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.