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Practice And Discourse: Michel Foucault

Often described as a poststructuralist concerned with the analysis of power (although he himself rejected both labels), the philosopher/historian Michel Foucault's central project was developing "a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects" (1982, p. 208). In his analysis, the subject was not an a priori category, but, rather, an effect of power, of both objectification and subjection. His aim, however, was to move from state-centered models of power (which viewed power as a repressive force wielded by states) toward one that recognized power as diffused throughout societies, constitutive of social relations in general, and productive of distinct forms of subjectivity.

In the context of this larger project, practices (or "mechanisms") served both a methodological and theoretical function. His interest was primarily in discursive practices, by which he meant ways of constituting objects through their ostensible description. His argument, in brief, was that the historical trajectory of the Enlightenment, conventionally understood as a progression toward more accurate descriptions of the natural world and more reasonable and humane forms of social organization, should be seen, instead, as a series of shifts in the ways in which power was exercised. For example, in Discipline and Punish (1975), his study of punishment in the West, he argues that the transition from the practice of public torture and execution to the practice of incarceration was not the result of an evolutionary trajectory from brutality to civilization, but part of a general shift toward an increasing investment of power in the surveillance and minute control of living bodies. This same change requires the surveillance and bodily ordering of children in schools, workers in factories, and soldiers in armies.

The key to understanding and historicizing the operations of power, according to Foucault, is to attend to the ways that specific practices of professional disciplines (and other social institutions)—surveillance, particular modes of categorization, particular bodily disciplines—surreptitiously undermine some forms of power and reorganize others. Practice thus produces subjectivity (both in the sense of identity and the sense of subjection), simultaneously constituting and limiting social subjects.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPractices - Practice Theory, Practice And Discourse: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu And Anthony Giddens, Practice As Resistance: Michel De Certeau