Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Spaces of the Self: Foucault and Goffman on the Micro-Physics of Discipline

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Spaces of the Self: Foucault and Goffman on the Micro-Physics of Discipline

Article excerpt

A whole history remains to be written of spaces-which at the same time would be a history of powers (both these terms in the plural)-from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat, institutional architecture from the classroom to the design of hospitals, passing via economic and political installations.1

Space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power.2

While there is an abundance of work on Michel Foucault, not only within philosophy but in sociology as well, there is comparatively little work on sociologist Erving Goffman in either discipline. However, at least one scholar has noted the complementary nature of Foucault's genealogies and Goffman's ethnographies. Ian Hacking writes,

Foucault's archaeologies established the preconditions for and the mutations between successive institutional forms. His later genealogies are closer to how the historical settings work on people to form their potentialities, but never indicate how this happens in daily life. Goffman does that in rich detail, but gives no hint of how the surrounding structures themselves were constituted.3

There is evidence that Foucault knew of Goffman's work and admired it. In a 1982 interview, published subsequently as "Space, Knowledge, Power," Foucault responds to a characterization of his work as concerned with domination by saying:

You know, I was not really attempting to describe figures of domination when I referred to doctors and people like that, but rather to describe people through whom power passed or who are important in the field of power relations. A patient in a mental institution is placed within a field of fairly complicated power relations, which Erving Goffman analyzed very well.4

In light of this comment, I would like to support Hacking's basic position, but re-phrase his sentiment, saying instead that Goffman's ethnographic analyses provide an instance of what Foucault calls a "micro-physics of power" specifically in the context of a disciplinary mode of power.

In the introduction to Discipline and Punish, Foucault speaks of a knowledge of the body that he calls the "political technology of the body"5 This knowledge is not of how the body works, but of how its can be mastered through its forces. This is the kind of knowledge that institutions like prisons and mental hospitals employ in various ways to bring about the subjection of the body of the inmate. The study of what those figures like doctors and guards produce, then, is "a microphysics of power, whose field of validity is situated in a sense between these great functionings and the bodies themselves with their materiality and their forces."6 Goffman's work, especially on the asylum, ought to be considered an instance of a micro-physical study because it hovers specifically within this space, offering empirical descriptions of the ways in which individuals are made and unmade by the social and material forces in their everyday lives.

Goffman's studies often read like lists of the considerations involved in possible social scenarios-for example, saving a seat in a theater, entering an elevator, or holding a conversation in a crowded room. The analyses of these vari- ous considerations, when added one on top of the other as they are in Goffman's work, appear to approach some general theory of personal interaction, though he never gets there. He often formulates concepts for use in his analyses-three of which we will examine in this essay-but never in fact seeks to unify his body of work under a general theory of society.7 This lack of unity is perhaps part of the reason why sociologists, not to mention philosophers, deal little with his work. As Pierre Bourdieu notes,

Goffman's achievement was that he introduced sociology to the infinitely small, to the thing which the object-less theoreticians and concept-less observers were incapable of seeing and which went unremarked because they were too obvious, like everything which goes without saying. …

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