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What is Foucault's Theory of Power & Knowledge?

PhD, English Literature (Lancaster University)

Date Published: 08.03.2023,

Last Updated: 28.09.2023

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Defining Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge

Michel Foucault (1926-89) was a French philosopher and sociologist notable for his works Madness and Civilization (1961), Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976). A persistent theme in Foucault’s work is the relationship between power and knowledge, culminating in his neologism ‘power/knowledge’. The term power/knowledge demonstrates how, for Foucault, power and knowledge are inextricably linked. Foucault writes that ‘the exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information…[t]he exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’ (1975, 52). Power and knowledge are not separate nor are they synonymous; instead, power both makes use of and shapes knowledge.

Throughout his work, Foucault has demonstrated what he means by this reciprocal power/knowledge relationship. While conventional theories of power have focused largely on top-down, hierarchical power (i.e. power from the state, law-makers or monarchs), Foucault, conversely, suggests that power circulates. Rather than knowledge enabling power, or enabling the maintenance of power, power allows for the dictation of what knowledge is produced and disseminated throughout society. In short, power decides what is knowable and by whom. Therefore, those who produce knowledge have this accepted as truth because of the other forms of power they possess such as political, academic or economic power. Foucault emphasises, however, that most knowledge is not hierarchical and exists at the level of everyday social interactions. Moreover, as power circulates, those with power accumulate said power due to cultural and academic assumptions of knowledge and truth. 

Unlike Marxist ideology which argues that the masses are oppressed due to prohibited access to knowledge, Foucault suggests that power has a reciprocal and productive relationship with knowledge. In Discipline and Punish, he writes:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production (1975).

The reason power desires knowledge is simple: knowledge can be categorisable and used to control. Those in power shape knowledge about the world and ourselves, creating an accepted ‘truth’. Truth decides what behaviour is permissible, and who has authority to espouse the truth and to administer the remedy. Power derives from this body of approved epistemologies and is simultaneously responsible for bringing such epistemologies into existence. 


What are the main types of power according to Foucault? 

In order to fully understand the relationship between power and knowledge, we must first understand what Foucault means by ‘power’ and how it is exercised. According to Foucault, there are three main types of power: 

  • Sovereign Power 
  • Biopower
  • Disciplinary Power 

Sovereign power was power derived from the authority granted to a king or similar figure. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that sovereign power was best demonstrated in the “right to take life or let live’ (1978, 136).  An example of this in practice would be the spectacle of public execution. At a public execution, a king’s subjects could see the extent of his absolute power. Though sovereign power existed in some forms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was radically diminished due to the rise of disciplinary power and biopower.

Disciplinary power viewed the body as a machine as a way of extorting it for economic reasons. Disciplinary power does not rely on force and, instead, controls the subject through hierarchical surveillance, normalising judgment and examination. The first aspect of this, hierarchical surveillance, means that power is exerted over the subject as they feel they are being continually watched. Eventually, the subject begins to act as their own overseer and behaves as if they are being watched at all times. Normalising judgments are used to categorise individual’s who do not adhere to the norm as abnormal and deviant. Examination involves the inspecting, judging and classifying of an individual using these bodies of prescribed knowledge . These three components make up disciplinary power and can be seen in the school system. For example, students are routinely observed in terms of their behaviour and act as though they are constantly being observed, often even when a teacher is not present. Schools also exert power by establishing norms such as responding to bells, putting hands up to ask a question and adhering to the behaviour rules set out by the school. Examination occurs in schools through penalties and rewards for behaviour; students are classified based on their grades and reports are written about their behaviour, effort and attainment. 

Biopower saw the body in terms of its biological processes and sought to regulate the population via control of an individual’s body. Biopower is achieved through the production of scientific knowledge, including information about health and fitness, which constructed ideas of the normal body. Jen Pylypa suggests that the presence of biopower means that ‘[i]ndividuals thus voluntarily control themselves by self-imposing conformity to cultural norms through self-surveillance and self-disciplinary practices, especially those of the body such as the self-regulation of hygiene, health, and sexuality’ (1998, 21-22).

In both biopower and disciplinary power, the individual, to a large extent, self-regulates and acts as their own overseer. While sovereign power was never completely replaced and still exists to a certain extent, disciplinary power and biopower became the predominant form by which the state could control populations. Rather than corporal punishments or other forms of violence being inflicted on the body, disciplinary power was enforced through regulation via the organising of space, time and behaviour. This can be demonstrated in the rigid timetabling of activities in schools, prisons and army barracks.  


Power and knowledge in practice 

Much of Foucault’s work focuses on hospitals, schools, prisons and asylums, places where he argues power dynamics can be clearly demonstrated. Looking at these spaces, rather than focusing on the holder of the power – such as prison guards, teachers, or doctors – Foucault is interested in how this power is exacted over the subject through their environment and rigid structuring of activities. Each of these environments have the individual conditioned to respond to their particular mode of authority. 

It is worth re-iterating that Foucault sees the relationship between power and knowledge as occurring throughout society, on the level of the institution and on the level of the individual. Two examples Foucault provides of this are in the medical establishment and in the Catholic church. In both these examples, as well as in other institutions Foucault writes of, the disciplining of the subject via observation shapes the subject’s own knowledge of themselves. Foucault states that:

We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the “social-worker”-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviors, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its system of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. (1991)

In Madness and Civilization, we see how power/knowledge is utilised in the movement from the asylum to the psychiatric hospital. Due to the move from sovereign to disciplinary power, there was a shift in the late eighteenth-century discourses surrounding madness. The asylum became the hospital, the madman became the patient and confinement changed to curative treatment. Restraints were abolished and madness became something which was to be observed and studied. Foucault demonstrates this through the example of the York Retreat, a hospital founded on principles of humanitarian care, rest and self-control.

Power over the patient was thus exacted through the medical practitioner’s understanding of the mind and the body, which came from his understanding of scientific knowledge. Asylum doctors, therefore, were given the power to determine what was considered normal and abnormal; those whose behaviour did not conform, or which society had deemed deviant, were to be subject to discipline and routine so that they may assimilate into society and monitor their own behaviour. Foucault builds upon this inThe Birth of the Clinic(1963) in which he traces the development of medicine from the eighteenth century onwards and identifies the doctor’s authority coming from a quasi-mystical knowledge of the human body in the eighteenth century and being derived from his command of clinical knowledge in the nineteenth century.

Similarly, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that certain sexualities or sexual behaviours were categorised as deviant or transgressive due to the accepted truth of normative sexual practices. This not only shaped society’s views on sexuality, but also lead those alleged transgressors to internalise this ‘truth’ about themselves. This occurs as those in power claim to be the most knowledgeable and, therefore, can shape even our interpretations and understanding of ourselves.

For example, Foucault sees the Catholic confessional as a key example of the power/knowledge dynamic at work whereby a priest (who has power endowed through the Catholic Church) exerts this power to obtain confession thus increasing his knowledge; this knowledge (of morality and divine intention) is passed on to the confessing subject and is used to shape their behaviour to conform and repress sexual desire (Foucault, 1978). 


Critique of Foucault’s power/knowledge

Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge have been the subject of much debate over the decades with critics drawing attention to inconsistencies, contradictions or oversights in his work. A reoccurring point of discussion for scholars regarding power/knowledge theory is how it discounts the idea of knowledge without power. Joseph Rouse has called attention to the limitations, and contradictions, in this assertion. In ‘Power/Knowledge’ Rouse writes that:

Foucault objects to the very idea of a knowledge or a truth outside of networks of power relations. The scope of his objection thus also encompasses the possibility of a critical knowledge that would speak the truth to power, exposing domination for what it is, and thereby enabling or encouraging effective resistance to it. (2005)

 In other words, if all knowledge is constructed and shaped by those in power, how does Foucault have the freedom to critique and expose such structures? Moreover, if all knowledge is produced through power, how can there be such a thing as objective truth?    

A further issue arises when we consider Foucault’s stance on resisting power. While Foucault argued, ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (1978, 75), Charles Taylor argues that Foucault’s theory leaves no room for the subject to escape power (Charles Taylor, 1984). This is primarily because Foucault fails to provide a means by which resistance can occur. The inability of the subject to resist power structures, some scholars argue, means a lack of recourse to argue for social change. Hartsock is among these critics and accuses Foucault of a ‘pessimism’ and ‘passivity’ which undermines attempts at social change and the universality of reason (1990, 167). In addition to not offering any real avenues for resistance, Nancy Fraser argues that without providing a normative framework, Foucault does not give any reason as to why we should resist as the productive nature of power ‘rule[s] out those types of liberationist politics that presuppose that power is essentially repressive’ (1981, 272). In Foucault: A Critical Introduction (2013), Lois McNay further writes that Foucault’s theories on resistance are ‘theoretically underdeveloped, and… give the impression that the body presents no material resistance to the operations of power’. 

Foucault: A Critical Introduction book cover

About this book

This work provides an introduction to the work of Michel Foucault. It offers an assessment of all of Foucault's work, including his final writings on governmentality and the self. McNay argues that the later work initiates an important shift in his intellectual concerns which alters any retrospective reading of his writings as a whole. Throughout, McNay is concerned to assess the normative and political implications of Foucault's social criticism. She goes beyond the level of many commentators to look at the values from which Foucault's work springs and reveals the implicit assumptions underlying his social critique.

Format ePUB (mobile friendly)

Year 2013

Brent L. Pickett discusses why Foucault has such a contradictory and even ambivalent or apolitical attitude towards resisting power. Pickett suggests this is because Foucault ‘rejects placing limits upon resistance, lest those who are engaged become trapped in the very system of power they are trying to overcome-since any limits will be derived from ideals supported by modern power’ (1996, p. 447). Foucault, therefore, for some critics does not have a neutral stance in the face of oppression but wants to ‘maintain a philosophical position which holds that every social norm is normalizing and every set of morals is constructed by power’ (Pickett, 1996, p. 465). 


The impact of Foucault’s theories on contemporary thought

The impact of Foucault’s research is far-reaching and extends beyond the field of sociology; Foucault has influenced contemporary work on history, politics, cultural studies and gender studies.


Foucault’s understanding of power and knowledge has been divisive among feminist critics. In many ways, though Foucault does not directly discuss gender in his work, his theories on the constructs of gender have contributed to feminist discourses on the problem of essentialism (essentialism being the concept that women are fundamentally different to men). Lois McNay posits that Foucault’s work ‘indicates to feminists a way of placing a notion of the body at the centre of explanations of women’s oppression that does not fall back into essentialism or biologism’ (2013, 11). However, many critics have suggested that this failure to consider the role of gender in relation to constructs of power and thus “treats the body throughout as if it were one, as if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the same relationships to the characteristic institutions of modern life” (Bartky, 1988, 63-64). Moreover, as previously mentioned, Foucault’s concept of power and its creation of docile bodies leaves little room for resistance thus continuing to perpetuate ideas regarding passivity and lack of autonomy in women. This, feminists have claimed, undermines the goals of feminism and suggests resisting gender norms are futile, problematically indicating that the political and social agenda of feminism is a fruitless endeavour. As Lin Foxhall highlights ‘only male selves are admissible in [Foucault’s] analysis’ (2016, 134). This oversight has been remedied in the work of feminist theorists, most notably Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). In Gender Trouble, Butler applies the ideas of Foucault to modern feminist theory and suggests that gender is performative (see our guide to Butler’s theory of Gender Performativity here) and offers methods of resistance via subversion of conventional gender norms.


Queer theory

Foucault’s view of sexuality as being socially constructed has been fundamental in the development of queer theory. Tamsin Spargo writes that:

Foucault’s work and life, achievements and demonisation, have made him a powerful model for many gay, lesbian and other intellectuals, and his analysis of the interrelationships of knowledge, power and sexuality was the most important intellectual catalyst of queer theory. (1999)

April S. Callis suggests early queer theorists found resonance with Foucault’s work as he ‘believed that the individual was created through and by discourse, which itself was created by systems of knowledge power’ (2009, 221).  Callis goes on to state that Foucault’s ‘recognition of unstable sexual identities’ prompted these theorists to ‘move away from gay and lesbian scholarship’ into queer studies (221). As with feminist studies, a similar criticism of Foucault’s work on sexuality is that it is limited by his exclusive focus on the production of male sexuality (A. J. Cahill, 2000, p. 57). Moreover, Callis argues that, despite his prominent influence on queer theory, Foucault fails to account for bisexuality in his research (2009). For more information on queer theory, please see our introduction to queer theory here.


Recent scholarship

Despite these oversights, it is difficult to deny the enormous influence Foucault has had on sociology and beyond. Scholarship continues to draw upon Foucault and his work on power and knowledge in relation to a whole host of new topics. Petra Carlsson Redell’s Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology: The Mystery of Things (2018) examines Foucault’s philosophy in relation to performativity, materiality and politics in contemporary theology.  More recently, Christian Möller’s work Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty: Foucault in the Food Bank (2021) explores Foucault’s power/knowledge theory in the context of food charity. While Foucault has been critiqued for his abstract concepts, current research still relies upon the work of Foucault and makes clear how the power/knowledge relations Foucault writes of (as well as his broader philosophy) can be applied to contemporary society.


Further Foucault reading and resources on Perlego

Foucault Power/Knowledge FAQs


Bartky, S. L. (1988). Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance. Northeastern University Press. 

Butler, J. (2010) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2nd ed.). Routledge. 

Cahill, A. J. (2000). Foucault, Rape, and the Construction of the Feminine Body. Hypatia, 15 (1), 43-63.

Callis, A. S. (2009) Playing with Butler and Foucault: Bisexuality and Queer Theory.  Journal of Bisexuality, 9 (3-4),  213-233. 

Carlsson, Redell (2018). Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology: The Mystery of Things. Taylor and Francis. 

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Penguin Randomhouse. 

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1998).  Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Penguin Randomhouse. 

Foucault, M. (1989). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception (3rd ed.). Routledge. 

Foucault, M (1975). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Pantheon. 

Foxhall, L. (2016). Pandora unbound: a feminist critique of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Dislocating masculinity. Routledge, 141-153.  

Fraser, N. (1981) Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions. Praxis International, 3, 272-287.

Hartsock, N. (1990). Foucault on power: a theory for women? Feminism/postmodernism162, 157-175.

McNay, L. (2013). Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self. Polity Press. 

McNay, L. (2013) Foucault: A Critical Introduction. Wiley 

Möller, Christian. (2021) Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty: Foucault in the Food Bank. Taylor and Francis. 

Pickett, B. L. (1996). Foucault and the Politics of Resistance. Polity, 28(4), 445-466.

Pylypa, J. (1998) Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body. Arizona Anthropologist, 13, 21-36. 

Rouse, J. (2005) Power/Knowledge. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Lauri Siisiäinen. (2018) Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance. Taylor and Francis. 

Spargo, T. (1999). Foucault and Queer Theory. Icon Books. 

Taylor, C. (1984). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. Political Theory, 12 (2) 152-183.

PhD, English Literature (Lancaster University)

Sophie Raine has a PhD from Lancaster University. Her work focuses on penny dreadfuls and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019; 2022) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic was released in 2023 with University of Wales Press.