Skip to content
November 9, 2008 / C H Thompson

Foucault and discourse

by Sam Cook a former student

All the previous theories of the state are known as structural theories because it sees people as being controlled or determined by external structures; individual’s behaviour being determined by patriarchy (feminism) or ruling-class (Marxism).

In contrast to these ideas come post-structural theories of power (after structure) which have a variable-sum approach to power. Michael Foucault argued power doesn’t operate through structures but discourses. Foucault’s concept of discourse is best understood as the are ‘the way we talk about something’.foucault

What Foucault argued was the words or phrases we use to construct these discourses originate from knowledge. This knowledge comes from dominant social figures such as judges, doctors, social workers, psychiatrists etc., who have the knowledge and subsequent authority to establish ‘conversations’ about a social issue.

For example are the poor people with problems or people who are a problem? Our established conversations about the poor are dominated by established knowledge of poor people being ‘feckless’ or ‘undeserving’ or ‘ lazy scroungers’ – these words or phrases create an established discourse regarding ‘the poor’ as being a problem. In other words, as discourse is the established ‘way of talking about the poor’ as being a problem and punitive social policies are implemented which reinforce this.

However if the established discourse was the poor are people with problems, then ‘kinder’ social policies would be implemented to help the poor as they have problems.

New Social Movements, are movements because they try to establish a new discourse or a ‘new’ way of talking about something. For example environmental movements like Greenpeace are trying to establish a discourse which places environmental issues first and foremost. Therefore when politicians discuss expanding the economy, the issue of what such an expansion would have on the environment must come first and foremost.

At times discourse and ideology seem to tread very similar paths. Yet whereas ideology is associated with a ruling group deliberately creating a false consciousness (a false truth)  in order to emasculate people. Discourses in contrast develop from knowledge and one discourse is no ‘truer’ than any other, as discourses are in constant battles of dominance. And this idea of dominance is critical, Foucault argues no one thing ever dominates, there are always endless opportunities for resistance, which is less likely than with Lukes’ ideas.

One example of Foucault’s concept of resistance is Ken Hinds. From being arrested by the Metropolitan Police using stop and search laws, he has been active in try to establish a new discourse on the use of stop and search. This process of resistance is less likely under Lukes’ fixed-sum approach to the concept of power.



Leave a Comment
  1. A / May 1 2017 1:48 pm

    Wonderful blog! I have a quite urgent question about this topic as my exam is very soon.

    What it is meant by knowledge and how this could be illustrated in oragnisation. Could it be related to other topics, for example culture or space and aesthetics? Or those themes more relate to 3rd face of power (Lukes).



  1. Theories of the state (neo-Marxist) « Sociology at Twynham School

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: