With reference to female sexuality, evaluate to which a Foucauldian analysis enables a full discussion and analysis. Sociologists are mostly concerned with the formation of knowledge about the treatment of disease, rather than the illness itself. They focus on how different states of health are caused by interactions within society between a variety of different groups, for example, class, gender and/or ethnicity. Sociologists suggest that disease is understood, treated and experienced differently within each of these sub-groups of society because it is a product of social organisation rather than nature.
Knowledge of health and illness is created in a political, social and cultural environment, and as with much social phenomenon, is both culturally and historically specific (White 2002). “in contemporary western societies it is common place for the versions of natural events provided by science to be given greater credence than those offered by religion, magic or superstition. However, this has certainly not always been the case, and is not true of all cultures in the world” (Burr 2001 p63) Sociologists tend to reject the medical model that disease is a biological event but examine the social function of health and illness.
These more medical explanations tend to ignore the shaping and distribution of not just the origins of disease but of varying health services too. There are many theories, which try to understand and explain health and illness, to explain why some people become ill, and not others. They all search outside the body, the body are the sites of the illness but the illness itself is caused by external factors. Much Western medicine merely treats physical symptoms as opposed to more holistic treatments, which treat the person as a whole, linking the relationship between the social, mental, emotional and physical.
Sociological perspectives give very different accounts of the role of medical knowledge and of the social causes of disease. Marxists place emphasis on the causal role of a conflictual and exploitative industrial capitalist society, which prioritises profit ahead of health. Parsonian theory on the other hand explains that disease is vital in maintaining social harmony, providing a stable set of interlinked social roles and structures. Foucault also highlights the social role of medical knowledge in social control, however places more emphasis on the power relationships within contemporary society.
For Foucault modern society can be understood as a system of organised surveillance, with individuals conducting their own surveillance because they internalised professional models of what is deemed as acceptable ‘normal’ behaviour (White 2002). Foucauldians go on to demonstrate that this modern society has become an administered society in which professional groups are able, and in fact encouraged, to define categories of people – the sick, insane, criminal, deviant. Foucault points out that most of us have internalised these norms of behaviour and therefore rarely require the services of the professionals.
His theory of power emphasises our willingness to comply with societal norms the majority of the time, power is not the property of any one group, as Marxists would suggest and can permeate every aspect of society. More controversially Foucault believed that power does not need to be perceived as repressive, however, acknowledging that when there is power there is inevitably resistance. Another aspect to Foucault’s work was his interest in describing and accounting for normality and abnormality, and the varying definitions over time and place.
He suggested that only by recognising abnormality is it then possible to identify normality rather than vice versa. There are no clear boundaries between the abnormal and normal, we must then study the abnormal in order for their observer to provide society with the relevant discourse, for example, in a patient and doctor scenario. The most important concept to Foucault’s work is his theory of discourse, he suggests that discourse is more than just a language we speak or write, shaping what we see, hear, think, feel and say (Shilling 1999).
Language does not just describe a world, it actually creates that world. There are many different discourses, such as medical or legal, which frame the way in which factors are spoken, thought and experienced, defining a specialised language and a particular body of knowledge. “a discourse provides a frame of reference, a way of interpreting the world and giving it meaning that allows some ‘objects to take shape” (Burr 2001 2000, p57). Foucault was interested in which different forms of knowledge produce different ways of life, the term discourse referring to a knowledge-based way of thinking and acting.
He suggested that it was crucial to understand the way in which new discourses, which were not apparent in pre modernity, emerged in contemporary society. Foucault describes the emergence of a dominant medical discourse in modern society, which has become established and accepted as the norm (Jones 2003). We acquire discursive knowledge in the same way that we acquire language, we are unable to resist this knowledge, however this is not repressive power as it is the exercise of power to enable us to be human, to possess the knowledge we need to attach meaning to our experience.
However, we cannot claim to know the ultimate truth as we only have the knowledge that a particular discourse has given us, varying over time and place. “Foucault insisted that the term ideology assumes that there is a truth, and that we should instead speak of ‘regimes of truth’ where one regime is no more correct than another” (Burr 2001 p82). In order to understand human behaviour we must first understand the discourse that dominated the time or place that behaviour occurred, tracing its origins and the foundations in which it came into power.
In modernity, humans have become subject to the power of medical definitions of normality and deviance. Foucault characterises the exercise of a discourse’s power as a form of surveillance, he concocted the idea of the gaze and describes the shift of dominance of religion to medicine in modernity and the emergence of the medical gaze. According to Foucauldian theorists, policing power of the medical gaze in modernity can be seen throughout modern life, they suggest that: “universally-experienced features and functions of human existence are, in modernity, appropriated and commandeered by medicine, defined… nd managed accordingly” (Jones 2003)
An individual first suffers from a physical symptom, visits the doctors and undergoes a physical examination, if ‘diagnosed’ as being abnormal the individual then becomes an in-patient at the hospital. As a hospital patient we then do as we are told, and a process of depersonalisation takes place, the patient experiences feelings of autonomy, agency and even dependency. The focus being mainly on the physical body rather than as an individual person with feelings, Foucault believes this then leads to a sense of alienation.
Similarly to Marxist theorists, Foucault links the rise of biomedicine in modernity to the needs of capitalism. A workforce is encouraged to look after oneself physically in order to guarantee bodily health, thus a healthy workforce. Foucault suggests that a dominant discourse maintains its power through a combination of external enforcing and interal self-policing and self-surveillance. Experts are in place such as doctors and police to enforce normality and punish deviance. However , as humans we constantly assess our behaviour in the social context we are in and amend it accordingly, often without any external influence.
Foucault himself used the analogy of the panoptian prison, describing self-surveillance as: “an inspecting gaze which each individual under its weight will end by exteriorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over and against himself” (Jones 2003) Of course, there is opposition to all dominant discourses at any time, particularly in modern societies where alternative viewpoints can be well publicised and promoted until grown in strength. However, the power of medicine lies in the exclusive nature of medical discourse rather than its scientific basis.
The complex terminology and language used by medical profession excludes the majority of people. Bio-power, as defined by Foucault in terms of two interrelated forms of social control. Firstly the disciplinary model of power is used to describe the way bodies are regulated, trained and understood. Disciplinary power creates norms, which become accepted, and self-policed, instilled through institutions such as schools and prisons, operating at an individual level, as well as through society as a whole.
Secondly, working in conjunction with disciplinary power, is regulatory power, which officialises these norms through the creation of policy. More recent writers have adapted Foucault’s theories, for example, Johnson (1996) suggested that modern professions develop in conjunction with the state, a concept which Foucault called governmentality. Political agendas infiltrate medical practice and as a direct result medicine has increased power over the individual. The government’s encouragement of leading a healthy lifestyle is to decrease financial pressures on the NHS.
Preventative strategies are just a government tactic so that the medical discourse is not just treating illness anymore, it is a way of life. Surveillance medicine, for example, regular health checks at the doctors and an increase in public awareness and education in the damaging effects of alcohol and tobacco abuse. According to Foucauldians, new knowledge or discourses define modern life, these then influence the roles and behaviour of both men and women. There has been unprecedented increase in the power of medicine and the preoccupation with bodily health.
Medicine is historically a male dominated area, and therefore the discourse has been established with little feminine influence, it is difficult for women to both and understand and question the powers that are imposed on their bodies by medical profession. Foucauldian feminists have used the framework proposed by Foucault as a tool to analyse women with regard to health and illness. Jones (2003) suggests that the medical model acknowledges that male and female bodies have the same organic constitution irrespective of the society they live in.
However, ignores that these natural things have different meanings both culturally and historically, people are taught to think differently about their bodies. Foucauldians concentrate on cultural definitions of normal and abnormal behaviour, which regulates people’s ideas about their bodies and what they should and should not do with them. In contemporary society the body needs to be managed and regulated in ways perhaps not necessary in pre modernity. Foucault believed that modern societies have two crucial reasons for the systematic regulation of the body, both population pressures and also to meet the needs of industrial capitalism.
The regulation of the individual body, for example, rules governing sexuality he referred to as ‘anatamo-politics, and the regulation of bodies en masse, for example, health and safety rules he calls ‘bio politics’. Burr (2001) suggested Foucault sees the body, and especially sexuality, as a major site of power relations, and describes how this came about “at the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex… leading to a discourse in which the sexual conduct of the population was taken both as an object of analysis and as a target of intervention” (Foucault 1976 p25)
She also suggested that what is interesting about Foucault’s analysis is that it was only at this point that the ideas of sexual perversion and abnormality became possible. The ability to define which sexual acts were permissible became a powerful form of social control as individuals began to internalise what was ‘normal’ sexual behaviour. Foucault completely reverses our usual understanding of sexuality in the nineteenth century, “regarding the ‘repressive hypothesis’ as a myth, he instead believes that this was a time of an explosion in discourses of sexuality” (Burr 2001 p67)
Biological sexual urges can be satisfied in many ways but only certain of these ways are viewed as acceptable in each society. Foucault suggests that cultures derive their rules about sexuality from the power of the dominant discourse. Such discursive regulation is often different for each gender, male and female bodies have very different norms with regards to sexual activity. For example, feminists tend to understand the act of female genital mutilation in terms of violent patriarchal dominance, whereas Foucauldians tend to link the biological acts to the idea of property production, management and distribution.
In pre-modern societies the family were the basic unit of survival, providing emotional, physical and financial support. Marriage and reproduction were much more significant in order to ensure a man had biological heirs, ensuring the group’s survival. In Foucauldian theory these behaviours need to be understood in the context of the dominant discourse of that time, which was to ensure a women could provide her new husband with biological children.
The guarantee of his wife’s virginity and fidelity can only be given by methods of female genital mutilation, horrific to us but by being understood in the correct context: “reveals an elemental link between physical and economic survival and a women’s body is tribal societies” (Jones 2003) In modern societies biomedical accounts have taken on the role of regulating the female body, nymphomania and hysteria, for example, being conditions only women could suffer from. Having children out of wedlock was not only frowned upon but also seen as a symptom of insanity.
The dominant discourse at this time was that of the strong relationship between a woman’s body and her personality, only by living what was seen as a ‘normal’ life could a woman avoid being labelled as mentally or physically ill. Even more recently, medical gaze on women’s bodies has involved the perception of abnormality in married women not wanting children or being unable to cope when they have had them. “As with all powerful discourses, the inability to match up to its definitions of normality can bring with it not only the threat of outside intervention but can lead to feelings of failure and worthlessness” (Jones 2003).
In terms of opposition to the dominant discourse of the female body, Foucauldian’s focus upon the radical changes that took place from early 20th century. The introduction of a sex manual in 1916, which focussed upon women’s pleasure rather then men’s, the production of contraception in 1920 leading women to have more control over their bodies than ever before. The 1960’s saw an even more constructive battle over the female body emerge, with marches and protests all focussed upon the liberation of the female body.
Foucault is useful in that he historically locates medical knowledge, especially allowing for the development of the sociology of the body. He has been appropriated and extended by several key theorists, especially several feminists in construction of gender specific bodies that need analysing (White 2002). Foucault points out that biological facts cannot be interpreted away and that there is in fact no ‘universal man,’ and that an individual has to invent him/herself, there is nothing to miraculously discover.
He made an important contribution to our understanding of the construction of modern society, in highlighting the relevance in understanding that contemporary society has become increasingly disciplined, regulated and kept under surveillance. Although he places great emphasis on human wilfulness, he does tend to ignore the physical aspects of the body concentrating solely on the social with no allowances for the biological. Foucault’s concept of power is criticised for being overly vague, he also has a tendency to under value the importance of the source of power.