of acting the reason being that they are being watched by the guard at the tower which might not be the case. The guard may even be absent or not watching the prisoners (Simon, 2005).

According to Foucault, this situation can be likened to the workplace or a learning environment in the society where workers are curtailed by the supervisory restrictions. Workers are forced to obey the orders, not by belief in the orders, but by virtue of fearing the reaction from the supervisors who are monitoring them.

Thus, the bulk of societal institutions do not lie in those people who command power in them, but the fear of the vulnerable population serving the institutions (Simon, 2005).

Panopticism theory and Surveillance in a technological society

The theory of panopticism by Foucault explains how power relations take place in society. According to Foucault, power systems in the society are rooted in surveillance. Power systems in the society conditions people to have a certain code of behavior.

The real panoptical power is evident in ancient disciplinary institutions like asylum centers, schools, factories, and even clinics. However, it is also evident in societal institutions in modern institutions that embrace modern technology as witnessed in spatial patterns of relations in the prevailing society.

The present society constitutes numerous aspects of surveillance. This is because the modern society has been marked with dangers emanating from natural and man-made disasters like earthquakes, terrorist activities, and epidemics. Some of the perceived risks in society like terrorism utilize technology.

Therefore, societal institutions are forced to respond to mitigate these risks by combining technology in their responses. The major source of insecurity to human life in the society today is the human being himself. Thus, security systems are centered on monitoring humans (Simon, 2005).

The recent security events in the world like the September 11th terrorist attacks have spearheaded the use of technology in surveillance. Security studies are becoming a common phenomena aiming to help bring about social order in the society.

Surveillance systems that are commonly used in institutions include dataveillance and biometrics. These security systems are being made to be a norm in the society. However, the implementation of these security systems has been questioned by many people leading to the question of whether they can truly result in the social order within the society.

In the course of implementing security systems, many people are victimized with many innocent people dying in security operations (Gray, 2003).

People have been imprisoned into living by life itself in the society. With the threats facing society, those in power have chosen to enhance surveillance mechanisms so that they are not reached with the wrath of the risks. Individual lives of the subjects of power are subjected to checking, monitoring, and scrutiny.

It is hard for any activity to go on in the absence of tracking, verification, and some other security devices. Advanced security surveillance systems are common in sensitive areas like Airports (Marion & Yves, 2011).

Human institutions are implementing digitalized systems of security for instance security alarms and surveillance cameras like the CCTV and other monitoring devices. Surveillance is controlled from different angles most of which use computerized systems.

While individuals are supposed to be protected by the surveillance mechanisms, they still remain to be subjects of surveillance itself. They are confronted in the daily activities by the surveillance activities all in the name of beefing up human security. The people are confronted on a daily basis by surveillance activities.

The users of technology are also exposed to the threats and dangers of cyber terrorists. However, they are also exposed to the dangers of victimization by the centers that control surveillance. People can be tracked wrongly with the manipulation of technology by the centers of control of surveillance (Tække, 2011).

Urban surveillance has been beefed up through the use of technological surveillance equipment. However, the urban population has remained exposed to insecurity due to threats of terrorism. Until the surveillance is transformed into quantitative value, it will remain to be of little importance to the population (Simon, 2005).

Panopticism and power

When the political and social landscape is assessed, the features of organization in society are molded on the old forms. The people are segmented by the interplay of the political, economic, and social forces in society. The only difference with the old societal organization is that the modern form of organization subdividing the society is more advanced.

People often find themselves in groups unknowingly. The political, social, and economic forces are structured such that the result is segmentation of society for ease of control by the authority. Each institution in society has a center of authority which acts like the tower in the panopticon (Tække, 2011).

Power is a central issue in society and is the determinant of the way institutions functions in society. Panopticism explains how power influences the way people behave. It is evident in society today that power is being institutionalized.

Societal institutions have organizational power that lies in the organizational leadership or management. Workers in organizations act like prisoners in the panopticon. They are always pressures to deliver by the management. The administration of the public and private sectors is centered on regulations from the centers of power in the institutions.

Political power influences the publics through sanctions and threats of not following a certain political course. Many political institutions in the world are existent not because people like them but because people fear to react negatively on them because of the fear of reaction (Backer, 2008).

Thomas Mathiesen’s theory of ‘synopticism’ and Foucault’s theory

The concept of the synoptic on is an extrapolation of the concept of panopticon. In this concept, panoptical power represents an important transformation of a situation where few people watch many people to a situation where many people watch the few.

It offers another basis of explaining how societal institutions work. It is the opposite of panopticism and gives a new look into the understanding power relations in society. The watchers as in the synopticon are faceted by locality and spirituality which makes them united in their course of action.

It explicates the concept of power in social institutions form the global perspective as a result of globalization. The masses are becoming more proactive and shape political and social institutions and the actions of these institutions.

This is evident in the global movements that are pushing for certain courses of humanity such as human rights and environmental movements (Mathiesen, 1997).

The panopticon explains the concept of power or domination and control in society by the political and social authority. It fails to explain how the society responds to the aspects of power and control in society. The synopticon theory is reactions and thus adds to the panopticon theory.

It explains how the subjects of domination and control in society respond to power and how they influence they in turn influence the course of events. Therefore, the concept of the sysnopticon has a symbiotic relationship with the panopticism theory (Mathiesen, 1997).


The theory of panopticism is crucial in explaining how power works out in society. It also helps explain the prevailing surveillance systems in this technological era.

Power greatly influences the actions and behaviors of people in society. On the other hand, there is the theory of Synopticism which is a contradiction to panopticism. It expounds how power plays out in the globalized society.


Backer, L.C. (2008). Global panopticism: States, corporations, and the governance effects of monitoring regimes. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies. 15(1): 101-148.

Gray, M. (2003). Urban Surveillance and Panopticism: will we recognize the facial recognition society? Surveillance & Society, 1(3): 314-330.

Marion, B. & Yves, G. (2011). Beyond panopticism: On the ramifications of surveillance in a contemporary professional setting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 36(3): 135–155.

Mathiesen, T. (1997). The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s Panopticon’ Revisited. Theoretical Criminology. 1 (2): 215-234.

Simon, B. (2005). The Return of Panopticism: Supervision, Subjection and New Surveillance. Surveillance & Society. 3(1): 1-20.

Tække, J. (2011). Digital panopticism and organizational power. Surveillance & Society, 8(4): 441-454.

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"Panopticism in Michael Foucault's Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison"." IvyPanda, 28 Jan. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/panopticism-2/.

1. IvyPanda. "Panopticism in Michael Foucault's Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison"." January 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/panopticism-2/.


IvyPanda. "Panopticism in Michael Foucault's Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison"." January 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/panopticism-2/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Panopticism in Michael Foucault's Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison"." January 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/panopticism-2/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Panopticism in Michael Foucault's Book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison"'. 28 January.

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