Michael Foucault was an advocate of freedom for all people and viewed people as individuals who have different opinions on things they encounter. He wrote books to put across what he believed. He concentrated most on the systems of knowledge and other practices which existed in different times of history. As he did this, he also focused on the social frameworks which had been set up and allowed changes to take place, i.e. how power was practiced in the society. This paper explores how Foucault approaches the relationship between power and knowledge.
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How Foucault approaches the relationship between power and knowledge
Talking of power, Foucault (1980) says that it is a very vital concept of people’s lives as it influences their way of doing things, attitudes and relationships with one another. On the other hand, he was of the opinion that knowledge is an aspect of power and that power is able to produce knowledge as opposed to acting as a deterrent to it. He noted that one of the ways that knowledge can be gained is through observation.
His strong conviction was that power and knowledge were not different entities as perceived by many and this belief led him to write the two as: knowledge/power, meaning that he could use them interchangeably. He is quoted to have said that when knowledge and power are used together, they not only have the effect that truth alone would have but they exude the power to become the truth. Application of knowledge in the world causes an effect where it is applied and this can therefore be referred to as ‘truth’. Knowledge therefore can be used to put forth measures to ensure that the conduct of people is regulated.
He strongly believed that power was not constrained in a particular place or with a specific person but existed everywhere and also its source is everywhere. His school of thought was something important because power is what guides that relationship between people. Foucault viewed power positively only and did not see any negative effects it could have on people. Contrary to many people’s opinion that power is a tool responsible for repression and concealing, Foucault believed that power is a tool for generating reality.
Foucault suggested the Panopticon technique as one of the methods of controlling power/ knowledge. This is a method that was first designed by Jeremy Bentham which would be effective when used on prisoners and institutions such as schools and hospitals. His suggestion was that the Panopticon method would be used in place of the violent methods that were used to try and gain control over the prisoners and other people.
The Panopticon method involved separation of prisoners from one another and then observing them from a point where they could not see the observer. By doing so, the prisoners would develop an internal awareness that they are being observed always and the guards doing the observation would have succeeded in gaining control over the prisoners without using inhuman ways like torture. Using the Panopticon model, Foucault was able to look into the relationships that exist between people in authority and their subjects and also explore the concept of power and knowledge.
What he noted in relation to power and knowledge is that they are a result of observing other people. Using the example of the monitoring of prisoners, Foucault (1980) noted that such monitoring resulted in the people under surveillance acknowledging and obeying the rules and regulations without being coerced or forced to do so. Obedience to the authority arises not because people are being monitored but because they internalize the right conduct and continues with it even when they are not under surveillance. On the other hand, the observer gains more power from observing the people and their behavior. The knowledge they gain from their observation strengthens their power over the people under observation.
Foucault addresses the issue of power and how it relates to knowledge. He is of the opinion that there is no major distinction between the two. He further uses the Panopticon method suggested by Jeremy Bentham to show how one can gain control over people through observation.
Foucault, M., 1980. Power/ knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings. Brington: Harvester.