where in the world is michel foucault???

Loyal orgheads know that Foucault is one of my underground favorites (see page 5/July 2007 newsletter). But I was kind of stumped when Dan the Orgtheory Man asked me where Foucault was in modern orgtheory. At first, I thought he meant the absence of Foucault on this blog. He meant *all* of org theory.

Now, Dan wasn’t quite right. There is actually a critical organization studies wing,* where Foucault is right at home. Foucault is also popular among ed school org folks, at least the skeptics who view schooling as partly (or completely) a form of social control.

These pockets of interest don’t explain the lack of Foucault in the rest of org studies  and mainstream sociology, though he does have fans in sexuality studies. Of all the fancy French theorists, you’d think he’d get a bit more attention. He wrote books on hospitals (Birth of the Clinic), prisons (Discipline and Punish) and state formation (Studies in Governmentality). Basically, he’s the orghead of the Continental tradition. The organization was the site of power. I would say that he’s had more to say about organizations than any other major European social theorist since Weber.

So what gives? I mumbled an answer to Dan. Here’s what I tried to say:

  • Timing: Foucault had an impact in the English speaking world in the 1970s/1980s. He’d have to compete with neo insitutionalists, ecologists, network theorists, contingency folks, and Carnegie school people for attention. Not easy.
  • Hard to reproduce I: The power of Foucault’s writing emerges from a combination of historical vision, deep skepticism toward modern notions of freedom, and a solid acquaintance with the history of philosophy. How many American sociologists would even try to pull that off?
  • Hard to reproduce II: Foucault doesn’t offer any simple variables for you to work with like cultural capital, class position, network centrality, etc. “Episteme” and “discourse” are too big and broad for most people to handle.
  • The swing away from fancy theory: Foucalt *really* took off in the 1980s – when his major works had been translated and picked up in America. At that time, sociology (and management) was moving away from super big theory and shifting towards middle range Merton style sociology. Blame Parsons and Marx in equal parts. And the GSS. Very un-Foucault.

In the end, any explanation has to concede the general distaste that Americans have for fancy social theory (see this post on the decline of “high theory” generally) and specifically why orgtheorists would just ignore the one guy who would have much to say. I’d probably split it 50/50.

* Organizations and Markets routinely trashes these people in the “Pomo Periscope” series.


Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2008 at 2:00 am

26 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’ve noted that the following organizational journals have quite a few papers building on (and citing) Foucault: Organisation Studies and the journal Organization (e.g., as this search of “Foucault” shows — note the article titles).



    October 8, 2008 at 3:09 am

  2. Indeed – seems to be ghettoized into the critical org studies corner.



    October 8, 2008 at 3:24 am

  3. I think the better question is, why should organizational theorists care about Foucault? Maybe I’m just too much of a positivist, but I never could see why Foucault was such a big deal.



    October 8, 2008 at 6:31 am

  4. My understanding was that plenty of American sociologists read him behind closed doors, but are terrified of citing him in case this means they don’t get tenure…


    Will Davies

    October 8, 2008 at 9:27 am

  5. Brayden: The most cited piece in the journal Organisation Studies relates to your question:

    Newton, T. 1998. Theorizing Subjectivity in Organizations: The Failure of Foucauldian Studies? 19: 415-447.

    see: (also see article #2 and article #5)



    October 8, 2008 at 10:24 am

  6. @tf -Thanks for the cites in org studies!

    @fabio – Are you saying there’s been a “positivist” turn in org studies/sociology more broadly in the last two or three decades? There’s something utterly unconvincing about the graphs on that “Gene Expression” post.


    Dan Hirschman

    October 8, 2008 at 12:22 pm

  7. Seems to me that it is very much an American thing to ignore certain theorists and really to ignore much of the contribution of the humanities in organizational studies and sociology in general. I can see the institutional problems of french theory as a cause of this. Delayed translation, literary modes of presentation with extensive use of allusion being a huge barrier to someone that just wants to know if variable x is related to variable y in system z.

    Similarly to foucault, but more current, we could look at thévenot and boltanski today and they are seriously under-examined in u.s. sociology, michel callon, same. I think i’ve seen two graduate syllabi online in my various searches that deals with the french convention school in any depth.



    October 8, 2008 at 1:30 pm

  8. Well, Foucault’s first Google Scholar page is quite decent. I’m sure you will find the odd org scholar citing him among the roughly 7000 references to Discipline and punish. Teppio, there is no way Tim Newtons piece is the most cited OS paper. The piece has 90 refs according to Google Scholar, which is some 128 less than Gibson Burrell’s introduction to Foucault in OS.

    There is another Foucault-ghetto, apart from the critters – organization communication.


    Dan Karreman

    October 8, 2008 at 2:15 pm

  9. An interesting post!

    However, the link of Prof. Boje’s nmsu site hasn’t been updated for quite sometime. It would definitely be interesting to know more about such schools which provided an alternative to “positivism” but couldn’t be mainstream. A quick look at different papers and seaches shows that majority of scholars that try to adopt or refer to a Foucauldian perspective are from Europe. Probably Will Davies is right, they all need to worry about tenure….



    October 8, 2008 at 3:00 pm

  10. Dan: I just linked to the “most cited articles” link on journal’s (Org Studies) web site, which lists that piece as #1, I realize it does not match what shows up for example in google scholar (or other places).



    October 8, 2008 at 3:36 pm

  11. Mind Hacks had a post about Foucalt (not flattering) a little while ago.



    October 8, 2008 at 5:20 pm

  12. What was wrong with the GNXP posts?



    October 8, 2008 at 5:23 pm

  13. the gnxp posts don’t seem to account for the exponential rise of publishing in certain fields, it has no real control for history and overall i’d guess most would see it as someone trying to embarrass themselves through deconstextualized (read poorly done) bibliometrics? There are ways of pursuing such data and they do turn up interesting results when you design and pursue a solid study, for example “The History of Philosophies” uses some pretty good network analysis of bibliometrics, but gnxp doesn’t do anything but parse data. That’s ok for what it is, but don’t ascribe meaning to it.

    and the foucault in mind hacks is a fairly repost of a TBR review that has been dashed across the rocks by several other scholars. Apparently it is widely known that the reviewer takes issue with Foucault, but fails in one element, he tends to build Foucault’s research into a scarecrow, picking the battles and not doing it justice.



    October 8, 2008 at 9:08 pm

  14. Back in 1977, when the first volume of Foucalt’s History of Sexuality was published in English translation, I painfully plodded through the whole dang thing. It was relevant to my MA thesis, for which I had already done much research. When I stripped out the windy philosophizing and the encomiums to Nietzsche, I found a nugget of assertion that could be empirically tested … and, IIRC, this nugget was based on Foucalt’s reading of French Catholic confessional manuals. A few of them. The #@$%@#$% was hypothesizing about all of Western civilization based on a cursory reading in a biased sample from one corner of Europe. Other scholars have made similar observations re his other works: vast generalizations, cloaked in willful obscurity, based on spotty and misread data.

    He will be forgotten in another few decades, save as an example of the follies of the time in which he lived.



    October 8, 2008 at 10:37 pm

  15. Late to the game once again . . .

    Fabio, to your list of reasons why Foucault is marginalized I would add that although he writes extensively about institutions as sites of disciplinary practices—clinics, prisons, schools, the military, monasteries—Foucault is completely uninterested in analyzing them as institutions (see Foucault 1991:74-75). So his emphasis on individuals and bodies makes it necessary to do quite a bit of translation to get his concepts to apply to organizations or other social actors.

    I’ve been working with Wendy Espeland for some time on a paper that uses Foucault’s concept of discipline to help explain how social evaluations become internalized by those they evaluate (The Discipline of Rankings: Tight Coupling and Organizational Change) and it is–finally and happily–coming out soon. This is our attempt to tie a bit of Foucault’s “theory” to empirical work. So, you know, problem solved.



    October 9, 2008 at 1:07 am

  16. Michael Sauder: “Foucault we can believe in.”



    October 9, 2008 at 1:10 am

  17. No, no, no . . .

    Michael Sauder: Foucault First

    Or maybe . . .

    Michael Sauder: Country Foucault

    It’s so hard to decide.



    October 9, 2008 at 1:47 am

  18. It seems to me that the interesting question here is why Foucault doesn’t come up much in sociology generally. My opinion is that while his work is quite fascinating, Foucault isn’t very sociological in his approach (studying discourses rather than institutions or practices), and his take on questions of subjectivity, agency, and social change is problematic for many sociologists. His work has been influential in cultural anthropology. In that discipline, Foucault is used to buttress a particular conception of subjectivity that sees it as being entirely produced within particular discursive formations. I think a lot of sociologists would not agree with this view, for a variety of reasons. However, a few sociologists and a number of anthropologists have engaged quite productively with Foucault’s lesser known work on governmentality and techniques of the self (I’m thinking of people like Nicholas Rose here).


    recent soc phd

    October 9, 2008 at 5:41 pm

  19. “Discourse” in Foucault doesn’t refer to a set of texts, or even language, but to a set of rules regarding knowledge formation — how some kinds of knowledge achieve dominance, how conflicts over competing knowledge claims are resolved, how contemporary accounts of “what people thought in the past” get solidified. I think these concerns gel with sociology, and don’t exclude practices. In fact, in the 1991 interview referenced above, Foucault explicitly names “practices” as his object of inquiry (in that case, practices of punishment and imprisonment). This actually seems very close to a basic sociological definition of institutions as “patterned responses to social needs.”

    In terms of Foucault’s reception, it seems worth noting that although scholarship making use of Foucault is very marginal in American sociology, this is not the case in Canadian, British, or Australian sociology. It also seems to me that American sociologists often borrow terms or concepts from many theorists who have had some part of their work or methods critiqued or even discredited, and that this use does not render their research entirely suspect the way using Foucault seems to do.



    October 13, 2008 at 6:01 pm

  20. […] us. I can’t really come up with another recent writer whose work has been as influential and as reviled. I’m still amazed when sociologists dismiss his work (and those who use him) as […]


  21. […] for us. I can’t really come up with another recent writer whose work has been as influential and as reviled. I’m still amazed when sociologists dismiss his work (and those who use him) as “trendy” […]


  22. “Theory” just isn’t useful outside of academia. If its on the decline I’m glad.



    October 18, 2008 at 7:55 pm

  23. […] is discipline (here comes the Foucault!). Most readers will probably know where this line of argument goes – rankings and other metrics are […]


  24. And now for a completely different take on the question of Where is Michele Foucault…


    Sean Safford

    June 8, 2009 at 6:47 pm

  25. Thank you, Sean! The Foucault v. Pollan site is great! I’d love to see a Foucauldian analysis of The Botany of Desire.



    June 8, 2009 at 9:55 pm

  26. […] think that our Pomo Periscope is “lame” and are upset that we ”routinely [thrash] these people“ (meaning Foucault et al.).  Which is what you would expect, as the PP […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: