The ideas of Michel Foucault are an obvious point of reference for social researchers studying schools. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explicitly analyses schooling as an apparatus of modern disciplinary power. And it is easy to draw parallels between his well-known account of the Panopticon and the ways in which surveillance works in educational institutions. However, in this blog post, I want to suggest that such straightforward parallels risk overlooking some of the more profound critical insights to be had by applying Foucaultian thinking to schooling. As an alternative, I want to suggest three points that I think might be helpful for education researchers working with his ideas. These arguments aren’t new, and I have rehearsed them elsewhere (e.g., Gallagher, 2010) but given the continued purchase of simplistic Orwellian readings of Foucault, they seem worth another airing.

First, there is much to be gained by looking beyond Discipline and Punish to Foucault’s oeuvre as a whole. His ideas evolved considerably over the course of his life, and his later writings about techniques of the self in particular offer an intriguing counterpoint to the more well-worn Foucaultian notions of the gaze, institutional power and panoptic surveillance. Such ideas have clear relevance to practices of schooling such as pastoral care and truth telling, and as such have been taken up by education theorists (e.g. Besley and Peters, 2007).

Second, it is important to understand that Foucault is ultimately dealing with ideas. Despite his professed interest in practices, all of his books are based on the analysis of discourse, in the form of writings (and sometimes images), and often these materials set out general programs rather than providing eyewitness accounts of actual institutions. Of course one can argue that ideas, discourses and writings are also practices, but – crucially – such practices, however we want to label them, are not the same thing as the everyday practices of teachers and children in schools.

Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, for example, begins from Bentham’s writings about and drawings of the design – and Bentham, as its originator, is setting out a grand(iose) plan rather than making any reliable observations of its actual implementation in particular institutions. In fact, historical evidence suggests that the Panopticon did not translate particularly well into architecture, with attempts to realise the design being few and in some cases unsuccessful (Markus, 1993). Thus Foucault approaches the Panopticon as an idea, an idealised general programme of power, not a specific institution. This is something he makes very clear in interviews. Researchers looking to use the concept to inform empirical studies of schooling might therefore be advised to look critically at the extent to which schools really do function Panoptically – and the extent to which they do not. The same can be said of other Foucaultian concepts such as the gaze, the episteme, heterotopia, discipline, normalisation, care of the self and so on. At times, the practices of schooling may seem to enact some of these ideas precisely; but equally schooling practices may turn out to be more complex, partially reflecting, resisting or reworking such ideas, or perhaps having no relation to them at all. The job of the Foucaultian education researcher is surely to look at how such ideas play out (or not) and are reconfigured in specific instances of school life. To give one example, a historical study of early schools based on the discourses of the reformers cited by Foucault, such as Lancaster and De La Salle, might portray such schools as perfect instruments of exacting discipline. Broadening the scope to include the accounts of school inspectors, however, we would soon find a much more uneven picture, with instances of seriously malfunctioning discipline, rioting pupils and so forth (e.g. Sturt, 1967). The difference is politically significant. In the first case we are left with a gloomily totalitarian account of schooling; in the second, we have a much more lively and differentiated analysis, which recognises both the significant effects of school discipline in shaping human subjects, and the associated fragilities, fallibilities and limits.

Third, we might fruitfully attend to some of the blind spots in Foucault’s ideas, dispensing with any reverential attitude and instead getting on with the business of adapting his ideas to work for us in the present. For example, I have a particular interest in sound, and working with Foucault has led me to examine the ways in which sound enacts power in schools. Sound is something that Foucault himself overlooks – as Sterne (2003) points out, in The Birth of the Clinic Foucault even argues that the listening of doctors through stethoscopes is a form of medical gaze, a classic case of forcing the empirical materials to fit the theory. But this need not be limiting. We can take Foucault’s work and, as he once said of Nietzsche, “use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest” (1980, p. 53-54). Examining the use of sound in schools reveals a different spatiality of power to that of light: teachers using various techniques to produce quiet spaces and quiet bodies, surveilling the sounds of children sitting behind them out of view, and children resisting and evading such discipline through acts of noisemaking, whispering, making signals or passing notes.

by Michael Gallagher, 4 April 2013

Unlinked References

Sturt, M. (1967) The Education of the People: A history of primary education in England and Wales in the nineteenth century, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul