Brief Overview

Michel Foucault was born in 1926 and died in 1984. This much we know for sure.

Formal Definition


Detailed Description

(by Hermen Eutic). While we know the dates of his birth and death as the truth and nothing but the truth, Foucault remains something of an enigma. However, a good introduction, such as “Foucault: A Very Short Introduction” by Gutting (2005) is indispensible as a passport to his original works (in the following, references to Gutting (2005) are given by page number). Foucault wanted (p. 19) “to effect human liberation” and decided that politics was the means by which this could be accomplished.” He was at one time or another (p. 20) “an anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaulism, new liberal, and so forth...” Foucault’s philosophy (p. 32) reveals itself in several books, which were essentially historical accounts. In fact, he considered history so important that when he was asked to label himself he came up with “Professor of the History of Systems of Thought.” In his histories Foucault emphasized the importance of the effects of conventional wisdom. For example, during a time when the prevailing worldview was of a flat earth it would have been obvious to everyone that sailing a ship westward would result in falling of the edge of the earth, rather than returning to the same place. While the notion of a flat earth seems absurd to us today, it is quite clear that many of our current ideas will be viewed as similarly laughable in the future. Clearly, social conditioning affects much of what we believe, no matter how open-minded we might think we are. Foucault was interested also in power, which he viewed (p. 87) as “…dispersed throughout society, in a multitude of micro-centres.” Because of this conception (p. 88), Foucault noted that resistance to oppression must take place locally. Foucault’s works were so wide-ranging that they influenced educational research. In the following summary, quotes and discussion are from Chapter 10 of Olssen (2006). At first, only a few education-related articles in the 1970’s and 1980’s made reference to Foucault, but by the 1990’s this changed and he was cited by numerous authours, except in the (p. 175) “mainstream discourses of educational scholarship”. With reference to education, Foucault’s views were considered by Aronowitz and Giroux (1984) as consistent with (p. 176) “…treating all knowledge and forms of pedagogy as contingent, specific, local and historical.” This view certainly argued against the notion of universalizing curricula for a global marketplace. Psychologists developed classification systems and new concepts such as “stages of development” or “behaviour problem” that in Foucauldian terms (p. 181) “produced the very reality that they claimed to discover.” Moreover, psychology (p. 182) became a way of controlling people and in this way is relevant to politics and governmental policies. Jesuit teaching was examined in terms of power relationships by Foucault in “Discipline and Punish.” Hunter stated that Foucault today would be (p. 184) “…concerned with the effects of school through a variety of technologies of domination concerned with the disciplinary organization of the school: special architectures, devices for organizing space and time, body techniques, practices of surveillance and supervision, pedagogical relationships, and procedures of administration and examination.” My experience supervising students at a school in a remote part of northern Alberta may be cited as a peculiar practice of supervision. During lunch supervision, teachers were distributed around the school to ensure that students did not get into fights or other trouble. This meant that teachers were out of sight of each other and therefore isolated. In the event that a teacher needed extra help, we were equipped with walkie talkies to stay in touch and call for help if necessary. Communications technology in this case overcame the physical obstacle of the school. The fact that the walkie talkies were so visible that they may have additionally enforced discipline, not unlike one-way mirrors in the self-disciplining of prisoners.

Recommended Reading

Gutting, G. (2005). Foucault: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gutting, G. Michel Foucault article in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (web-based:

Michel Foucault (2008). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2008.

Olssen, M. (2006). Michel Foucault: materialism and education (Rev. ed.). Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

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