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, Grenoble, September 2014

Foucault on Power Relations

Possibly the most often quoted part of the Foucauldian legacy is the analysis of power relations as fundamental to social relations and our knowledge of the world and ourselves. These two elements converge in what Foucault in his late scholarship emphasises as his main interest: subjectivity, i.e. the way we relate to ourselves (“I am such and such a person who acts in such and such ways”) and the way we are with people and things around us and mirror ourselves in them. Modes of subjectivity are determined by this double relation: the subject’s interaction with itself and with others.

The aim of this short article is to elaborate on the functioning of power and its relation to subjectivity and knowledge formation. In fact, these three notions are highly intertwined. This will be done with continuous reference to cases with the aim of enhancing the applicability of the concepts discussed.

Juridical and Disciplinary Power Relations

To better comprehend the innovativeness of the analysis of power relations, a short note on the prevalent conception of power as what Foucault labels juridical power seems justified. The image of this power is the sword of the sovereign: the right that it induces is the right to take life and let live. However, the sword is not able to create anything, its only method of power lies in its prohibition, its “rejection, exclusion, refusal, blockage, concealment, or mask”1. Its tool is the law, defined in negative terms: ‘do not steal’, ‘do not engage in sodomy’, ‘do not move within such and such areas’. Socially, too, this prohibition is manifested through language: the way we talk delimits our possible and possibly desired actions. Anti-smoking campaigns work as a good example of such juridico-discursive power. Through limiting the places people can buy tobacco and where people can smoke, through addressing smoking as anti-social behaviour, smoking is sought concealed, made undesirable and thus (at best) unthinkable as a possible action.

In contrast to the juridical description of working of power are disciplinary power relations, which becomes a main object of analysis for Foucault. As disciplinary force, power relations decide upon possible actions of subjects and is in this sense also positive: ‘do wear this kind of clothing’, ‘do talk in this and this way’, ‘be a man – act like a man’. Its tool is not prohibition through law, but normalisation through the norm, which not only creates a positive ideal of existence and reward to all conformers but also punish the people that cannot or do not live up to this norm: people that don’t conform. Plainly speaking this can be seen if a person acts “weirdly” in a given situation. At this point people will ignore the person, roll eyes, treat the person as less of a human being, attack the person verbally or even physically etc. For example, the metrosexual man is in many cases not conceived of as fully living up to the norm of being ‘a man’: he is ignored or looked down upon. In more technical terms, the non-conforming person is not intelligible, i.e. her/his act is not understood in the given social context. The disciplinary imperative thus enforces itself by punishment of non-conformers and reward of conformers.

The Necessary Condition of Freedom

So who has the power to make other people act in a certain way? In fact, this is a wrong question to ask. Foucault insists that disciplinary power cannot be possessed, acquired, seized or shared, but has purely structural origins. However, power can factually speaking only be said to exist when materially manifested. Thus, as material but structural manifestations of its effect rather than ideal, agency-based possession, nobody can be accused of exercising power. Power relations have multiple origins and can only be found at its point of application: the (possible) actions of subjects as described above.

In this structuring of the possible field of action, it may seem that power completely does away with the freedom of the subject, that we in this picture become mechanical followers of a disciplinary imperative. It is, however, Foucault’s point that we must indeed presuppose the free act in the analysis of power relations. As he famously notes, “where there is power, there is resistance”2. Power is not exercised over wholly passive bodies, but these react and take the imperative and transform it in more or less conforming ways. As the great Foucault scholar Judith Butler puts it, power attaches the subject to its own identity3. The power imperative that discloses a possible field of action does so in way that makes the subject cling to the act as an act originating from the subject itself. The freedom that lies in the resistance to every power relation thus becomes a necessary condition for making the subject speak in the name of power, reproducing and strengthening the norm. In this way, the subject is both the target and the vehicle of power4.

Norms and Efficiency

How does such power mechanisms work on a societal level? Though the human being is a social being and it would thus be right to assume that a society is unthinkable without power relations, such a statement may be misleading if we by that imagine a sovereign force, guaranteeing the duration of the state as is the case in the conceptualization of power up until Foucault. The origins and point of analysis is always the micro-workings of power on individual and local basis. Rather than justifying sovereign juridical power as done by several contract theorists through the history of thought, the point of departure for an analysis of disciplinary power must always be its places of application, i.e. the marginalised and subjugated. Instead of analysing political agency of the great political leaders through history, Foucault invites us to consider how social norms and ways of social punishment and construction of possibilities have shaped society and made possible certain structurizations. Concretely, instead of understanding the current penal system as a rational response to crimes and a way of retaliation, our research should aim at understanding the mechanisms of power, criminalization of the person committing the crime (there seems to be a historical shift the deed to the doer of the crime), ways that the system developed as a response to fragmented power relations, taking advantage of circumstances, mixing with other power relations, etc. In short, instead of focusing on political and rational agency, one is to look into the circumstances that made present power relations possible.

Throughout his scholarship, Foucault tries to understand these techniques of power relations that predicate and hence marginalise subjects as ‘mad’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘criminal’, ‘sexually disturbed’, etc. Interestingly, it is not the people in power that initialise such marginalisation (though they may and often do benefit from it), rather the working of power comes from below, circulating amongst individuals without juridical or institutional power; it comes from a multitude of causes that happen to converge in the creation of certain structures and institutions. As these practices of recognition of these structures and institutions are reiterated, they congeal as norms. Thus, the analysis of juridical power, which has the conscious interests of the sovereign in focus, departs decisively from the analysis of disciplinary power, whose origin is a complex set of relationships of force and whose workings may not be in line with that of the sovereign. This relation of exploitation is in any case not a necessary relation. However, since “there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives”5, what seems to often be the case is that the people ‘in power’ – the bourgeoisie – utilises the appeared normalisation practices. Intentionally, therefore, human bodies and their operations (time and energy) become an area of extraction and exploitation.

As a good example of this latter relation between disciplinary power and extraction and exploitation of resources we find the ‘health discourse’, which in recent year has put ever-greater demands on individuals to plan, organise, analyse and systematize their lives in order to optimize their overall health situation. Without judging whether this discourse intensification is a positive or negative phenomenon, Foucault gives us the tools for understanding how people speak in the name of power, of efficiency and optimisation of the population in general. How subjects are constituted as health-striving subjects due to the way power relations discloses a possible field of action for that subject, whereby it can obtain intelligibility (for self and others) only insofar as it conforms to the norm. To analyse such a case in relation to the ‘traditional’, juridical notion of power is, Foucault’s analyses show, insufficient to understand this societal self-inclusion in the efficiency striving agenda.


In sum, with Foucault’s redefinition of power as a productive force that makes it possible to understand and relate to ourselves, others and the world around us, a vocabulary is opened to understanding various social phenomena such as the social punishment of metrosexual men, the rise of the penal system as contingent upon a number of social circumstances rather that political agency, and the present health discourse with its demands for efficiency and ever-greater pressure on subjects. The duality of the power of the norm and the necessarily presupposed freedom makes an explanation of internalization of social dogmas (e.g. reference to a ‘real man’) and efficiency optimization of self and others (e.g. health discourse) possible.


1Foucault 1976: p.83

2Foucault 1976: p.95

3Butler 2007

4Foucault 1980: p.98

5Foucault 1976: p.95

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