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The postmodern theory of
power/knowledge and the body
Module 4-The social meanings of the
body, health and illness
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
13-2
Contents
Objectives 13-3 . . . . . . . . .
Resource material readings 13-3 . . . . . .
Further readings 13-3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Postmodern theories of power/knowledge and the body 13-4 . . . . . . . . .
Foucault, the body and the clinic 13-4 . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . .
Review questions 13-7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Conclusion 13-7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Key concepts 13-8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References 13-8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
13-3
Objectives
On completion of this chapter you should be able to:
_ explain the basic concepts of Foucault's theory of power/knowledge
and the body
_ explain why Foucault was reluctant to analyse power and knowledge
as separate entities.
Resource material readings
Reading 13-1 Fox 1993
pp. 25-45
Reading 13-2 Lash 1991
pp. 256-280
Further readings
Armstrong, D. (1987). Bodies of knowledge: Foucault and the problem of human
anatomy. In G. Scambler (Ed.), Sociological theory and medical sociology. London:
Tavistock Publications, pp. 59-76.
Foucault, M. (1973). The birth of clinic. London: Tavistock Publications.
Lupton, D. (1994). Medicine as culture. London: Sage Publications, pp. 21-49.
Turner, B. (1984). The body and society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 30-59 &
156-176.
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
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Postmodern theories of power/knowledge and the body
I have indicated in Chapter 10 that postmodern theories of the body, health
and illness developed out of the criticisms that the poststructuralists made
of modernity. The writings of French social theorist Michel Foucault were
particularly inspiring in this field. In his book The birth of the clinic
(1973), Foucault argued that there exists a relationship between certain
medical discourses and the exercise of power in society. In particular, his
interest was in the way a professional body, in this case the medical
profession, was able to legitimise its social power "... by developing
historical accounts of their emergence which emphasises their altruistic
contribution to mankind and their opposition to cruelty and violence"
(Turner 1987, p. 12). From the standpoint of Foucault, the medical
profession is but one among many groups that exercise disciplinary power
in society. In this chapter I will outline the major features of the arguments
that Foucault developed in medical sociology and then I will proceed to
discuss the further progress made by other postmodern theorists in
medical sociology.
Foucault, the body and the clinic
Until recently, social theorists tended to ignore the human body, placing
emphasis upon social structures and individual subjectivity (Turner 1984;
1991). As Armstrong (1987) asserts, social theorists have rarely
questioned the biological vision of the body developed by the medical
professionals/biologists. The body remained the biological/medical
domain for a long time and only recently social and cultural theorists have
started to direct their attention to this field. I mentioned in Chapter 10 that
the growing focus on the body by social and cultural theorists began
following the release of the translated works of Michel Foucault and the
growth of feminist theory. Foucault has provided considerable insight into
the human body, not in a medical sense but in the sense of how our
knowledge, which is subject to change, is formed about the body,
including the medical or biological one.
Foucault's "genealogy" of discourse
As a social philosopher Foucault's main concern was to explore the
"conditions of existence of particular forms of knowledge". In order to
understand this he examined the cognitive ordering of language, labour,
and life in different historical periods (Armstrong 1987, p. 61). How does
the concept of body fit into this schema? Foucault studied an historical
"genealogy" of the discourses surrounding and constituting contemporary
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
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medical practices and argued that the body had become the ultimate site of
political and ideological control, surveillance and regulation, and the focal
point for the exercise of disciplinary power since the 18th century. He
argued further that through the body and its behaviours, state apparatuses
such as medicine, the educational system, psychiatry and the law defined
the limits of behaviour and by recording activities, punished those bodies
which violated the established boundaries, thus rendering bodies
productive and politically and economically useful (Lupton 1994, p. 23).
Let me discuss the major points of Foucault's arguments in simpler terms.
The medico-scientific gaze
In The birth of the clinic (1975) Foucault was concerned about the way
medicine has perceived things, the way things have looked or seemed
(Armstrong 1987, p. 64). Foucault termed this way of perceiving as the
"medico-scientific gaze" (Lupton 1994, p. 23). The medico-scientific gaze
was the technique by which medicine came to have knowledge of
bodies-the interior, organs, tissues, constancies, and variations. He
provided historic-philosophical accounts of the development of medical
knowledge and showed how from the late 18th century onwards the
human body came under increasing surveillance. Foucault referred to the
development of the "anatomical atlas" (Gray's Anatomy), the routine
adoption of the physical examination, the post-mortem, the stethoscope,
the microscope, psychiatry, radiology and surgery, and the
institutionalisation of the hospital and doctor's surgery, all of which served
to establish expert power over the body. Foucault was not interested in
claiming that this was bad or unethical. His concern was to show how
certain ways of perceiving were becoming dominant and to show that the
body could be perceived differently as well. The medico-scientific gaze
made the body a docile object of power.
Power and surveillance
In his other works, such as Discipline and punish (1977), The order of
things (1970), and The history of sexuality, Vol 1 (1978), Foucault
developed arguments which are parallel to the above and which reveal
how disciplinary power, arising at the close of the 18th century, brought
the body under constant surveillance. Discipline and punish is an account
of the changing nature of this surveillance. It opens with an account of the
punishment of an attempted regicide called Damiens. It describes the
brutal tortures and gory details of how Damiens' body was cut and
wounded by the King's representatives. It goes on to reveal that Damiens'
body was not unusual in this respect: thieves were branded, criminals
flogged, and traitors tortured by instruments which marked the body. All
these involved the sovereign's body asserting its supremacy over the body
of the law-breaker.
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
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The Panopticon
At the end of the 18th century a new form of power emerged. Prosecution
at the public place started to disappear and the Panopticon was set up
instead. The Panopticon was the earlier form of the modern prison which
was architecturally designed to enable the prisoners' bodies to be watched
from the watch house. The prisoners could not see but knew that they
were being watched. Foucault argued that this form of surveillance was
the symbolic extension of the King's sovereign authority over others. The
body became more docile to disciplinary power (Armstrong 1987,
pp. 67-8). He argued further that bodies were subjected to increased
regulation, constant monitoring, and discipline in other spheres, most
notably the school, the asylum, the military and the factory. It would be
worth while to quote him to conclude this discussion of his arguments to
show the development of the new discourse which began to undermine all
those forms of knowledge which sought to discover the "truth" in the
modern world. In The history of sexuality, Vol 1, he wrote:
[Medicine] set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic
necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining
them with the new themes of asepsis, and great evolutionist myths
with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the
physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it
promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and
bastardized populations. In the name of the biological and historical
urgency, it justified the racism of the state ... it grounded them in
'truth'.
(Foucault 1978, p. 54).
Foucauldian scholars concentrate their discussion on how "things" are
being inscribed on the body. Following Foucault, social scientists
examined the various fields of power to explain the ways modern
discourses of the body are being formed.
Reading 13-1 Fox 1993
pp. 25-45
Reading 13-2 Lash 1991
pp. 256-280
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
13-7
Review questions
REVIEW QUESTION 13-1 In what sense is discourse analysis supportive of the social
constructionists' view of health and illness?
REVIEW QUESTION 13-2 How are power and knowledge related to discourses?
Conclusion
The interest in the study of the body in the social sciences over the past
decade has provided a wealth of theoretical insights relevant to
understanding humans, as defined by medical discourses and practices.
Theorists who are influenced by the works of Foucault and other
post-structuralists have successfully demonstrated that the biomedical
claims of "true" and "neutral" knowledge about the body and medical
practices have a relationship with the power and knowledge of discursive
practices. The way the body is perceived has nothing much to do with
reality, but the reality itself is socially constructed.
The postmodern theory of power/knowledge and the body
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Key concepts
_ the relationship between knowledge and power
_ the body and discourses


References
Armstrong, D. (1987). Bodies of knowledge: Foucault and the problem of human
anatomy. In G. Scambler (Eds.), Sociological theory and medical sociology. London:
Tavistock Publications, pp. 59-76.
Foucault, M. (1973). The birth of the clinic. London: Tavistock Publications.
Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, vol 1. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things. London: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. London: Allen Lane.
Fox, N. (1993). Post modernism, sociology and health. Buckingham: Open University
Press.
Lash, S. (1994). Genealogy and the body. In B. Turner, The body and society. Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, pp. 256-280.
Lupton, D. (1994). Medicine as culture. London: Sage Publications.
Turner, B. (1984). The body and society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.