Discourse, Power and Knowledge – By Michel Foucault (2022)

The Introduction (The Archaeology of Knowledge)

In France, a country that awards its intellectuals the status other countries give to their rockstars, Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was part of a glittering generation of thinkers. One of the great intellectual heroes of twentieth century, Foucault was a man whose passion and reason were at the service of nearly every progressive cause of his time. From law and order, to mental health and Discourse, to power and knowledge, he spearheaded public awareness of the dynamics that hold us all in thrall to few powerful ideologies and interests. Foucault challenged the people’s assumption about care of the mentally ill, gay rights, prisons, the police and the welfare.

Foucault has no sense of some deep, ultimate truth; there are simply ever more layers to be peeled away. There is a phenomenological influence on Foucault, but he rejected the idea of an autonomous, meaning-giving subject. There is a strong element of structuralism but no formal rule-governed model of behavior. Finally, and perhaps most important, Foucault adopts a number of Nietzsche’s interests, most notably the relationship between power and knowledge, but that linkage is analyzed much more sociologically by Foucault. This multitude of theoretical inputs is one of the reasons that Foucault is thought of as post-structuralist and his influence is clear in a great deal of post-structuralist, post-modernist, feminist, post-Marxist and post-colonial theorising. The impact of his work has also been felt across a wide range of disciplinary fields, from sociology and anthropology to English studies and history. However, the challenging nature of Foucault’s theoretical work has meant that his ideas have not simply been accommodated. Instead, they have caused heated – and very productive – debate from the 1960s and 1970s, when he emerged as a key theorist, through to the present.

The purpose of “Archaeology of knowledge” is to suggest how rhetoric/discourse can be studied and understood in its relationship with power and knowledge. This work is a methodological and histographical treatise promoting what Foucault calls “Archaeology” or “Archaeological method” (the unearthing of the ‘historical a priori’), an analytical method implicitly used in his previous works “Madness and Civilization”, “The Birth of Clinic” and “The Order of Things”.

A further feature of his work which contributes to its popularity is the fact that he does not develop one, fully thought-out theory but instead, tries to think through ways of thinking without the constraints of a systematized structure. He encourages readers to make what they can of his work rather than feeling that they ought to follow what he has written slavishly; in an interview in Le Monde in 1975, he states:

A book is made to be used in ways not defined by its writer. The more, new, possible or unexpected uses there are, the happier I shall be . . . All my books are little tool-boxes. If people want to open them, to use this sentence or that idea as a screwdriver or spanner to short-circuit, discredit systems of power, including eventually those from which my books have emerged . . . so much the better.

In his “Archaeology of Knowledge”, Foucault, reflecting the structuralist focus on language, is interested in studying discursive events, both spoken and written statements. He is particularly interested in early statements in the history of a field. He wants to uncover the basic conditions that make a given discourse possible. The unity of such statements, the way that they come to form a science or a discipline, does not come from the human subject or the author (this rejection of the subject/author is central to Foucault’s thinking and in line with later postmodern ideas) but rather from basic discursive rules and practices extant at a given time and place. More specifically, Foucault is interested in the basic discursive practices that formed the base of scientific discourse, particularly in the human sciences.


Discourse is one of the most frequently used terms from Foucault’s work and, at the same time, it is one of the most contradictory. Foucault himself defines it in a number of different ways throughout his work. He says in The Archaeology of Knowledge that he has used ‘discourse’ to refer to ‘the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements’. By ‘the general domain of all statements’, he means that ‘discourse’ can be used to refer to all utterances and statements which have been made, which have meaning and which have some effect.

Sometimes, in addition, he has used the term to refer to ‘individualizable groups of statements’ that is utterances which seem to form a grouping, such as the discourse of femininity or the discourse of racism. At other times, he has used the term discourse to refer to ‘regulated practices that account for a number of statements’, that is the unwritten rules and structures which produce particular utterances and statements. For example, there is no set of rules written down on how to write essays, and yet somehow most students at university manage to learn how to write within the framework of the essay. For Foucault, this set of structures and rules would constitute a discourse, and it is these rules in which Foucault is most interested rather than the utterances and text produced.

A discourse is a regulated set of statements which combine with others in predictable ways. Discourse is regulated by a set of rules which lead to the distribution and circulation of certain utterances and statements. Some statements are circulated widely and others have restricted circulation; thus, within the West, the Bible is a text which is always in print; there are copies of the Bible in many homes. Many political commentators use quotations from the Bible to illustrate points that they have made. There are university theology departments which are devoted to the study of the Bible. Journals are devoted to its analysis, and there are always new interpretations and commentaries on it. In this way, the Bible itself, and statements about it, can be seen to constitute a discourse which is kept in circulation within our society. However, there are other religious texts which are not given such wide circulation and which do not seem to have the type of structural ‘supports’ that the Bible has. The notion of exclusion is very important in Foucault’s thinking about discourse. Rather than seeing discourse as simply a set of statements which have some coherence, we should, rather, think of a discourse as existing because of a complex set of practices which try to keep them in circulation and other practices which try to fence them off from others and keep those other statements out of circulation.

The reason that many people find the term discourse to be of use is that Foucault stresses that discourse is associated with relations of power. Many Marxist theorists have used the term ideology to indicate that certain statements and ideas are authorized by institutions and may have some influence in relation to individuals’ ideas, but the notion of discourse is more complex than this notion of ideology in that, because of Foucault’s ideas on power and resistance, a discourse is not simply the imposition of a set of ideas on individuals. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, Foucault states that:

Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines it and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.

What is interesting about this quotation is that, in Marxist theorising, ideology is always assumed to be negative and constraining, a set of false beliefs about something; whereas here Foucault is arguing that discourse is both the means of oppressing and the means of resistance.

Foucault has often been interpreted as saying that there is no non-discursive realm, that everything is constructed and apprehended through discourse. For example, the body, while it is clearly a material object – our body feels pain, it is subject to gravity, it can be harmed in accidents – nevertheless, the body can be apprehended only through discursive mediation, that is, our understanding of our body occurs only through discourse – we judge the size of our body through discourses which delineate a perfect form, we interpret feelings of tiredness as indicative of stress because of discourses concerning the relation between mental and physical well-being, and so on. So Foucault is not denying that there are physical objects in the world and he is not suggesting that there is nothing but discourse, but what he is stating is that we can only think about and experience material objects and the world as a whole through discourse and the structures it imposes on our thinking. In the process of thinking about the world, we categorise and interpret experience and events according to the structures available to us and in the process of interpreting, we lend these structures a solidity and a normality which it is often difficult to question.

What interests Foucault in his analysis of discourse is the way that it is regulated: ‘in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality’.

It is this sense of the structure of discourse and the control which this exercises on what can be said which interests Foucault. He describes, in his article ‘The order of discourse’, the procedures which constrain discourse and which lead to discourse being produced: the first set of procedures, he suggests, consists of three external exclusions, and they are taboo; the distinction between the mad and the sane; and the distinction between true and false.

Taboo is a form of prohibition since it makes it difficult to speak about certain subjects such as sexuality and death and constrains the way that we talk about these subjects.

The second external exclusion is the distinction between the speech of the mad and the sane, as Foucault has shown in his book Madness and Civilisation (1967), since the speech of those people who have been considered to be insane is not attended to; it is treated as if it did not exist. To give an example, those people in Britain who have been certified as mentally ill and who have been prescribed certain drugs to help their condition, now, because of changes in the legislation, are not able to state authoritatively that they do not wish to take such medication. They may well state that they do not want to take the drugs but it is now possible that the authorities will ignore their statements and force them to take the medication. In this sense, only the statements of those considered sane are attended to.

The division between true and false is the third exclusionary practice described by Foucault; those in positions of authority who are seen to be ‘experts’ are those who can speak the truth. Those who make statements who are not in positions of power will be considered not to be speaking the truth. The notion of the truth must not be taken as self-evident; he shows in his work how truth is something which is supported materially by a whole range of practices and institutions: universities, government departments, publishing houses, scientific bodies and so on. All of these institutions work to exclude statements which they characterise as false and they keep in circulation those statements which they characterise as true.

Thus, even if we are asserting something which as far as we know it is ‘the truth’, our statements will only be judged to be ‘true’ if they accord with, and fit in with, all of the other statements which are authorised within our society.

In addition to these external exclusions on the production of discourse, Foucault also asserts that there are four internal procedures of exclusion and these are: commentary; the author; disciplines; and the rarefaction of the speaking subject. These procedures are all concerned with classifying, distributing and ordering discourse, and their function is ultimately to distinguish between those who are authorised to speak and those who are not – those discourses which are authorised and those which are not.

The first internal exclusion, commentary, is writing about another’s statements. Thus, literary criticism can be considered to be commentary. Foucault suggests that: there is in all societies, with great consistency, a kind of gradation among discourses: those which are said in the ordinary course of days and exchanges, and which vanish as soon as they have been pronounced; and those which give rise to a certain number of new speech acts which take them up, transform them or speak of them, in short, those discourses which, over and above their formulation, are said indefinitely, remain said, and are to be said again.

The second internal exclusionary practice is the author. This may seem quite a paradox, since the author may be seen by many to be simply the person who self-evidently writes a text. However, for Foucault, although he recognises that authors exist, for him the notion of the author is used as an organising principle for texts, and can be considered to be a way of providing a cohesion to diverse texts which have been published by him/her.

The third internal exclusion on discourse is the disciplinary boundary, that is, the limits which we place on subject areas. For example, if we work within sociology, we will generally examine a certain range of subjects and we will approach them drawing on a particular range of methodological and theoretical tools. If we approach the same subject from the perspective of another discipline, for example linguistics or psychology, we will approach them and delimit those subjects in different ways and approach them using different tools. Disciplines work as a limit on discourse, because they prescribe what can be counted as possible knowledge within a particular subject area. Because they each have strict methodological rules and a corpus of propositions which are considered to be factual, disciplines allow for the production of new propositions but within extremely tightly defined limits.

The final internal exclusion on discourse discussed by Foucault is what he terms ‘the rarefaction of the speaking subject’: by ‘rarefaction’ he means the limitation placed on who can speak authoritatively, that is, some discourses are open to all and some have very limited access. Speaking authoritatively is hedged around by rituals and takes place within particular societies of discourse, where discourses circulate according to prescribed rules. For example, at universities, only certain people can give lectures; these are generally held in specially designed halls where the lecturer is positioned at the front. Only the lecturer speaks for the duration of the lecture. Students do not generally speak to the lecturer or to the rest of the lecture group. Because of the unwritten regulations on who can speak during a lecture, when a student does speak, it is often seen by others as aberrant, or potentially disruptive of the status quo, or if a student is called upon to speak by the lecturer, s/he may well feel nervous or self-conscious and find speaking difficult. Thus, rather than a university simply being an institution in which knowledge is dispassionately circulated, Foucault argues that ‘any system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourses, along with the knowledges and powers which they carry’.

Thus, this complex system of multiple constraints acts both internally and externally on the production and reception of discourse and it is these constraints which bring discourse into existence.

To sum up, discourse should therefore be seen as both an overall term to refer to all statements, the rules whereby those statements are formed and the processes whereby those statements are circulated and other statements are excluded.

Foucault’s work on discourse and power is useful in helping theorists to consider the way that we know what we know; where that information comes from; how it is produced and under what circumstances; whose interests it might serve; how it is possible to think differently; in order to be able to trace the way that information that we accept as ‘true’ is kept in that privileged position. This enables us to look at the past without adopting a position of superiority – of course we know better now – in order to be able to analyse the potential strangeness of the knowledge which we take as ‘true’ at present.


Archaeology constitutes a way of doing historical analysis of systems of thought or discourse. To be more precise archaeology seeks to describe the archive, the term employed by Foucault to refer to ‘the general system of the formation and transformation of statements’ existent at a given period within a particular society.

The archive determines both the system of enunciability of a statement-event and its system of functioning in other words it constitutes the set of rules which define the limits and forms of expressibility, conservation, memory, reactivation, appropriation.

The object of archaeological analysis is then a description of the archive, literally what may be spoken of in discourse; what statements survive, disappear, get re-used, repressed or censured; which terms are recognized as valid, questionable, invalid; what relations exist between ‘the system of present statements’ and those of the past, or between the discourses of ‘native’ and foreign cultures; and what individuals, groups, or classes have access to particular kinds of discourse. The ultimate objective of such an analysis of discourse is not to reveal a hidden meaning or deep truth, nor to trace the origin of discourse to a particular mind or founding subject, but to document its conditions of existence and the practical field in which it is deployed.

To Foucault, archaeology is concerned with objects, things without context, article left from the past, silent monuments. In focusing on objects, he wants to move away from the sovereignty of subject that has reigned since the nineteenth century. Instead of focusing on people and what they say, Foucault focuses on discourse as practice. In other words, he has disengaged discursive events (as objects) from people (subjects) who might engage in them.

Foucault outlines a five-step process for the analysis of a field of discursive events:

  1. grasp the statement in the exact specifity of its occurrence
  2. determine its conditions of existence
  3. fix atleast its limits
  4. establish its correlates with other statements that may be connected with it
  5. show what other forms of statements it excludes.

In this process, Foucault is interested in getting the regularities that exist within discourse. He traces those regularities to several kind of relationships – between statements, between groups of statements, and the relationship between statements and groups of statements and events of a quite different kind (technical, economic, social, political).

Power and Institutions

Foucault’s is very critical of the notion that power is something which a group of people or an institution possess and that power is only concerned with oppressing and constraining. What his work tries to do is move thinking about power beyond this view of power as repression of the powerless by the powerful to an examination of the way that power operates within everyday relations between people and institutions. Rather than simply viewing power in a negative way, as constraining and repressing, he argues that even at their most constraining, oppressive measures are in fact productive, giving rise to new forms of behaviour rather than simply closing down or censoring certain forms of behaviour. He argues that power is something which is performed, something more like a strategy than a possession.

Power is conceptualised as a chain or as a net, i.e., a system of relations spread throughout the society, rather than simply as a set of relations between the oppressed and the oppressor. And individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but as the ‘place’ where power is enacted and the place where it is resisted. Thus, his theorising of power forces us to reconceptualise not only power itself but also the role that individuals play in power relations – whether they are simply subjected to oppression or whether they actively play a role in the form of their relations with others and with institutions.

Foucault’s view of power is directly counter to the conventional Marxist or early feminist model of power which sees power simply as a form of oppression or repression, what Foucault terms  the ‘repressive hypothesis’. Instead, he sees power as also at the same time productive, something which brings about forms of behaviour and events rather than simply curtailing freedom and constraining individuals.


Many of Foucault’s writings are concerned with how it is that we know something, and the processes whereby something becomes established as a fact. As we discussed earlier, Foucault is interested in the processes of exclusion which lead to the production of certain discourses rather than others. He is interested in the same processes of exclusion in relation to knowledge and explores the way that, in order for something to be established as a fact or as true, other equally valid statements have to be discredited and denied. Thus, rather than focusing on the individual thinkers who developed certain ideas or theories, Foucault wants to focus on the more abstract institutional processes at work which establish something as a fact or as knowledge.

The conventional view of knowledge, and particularly scientific knowledge, is that it is created by a series of isolated creative geniuses, for example, Einstein and Pasteur. They are characterised as exceptional people who were able to transcend the conventional ideas of their period and who were able to formulate completely new ideas and theoretical perspectives. In a similar way, the History of Ideas within the philosophical tradition is largely characterised by this concern with individual thinkers, such as Hegel and Wittgenstein, who, it is claimed, changed the course of intellectual endeavour. Foucault would like to produce a much more anonymous, institutionalised and rule-governed model of knowledge-production. Thus, he is not interested so much in what is known at any one period but rather in ‘the material conditions of thought’ that is the processes which led to certain facts being known rather than others. He is focusing on the mechanisms by which knowledge comes into being and is produced, and that includes the human sciences in which Foucault, of course, situates his own work.

In Power/Knowledge, Foucault describes knowledge as being a conjunction of power relations and information-seeking which he terms ‘power/knowledge’. He states, in an essay entitled ‘Prison talk’, that ‘it is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power’. This is an important theoretical advance in this discussion of knowledge, since it emphasises the way that knowledge is not dispassionate but rather an integral part of struggles over power, but it also draws attention to the way that, in producing knowledge, one is also making a claim for power. For Foucault, it is more accurate to use his newly formed compound ‘power/knowledge’ to emphasise the way that these two elements depend on one another.

Thus, where there are imbalances of power relations between groups of people or between institutions/states, there will be a production of knowledge. Because of the institutionalised imbalance in power relations between men and women in Western countries, Foucault would argue, information is produced about women; thus we find many books in libraries about women but few about men, and similarly, many about the working classes but few about the middle classes. There are many books about the problems of Black people, but not about Whites. Heterosexuality remains largely un-analyzed while homosexuality is the subject of many studies. While this situation is changing radically, where studies of heterosexuality and whiteness have been undertaken, statistically it is still fair to say that academic study within the human sciences has focused on those who are marginalised. Indeed, one could argue that anthropological study has been largely based on the study of those who are politically and economically marginal in relation to a Western metropolis. Foucault argues that the object of such knowledge (research) is frequently people who are in less powerful positions.

Foucault characterises power/knowledge as an abstract force which determines what will be known, rather than assuming that individual thinkers develop ideas and knowledge. Foucault dispenses with the myths which we have formulated for ourselves about the development of knowledge being due to the devotion of innumerable scholars who have worked unceasingly to improve on past knowledge; instead in Foucault’s vision, it is power/knowledge which produces facts and the individual scholars are simply the vehicles or the sites where this knowledge is produced.

Foucault in a number of his writings is concerned to establish the interconnectedness of power knowledge and fact (truth). He describes the ways in which knowledge does not simply emerge from scholarly study but is produced and maintained in circulation in societies through the work of a number of different institutions and practices. Thus, he moves us away from seeing knowledge as objective and dispassionate towards a view which sees knowledge always working in the interests of particular groups.


1. Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith), London: Routledge.
2. Mills, Sara. (2003) Michel Foucault, London: Routledge.
3. Ritzer, G. (1997) Postmodern Social Theory, New York: McGraw Hill.
4. Smart, Barry (2002) Michel Foucault, (Revised Edition), London: Routledge.
5. Kennedy, Devereaux. (1979) Michel Foucault: The Archaeology and Sociology of Knowledge, Theory and Society, Vol. 8, No. 2 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/656905), pp. 269-290, Springer.


2 thoughts on “Discourse, Power and Knowledge – By Michel Foucault (2022)”

  1. Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues. It was really informative. Your website is very useful. Many thanks for sharing!

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