Lecture 1 Notes: Panopticism

Institutions and Institutional Power

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a french philosopher and social theorist who through his works (‘Madness & Civilisation’ and ‘Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison’) questioned the way we define normality in human behavior.

In the late 1600s ‘The Great Confinement’ occurred, and ‘houses of correction’ were introduced in society as a way of dealing with the homeless and the unemployed – who were deemed ‘abnormal’. After the Enlightenment period (‘the age of reason’) people were expected to contribute something to society, and all those who did not reflect this were thought to have something wrong with them. These ‘houses of correction’ were created as a place to reform these people, through forced manual labour. These however, proved ineffective; those inside the institutions ended up corrupting each other further; this led to the birth of specialist institutions, such as the asylum, the prison, the school and so on. These places applied a rationalizing approach to reform, internalizing the notion of responsibility in people; altering their consciousness.

Disciplinary Society

“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” (Foucault,1981 in O’Farrrell 2005:102)

These new types of institutions adopted a different technique of discipline which exercised mental rather than physical control. New forms of knowledge emerged, including biology and psychology, which led to the legitimization of ‘experts’ e.g. teachers, psychiatrists and doctors, whose authority went unquestioned.

Pre-modern punishment revolved around fear: scaring people into conforming for example through the use of public executions, or through humiliation using the pillory. These modern institutions became less about demonstrating power and providing a visible warning, and more about trying to reform these people, so they could change their ways and begin contributing to society.

Foulcault described this change in discipline, from power imposed by a ruler to one where these individual ‘trained bodies’ discipline themselves, as Panopticism.

The Panopticon was a building design proposed by philosopher and social theorist: Jeremy Bentham, in 1791. It was designed to be applicable to a variety of institutions from prisons and asylums to schools, and its purpose was to maximize institutional control. The buildings:

  • individualized people through barriers separating so that their behavior was not influenced by others, but came from themselves (so was internalized).
  • had a central observation point, where all people could potentially be seen at any given time, internalizing in the individual that they are always being watched which was to make people behave even if they were not actually being monitored.
  • required fewer enforcers of behavior as the Panopticon style encouraged people to regulate their own behavior, teaching them self-discipline; they had to judge for themselves whether their actions would get them into trouble, and why.

Panopticon style buildings

Presidio Modelo, Cuba

Millbank Prison, London

Panopticism today

Open plan offices


‘Edward Boyle’ library, Leeds University


Google earth


Docile Bodies

Foucault argued that this disciplinary society created ‘docile bodies’; self monitoring, self correcting, obedient bodies. Foulcault held the idea that power only exists, when it being exercised, and that the exercise of power only can happen when there is the ability to resist power.


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