Michel Foucault: modalities of power


Installer’s Note: I highlighted key phrases, used a short line to punctuate the original text into chunks, and inserted pictures to illustrate the concepts. I do not know if these visuals spoil the text.


Source: Fendler, L. (2010, pp. 43-47). Michel Foucault. Continuum Library of Educational Thought, Vol. 22, Richard Bailey, (Series Ed.) London: Continuum Press.

“In common use, the term power is a very broad concept that encompasses many different things including ability, agency, domination, and potential. Foucault’s analysis breaks the concept of power apart, and his theory explains differences in various modes of power. He argued that over centuries, societies have changed from feudalism, to monarchies, to democracies; but our political theories of power have not kept up with those changes. Since we no longer live in monarchies, Foucault argued, we need a more finely tuned theory of power that can help us understand the many different ways power operates when there are no dictators.

Foucault was very interested in the history of governments, and he paid a great deal of attention to the meaning of democracy. When he analyzed the effects of democratic revolutions, his analysis of those historical power shifts was not naive. He did not suppose that in a democracy there would be total freedom or that democracy would mean equal power for all people. He did not assume that the end of sovereign power meant the end of power. Quite the contrary. He was interested in analyzing how power operates within a democratic system in which people are supposed to govern themselves.

Foucault argued that democracies have many kinds of power – modalities of power. Democracies have laws, police, judges, and prisons, so there are elements of sovereign power still at work. At the same time, however, in democracies people are supposed to govern themselves, so that is a different mode of power from the sovereign mode. We tell ourselves how to behave. Furthermore, democratic governments do not gain legitimacy through threats of terror, so we need a careful theorization of power in order to perceive how this new ‘kinder and gentler’ mode of power works. As modes of power in democracies, Foucault explicitly identified:

1 Sovereign power

2 Disciplinary power

3 Pastoral power

4 Bio-power


As the name suggests, sovereign power refers to the mode of power most obvious in a monarchy, where the king or queen possesses ultimate authority over other people’s lives. Foucault used the term ‘sovereign’ to refer to this noble mode of power. The sovereign mode of power operates in democracies when authorities (people or laws) try to control other people. For example, the mode of sovereign power describes the situation in which headmasters use their authority to expel or promote students, when bullies persecute their victims, and when some people have the right to vote while others are denied. The sovereign mode of power is easy to recognize and understand because it most closely resembles forces of domination and control with which we are familiar.

Sovereign Power_Iran_USA


In democratic societies, people are subjected to laws and coercive practices (sovereign power), but that is not the only kind of power in democracies. In democracies, we also control ourselves. Disciplinary power is the kind of power we exercise over ourselves based on our knowledge of how to fit into society. We discipline ourselves on the basis of messages we get from society – knowledge, rewards, and images – of how we are supposed to live. We try to be normal by disciplining ourselves even in the absence of threats of punishment.

Foucault’s analysis tells us that disciplinary power is executed through mechanisms that are different from the mechanisms of sovereign power. For example, sovereign power is exercised through physical punishment and rewards. Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through surveillance and knowledge. One surveillance mechanism is the gaze. The gaze is symbolized by the panopticon, a prison design that allows a supervisor to watch inmates.

The concept of the gaze is important because it shows that it is not necessary to watch people constantly because people will regulate themselves even when they think they are being watched. The gaze gives people the feeling that they are being watched, and that feeling is a mechanism of our self-discipline.


Another mechanism of disciplinary power is the production of particular kinds of knowledge, especially knowledge of the human sciences. The word ‘discipline’ also refers to an academic subject, such as the discipline of sociology or the discipline of political science. This meaning of ‘discipline’ highlights the role knowledge plays in the governing practices of modern democracies. In the disciplinary mode of power, knowledge of psychology and social science helps us to understand who we are. Academic disciplines provide the basis on which we know what is good, what is normal, and how we ought to behave. Particular kinds of knowledge are produced and made available to us, and that knowledge allows us to govern ourselves in particular ways. It is on the basis of our knowledge that we discipline ourselves to eat nutritious foods, join a health club, listen politely when people are speaking to us, and read the books our teachers assign. Foucault called the gaze and human sciences mechanisms (or technologies) of disciplinary power.


Foucault used the metaphor of the pastor as a strategy to explain another mode of power that operates in democracies: pastoral power. This mode of power was derived through the traditions of Christianity. Literally, ‘pastoral’ refers to a pasture where a shepherd cares for a flock of sheep. You may recognize the language of pastorship from Christianity: in some Protestant churches, ministers (priests) are called `pastors,’ and the Twenty-Third Psalm begins ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ The members of a Christian church are often called the ‘flock,’ and the Bible uses the sheep and shepherd metaphor to refer to the relationship between people and clergy in religious settings.

The metaphor of ‘pastoral’ serves to highlight this particular mode of power. For example, kings have the reputation of being powerful in  a military way, and that is sovereign power. However, pastors have the reputation of being of service to their respective flocks, and that is characteristic of the pastoral mode of power. Also, the members of the flock are dependent on the shepherd; that, too, is an element of pastoral power. Finally, it might make sense to rebel against a king whose power can be abused, but it does not make sense to rebel against a pastor, since the pastor exercises power only to protect and nurture the flock. Foucault invoked these levels of literary meaning to spur our imaginations in the process of trying to make sense of this caring mode of power in democracies.

There are limits to the extent of this metaphor. Pastoral power does not mean that power is being exercised through religion. It also does not mean that people in a democracy are as helpless as sheep. Pastoral power does not imply that people are locked in corrals like so many flocks of sheep, instead, the metaphor of pastoral power serves to emphasize that there are modes of power in democracies other than sovereign power.

Mother reading to child copyright Bill Frymire Dec. 2003

Since democracies are different from monarchies, the exercises of power democracies may go undetected if all we are able to recognize are the sovereign modes. If we do not recognize power in its many different guises, then we become subject to the effects of power without knowing it. It is Foucault’s purpose to make the exercises of power recognizable. The term ‘pastoral power’ gives us language to recognize the kindly exercise of power that is an element of democratic governance. If the exercise of power is made recognizable, then we increase our options for participation in relations of power and leadership.


Finally, the term bio-power is a neologism, an invention of Foucault’s to bring into view a particular mode of power in modern democracies. He first used the term in the 1975 lecture series, ‘Society Must Be Defended.’ In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault explained that bio-power is a modality of power that is exercised through our relationship to demography (Foucault 1978a, p. 139). We modern people have grown up in societies, so we govern ourselves according to what we have come to understand about ourselves in terms of race, class, gender, age, and so on.


When Foucault used the term bio-power in the 1975 lectures, he  was talking about his historical analysis of a particular change that occurred across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, namely a change in how governments handled [bio’ issues. Bio issues – including births, deaths, health, sickness, and demographic (e.g., race, class, and gender) descriptions – were not always formally administered by governments. At one time there were no officers, cabinet ministers, oversight boards, or legislative policy statements that were in charge of demography; governments did not record, predict, or intervene in birth rates, death statistics, or disease management. However, in the eighteenth century when these bio issues came into the sphere of government and administration, the change in the scope of government signaled a change in power dynamics that Foucault called `biopower.’ Bio-power does not mean that in the eighteenth century the state began to take control of more aspects of our lives. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, bio-power refers to a mode of power that shapes how we think of ourselves relative to populational factors such as births, deaths, health, sickness, and demographics.


In summary, there are many modes of power operating in democratic societies. Different modes of power are exercised with different mechanisms. In democracies, sometimes we are subjects of sovereign power, sometimes disciplinary power, sometimes pastoral power, and sometimes bio-power. We could probably come up with many other modes of power. In Foucault’s philosophy, the more fine-grained our analysis of power, the better equipped we are to adopt a critical perspective on the modes of governance in which we participate.”


4 thoughts on “Michel Foucault: modalities of power

  1. Pingback: Michel Foucault: Disciplinary Power in Action. | Law and Society@Kwantlen

  2. Appreciate the highlighting and the simplifications done. Have a big exam coming up and really needed to quickly read through this part. This helped a lot, thank you!

  3. Pingback: งูหลาม วัว ควาย ไก่ กบ แกะ และกำเนิดอำนาจอภิบาลร่วมสมัย : พิชญ์ พงษ์สวัสดิ์

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