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The theory of the panoptic of Michel Foucault

The theory of the panoptic of Michel Foucault

October 23, 2020

Power and the control and management of it are elements that are constantly present in society and in institutions.

The management of the citizenship behavior and the action according to some rules of coexistence more or less agreed and accepted by society as a whole is carried out by various agents throughout our lives. This monitoring and control would be analyzed in the Michel Foucault's panoptic theory .

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Understanding the term: what is panoptic?

Although the theory of the panopticon has become popular thanks to Michel Foucault, the panoptic concept was devised by Jeremy Bentham as a mechanism applicable to the control of prisoners' behavior in prisons.


The panopticon itself is a form of architectural structure designed for prisons and prisons . Said structure supposed a circular arrangement of the cells around a central point, without communication between them and being able to be the inmate observed from the outside. In the center of the structure would be a watchtower where a single person could visualize all the cells, being able to control the behavior of all the inmates.

These, however, could never be aware of whether they were being watched or not, given that the tower was constructed in such a way that from the outside it was seen as opaque, not knowing where it was or what the watchman was. Thus, the prisoner could be monitored at every moment, having to control his behavior in order not to be punished.


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The theory of the panoptic of Michel Foucault

The idea of ​​the panopticon would be picked up by Michel Foucault, who would see in today's society a reflection of that system. For this author, the passage of time has caused us to immerse ourselves in a disciplinary society , which controls the behavior of its members through the imposition of surveillance. Thus, the power seeks to act through surveillance, control and correction of citizenship behavior.

The panoptism is based, according to the theory of the panoptic of Michel Foucault, on being able to impose behaviors on the whole population based on the idea that we are being watched. It seeks to generalize a typical behavior within a range considered normal, punishing deviations or premiándose good behavior.


Self-management and self-censorship

This social model makes the individual self-manage their behavior , hindering the coordination and fusion with the group in order to maintain the behavior within a range established as correct by the power. The formation and action of divergent groups with the established order is difficult.

The use of mechanisms based on the same principle of the panopticon allows that the power does not have to be exercised and manifested continuously, since although in antiquity there was a person who exercised power and watched if he was obeyed, now any person or Even an object can be a representative of that power.

The fact that the surveillance is invisible, that is to say that the observed people can not determine if they are being observed or not, makes the individual behavior controlled even when it is not monitored. The subject in possible observation will try to obey the imposed norms in order not to be sanctioned.

Foucault says that the panopticon expresses very well the type of domain that occurs in the contemporary age : Surveillance mechanisms are introduced into bodies, they are part of a type of violence that is articulated through the expectations and meanings that spaces and institutions transmit.

The panopticon in society

For Michel Foucault's theory of the panopticon, the panoptic-type structure in which some agents have the power to monitor and sanction the behavior of the rest without them being able to discern whether or not they are being monitored is not limited to the prison environment alone. in which Bentham imagined it.

In fact, according to Foucault all current institutions have in one way or another this type of organization . While it is not necessary to be carried out physically, and even without real monitoring at any time, the fact of knowing or believing us monitored and evaluated will modify our behavior in different environments.

For example, Michel Foucault's theory of the panopticon is applicable in the world of the company, where employees control their behavior before the knowledge that their superiors can visualize their actions. This control improves productivity and decreases dispersion.The same happens in school, with students self-monitoring their behavior when they feel supervised by teachers and even with teachers when they consider that they are being monitored by the governing bodies. The idea is to make the domain diffuse in the dynamics of power and social relations.

For Foucault, everything is currently linked through vigilance, from participation in different institutions to our daily lives. Even in areas such as sex, the control mechanisms of today's society are visible, looking for the control of our drives through the normalization of sexuality . This has been reinforced with the birth of information technologies, in which cameras and surveillance systems have been implemented and improved in order to control the behavior of others.

Some aspects linked to Psychology

Both the structure designed by Bentham and the theory of the panoptic of Michel Foucault have an important consequence at the psychological level: the emergence of self-control of subjects due to the presence of surveillance .

This fact corresponds to the operative conditioning according to which the emission or inhibition of a behavior will be given by the consequences of said action. Thus, the fact of being monitored implies, depending on the case, the expectation of a possible reinforcement or punishment if we perform certain behaviors. This will cause the responses to be carried out that seek to perform the behavior that causes positive consequences or avoid the imposition of a punishment, while avoiding any behavior that involves aversive consequences.

While it can improve work performance and behavior in certain areas, such constant monitoring can often lead to the birth of stress reactions and even episodes of anxiety in people who end up being excessively inhibited, thus being an excessive control promoting behavioral rigidities and psychic discomfort.

Also, the imposition of power will generate a high level of reactance in many other people s, inducing behaviors opposed to those that were initially intended to be achieved.

Such control can also be conducted in a positive manner. The fact of being monitored can encourage subjects to make behavioral changes that can eventually be an adaptive advantage. For example, it can help improve the adherence and follow-up of a treatment or therapy or even prevent acts such as assault, harassment or mistreatment. The problem is that many of these modifications are going to be merely superficial and facing the public, not provoking attitudinal changes or taking place in the private sphere. The behavioral change is basically made by the possible consequences and not by the conviction of the need for a change.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir. Éditions Gallimard: Paris

Panopticism: How Michel Foucault Explains Why You're Screwed (October 2020).


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