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Foucault's theory of discourse remains important in anthropology and sociology as well as other fields. Before looking at Foucault's work on discourse we must briefly also examine non-foucaldian conceptions of discourse in order to better understand it. There are two groups of non-foucauldian approaches to discourse the formal and the empirical approach. The formal approach considers it in terms of the text and is therefore very close to the disciplines of sociolinguistics and ethnography of communication. The empirical approach to discourse analysis mainly consists of sociological forms of analysis, resulting in discourse being taken to mean human conversation. The essay will begin by discussing the theoretical meaning of discourse - drawing primarily on Foucault's work on governmentality (see Bratich, Packer & McCarthy 2003) and proceed by applying this in ethnographic examples to explore the role that discourse plays. By aiming to show that it is crucial to understand the complex relationship between 'people' and 'discourse' to be able to posit whether changes of public ideas proceed changes in private individuals (McHoul & Grace 1997), it is possible to assess to what extent this is a useful distinction. 'Discourse' is a concept which is tied to other Foucaldian concepts like power, knowledge and disciplines. It is not an independent concept. In order to discuss the statement 'People don't rule people, discourses do' it is important to look at other Foucaldian concepts, but particular attention will be given to power which a key component of rule.
Foucault developed his theories and concepts of 'discourse', 'power' and 'subject' in the 1960s and 70s, during a crisis in political, anthropological and sociological thought (McHoul & Grace 1997). The crisis stemmed - at least largely - from a loss of faith in Marxist thought - due to the stagnation of the Soviet Union and Marxism's unsatisfactory determinist nature (ibid.). The crisis also arose from, and as, a critique of structuralism - a methodological approach coined in anthropology by Levi-Strauss which aimed to find grand structures of meaning to explain society (ibid). However, Foucault's attempts to transcend these grand approaches did not fall into the trap of hermeneutics - and did not assume an entirely particular, local, cultural relativist approach (Hubert & Rabinow 1983). Instead of attempting to solve such crises, Foucault moved away and beyond them and forged a new way of thinking. This way was deemed to be outside existing thought (McHoul & Grace 1997; Hubert & Rabinow 1983).
Until Foucault's re-coinage, the term "discourse" was mainly used in structural linguistics (McHoul & Grace, 1997). By adapting its meaning, he helped his followers understand the way he saw power and government at play in society, defining it as a 'body of knowledge' (ibid.), which, in any domain, 'provide[s] a language for talking about i.e., a way of representing - a particular kind of knowledge about a topic' (Hall in Bratich, Packer & McCarthy 2003).
'[It] refers both to the production of knowledge through language and representation and the way that language is institutionalized, shaping social practices and setting new practices into play'.
(Bratich, Packer & McCarthy 2003: 50)
Having established the definition of discourse, it is important to understand how it fits into power relations and get to grips with the ensuing implications for government.
Foucault claimed that everything is produced and given meaning by the discourse surrounding it (Wetherall, Taylor & Yates 2001). Without a discursive context, things just do not make sense - there is no madman or state punishment (ibid.). This is because discourse produces both its 'subjects' and a place for its subjects (ibid.). Firstly, it generates 'figures who personify the particular knowledge which the discourse produces' (ibid: 80), which are specific to particular historical periods and 'discursive regimes'. These figures 'have attributes we would expect as they are defined by the discourse: the madman, the hysterical woman, the homosexual, the individualized criminal, and so on' (ibid.). Secondly, discourse acts to give power and meaning to these subjects, by producing a place for its subjects 'from which its particular knowledge and meaning most makes sense' (ibid.). Such discursive practices:
'...take shape in technical ensembles, in institutions, in behavioural schemes, in types of transmission and dissemination, in pedagogical forms that both impose and maintain them'. (Foucault 1997:12 cited in Bratich, Packer & McCarthy 2003: 54)
Thus, discourse could be said to rule people as it has a definite role in Foucault's notion of government, which he considered both narrowly and widely (Gordon in Miller, Burchell & Gordon 1991: 2). Narrowly, in the way that government is simply the 'conduct of conduct' and more widely as a form of activity aiming to shape, guide, or affect conduct of some person/s (ibid.). This could refer to social institutions, communities, political sovereignty or the 'self conducting self' (Miller, Burchell & Gordon 1991) and the techniques and apparatuses of power involved (ibid.; Wetherall, Taylor & Yates 2001), which are 'relations of forces supporting and supported by types of knowledge' (Wetherall, Taylor & Yates 2001: 75) Commonly, these apparatus consists of institutions, regulations, law, morality and architecture; all which monitor and control behaviour in environments like schools, factories and prisons (ibid.; Miller, Burchell & Gordon 1991). To understand Foucault's concept of discourse fully it is necessary to connect it to some of his other main ideas, like those of knowledge, disciplines and power. According to Foucault, 'discourses are knowledges [and] knowledges are collected into disciplines' (ref) so medicine, mathematics, economics and psychiatry are all disciplines. His idea of discourse serves to demonstrate the 'historically specific relations between disciplines (defined as bodies of knowledge) and disciplinary practices (forms of social control and social policy (ref). As he explained himself, "the discipline is a principle of control over the production of discourse. The discipline fixes limits for discourse by the actuation of an identity which takes the form of a permanent re-actuation of the rules.
For example, through the legal system, power uses the disciplines and discourse to prove itself through the legal system.
The discipline of the body and 'biopower' (another important Foucault's term)