Tuesday, 4 September 2012


Born in France in 1926 into a wealthy middle-class family, Michel Foucault became an influential thinker in philosophy and sociological schools of thought in the 1960s.

In 1961, Foucault wrote his first major book titled Madness and Civilisation whereby he studied how madness (now thought as, as mental illness) was defined and dealt with from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century. Following this publish came Birth of the Clinic (1963) which deals with what Foucault refers to as the 'clinical gaze'. He refers to the idea that when one becomes ill, suddenly they cease to be a person and instead become an example of an illness. In 1966 he wrote the book The Order of Things where he introduced his idea of changing conditions of discourse and the shifts occurring between one episteme to another. Following on from this highly influential book came The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) which introduces the idea of the statement as being a functional unit; part of a technique used in the production of human subjects and institutions. Then in 1975 Foucault wrote the book Discipline and Punish where he looked at ideas disciplinary power in the form of surveillance from both hierarchical forces as well as the individual themselves. It is here that Foucault looks at Jeremy Bentham's idea of the Panopticon whereby the fear of being caught breaking the rules governs the self to stay within accordance of social values and norms. Foucault then went on to write the three volumes of The History of Sexuality (A Will to Knowledge [1976]; The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self [1984]) before his death in 1984. In these volumes, Foucault illustrates that sexual conversation and knowledge is determined by what is regulated, forbidden and prohibited by social norms and expectations.

In 1984 Foucault died of AIDS-related illnesses at age 57. His ideas however remain some of the most influential and most-cited in contemporary philosophical and sociological theories. 

Disciplinary Power: Panopticism

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault introduces two idea of what he term's 'technologies of punishment'. Within these technologies are two representations of punishment; Monarchal Punishment referring to the public and torturous punishment practices present during and prior to the 18th century, and Disciplinary Punishment which refers to the incarceration of offenders and their subjection to the power of the prison officers. He also argues that disciplinary power often leads to self-policing of behaviour through fear of being caught disobeying the rules.

To link these ideas to contemporary society, Foucault uses an adaptation of Jeremy Bentham's idea of the panopticon to demonstrate the impact that constant surveillance has not only on an individual in an institution such as prison, but also on society as a whole. The panopticon is a prison design; a cylindrical building where inmates are invisible to one another, but are all visible to a guard station in the centre of the building. Guards however will not always be observing each inmate to check they are behaving and following the rules. The point of the panopticon is that control is achieved through what Foucault calls 'disciplinary power', a form of power that is constant, unnoticeable and internalised. As inmates are not sure whether they are being watched at any one time, they must always act in accordance to the rules. Control is thus achieved through self-surveillance as the fear of being caught breaking the rules keeps them in line with expectations.

Foucault saw panopticism as present in many institutions, not just the prison system. Institutions such as asylums, schools, military and secret services also adopt a panoptic way of disciplining, with constant surveillance acting to maintain control of those within them. However, it could also be argued that the bureaucratic nature, and the amount of monitoring that takes place in society today could class contemporary society that we live in today to be one of panopticism.

Panopticism: "a society in which individuals are increasingly caught up in systems of power in and through which visibility is a key means of social control" - Elliott, 2007:89

A panoptic society is one whereby social norms and expectations become internalised through top-down processes. As norms become internalised, we act as though we are being watched at all times, whether that be from surveillance cameras, the government or law enforcement officials, or from other agents who are themselves under forms of surveillance as well. As behaviour becomes normalised, expectations of how one is to act in public soon translates into the private sphere where these expectations are no longer applicable. Take for example the behaviour performed when you are sick. In the public sphere, it would be expected that you would cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow to stop germs from spreading into the air or onto surfaces. As a behaviour to stop others from getting sick, it would seem unnecessary to also apply it to the private sphere when home alone, yet the behaviour still occurs. What this indicates is the power of self-surveillance. The internalised discourse moves into the private sphere where surveillance from others is not possible.

Monday, 3 September 2012


Discourse: "ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the 'nature' of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern" - Weedon, 1987: 108

Foucault first introduced his idea of discourse in his early work, in particular Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). He uses the idea of discourse to show the important relationship between disciples and disciplinary practices.

There are three fundamental components of discourse:

The Archive
As defined by Foucault, a discourse is a set of rules by which a society is defined at any point in history. Society can be defined through:

1. The limits and forms of expressibility i.e. what is possible to express
2. The limits and forms of conversations i.e. what cannot be conversed
3. The limits and forms of memory i.e. what we are encouraged to forget
4. The limits and forms of reactivation 

The archive is fluid, changeable and in process, thus differing from the traditional view of the archive being a collection of detailed documents.

The Statement
Foucault's statement is different to a simple speech act. Rather, the statement is a functional and dynamic part of communication and can be understood as a technique which assists the formation of human subjects and social institutions. Foucault describes the statement as being changed and determined by the archive. The statement is contextual, thus is affected by what the archive is defined at during a point in history. Thus the archive is necessary to understand the statement itself. 

The Episteme
Foucault's episteme can be understood as a period of history which is organised around and defined through discourses, norms and expectations. What Foucalt makes clear is that a number of epistemes may be present at any one point in time, thus understanding the historical and sociological context that the epistemes are present in is crucial. Due to the fact that epistemes are based on world-views at any given time, they are characterised by institutions, knowledges, disciplines and activities present in that sociological context. An important point to note is that an episteme does not link different discourses together, but rather they represent the space they inhabit; a space of dispersion or an open field of relationships whereby change is always possible.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Social Media Sites: The Growth of Facebook

Social media sites rose with popularity in the early 2000s with the increase in accessibility to computers and the internet. Social media sites can be defined as community sites where users can share anything from links, photos, personal thoughts or their current activities.

Social media sites began primarily with simple profiles and the ability to characterise your own page for 'friends' to view. From here, instant messaging and the listing of friends meant that individuals were granted an online experience unlike ever seen before.

In 2004, Facebook was launched in The United States as a site to link students at Harvard. From here Facebook grew to connect individuals internationally to become the most used social network site with over 955 million users world wide (as of June 2012).

What set Facebook apart from rivals such as MySpace, Bebo and Friendster is the ability to connect, chat, share and game all on one site. To use Facebook, users must register, create a personal profile and connect to friends. From here users can exchange messages, post statuses, links and blogs, or upload photos and videos. In the last few years, Facebook has also included the ability to play games against fellow friends, subscribe to updates from "close friends" and celebrities, and keep in touch through a live stream of friends' activities.

The development of Facebook has been drastic between 2005 and today in 2012. While previously, Facebook was used primarily for communication, Facebook is now a way to describe the person you are, or if you don't fit the norm, to describe the person you aspire to be.

(To see a full history of social networking cites, please click here)

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Facebook and Panopticism

It can be argued that Facebook in 2012  has certain expectations that goes with it:

1. Posts (status, links, photos, videos)
The primary reason for posting one of the above things onto either your own or another user's Facebook page would generally be due to the user finding it humorous. The expectation is thus that posts will be funny to the wider community. There is however the issue that everyone has a different sense of humour. As a result of this, users take into consideration whether a certain post will be funny and post it only if that humour will be communicated to the viewer. The risk of this however is that this humour will not be communicated through "likes" and comments. If this is the case then the post will deleted by the user or shamefully regretted.

2. Groups joined and pages "liked"
Groups are active communities where things such as clothes, books, iPhone accessories and so forth can be bought, or individuals can communicate about certain topics. Pages that can be liked however are generally joined on the basis that the title states something that is very applicable to everyday life. Take for example the page, "That feeling of relief after seeing 'accepted' when paying with EFTPOS"; real life truths that a a large number of people would nod their heads in agreement with. Additionally, pages that users like could include favourite bands, movies or books. The expectation with these two aspects of Facebook is that when people are browsing through a users page, judgement would not be made, and instead the groups would be common to the two users and there would be nods of approval and agreement to pages and interests.

3. Photos
Photos are a fundamental part of a users profile. As Facebook is a representation of the real life individual, the photos represent what the user sees to be important, as well as their values and pass-time activities. The obsession with making sure one has the perfect profile picture means scrolling through the often hundreds of "tagged" photos to locate one that is acceptable to represent the users entire page. Not only does this photo have to include a nice photo of the user, but also appropriate, socially acceptable surroundings depicting what is important to the user. For example, if a user sees drinking as an important and 'cool' pastime, their profile picture would likely contain either an alcoholic beverage or be a general scene from a party. Again, support and approval for users' profile pictures would be shown through likes and comments and often if none were achieved, the profile would be changed.

If Foucault were alive today, it would be likely that he would infer the idea of panopticism to describe the Facebook phenomenon. With such heavy expectations on Facebook users to conform to the norm and expectations of society, panopticism would offer an insight into the obsession with looking 'cool' and being accepted in the world of Facebook.

A person's Facebook profile cannot be turned off when the user is not online. Thus a profile is accessible for all (friends) to look at all day, everyday. This constant surveillance on the individual means that social norms and values translate from real-life into the cyber-realm of Facebook. Thus users self regulate themselves accordingly; posts are only made if they meet expectations, groups are joined and pages are liked if they will gain acceptance, and photos will be "untagged" if the user does not look attractive enough (primarily females). This internalisation of socially accepted norms in Facebook also translates to real-life with social behaviour being determined by "photo-opportunities" and conversations often surrounding a humourous post last night on Facebook or something similar.

Disciplinary power is also achieved through Facebook at a more in-depth level. Constant surveillance of user activity is monitored through "flag-words" which are not allowed to be posted. Thus a status or user-uploaded video name contains one of these words, the post will be deleted, or Facebook will be notified. In addition to this is the option to report abuse on friends' activity. Thus all activity is accounted for an monitored by the team at Facebook, controlling content and disciplining users who abuse their rights as a Facebook user. Punishment is done through the freezing or deletion of a users account, excluding them from the Facebook community. In a sense, this can be compared to events in everyday life; an individual misbehaves and is put in prison, excluded from society as a banned-Facebook user is excluded from The Facebook community.

As a representation of the true-life "self", Facebook allows users to create a Utopian self which embodies the discourses and social norms and values acceptable to society. Although many users see Facebook as a way to keep in touch (which is not disputed), how users represent themselves on Facebook differs considerably to their true-life selves. To understand how to be a true "Facebooker" and all that it entails, this picture summarizes the impact of constant surveillance has had on representations of the self.