The "Problem" of Michael White and Michel Foucault

By Redekop, Fred | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, July 1995 | Go to article overview

The "Problem" of Michael White and Michel Foucault


Redekop, Fred, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


My role--and that is too emphatic a word--is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people--that's the role of an intellectual.

(Foucault, 1988b, p. 10)

Does Michael White have a problem? Since White has begun to mention the name of Michel Foucault in his work, it appears that he does. On the surface, this is not surprising, given the provocative nature of Foucault's life and work. The mere mention of Foucault's name is enough to raise the hackles of some, and family therapists seem be no different. But just what is the nature of this problem? Are people responding to the elitist whiff of heady postmodernism, the impious scent of a new heresy? Or are there substantive reasons to be suspicious of Foucault's influence and of White's stated interest in his work?

In a review of the (brief) history of the present debate over the utility of Foucault to family therapy in general and White's work in particular, several salient elements seem to emerge. Some commentators have been sympathetic to a broad engagement with Foucault (Flaskas & Humphreys, 1993; Goldner, 1943; Luepnitz, 1991), while others have found his ideas to be of little value (Minuchin, 1984). Insofar as the intersection of White's work and Foucault's work is concerned, some theorists have found White's use of Foucault to be "quite inspiring" (Tomm, 1993, p. 64) as a means of critiquing certain practices within the profession and have felt that White's use of Foucault gives him the "deft ability to locate a person's problem experience within the sociopolitical language context in which they live" (Madigan, 1992, p. 278).

Other theorists have been less sanguine about the connection between White and Foucault. Fish (1993) has called White and Epston's (1990) interpretation of Foucault's work "selective and flawed" (p. 222) and their use of a Foucauldian framework "highly dubious" (p. 225). Luepnitz, although receptive to some types of projects in relation to Foucault, is dismissive of White's use of Foucault; the title of her response to Madigan's essay adequately sums up her position--"Nothing in Common but Their First Names: The Case of Foucault and White" (1992).

The following essay is structured around four key arguments, each of which contributes to an understanding of the importance of Foucault to White: (a) the relationship of stories and discourse, (b) the local use of power, (c) the positions of White and Foucault within their disciplines, and (d) the possible uses of Foucault for family therapy. This paper assumes that Foucault's work is important to White and that criticism directed at this aspect of White's work, if accurate, severely disables the theoretical basis of his work. This assumption is based on both the frequency of the references to Foucault in White's writing and, more importantly, on the Foucauldian method of questioning found in White's work.

I have structured the problem around four areas which are central to Foucault's work itself, White's work, and criticism to date. In doing so, I hope to position the debate in such a way that not a dominant story but a raft of possible alternatives emerges, which seems to me to be in keeping with the nature of both White's work and the spirit of postmodern debate. Indeed, the necessity of response and continual critique is at the heart of the issue.

STORIES AND DISCOURSE: THE ACCOUNTS OF HERCULINE AND PIERRE

Fish (1993) states that a contradiction results from White and Epston's use of Foucault: "the first tenet of their approach is that it 'privileges the person's lived experience...' (White & Epston, 1990, p. 83), yet if there is one thing which Foucault consistently and explicitly does not privilege, it is the subject's experience" (p. …

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