The subject and power Michel foucault

What is power?

According Foucault, power exists only in relation to the actions of others or in relation to the subject who acts (the subject = human being). If there is no subject or human who acts then there is no location on which power can act. Power acts on our actions and through power’s actions on our own actions a field of varied responses, reactions, results, and interventions become available to the subject (or human being). That is, the actions of power set up what is available for subjects to act on.

Here is an example: A stop sign.

As the driver, the law (which in and of itself is not power) mandates me to stop at the stop sign. The stop sign is a symbol of power that is there to act on my driving. The stop sign indicates to me (the subject) that I must slow down and come to a complete stop. The stop sign is acting on my actions as a driver. However, if I am not driving or approaching the stop sign, then the stop sign has no power. The stop sign needs me, as an acting subject, in order exercise power.

One way to think of power, according to Foucault, is that power is trying to conduct or govern our behavior so that we can be directed to behave in the way society/government/culture wants us to behave, e.g. the government wants us to stop at all stop signs. Power can be executed or expressed in laws (like stopping at the stop sign) that govern what we do. I stop at the stop sign because if a cop sees me not stop he can give me a ticket and that can affect my driving record and insurance rates. So, as an acting subject, there are multiple levels of power at work conducting or governing me to stop at the stop sign. The cop, the ticket, and my insurance rates are expressions of the action of power acting on me BUT they are not the power itself.

Another example: What if I don’t want to stop at the stop sign? As an acting subject, I DO have the choice to not stop at the stop sign. I have the freedom to not stop. Without a sense of freedom, power cannot be exercised over me and my actions. If I always stopped at the stop sign then there would be no point in making a law (an expression of power) mandating me to stop. However, because there is the chance that I might not stop, then power needs to step in and govern my actions. I do stop at the stop sign because getting a ticket and having my insurance rates go up is enough of a motivating force for me to control my own behavior and come to a stop at the stop sign.

In Foucault’s definition of power, it important to understand that power is not any one thing or in any one place but is diffused throughout the structures and systems that impact and control our lives. These systems and structures are expressions of power and exist to give power a location in which to act on our actions, control our freedoms, and limit our will. In this way, power as a governing force ensures that we will govern our own behavior (e.g. stopping at the stop sign) in order to maintain the freedoms (e.g. driving) available to us. Our self-governing behavior also reinforces power’s hold over us. Representations of power (like the stop sign) condition us to monitor and control our own actions in order to maintain our purported freedoms, and therein ensure that power can continue to act on our actions.

It is the tension between power and freedom that causes revolutions and creates social change. Foucault describes this tension as an “agonism” or “a combat” between power and freedom. It is a battle that no one side ever completely wins but rather power and freedom engage in “mutual provocation”. Sometimes power has the upper hand and sometimes freedom does. In the agonism between power and freedom, the two are not mutually exclusive. They each need the other to exist. Just like if everyone stopped at four-way intersections before proceeding there would be no need for stop signs.

However, power is directly challenged and forced to change when an acting subject decides that power should no longer govern her actions.


Can you think of some social or political movements that have challenged power because of how it attempted to govern people’s actions and limit their freedoms? E.g. the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter.

What is important to understand about power, in the Foucauldian sense, is that power is not a concrete thing that sits over us. Rather it is dynamic and shifting, influencing multiple areas of our lives for better and for worse. For the better, because we are willing forgo some of our freedom by stopping at the stop sign because slowing down, stopping, and looking both ways makes our neighborhood streets safer for all of us. For the worse, because, for example, we were willing to, over last 20 years, pass legislation making it easier for some members of our society (mostly low-income people of color) to be incarcerated at higher rates than others setting up an unfair restriction on some citizens’ freedoms and not others. Now, 20 years later we are seeing the negative consequences of this exercise of power and what is happening? Institutional and cultural shifts are transforming this expression of power to one that will reduce incarceration and improve relations between the community and law enforcement (hopefully).

Why are Foucault’s ideas on power important to CBPR? Developing an awareness of power dynamics is a frequent theme in CBPR scholarship. A primary goal of CBPR is to undo unfair manifestations of power in our society, particularly those that affect public and environmental health. Yet, how can you develop an awareness of power and strive to undo inequitable power structures if you don’t have an idea of what power is or a way to analyze it? Foucault’s analysis of power and power relations is a framework to understand how power (and freedom) work in our worlds. This chapter, in particular, offers valuable insights into the insidious and unseen nature of power.

"Where there is power, there is resistance."

We tend to think of “Power” as being a single monolithic structure (like the federal government) over which we have no control. However, Foucault makes us see how diffuse and subtle power can be (who would think that a stop sign could have so much power over us?). For Foucault, one of the main roles of diffuse, subtle systems of power (like the stop sign), is to ensure that we, as the subjects, control our own behavior and discipline ourselves in the way that power wants us to so that power can function in our lives smoothly and without opposition. As self-disciplining subjects we don’t question or examine the actions of power in our lives and this allows power to continue to function in a way that reinforces itself and its hold over us. Power needs the self-disciplining subject (that is, YOU) to exist and this subject is important to maintaining safe, organized communities (that obey traffic laws). However, the self-disciplining subject can be a destructive force in society because it does not have the capacity to think critically about power.

For example, consider the voting public’s approval of many indeterminate sentencing laws over the past 20 years. These laws took some people (mostly low-income men of color) out of their communities for many years and then returned them after long prison sentences with no skills or resources to make it in the community. Today these laws upset us because now we realize that these laws had little impact on public safety, were destructive to many communities, and were expensive. However, at the time these laws were enacted, the public discourse (another form of power) focused on “law and order” and encouraged us to believe that we would be safer if we locked the criminals away. As self-disciplining subjects we did not think critically about the impact that such a discourse would have on so many people (i.e. low-income communities of color). Now, mostly due to the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, we have been forced to reexamine our stance on this issue and the public discourse is focused on “reentry and rehabilitation” and sentencing reform (because we can no longer afford mass incarceration financially).

Food for Thought

What do you think about this shift in the public discourse around the issue of incarceration? Why is public discourse such an influential expression of power? Why do you think public discourse has so much power over our actions?

This is why is Foucault is important for CBPR, because his writings help us see when we should stop being self-disciplining subjects and challenge the power that is acting on us to do (or not do) something. Foucault’s analysis of power is a framework for thinking critically about power and freedom particularly in the context of working with vulnerable communities around issues of health and social justice.

Are you ready to think about power? Below is Foucault’s “how to guide” for examining and critiquing power relations.

Foucault’s 5 Points in the Analysis of Power Relations: In analyzing power relations in our worlds, Foucault suggests that we need to look beyond institutions as the primary locations of power. Rather, we need to think about power as a “mode of action on actions” that is deeply embedded within the social and cultural contexts in which we live. Power is not above us but along side us and can never be eliminated (as much as we might like it to be). Therefore, Foucault recommends that we think about power and power relations in context: what is the history of the power/power relations? What were the conditions that brought the power/power relations about? What are its strengths? Its weaknesses? How can the power relation be transformed? (Think about these questions in relations to current and past U.S. policies of policing and incarceration.)

The analysis of power and its relationship to freedom within socio-cultural contexts is not only political but also an inherent aspect of how we live in the world. This means we are always analyzing power and freedom from a political stance and from a relational one; that is, how do power and freedom relate to our everyday lives? In order to think more concretely about power, Foucault outlined five components of the analysis of power relations.

Foucault's Power Analysis

1) System of Differentiations

The system of differentiations permits one (or a system, institution, or group) to act on the actions of others based on the differences between groups, e.g. privilege vs. marginalization; wealth vs. poverty; boss vs. employee; immigrant vs. citizen; novice vs. expert. Within all power relations, systems of differentiations are what make the power relationships possible and are the results of that relationship – e.g. the boss who takes credit for her employee’s work and the employee having no recourse to claim the credit he deserves for fear of losing his job should he demand credit. Systems of differentiation always place one group above or over another group, making the “othered” group less worthy, less healthy, less normal, etc.

2) Types of Objectives

Types of objectives can include the maintenance of privileges (e.g. Jim Crow laws), accumulation of profits (e.g. VW’s deception about its cars’ environmental impact to make money), exercise of statutory authority (marriage as defined between one man and one woman only), the exercise of a function or a trade (eminent domain). These kinds of objectives are pursued by those in power; that is, those who act on the actions of others, such as police, corporations, and governments. Types of the objectives are the goals that power wants to achieve, e.g. privilege, financial gain, legislative power, or control of resources. When think about types of objectives the question to ask is, “what is power trying to achieve? What is its objective?”

3) Instrumental Modes

Instrumental modes are the specific ways in which power is exercised over the actions of others. Instrumental modes help power maintain systems of differentiation and achieve its objectives. For example, the stop sign is an instrumental mode in that it exercises power over how I drive. Another example is charging juvenile offenders a daily fee for their room and board while they are incarcerated (this is done in California). This is an instrumental mode that exercises power over how families can spend their own money. This policy reinforces economic disparities (a system of differentiation) among already financially at-risk families and therein, keeps them economically disadvantages and continually linked to the welfare and correctional systems.

4) Forms of Institutionalization

Forms of institutionalization can be large or small, obvious or unseen. An obvious example is having a driver’s license before you can legally drive. The state requires that only individuals over the age of 16 who have completed driver’s education and successfully passed a driver’s test can have the privilege of a license and of driving. This process is administered and controlled by the state’s department or registry of motor vehicles (DMV). In having a driving license, we are part of the institution in that the institution (the DMV) can track and monitor us and limit our access to the privilege of driving depending on our behavior. We don’t mind this form of institutionalization because we get some benefit from it: being able to drive a car.

A controversial example of a form of institutionalization is that of the institution of marriage. This is also an example of how institutions shift and are influenced by current thinking, habit, or fashion. Historically and federally marriage was defined as state-sanctioned agreement between one man and one woman. Engaging in that state-sanctioned agreement provided some benefits as well as more opportunity for the state to control and define what “family” is. However, as gay rights activists questioned the fairness of this specific institution, federal courts and state legislatures also reexamined the institution of marriage and redefined it to include same-sex couples as well.

The redefinition of the institution of marriage is an example of how forms of institutionalization can evolve over time as society’s cultural and social perspectives change. This is also an example of Foucault’s “agonism” where power, that is, the traditional definition of marriage, and freedom, that is, the desire to include same-sex couples in the institution of marriage, mutually incited and reacted to each other for many years until – as cultural perspectives on marriage changed – the institution shifted to include same-sex couples. It’s important to note that, for people who don’t agree with same-sex marriage, the agonism is reversed: freedom is the right to maintain the institution of marriage as it always was and power is the outsiders (gay-rights advocates) using the courts and legislative processes to overturn an institution that they believe should be reserved for straight couples.

Food for Thought

Can you see the politics at work in this example? Can you also see how we are called on to consider the shifts and changes in this institution just by the very fact that we are living in a world that is socially, culturally, and historically situated (however we feel about the institution)?

If you were a hermit living on a mountaintop, then you might have missed all the media coverage and debate around this issue BUT… if you were not a hermit then it would have been very difficult to not be pulled into the debate. We were called on to consider the conditions, history, strengths, and weaknesses of this form of institutionalization and the power it held over how we act. Maybe you had a family member or friend who was in a same-sex relationship and wanted the right to marry? Maybe your personal or religious beliefs influenced your commitment to the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman only? Maybe you were frustrated by the whole debate and just wanted everyone to move on? Whatever your stance, you were (according to Foucault) inherently involved in the power relations of the institution of marriage and the agonism over who has the right to marry because you yourself exist in historical, social, and cultural contexts. To quote him directly, “I would say that the analysis ... of power relations and the ‘agonism’ between power relations and … freedom is … the political task that is inherent in all social existence.” (p. 140)[4]

Foucault’s take home message here is that we will never be free from power acting on us. Therefore, we need to have an analytical process for thinking about our relationship with power and how and when comes into conflict with our freedoms and those freedoms of others.

5. Degrees of Rationalization

The degrees of rationalization are the reasons why power is exercised. For example, the forced removal of indigenous children from their families and placement into schools of assimilation were rationalized by the West’s desire to ensure that native peoples became “civilized” and could live within the power structures and forms of institutionalization as determined by the West. (Although the real reason was that the Canadian government wanted control of the land on which the indigenous communities lived and did not want to have to negotiate for that land.) Another example of a rationalization was the belief that communities would be safer with long sentences for drug-related offenses. However, as we are experiencing right now, this rationalization proved not to be effective, and correctional and enforcement policy is adjusting to the new situation and developing policies that reflect current understandings. What is important to note about rationalizations is that, like forms of institutionalization, they shift and change according the evolving conditions and contexts in which they take place.

According to Foucault, “power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social” (P. 141).[4] However, he also warns us that power is becoming more “governmentalized” meaning it is coming more under state control. Our call as CBPR scholars is to bring our attention to where and how the state’s governmentalized power negatively affects the health of communities. Through CBPR efforts we create an “agonism” between health-destroying power relations and health-promoting freedoms. In analyzing the conditions and the history in which a power relation came into being, we can begin to introduce new freedoms (or challenges to power) into the relationship. Through challenging unjust systems of power, CBPR practitioners can participate in creating change that promotes health and human rights.


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