Reading development as a discourse of knowledge and power


The French philosopher Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984) was certainly one of the most charismatic philosophers of the 20th century whose pioneering work exposed to the  world the relationship between knowledge and power. The scientific method adopted after the introduction of the Newtonian- Cartesian model and its resultant mechanical world-view was of obtaining knowledge about the true nature of the world. It was deemed that we were obtaining knowledge of a world that exists irrespective of our cognizance of its existence. While the western sciences continue to endorse this world-view[1], this became problematic in the social sciences. Influenced by the neo-Marxists Althusser and Nietzsche, Foucault focussed on the philosophy of psychology leading to his pioneering works – Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish, The Archaeology of Knowledge and The History of Sexuality. The post-structural and post-modern movements drew largely on Foucault’s works although he rejected these labels and characterized his work merely as a critique of modernist history.

As mentioned above, a central theme that runs through Foucault’s work is the inter-relationship between power and knowledge. His contention was that the rise of the enlightenment generated a set of new human sciences revolutionizing existing knowledge structures. For example, the medical sciences transformed from a subject classifying diseases to an anatomically based subject while new sciences such as Criminology and Psychology emerged after the enlightenment.

Foucault’s central argument was that these sciences constituted discourses[2] (as opposed to knowledge of an existing world) through which power was exercised over target groups such as the sick, insane/retarded or criminal. From the point of view of humanism, these post-enlightenment discourses were progressive and led to a better world. However, according to Foucault, these new sciences/discourses were in effect a more efficient way of exercising power over the target groups. A crucial argument here is that these discourses actually created the categories or target groups that they dealt with and exercised control over them.power foucault

“Power and knowledge directly imply one another……….there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”[3]

Thus, the development discourse created target groups such as the Third World poor, economically backward countries, agricultural communities, the proletariat etc. that were created, identified and intervened upon. These target groups did not exist prior to their creation!

Foucault developed two tools to show how power manifested itself in discourse.

The first “Archeology” was aimed at analyzing the group of discourses that determined what was accepted as knowledge in a given period. Foucault argued that in practice, discourses have two functions: the Judicative which establishes rules, norms, criteria and determines what is to be included and what is to be excluded, and the Veridicative which adjudicates as to what is to be regarded as true or false.

The second tool “Genealogy” focused on the descent of discourses historically. It dealt with the problem of imposition of power. Foucault’s main genealogical study was of changes in the penal system where emphasis on direct punishment of the body changed to more subtle forms of control such as through the prison system. It is in the context of genealogical study that he developed the concepts of discipline, subjection, normalization.

According to Foucault, the power inherent in a discourse manifests itself on the subject and exercises control. e.g. the insane are controlled by the lunatic asylum. ‘Discipline’ is the method by which people are made subject to the power of discourse.

“Discipline makes individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise”[4]

According to Foucault, training provides the discipline required for control through the three techniques of hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and the examination. Observation by someone placed hierarchically above the individual makes a judgment as to whether or not the trainee is performing up to standards as dictated by the discourse. If the trainee falls short of the expected standard, he/she is punished (e.g through failure in an exam) until the desired standard is reached. Thus the trainee is normalized in accordance with the discourse.

By analogy, the application of this thought process in the development aid extended to the Third World shows that the role of institutions such as the World Bank/IMF, aid donors, development experts etc. were generative of normalizing behaviour. For example, extension workers were sent out to teach farmers new farming techniques (usually developed in the West) as well as to inculcate in them the habits of using high yield seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides etc. On many occasions, farmers were given loans with the condition that further technology transfer would take place only on repayment of the loan. The justification given was the need to shift farmers away from subsistence farming to commercial farming. The application of the concepts of discipline, punishment and normalization here are not difficult to see[5]. This is why Foucault’s theories of power/knowledge relationship appealed to post-development thinkers.

(to be continued)


[1] an alternate way is to view knowledge about a world created through our senses and mind as in Buddhism

[2] The body of statements, analysis, etc., both written and spoken, concerning a specific subject, esp. as typified by recurring terms and concepts (e.g. feminist discourse)- Oxford-Canadian Dictionary, 2006

[3] Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish. New York:Vintage., page 27

[4] Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish. New York:Vintage., page 170

[5] Example from Parfitt, T. (2002) The End of Development. London: Pluto Press.



2 thoughts on “Reading development as a discourse of knowledge and power

  1. Pingback: The Medicalisation of The Human Condition | seventhvoice

  2. Pingback: A Very Very Brief Approach to Power (or, Narrative power, or, Power and narrative) | Paul's Reflections

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