Michael Foucault (1926-1984) was a radical thinker who introduced the idea of Panopticism, describing us as docile bodies with no resistance to power, explaining that we are controlled by institutions and institutional powers within society.

The great Confinement in the late 1600’s was a time when attitudes to people who were mad, alcoholics, orphans, criminals all changed. Everyone in society had to be seen as being a productive member. Thus ‘Houses of Correction’ were established to curb this ‘unemployment and idleness’. Inside the houses of correction these ‘idle’ members of society were forced to do manual labour, if they refused they would be punished. In this way labour was used as a exercise of reform. Though this became seen as a bad idea, for the people within these correction centres were corrupting/negatively influencing each other.

Screen Shot 2012-10-25 at 11.19.14womens-house-of-correction

This led us on to the birth of the asylum. Developed to only house people who had specific ‘abnormalities’ such as the orphan children and the mad. Rather than beating them, they tried more advanced methods, such as positive reinforcement, working through mental control rather than physical – this is the birth of modern discipline.
During this time the emergence of knowledge such as biology, psychiatry, medicine etcetera legitimised the practices of hospitals, doctors and psychiatrists.
Foucault aimed to show how these forms of knowledge and the rationalising institutions like prison, the asylum, the hospital, the school, now affect human beings in such a way that they alter our conciousness and that they internalise our responsibility.

Pre-modern societies would show the power of the state through punishment and violence, that of which was very public, to leave you as an example. Some examples of this are hangings, dismemberment, the stocks.


Disciplinary Society and Disciplinary Power according to Foucault:
“Discipline is a ‘technology’ (aimed at) ‘how to keep someone under surveillance, how to control his conduct, his behaviour, his aptitudes, how to improve his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him where he is most useful: that is discipline in my sense”

The Panopticon proposed in 1791 by Jeremy Benthem was designed to work as anything, whatever it would be it would maximise productivity. It was a round building composed of individual units around the outer sides (for workers, prisoners, those being disciplined) which were all open to an atrium in the centre (for those of power).


The Panopticon internalises the individual concious state, that he is always being watched, thus people begin to automatically self control. A good example of this in modern society is CCTV, cameras are everywhere these days, but we can’t ever be certain if theirs anyone watching the footage being captured, or if its even turned on, yet we behave as if it is because we are concious that we could be being watched and behave accordingly.


The Panopticon also functioned somewhat as a laboratory, the people within were effectively lab-rats in a  cage as these inmates were experimented on. It allowed scrutiny- The supervisors were able to experiment on subjects in an aim to make them more productive.


Foucault describes a transformation in western societies from a form of power imposed by a ‘ruler’ or ‘sovereign’ to a new mode of power called Panopticism.

More examples of Panopticism in our society today other than CCTV are all around us, open plan bars and restaurants so that it is easier monitor people.
Power is not a thing or a capacity, people have it is a relation between different individuals and groups and only exists when being exercised. the exercise of power relies on there being the capacity for power to be resisted. where there is power there is resistance.

Foucault’s Books:
Madness and Civilisation
Discipline & Punish: The birth of prison