Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Progress, Public Health, and Power: Foucault and the Homemakers' Clubs of Saskatchewan

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Progress, Public Health, and Power: Foucault and the Homemakers' Clubs of Saskatchewan

Article excerpt


The relationship between social structure and individual personality bas been an enduring and prominent focus of sociological theory. Marx and Engels (1968:32) argued that forms of individuality are rooted in specific structures of production relations: "As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production." Foucault (1977:170) argued that forms of individuality are rooted in specific structures of power relations: "Discipline makes individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise." Foucault (1977:221) linked these two claims in the analysis of the European transition to capitalist and disciplinary social forms:

   If the economic take-off of the West began with the techniques that
   made possible the accumulation of capital, it might perhaps be said
   that the methods for administering the accumulation of men made
   possible a political take-off in relation to the traditional,
   ritual, costly, violent forms of power, which soon fell into disuse
   and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of
   subjection. In fact, the two processes--the accumulation of men and
   the accumulation of capital--cannot be separated....

Subsequent writers from both Marxist and Foucauldian traditions have developed influential concepts--such as "governmentality" (Foucault 1979; Rose 1990; Rose and Miller 1992), "moral regulation" (Corrigan and Sayer 1985), and the "colonization of consciousness" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991)--to explore these relationships of production and power in the structuring of human subjectivities.

This article focuses on "public health" as a domain in which state authorities explicitly endeavor to shape social experience in ways that influence the thoughts and actions of individual citizens. In recent decades, other sociologists have produced interesting studies of systematic efforts to shape the health of various populations. Foucault (1980) himself wrote a short essay on "The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century." Related and significant historical analyses have been published by Donzelot (1979), Valverde (1991), and Rose 12007), and recently, authors such as Chase (2006), Cowley, Mitcheson, and Houston (2004), Curtis (2002), Gorringe and Rafanell (2007), Joyce (2001), Lopez and Robertson (2007), Lupton (1995), Peterson and Bunton (1997), Raby (2005), Rimke (2000), Wall 12001), and Wright, O'Flynn, and Macdonald (2006) have applied Foucauldian insights to the study of public health and closely related phenomena. The domain of public health is fascinating, for it demonstrates the complex ethical and sociological issues of working to mold the thoughts and actions of human beings. The domain of public health is particularly interesting for the resilience of its normative claims in an era of postmodern skepticism. While it is no longer fashionable to actively foster individual or social change in the name of progress, it is still acceptable to do so in the name of health. While it has become politically incorrect to refer to individuals or groups as backward or underdeveloped, it is still common to refer to them as at-risk of poor health, or prone to cause a burden on health-care systems.

This article sketches the history of the Homemakers' Clubs of Saskatchewan, and outlines the clubs' work in the field of public health. This descriptive case study is then reinterpreted through a Foucauldian lens, demonstrating how the educational and community work of these voluntary organizations fostered and monitored the desire of women to govern themselves according to a distinctively modern and rational ethos of living.


In 1911, the Extension Department of the University of Saskatchewan hosted a gathering of women from across Saskatchewan. …

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