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Michel Foucault Discourse Theory

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Michel Foucault Discourse Theory

Michel Foucault's theories and research into language, power, and social control is some of the most influential of our time. Foucault's discourse theory encourages us to question what is 'true' and to ask who in society benefits. This is one of Foucault's main arguments: everything is an exercise in power, and there is always somebody who benefits.

This article will provide a summary of some of Foucault's most influential thoughts and introduce you to:

Let's begin!

Foucault Discourse Definition

You have probably heard the term discourse before, but what does it actually mean? In everyday life, discourse refers to any written or spoken text. However, for theorists, it usually means a little more than that.

When discussing Foucault and his discourse theory, the term refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truth. Foucault suggests that the ‘truths’ that shape our lives don’t simply ‘exist’ but are created through discourse.

It’s important to note that not all theorists agree with this line of thinking. It’s pretty radical to believe there are no absolute truths!

Michel Foucault Discourse Theory, Statue of the Goddess of Justice and Truth, StudySmarter JustAccording to Foucault, knowledge and truth are centred on language, Pixabay

Examples of discourse: Foucault

As you can probably imagine, there are thousands of examples of discourse. Here is a short list just to give you an idea.

  • A professor talking to their class

  • A newspaper headline or report

  • A presidential speech

  • A novel

  • A magazine cover

  • Friends having a conversation

Foucault Theory

Foucault's discourse theory examines how people express themselves through language and suggests that the structures of power shape how people communicate in society.

Foucault discourse summary

Individuals all draw from a shared ‘pool of knowledge’ when communicating. This knowledge pool is typically accepted by the wider society and becomes further legitimised the more people use, share, and distribute it. Over time, this pool of knowledge slowly changes as people add to it and adapt it, meaning the things society deem to be ‘true’ can, and do, change over time.

Witches

In Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, around 3-4000 people (predominantly women) were executed for being ‘witches’. These so-called witches were typically quite poor, and therefore not powerful, and didn’t conform to society's ‘norms’. There was, of course, no proof that there ever were witches, but the idea that these people could be witches was spread by the more powerful members of society through 'discourse'. The accepted ‘pool of knowledge’ was that the ‘outsiders’ of society could be accused of witchcraft. Today, this is no longer the case, and our knowledge pool has changed considerably!

Discourse theory recognises that certain people, or groups of people, are in a position to influence the pool of knowledge far more easily than others. It is typically people in positions of perceived power who can change and influence what we believe to be ‘true’. The term perceived power has been used here because what is deemed ‘powerful’ can differ across cultures.

Factors that can affect a person’s perceived power include:

  • Socio-economic status (wealth and class)

  • Occupation

  • Education level

  • Gender

  • Ethnicity and race

A white male doctor may have more influence than a black female nurse. This isn't necessarily because what he says is guaranteed to be more ‘true’, but because his occupation, gender, and race all play a role in giving him power, directly influencing how others perceive what he says.

Take a minute to reflect on why you think being a white male doctor gives someone more power in the UK. Do you think this is the same across the world? Do you think power relations are changing?

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian interested in the construction of knowledge and power through discourse. Foucault believed that discourse is created by those in power for specific reasons and is often used as a form of social control. He is typically associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist movements.

Foucault was critical of those in power, especially the French Bourgeoisie, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain yet were able to conceal (hide) their intentions. I.e., Powerful people in society create knowledge that is eventually considered the norm, and others are unaware they’ve done so!

In this context, it might be helpful to think of discourse as a ‘narrative’. For example, UK tabloid newspapers built a narrative that refugees cost taxpayers lots of money. Who do you think benefits from this narrative?

Foucault was considered a structuralist as he examined the structures of knowledge (here, knowledge is regarded as the object of discourse). Later, he was considered a post-structuralist when he shifted his analysis to the subjects of discourse (the subjects are people!) and questioned how and why discourse could govern the way people think and behave.

Foucault and power

Foucault didn’t believe there was just one form of power. Instead, he recognised several different types, they are:

  • Sovereign power

  • Disciplinary power

  • Pastoral power

  • Bio-power

Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.

Sovereign power

This is the form of power you are probably most familiar with. It is the power held by those in positions of authority, such as Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister, or a headteacher.

Disciplinary power

Disciplinary power is related to Foucault’s theory of gaze - the idea that people will regulate their behaviour if they believe they’re being watched. This is the type of power we exercise over ourselves to fit the norm and be an ‘acceptable’ member of society. You could say it’s similar to self-restraint.

Pastoral power

This term has religious roots but isn’t necessarily confined to religion. Pastoral power refers to acting in a certain way to ensure the safety and security of all. For example, it could be said that the police hold pastoral power as they exert power for the good of the wider community (although not all members of society would necessarily agree with this).

Bio-power

Foucault coined the term bio-power to refer to the government’s administration and recording of bio issues, such as birth and death rates, race, class, and gender. Foucault stated that this mode of power impacted how we view ourselves in relation to the wider community.

Foucault Discourse Analysis

Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA), sometimes called Foucaultian discourse analysis, is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. The method is based on Foucault’s theory of discourse and social control and aims to expose how those with power control people through language.

Discourse analysis = An in-depth and usually critical analysis of written, spoken, or signed language, examining how language fits into society.

Foucauldian discourse analysis is grounded in constructivism and critical theory. It critiques the power structures in society and aims to understand how language can construct societal knowledge and uphold existing power structures. Unlike traditional discourse analysis, FDA is more critical of the political implications of using language to legitimise power.

How to conduct Foucauldian discourse analysis

In their book Using Foucault’s Methods (1999)1, Kendall and Wickham outlined five steps for conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis. They are:

  1. Recognise that discourse is a set of constructed statements that are organised systematically.

  2. Identify how and why those statements are constructed.

  3. Think about the things that are allowed to be communicated and those that aren't.

  4. Reflect on how ‘spaces’ (e.g. newspapers) where new statements are made are created.

  5. Think about how practices can be both material and discursive at the same time.

The previous list might look a little daunting to you, so let’s try and make things a little simpler. When conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the information being presented as a fact? Is there any space to reflect or question this?

  • How is the discourse constructed? Who is included or excluded? Are the sources reliable? Is there any evidence?

  • What is normalised in the discourse, and what, or who is made to appear abnormal?

  • Who benefits from this discourse?

FDA can examine how powerful and authoritative groups in society use language to express dominance, control others, and make gains for themselves. One of the main purposes of FDA is to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.

Michel Foucault discourse theory Image of politician StudySmarterPower and politics go hand-in-hand when it comes to FDA, StudySmarter Original

Discourse analysis is pretty diverse in its approach and can vary across disciplines. Typically speaking, there is no set way to conduct a discourse analysis.

Criticisms of Foucault’s theory

Many theorists disagree on what exactly the term ‘discourse’ means, with some saying that Foucault's definition doesn't go far enough. For example, multimodal discourse analysts also examine things such as whole movies, statues, food, and games to examine what these things can reveal about society.

Many discourse theorists also disagree about what is deemed ‘real’ and what is constructed. Extreme constructivists believe that everything we know is constructed by discourse, whereas critical realists believe there is a physical reality, which is represented through discourse.

There are also a few criticisms of Foucault himself:

  • He often excluded women from his studies and disregarded their role throughout history.

  • He wasn’t great at taking criticisms and often refused to change his views.

Michel Foucault Discourse Theory - Key Takeaways

  • Discourse refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truths.
  • Foucault believed that constructed discourse benefits the most powerful in society and can be used as a form of social control.
  • Foucault was critical of the powerful, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain, yet were able to conceal their intentions.
  • Foucault recognised several different types of power: Sovereign power, Disciplinary power, Pastoral power, and Bio-power.
  • Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA) is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. Its main aims are to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.

References

  1. G. Kendall and G. Wickham, Using Foucault's Methods, 1999

Frequently Asked Questions about Michel Foucault Discourse Theory

Foucault believed that language was used by the powerful to construct knowledge and truths. These truths could then be used as a form of social control over the less-powerful.

Foucault believed that power structures were created and maintained through the use of discourse. He believed people with power had more influence over what others deemed to be 'true'.

According to Foucault, the main types of power are:

  • Sovereign power

  • Disciplinary power

  • Pastoral power

  • Bio-power

Foucault was a highly influential philosopher, sociologist, and historian, who had a keen interest in the construction of knowledge and power through discourse. Foucault believed that language was used to construct knowledge and truths that benefited the most powerful in society.

Final Michel Foucault Discourse Theory Quiz

Question

Choose the best definition of discourse in accordance with Foucault.

Show answer

Answer

The use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truths.

Show question

Question

True or false: a newspaper headline is an example of discourse.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What factors can affect a person’s perceived power?

Show answer

Answer

  • Socio-economic status (wealth and class)

  • Occupation

  • Education level

  • Gender

  • Ethnicity and race

Show question

Question

Foucault was associated with the Structuralist movement and which other movement?

Show answer

Answer

The Post-structuralist movement. 

Show question

Question

What are the four main modes of power recognised by Foucault?

Show answer

Answer

  • Sovereign power
  • Disciplinary power
  • Pastoral power
  • Bio-power

Show question

Question

Which mode of power do we exercise over ourselves in order to fit into the 'norm'?

Show answer

Answer

Disciplinary power.

Show question

Question

What is Foucauldian discourse analysis?

Show answer

Answer

A form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language.

Show question

Question

Which type of power is held by people in positions of authority?

Show answer

Answer

Sovereign power.

Show question

Question

True or false, Foucault believed there are absolute truths in the world?

Show answer

Answer

False. Foucault believed 'truths' are constructed with language.

Show question

Question

What is the main aim of conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis?

Show answer

Answer

To expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.

Show question

Question

True or false, Foucault encourages us to enthusiastically accept what we are told is truth.

Show answer

Answer

False, Foucault encourages us to question whether something is the truth.

Show question

Question

According to Foucault, all interactions are an exercise in_____?

Show answer

Answer

Power

Show question

Question

According to Foucault, knowledge and truth are constructed by what?

Show answer

Answer

Communication

Show question

Question

Give three examples of discourse.

Show answer

Answer

Any from this list (or your own ideas):


  • A professor talking to their class

  • A newspaper headline or report

  • A presidential speech

  • A novel

  • A magazine cover

  • Friends having a conversation


Show question

Question

Discourse theory looks at how people express themselves through_____?

Show answer

Answer

Language

Show question

Question

In an interaction, all individuals draw from a collective 'pool of _________'?

Show answer

Answer

Knowledge

Show question

Question

True or false, certain people or groups of people can influence the pool of knowledge more easily than others. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

In Western society, who is likely to have more perceived power: a white, male doctor or a black female nurse?

Show answer

Answer

White, male doctor

Show question

Question

Define sovereign power.

Show answer

Answer

power held by those in positions of authority

Show question

Question

What does 'disciplinary power' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The idea that people will regulate their behaviour if they believe they’re being watched.

Show question

Question

What does the term 'pastoral power' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Acting in a certain way to ensure the safety and security of all.

Show question

Question

According to Foucault, which mode of power impacts how we view ourselves in relation to the wider community?

Show answer

Answer

Bio-power

Show question

Question

According to Kendall and Wickham, how many steps are there to conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis?

Show answer

Answer

5

Show question

Question

Which group of discourse theorists believe that everything we know is constructed by discourse?

Show answer

Answer

Extreme constructivists

Show question

Question

List two criticisms of Foucault's discourse theory.

Show answer

Answer

  • Foucault was dismissive of women's contributions to history and excluded them from his study.
  • He did not take feedback well and often refused to change his mind. 

Show question

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