Michel Foucault's theories and research into language, power, and social control is some of the most influential of our time. Foucault's discourse theory encourages us to question what is 'true' and to ask who in society benefits. This is one of Foucault's main arguments: everything is an exercise in power, and there is always somebody who benefits.
This article will provide a summary of some of Foucault's most influential thoughts and introduce you to:
The concept of discourse
Foucault and power
Foucauldian discourse analysis
Criticisms of Foulcault
Foucault Discourse Definition
You have probably heard the term discourse before, but what does it actually mean? In everyday life, discourse refers to any written or spoken text. However, for theorists, it usually means a little more than that.
When discussing Foucault and his discourse theory, the term refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truth. Foucault suggests that the ‘truths’ that shape our lives don’t simply ‘exist’ but are created through discourse.
It’s important to note that not all theorists agree with this line of thinking. It’s pretty radical to believe there are no absolute truths!
According to Foucault, knowledge and truth are centred on language, Pixabay
Examples of discourse: Foucault
As you can probably imagine, there are thousands of examples of discourse. Here is a short list just to give you an idea.
A professor talking to their class(Video) Michel Foucault's Conception of Discourse as Knowledge and Power
A newspaper headline or report
A presidential speech
A magazine cover
Friends having a conversation
Foucault's discourse theory examines how people express themselves through language and suggests that the structures of power shape how people communicate in society.
Foucault discourse summary
Individuals all draw from a shared ‘pool of knowledge’ when communicating. This knowledge pool is typically accepted by the wider society and becomes further legitimised the more people use, share, and distribute it. Over time, this pool of knowledge slowly changes as people add to it and adapt it, meaning the things society deem to be ‘true’ can, and do, change over time.
In Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, around 3-4000 people (predominantly women) were executed for being ‘witches’. These so-called witches were typically quite poor, and therefore not powerful, and didn’t conform to society's ‘norms’. There was, of course, no proof that there ever were witches, but the idea that these people could be witches was spread by the more powerful members of society through 'discourse'. The accepted ‘pool of knowledge’ was that the ‘outsiders’ of society could be accused of witchcraft. Today, this is no longer the case, and our knowledge pool has changed considerably!
Discourse theory recognises that certain people, or groups of people, are in a position to influence the pool of knowledge far more easily than others. It is typically people in positions of perceived power who can change and influence what we believe to be ‘true’. The term perceived power has been used here because what is deemed ‘powerful’ can differ across cultures.
Factors that can affect a person’s perceived power include:
Socio-economic status (wealth and class)
Occupation(Video) What is Discourse? a la Michel Foucault: A Very Basic Explanation
Ethnicity and race
A white male doctor may have more influence than a black female nurse. This isn't necessarily because what he says is guaranteed to be more ‘true’, but because his occupation, gender, and race all play a role in giving him power, directly influencing how others perceive what he says.
Take a minute to reflect on why you think being a white male doctor gives someone more power in the UK. Do you think this is the same across the world? Do you think power relations are changing?
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian interested in the construction of knowledge and power through discourse. Foucault believed that discourse is created by those in power for specific reasons and is often used as a form of social control. He is typically associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist movements.
Foucault was critical of those in power, especially the French Bourgeoisie, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain yet were able to conceal (hide) their intentions. I.e., Powerful people in society create knowledge that is eventually considered the norm, and others are unaware they’ve done so!
In this context, it might be helpful to think of discourse as a ‘narrative’. For example, UK tabloid newspapers built a narrative that refugees cost taxpayers lots of money. Who do you think benefits from this narrative?
Foucault was considered a structuralist as he examined the structures of knowledge (here, knowledge is regarded as the object of discourse). Later, he was considered a post-structuralist when he shifted his analysis to the subjects of discourse (the subjects are people!) and questioned how and why discourse could govern the way people think and behave.
Foucault and power
Foucault didn’t believe there was just one form of power. Instead, he recognised several different types, they are:
Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.
This is the form of power you are probably most familiar with. It is the power held by those in positions of authority, such as Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister, or a headteacher.
Disciplinary power is related to Foucault’s theory of gaze - the idea that people will regulate their behaviour if they believe they’re being watched. This is the type of power we exercise over ourselves to fit the norm and be an ‘acceptable’ member of society. You could say it’s similar to self-restraint.
This term has religious roots but isn’t necessarily confined to religion. Pastoral power refers to acting in a certain way to ensure the safety and security of all. For example, it could be said that the police hold pastoral power as they exert power for the good of the wider community (although not all members of society would necessarily agree with this).
Foucault coined the term bio-power to refer to the government’s administration and recording of bio issues, such as birth and death rates, race, class, and gender. Foucault stated that this mode of power impacted how we view ourselves in relation to the wider community.
Foucault Discourse Analysis
Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA), sometimes called Foucaultian discourse analysis, is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. The method is based on Foucault’s theory of discourse and social control and aims to expose how those with power control people through language.
Discourse analysis = An in-depth and usually critical analysis of written, spoken, or signed language, examining how language fits into society.
Foucauldian discourse analysis is grounded in constructivism and critical theory. It critiques the power structures in society and aims to understand how language can construct societal knowledge and uphold existing power structures. Unlike traditional discourse analysis, FDA is more critical of the political implications of using language to legitimise power.
How to conduct Foucauldian discourse analysis
In their book Using Foucault’s Methods (1999)1, Kendall and Wickham outlined five steps for conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis. They are:
Recognise that discourse is a set of constructed statements that are organised systematically.
Identify how and why those statements are constructed.
Think about the things that are allowed to be communicated and those that aren't.
Reflect on how ‘spaces’ (e.g. newspapers) where new statements are made are created.
Think about how practices can be both material and discursive at the same time.
The previous list might look a little daunting to you, so let’s try and make things a little simpler. When conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis, try asking yourself the following questions:
Is the information being presented as a fact? Is there any space to reflect or question this?
How is the discourse constructed? Who is included or excluded? Are the sources reliable? Is there any evidence?
What is normalised in the discourse, and what, or who is made to appear abnormal?
Who benefits from this discourse?
FDA can examine how powerful and authoritative groups in society use language to express dominance, control others, and make gains for themselves. One of the main purposes of FDA is to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.
Power and politics go hand-in-hand when it comes to FDA, StudySmarter Original
Discourse analysis is pretty diverse in its approach and can vary across disciplines. Typically speaking, there is no set way to conduct a discourse analysis.
Criticisms of Foucault’s theory
Many theorists disagree on what exactly the term ‘discourse’ means, with some saying that Foucault's definition doesn't go far enough. For example, multimodal discourse analysts also examine things such as whole movies, statues, food, and games to examine what these things can reveal about society.
Many discourse theorists also disagree about what is deemed ‘real’ and what is constructed. Extreme constructivists believe that everything we know is constructed by discourse, whereas critical realists believe there is a physical reality, which is represented through discourse.
There are also a few criticisms of Foucault himself:
He often excluded women from his studies and disregarded their role throughout history.
He wasn’t great at taking criticisms and often refused to change his views.
Michel Foucault Discourse Theory - Key Takeaways
- Discourse refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truths.
- Foucault believed that constructed discourse benefits the most powerful in society and can be used as a form of social control.
- Foucault was critical of the powerful, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain, yet were able to conceal their intentions.
- Foucault recognised several different types of power: Sovereign power, Disciplinary power, Pastoral power, and Bio-power.
- Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA) is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. Its main aims are to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppresses, and marginalises members of society.
- G. Kendall and G. Wickham, Using Foucault's Methods, 1999
What is the discourse theory? ›
Discourse theory proposes that in our daily activities the way we speak and write is shaped by the structures of power in our society, and that because our society is defined by struggle and conflict our discourses reflect and create conflicts.What is an example of discourse Foucault? ›
For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of "sexuality" had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves.What are Foucault's views on discourse and power? ›
Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart' (Foucault 1998: 100-1).What is discourse in social theory? ›
Social theory. In the humanities and social sciences, discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language. Discourse is a social boundary that defines what statements can be said about a topic.Why is discourse theory important? ›
The discourse theory has great implications in an educational context. It shows how written, visual and oral texts give more depth to the texts when the context is understood. Interaction and categorization between teachers and students can be understood more deeply in the relevant circumstance in the social context.Who proposed discourse theory? ›
The father of discourse theory: Michel Foucault
Foucault originally attempted to map the rules that govern how statements emerge, as well as how knowledge is historically ordered (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982: 102-103).
Discourse Analysis Part 2: Foucauldian Approaches - YouTubeWhat is discourse and examples? ›
The definition of discourse is a discussion about a topic either in writing or face to face. An example of discourse is a professor meeting with a student to discuss a book. noun. 6. Discourse is defined as to talk about a subject.What is foucauldian approach? ›
Foucauldian discourse analysis is a form of discourse analysis, focusing on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices, and based on the theories of Michel Foucault.How many stages are there in foucauldian discourse analysis? ›
In this case we examine examples of our data according to Carla Willig's (2008) approach to Foucauldian discourse analysis using six stages: discursive constructions, discourses, action orientation, positionings, practice and subjectivity.
How does discourse relate to power? ›
The discourse of power is used when it comes to differentiating the levels of power due to cultural and social characteristics that come about through societal upbringing. The ways we think and talk about a subject influence and reflect the ways we act in relation to that subject.What is discourse analysis? ›
Revised on September 1, 2022. Discourse analysis is a research method for studying written or spoken language in relation to its social context.What are the 4 types of discourse? ›
Discourse may be classified into descriptive, narrative, expository, and argumentative.Which idea is most important in discourse? ›
A central idea in most critical work on discourse is that of power, and more particularlly the institutions or social power of groups. Summarising a complex socia and philosophical analysis, we will define social power in the terms of control.What is discursive theory? ›
It is the general alternative to a motivational sociology of action. The crucial feature of the discursive approach is that behavior is viewed as meaningful by virtue of its articulation with a system of discourse rather than by virtue of its being “meant” or motivated.How is discourse used in daily life? ›
Whenever you communicate with someone about a topic, either in writing or speaking, you are participating in discourse. Since communication happens all the time, discourse is a huge part of our everyday lives. It's absolutely vital, especially as part of the language learning process.What are the three ways discourses work? ›
Within discourse theory, one can distinguish between at least three strands: post-structuralist, normative–deliberative and critical–realist discourse theories. Post-structuralist discourse theory usually insists on the constitutive role of language and communication for what counts as real in a given society.What is the nature of discourse? ›
Discourse is a social behavior with cooperative (dove) and selfish (hawk) strategies. If we want discourse to be cooperative, we need to recognize, avoid, and punish discourse hawks.What's the main focus of the discourse analysis perspective? ›
Discourse analysis focuses on interaction, looking beyond the literal meaning of language. It lends itself to studying the complexities of day-to-day family practice, helping to unpick taken-for-granted (and often revered) ideas and practices.What are types of discourse analysis? ›
Discourse analysis can be divided into two major approaches: language-in-use (or socially situated text and talk) and sociopolitical. The language-in-use approach is concerned with the micro dimensions of language, grammatical structures, and how these features interplay within a social context.
What did Foucault say about language? ›
From a Foucauldian perspective, language functions as a creative strategic relation-a form of power that structures the field of other possible actions.What is discourse according to Foucault PDF? ›
Discourse is the stretches of language which is socially used to convey broad conventional meaning. This theoretical study 'Discourse, Power and Truth: Foucauldian Perspective' reveals the social and educational perspectives of discourse, power and truth along with their basic concept.What is critical discourse analysis in simple words? ›
Critical discourse analysis is a methodology that enables a vigorous assessment of what is meant when language is used to describe and explain. There is a proliferation of terms within critical discourse analysis which is reflective of the various influences in the development of the methodology.What is discourse and its purpose? ›
Discourse is spoken or written communication between people, especially serious discussion of a particular subject. ... a tradition of political discourse. Synonyms: conversation, talk, discussion, speech More Synonyms of discourse.Is poetry a discourse? ›
poetry. of the word, but is clearly a type of discourse, according to this definition.How do you use discourse in a sentence? ›
How to use Discourse in a sentence. Martha said nothing during my discourse, not helping my confidence. I finished my discourse with a request for words of wisdom. He simply sets the discussion aside as too difficult for a preliminary discourse, and not strictly relevant to a purely logical inquiry.Why is Foucault important? ›
Why is Michel Foucault important? Michel Foucault was one of the most influential and controversial scholars of the post-World War II period. The first volume of his work The History of Sexuality became canonical for gay and lesbian studies and queer theory.Is Foucault a Marxist? ›
Foucault's Early Marxism
Foucault began his career as a Marxist, having been influenced by his mentor, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, as a student to join the French Communist Party.
Foucault's notion that power is constitutive of that upon which it acts has enabled feminists to explore the often complicated ways in which women's experiences, self-understandings, comportment and capacities are constructed in and by the power relations which they are seeking to transform.What is discourse theory in language acquisition? ›
The discourse theory has resulted from a theory of language use. The theory emphasizes that language development should be viewed within the framework of how the learner discovers the meaning capacity of language by taking part in communication.
What is discursive theory? ›
It is the general alternative to a motivational sociology of action. The crucial feature of the discursive approach is that behavior is viewed as meaningful by virtue of its articulation with a system of discourse rather than by virtue of its being “meant” or motivated.What is discourse and examples? ›
The definition of discourse is a discussion about a topic either in writing or face to face. An example of discourse is a professor meeting with a student to discuss a book. noun. 6. Discourse is defined as to talk about a subject.What are the 4 types of discourse? ›
Discourse may be classified into descriptive, narrative, expository, and argumentative.Which idea is most important in discourse? ›
A central idea in most critical work on discourse is that of power, and more particularlly the institutions or social power of groups. Summarising a complex socia and philosophical analysis, we will define social power in the terms of control.What are the two views of discourse? ›
Two Views of Discourse Structure: As Product And As Process. Pragmatics provides us with a means of relating stretches of language to the physical, social, and psychological world in which they take place. Discourse, indeed, might be defined as the totality of all these elements interacting.What are the three ways discourses work? ›
Within discourse theory, one can distinguish between at least three strands: post-structuralist, normative–deliberative and critical–realist discourse theories. Post-structuralist discourse theory usually insists on the constitutive role of language and communication for what counts as real in a given society.What is Foucault's discursive formation? ›
Discursive formations, according to Foucault, are groups of statements which may have any order, correlation, position, or function as determined by this disunity. A discursive formation is thus a system of dispersion.What does Foucault mean by discursive practices? ›
Discursive practices, as developed by Foucault, refers to the practices (or operations) of discourses, meaning knowledge formations, not to linguistic practices or language use. The focus is on how knowledge is produced through plural and contingent practices across different sites.What is a good example of a discursive practice? ›
A poststructuralist term for the way in which a discourse is acted on and circulated within a culture. For example, it is a discursive practice within some cultures for a man to shake hands when he greets another man but to refrain from doing so when greeting a woman.What is discourse and its purpose? ›
Discourse is spoken or written communication between people, especially serious discussion of a particular subject. ... a tradition of political discourse. Synonyms: conversation, talk, discussion, speech More Synonyms of discourse.
What is discourse and types of discourse? ›
Types of discourse include argument, narration, description and exposition. There are traditionally four different types of discourse, namely argument, narration, description, and exposition.What is the nature of discourse? ›
Discourse is a social behavior with cooperative (dove) and selfish (hawk) strategies. If we want discourse to be cooperative, we need to recognize, avoid, and punish discourse hawks.What are the elements of discourse? ›
The primary features of discourse structure are time, space, and class. Time is an obvious element in all kinds of discourses involving a sequence of related events—as in novels, short stories, dramas, epic poetry, history, how-to-do-it manuals, and even genealogies.What are the three kinds of discourse? ›
Other literary scholars have divided types of discourse into three categories: expressive, poetic, and transactional.What are the main features of discourse analysis? ›
- The purposes and effects of different types of language.
- Cultural rules and conventions in communication.
- How values, beliefs and assumptions are communicated.
- How language use relates to its social, political and historical context.