‘Reconstructing the Social and Political Theory of Education: Foucault and the School Management Practices of Knowledge. From Surveillance Policy to Empowerment Policy of the Self’

My article ‘Reconstructing the Social and Political Theory of Education: Foucault and the School Management Practices of Knowledge. From Surveillance Policy to Empowerment Policy of the Self’ in the Humanising Language Teaching, in the Major articles section.

The article can be found here Humanising Language Teaching

Reconstructing the Social and Political Theory of Education: Foucault and the School Management Practices of Knowledge. From Surveillance Policy to Empowerment Policy of the Self

Vicky Papageorgiou, Greece

Vicky Papageorgiou (Med) is an ESL/EAP lecturer and also a co-editor at ELTA Serbia Publications and editor of the Visual Arts Circle. She divides her time between Thessaloniki (Greece), working at Metropolitan College, and Oxford, working as a summer EFL instructor (Oxford St Clare’s College). E-mail: vpapage1@gmail.com





Power relations

Foucault and education

From Surveillance Policy to Empowerment of the Self





The aim of this study is to try to question concepts regarding the sociology of education based on Michel Foucault’s views and to seek ways of analysis through the work of the French theorist to critically address the various theoretical problems that arise, as well as schooling practices.

In the first part of this paper, we will try to approach the work of the French theorist initially by analyzing his positions regarding power relations. In the second part, mainly through his work «Surveillance and Punishment», we will develop the sociology of the school act as described in his work. In the last part, ways of empowering both students and teachers will be presented as a means of resisting a monitoring and control policy.


Power relations

In Foucault’s work, although multifaceted, central is always the issue of power, setting a pioneering conceptualization, which is opposed to both Marxism and liberalism. Foucault studied and elaborated on the great transformations of Western societies which occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He dealt, in particular, with the issue of the body and how it is transformed into an object of authority (Smart B., 1999), but also discussed techniques related to the manipulation, surveillance and control of the bodies, which began to appear in modern societies. Through them a new form of power emerged, which was exercised over the bodies of individuals and populations: the disciplinary power, manifested through normalization and discipline (Foucault, 1980 [1975]).

This power subjugated the forces of the body and then imposed on the bodies a relationship of discipline and utility. For Foucault, there was a wider discipline mechanism, which developed during the 19th century and was a normalization and surveillance mechanism. Foucault talks about a «panoptic» body that monitors and one which transforms the individual into an object of information and a source of knowledge and not a subject of communication (Foucault, 1991 [1975]). Consequently, we are talking about the creation of submissive bodies.

Yet, Foucault does not refer to ‘one’ power only but to ‘power relations’. There is, therefore, no center of authority, but central mechanisms of power that derive from power-enforcement relationships, such as those occurring between children and families, citizens and administration, students and teachers or families. All relations, therefore, for him are possessed by the concept of power. That is why he suggests that we should study the implications of this [power] and not ask questions about its nature.

The power relations, according to Foucault, are characterized by multiplicity, not just by bipolarity. Thus, endless fields of resistance arise (Marsh J., p. 291). Power is exercised, not imposed as it is also not only forbidding and the reason for this is that it cannot function only like that (Foucault M., p. 108). In particular, as far as modern forms of power are concerned, we must say that they are not primarily negative. That is why these forms of power are accepted. The opposite would surprise us.

To be more specific, both the issue of the emergence of modern self through the disciplining technologies and the power / knowledge technologies are linked through the concept of governmentality in Foucault’s work (Foucault, 1991). The exercise of power is intended to «educate» the subjects, according to him. To describe this situation, he uses the term «government» or «intergovernmentalism», a term which presupposes the existence of «free subjects» (Foucault M., 1991 [1975], p. 92). Therefore, there can be no power without the existence of free subjects and therefore without the existence of opposing groups fighting each other. The concept of governmentality in Foucault’s work is also closely linked to the bio-power concept developed in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (Foucault, 1990 [1976]). The notion of governmentality focuses on the ways of managing the populations that have developed modern states, but also the disciplining of the human body, without the use of coercion. This disciplining of the populations, which takes place within institutional frameworks, such as schools, etc. is promoted at the same time as the self-management ethics. Within this framework, institutions exercise coercion in such a way that acts are produced by the people themselves. We are not talking about coercion, because in the case of institutions like the school, these are willingly accepted as legitimate.


Foucault and education

In Foucault’s «Surveillance and Punishment» project, we investigate the extent of school practices that are indicative of the development of the power/knowledge relationships that we are referring to in this paper and can help us deepen our understanding of the subject under consideration: Foucault’s position regarding the power exercised in the body. The purpose of this work is to show that new forms of power and control are being created in modern times and not to show the functioning of the prison system, the army, or schools in today’s society. In the past, the punishment was aimed at the body, while today the soul. The body remains at the center and only here, through institutions such as the army and schools, the body is politicized as it develops methods that aim to dominate it in order to make it productive and useful economically (Foucault , 1991 [1975), without this implying violence.

In order to understand better the practices of the educational institution, we must follow their role in shaping subjectivity and how it gives us the effects of power , as analyzed by the French theorist.

From the 18th century onwards, «discipline is a type of power and it can be exercised either by specialized institutions (prisons) or by institutions that use it for a basic purpose (e.g. school) or pre-existing authorities, state institutions, mechanisms that have made discipline a fundamental principle of their internal functioning » (Foucault M., 1991, p. 283). The characteristics of this discipline are normalization, hierarchical supervision and examination. In this way, power creates useful people for it. At the same time, we are talking about the formation of a disciplinary society that holds the whole of the social formation.

Still, according to Foucault, this generalization of disciplinary systems has influenced the role of humanities and social sciences (psychiatry, pedagogy, psychology), the number of which has grown. Through these disciplines, disciplinary systems have acquired legitimacy.

Also, according to Foucault, there are four distinct features which characterize the individuality that discipline constructs: cellular (space), organic (activities), genetics (time) and combinatorial (Ibid, p. 219). We can see how these develop in the school space.

The ‘bourgeoisie’ became politically dominant, according to the French theorist, through this grid of discipline, and school was one of its  disciplinary mechanisms. This discipline, within the framework of the school, is implemented through the definition and organization of the place where it is practiced, and its basic principle is that of «networking» (Foucault, 1991, p. 190), each person occupying a certain position in the space. Features of this ‘networking’ aim at facilitating surveillance: controlling absences, moving people, avoiding clustering.

The geography of a school classroom consisting of student groups has a lot to teach us in this case. The position of each student obviously follows such a hierarchy (performance, gender, etc.) and thus leads us to sociological interpretations of school practices, since the classroom reflects the formation of the social space and what this entails (contrasts, inequalities, etc.). Therefore, by observing this organization, we cannot ignore the power strategies it embodies.

Secondly, the organization and the systematization of school activities (based on time, their usefulness, their repetition, etc.) indicate an automation, which is also the object of discipline.


Third is the disciplinary time (ibid, p. 208), which according to Foucault is linear since it serves a particular purpose. The organization of time within the school framework is very strict (start and end of school year, set of teaching weeks, duration of the course, escalation of examinations for student assessment, etc.). Within this strict timeframe, the student is supervised, evaluated and hierarchized, but primarily subordinated to such authority.

Fourthly, with regard to the composition of forces, we must refer to the various «commands» which regulate the behavior of the disciplined individual, for example, the striking of the teacher’s hand on the table or at the seat, which means that the teacher is trying to enforce his will. Undoubtedly, these are school practices that refer to the necessity of subjugating the individual.

Finally, we should not overlook two things. First, a disciplinary system needs a test system. Through the examining system, knowledge becomes legitimate, the teacher is the ‘bearer’ of knowledge and the learner becomes the ‘object’ of knowledge that can be used. And secondly, that a disciplinary system needs a criminal system that evaluates the different practices, in our case, school practices. According to Foucault, the criminal system is aimed at ‘normalization’, since ‘… it forces to compliance … ..’ and ‘… .charges the threshold that will determine the difference in relation to all other differences, the external boundary of the irregular «(ibid, p. 242).

Discipline is therefore not necessarily the practice of violence but the control and direction of individuals towards a particular purpose. The question in this case is how individuals can escape such normalization and lead to the empowerment of the Self.


From Surveillance Policy to Empowerment of the Self

It is clear from what we have discussed so far that, for the French theorist, knowledge is linked to the exercise of sovereignty, not of violence necessarily. Society is all structured on a particular relationship of power relations. Educational systems reflect, in turn, this very social formation. Through educational practices, power technologies control and protect the functioning of this education system.

The question, which is therefore reasonably posed, is whether we can finally get out of such a surveillance policy. How can one change the education system?

As many scholars admit (Fejes, A., 2008, p.160, p.203), what Foucault actually asks us to do to escape the tautology is to overcome ourselves so that we can show that there are other subject-positions. This can pave the way for emerging new relationships between knowledge and power.

A basic way of dealing with this is reflection, a complex process in which the individual’s beliefs are «judged» and «examined» to review an experience. Reflection has its origins in Dewey’s work (1910) when he distinguished between mechanically repetitive (and therefore habit-driven) acts and reflective acts based on self-evaluation and continuous analysis.

We are therefore talking about the development of meta-cognitive skills, in which we are called upon to realize the limits of our thinking, but also to realize and control even our feelings and motives. Through reflection, a student is led to think again of the process of solving a problem and is encouraged to self-assess. The same is the teacher. Reflection requires an interactive basis, which, at least to a certain extent, guarantees democracy, but also avoids the inertia of thought. The question of reflection is to think about the complex processes that surround us and to realize the limits and weaknesses of thought.

Reflection can indeed be a starting point for both teachers and students to resist a culture that is «passively» offered to them, and instead they can engage in a learning process that is participatory, dialectical but mostly politicized. Through reflection, both men and women are called upon to decide each time which ideologies, experiences, morals they want or have to keep and which they want to give up. But the next question would be, does this not, on the other hand, also seem utopian?

Some researchers admit that even participatory methods aiming at the empowerment of pupils can be simply «hidden forms of control and power» (Butin, 2001, p. 157). Practices such as the self-assessment of pupils, for example, may be seemingly only more democratic than others if it is the teacher who defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ while the student remains uninvolved in negotiating the criteria with which they should be self-assessed.

According to Foucault, some educational practices, while showing that their purpose is to control the «possible fields of action» (Foucault, 1982, p. 221), on the other hand, refuse to be released from the traditional one-way relationship of teacher-student, where the first teaches and the second always learns. They refuse to reverse the relationship and thus maintain the same power relationship. According to Popkewitz, control and power often change form only (Popkewitz, 1998, p. 24).

There are also some other analysts who argue that a new «pedagogical ethos and a new relationship between a teacher and a student will overturn the above identities» (Albrecht-Crane, 2005, p. 492). This can, for example, take place through a relationship where the student is invited to participate actively in a dialogue on the educational goals to be accepted or challenged (Oyler & Becker, 1997, p. 463), which in its turn means a form of freedom of choice on the part of the student and a way of resisting what has been tried to be imposed on them in a traditional school practice.


It is certain that the relations of power, as these have been formed in society, are complex. The area of ​​education, reproducing these relationships, has likewise created a complex grid of power relations by rejecting and marginalizing anyone who cannot play the role they have been asked to play. As complicated as a system of power can be, it does not mean that it leaves no room for resistance. Teaching practices such as reflection and generally self-managed learning can lead to self-empowerment by contributing to a different view of power relations between student and teacher. Despite the difficulties or pitfalls that may be involved in these practices, it is essential that both sides realize that the first objective to resist is to continue to ‘learn how to learn’.



Albrecht-Crane, C. (2005). Pedagogy as friendship: Identity and affect in the conservative Classroom. Cultural Studies, 19(4), 491-514.

Butin, D. W. (2001). If this is resistance I would hate to see domination. Educational Studies, 32(2), 157-176.

Dewey, J. (1910). How we Think. London : D. C. Health.

Fejes, Α. and Nicoll, Κ. (2008). Foucault and lifelong learning: governing the subject. New York: Routledge.

Foucault M., 1980 [1975]. Body/Power.  In  C. Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. New York : Pantheon Books.

Foucault M., 1990 [1976]. The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality volume 1, London : Penguin Books.

Foucault  M., 1991 [1975]. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, Trans. A. Sheridan. Hammondsworth : Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1982). How is Power Exercised? In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (pp. 216–226).Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marsh James L., (1998). Truth and Power in Foucault. In L. Langsdorf and S. H. Watson (ed.), Reinterpreting the Political. Albany  : State University of New York Press,  291-310.

Oyler, C., & Becker, J. (1997). Teaching beyond the Progressive. Traditional Dichotomy: Sharing Authority and Sharing Vulnerability. Curriculum Inquiry, 27(4), 453-467.

Popkewitz, T. S. (1998). The culture of redemption and the administration of freedom as research. Review of Educational Research, 68(1), 1–34.







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