Disciplinary power

Foucault (1979) claims that ‘disciplinary power’ is exercised by those more powerful than their subordinates in order to make their subordinates behave in ways in which the ones in power wish them to. Foucault goes on to argue that power structures not only control people’s actions directly, but indirectly whereby people become easier to control to the extent that they discipline themselves to act in line with the wishes of the person or organisation that controls them.

An example is following rules at work. These rules are not just imposed on us, we also make sure we follow them, and try to enforce them upon others. We do this because it is expected behaviour, and what is considered to be normal. However, we also do this partly because we feel we are being watched or scrutinised and wish to avoid any potential penalties for not following the rules.

Some examples of disciplinary power I have observed at different places of work:

  • Swiping in and out via security pass (monitoring time spent on site)
  • Use of company telephones (monitoring for personal calls)
  • Use of company email (monitoring for personal emails)
  • Use of company internet facility (monitoring for excessive use)
  • CCTV in corridors (monitoring people away from their desks)

Some places I have worked actually employ all of the above techniques!

An example outside the workplace includes average speed cameras which are typically installed in roadworks on motorways, or on sections of managed motorway such as the M42 or M25. These devices are particularly effective at meting out disciplinary power: we make sure we abide by the speed limits in order to avoid an almost certain penalty for exceeding it.


  1. Brian says:

    Thanks for the link!

  2. Big Dookie says:

    I eat it!

  3. Samantha says:

    My understanding of Foucault isn’t quite the same as outlined here. Foucault caused a bit of a stir in the 70s when he introduced the concept of disciplinary power because he argued that hierarchical power (popular in the day, such as Marxism) was a distraction from the more important disciplinary power.Foucault believes the power is horizontal (not vertical) and can shift from one person to the next-it is not held by one individual or institution it is not ‘imposed’ on us. Rather people are trained and the power is taken away from us subtly and often without our knowledge. So when the author talks of power being exercised by those ‘more powerful’ or uses of the word ‘subordinate’ his language reflects hierarchical explanations of power (e.g. Marx and bourgeoise vs lumpen proletariat). Foucault was concerned that there was too much emphasis on power structures and the subtler, sinister form of disciplinary power that was reaching out and influencing us all (capillary power) was going unnoticed

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