Foucault’s theory considers disciplinary punishment a power-knowledge mechanism, which is only a part of the whole strategy implemented by the ruling class to achieve domination. While early forms of punishment were designed to intimidate the masses and display the power of the ruling class in public, modern forms resorted to enforcing discipline upon prisoners for the purpose of creating docile bodies. Foucault defined docile bodies as people who can be controlled by the authorities without much difficulty. That form of obedience was required in the industrial age, but modern societies abuse the available technology and are becoming control societies that are preserving the interests of the ruling class rather than promoting freedom among the population.
Some of the mutations that are contributing to the rise in governmental control considered by sociologists include the fragmentation of subjectivity, the emphasis on empowering individuals to take responsibility for their choices, and the requirement to manage and minimize risks that could impair the lifestyle characterized by contentment and consumption (Rose, 2000). While Rose (2000) argues that those mutations and reconfigurations can be considered valid implementations, the problem arises because the tendency to increase control is violating the fundamental principles used to build a free society, and that perspective is remarkably similar to Foucault’s insights.
According to the analysis of Foucault’s model by Garland (1993), the approach to understanding discipline and punishment is incomplete, but it does provide a useful perspective on punishment. The theory is considered incomplete because it is sometimes simplistic and one-dimensional, and punishment should be considered a complex institution that needs to be analyzed and included in mainstream social research (Garland, 1993). More specifically, Garland (1993) suggests Foucault overestimates political forces and fails to provide enough attention to cultural and legal determinants of punishment. Garland is correct because theoretical models in sociology are not complete. That is why researchers have to use multiple perspectives to understand complex social issues better and perhaps suggest solutions to social issues. However, it is evident that the motivation of the ruling class and the inefficiency of the penal system described by Foucault remained unchanged.
Because disciplinary punishment used to place emphasis on self-denying virtues, previous methods used to instill obedience can be contrasted with modern attempts to turn prisons into enterprises. According to Garland (1997), that form of disciplinary action is positive because it prepares the prisoner for freedom. However, Foucault understood that people who leave prison have more chances of going back to crime rather than reforming themselves (as cited in Garland, 1993). It is possible to argue that the training for freedom is not effective because working will not stimulate a psychological or motivational transformation in prisoners. Instead, they are surrounded with like-minded people and their mental traits remain the same as they were before they were imprisoned.
Finally, an important argument by Foucault states that society did not advance over time, but technology did advance and it allowed the ruling class greater control over the rest of the society (as cited in Garland, 1993). When observing Foucault’s insights and contrasting them to current trends, it is possible to notice that discipline and punishment were not only enforced to maintain order, but also as a strategy for establishing control of the ruling class over the rest of the population. It is evident that further efforts to extend the control of the government without taking in account the fundamental principles of objective justice will result in questioning the underlying principle of freedom, upon which modern society was established.
Garland, D. (1993). Punishment and modern society: A study in social theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Garland, D. (1997). Governmentality'and the problem of crime: Foucault, criminology, sociology. Theoretical Criminology, 1(2), 173-214.
Rose, N. (2000). Government and control. British Journal of Criminology, 40(2), 321-339.