foucault and american sociology

Let’s start off Foucault week with a simple question: what has American sociology absorbed from Foucault? A few anecdotes. At Chicago, I saw Foucault only once on a syllabus. At Indiana, I think he only appears in the social theory course. This may be shocking to some readers. Sociology is supposed to be the discipline of namby pamby post-modernism. Yet, as I’ve pointed out, Foucault isn’t a major figure in American sociology, as it’s defined by research coming from the PhD programs. This is changing, though. One of our guest bloggers, Michael Sauder has published a series of papers on rankings and self-discipline. Alice Goffman’s ethnography relies on self-surveillance. The work of Wacquant, and his followers, relies on a Foucauldian framework to some degree.

The get a sense of why Foucault hasn’t been wholly absorbed by empirical American sociology, it helps to outline Foucault’s main contributions and their appeal.

  1. Self-discipline/theories of power: The transition to modernity coincided with a switch from overt forms of discipline to self-discipline. Power is decentralized and “relational.” This is probably the idea that most practicing sociologists are familiar with.
  2. The critique of institutions: Foucault wrote a series of books on various institutions – schools, clinics, etc. – arguing that they are more about social control than social benefit.
  3. Biopolitics and governmentality: Western political and intellectual institutions are focused on issues of population control.
  4. The archaeology of knowledge: Scientific and humanistic discourse rests on a way of seeing things, a logic of how one reasons about different kinds of things.
  5. The death of the subject: Western culture made a shift that removed the subject as the focal point.

I’m sure that Foucauldians will correct my sketches, but they reveal enough. Basically, #5 – the death of the subject – is far outside what most sociologists work with. Basically all sociological research assumes well formed subjects. it might even be considered a “humanities” issue, though I disagree. Point #4 might be popular in the sociology of science, but Foucault doesn’t fit into the Mannheim-Merton-SSK/Latour history, so he gets ignored. #3 is well known to Foucault nuts, but the English translations were only published after Foucault’s death and his fame was cemented with Discipline & Punish, History of Sexuality, and other works. #2 is a point by many writers in a Marxist/post-Marxist vein, so I don’t think he has much traction.

That leaves #1. What makes this version of Foucault popular is that many American sociologists don’t have many alternatives to Weber, Marx, or Parsons when it comes to theories of social control. Weber rests on socially constructed legitimacy, Marx on domination, and Parsons on functionalism/differentiation. Decentralized power and self-control is an actual alternative that has many appealing features, such as the recognition of resistance and a plausible account of the (apaprent) orderliness of Western societies.

Next Foucault post: What *is* the Order of Things and should sociologists care?

Written by fabiorojas

July 5, 2011 at 3:26 am

26 Responses

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  1. I can’t speak to his influence on American sociology, but (1) implies a homogenisation of Foucault’s with other ways of seeing power which I think is forced.

    One should never forget that Foucault’s thought on power was developed in opposition to Marxism, but also picks up on Marx’ thinking on social relation. For Foucault, it’s not just that power is relational, but that power is productive – of new social, technological and cultural forms, as well as of identities. Here, you can’t really sunder his thought on power from (5) – it’s precisely because power circulates that it’s wrong to conceive of it as an imposition of domination on a compliant or malleable subject. Things are more complex.

    If you want to translate it into Weberian terms, Foucault is questioning the boundaries between domination and power, but without the apparatus of authority and legitimacy. The point is that forms of power have histories – and with the end of sovereignty understood as a body standing above the social, government becomes an art of working with the grain in liberal governmentality.

    Again, I know little about how these thematics have been taken up in American sociology, but they’ve been enormously fruitful in British and Australian work. In short, I think it’s a mistaken approach to mine his work for propositions in the way done above.


    Mark Bahnisch

    July 5, 2011 at 3:55 am

  2. Mark, there’s a lot in your comment, but I would agree that these positions are connected to each other. But few people will accept everything, and you have to parse things out.



    July 5, 2011 at 3:59 am

  3. I don’t necessarily disagree, Fabio.

    But some of the worst work I’ve seen which is described as ‘Foucauldian’ relies on a sort of selectivity – ie hospital wards or call centres as Panopticons.

    I think he’s best swallowed in one gulp!

    It seems to me that his thought on liberalism has a lot of under-explored potential for constructing what you call “a plausible account of the (apparent) orderliness of Western societies”. He’s an anti-Hobbes, if you like, but beyond that, potentially enables a way of describing social order that isn’t beholden to Hobbesian premises. The utility of doing that, I think, requires something more than eclecticism.


    Mark Bahnisch

    July 5, 2011 at 4:09 am

  4. I like your last comment, Mark. Another reason why American sociologists flock to Foucault #1 is that it’s an alternative to Hobbesianism and, by extension, rational choice theories of order (e.g., institutions are merely social arrangements that have incentives where we don’t all kill each other).



    July 5, 2011 at 4:12 am

  5. Robin Hanson would say that the transition from foraging to farming led to hierarchies and self-control. “Modernity” or the industrial revolution led in many respects to a reversion to our forager instincts (though school is an important counter-example). A relevant post here is Self-Control Is Slavery, though to understand that you might need some background in a series of posts from him on foragers vs farmers.



    July 5, 2011 at 4:17 am

  6. Foucault’s response to Hanson would be that self-control in agrarian societies was reinforced through corporal punishments. Agrarian culture does need more self control than foraging, but agrarian societies have all kinds of mechanisms for order that rely on physical power – slavery, beating children, restraining women, etc. These have disappeared in industrial societies.



    July 5, 2011 at 4:20 am

  7. Thanks, Fabio … There is certainly a sense in which Foucault can inspire or aid a program of empirical research into social ordering. Here it’s best not to see him as one of the ‘postmoderns’, a characterisation which he himself refuted, or as part of ‘French theory’. I suspect (though again as someone from the Antipodes, I’d be very interested in hearing more from North American scholars on this) that some of the textualist appropriations by literary theory have not been helpful in this context.


    Mark Bahnisch

    July 5, 2011 at 4:24 am

  8. What accounts for the greater penetration of Foucault into Canadian sociology? I can’t imagine a contemporary/modern social theory course at the undergraduate or graduate level which would not have one or more weeks on his work and theoretico-empirical courses are frequently organized around his work in graduate seminars. (Between my MA and PhD coursework, I remember reading him in at least five different seminars spread over two institutions.) I can think of at least three or four regularly offered graduate seminars at Carleton–likely the top sociology department in Canada–organized around his works, thought and idas. Indeed, “A Genealogy of X” is often the fallback topic for M.A. students in the way that “The Social Construction of X” used to be.


    Craig McFarlane

    July 5, 2011 at 5:36 am

  9. I’m not sure I entirely buy the premise of this post, but that may reflect my particular trajectory in sociology. At UCSD, Foucault was given equal time with Bourdieu, Weber, Durkheim, Marx and Tocqueville as a major theorist in the grad sequence. At Michigan, D&P is usually taught in the core theory class – a class that starts with Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and centers on sociology as an alternative understanding of social and political order from economic and liberal theory, so that fits with some of Fabio’s comments. Foucault also appears in the culture & knowledge course and extensively on that subfield’s exam. In the core STS course here, Foucault was skipped only on the grounds that it was assumed everyone had seen him so much already, and Ian Hacking’s Foucauldian work (in senses 2-5 especially) figures very prominently. Plus, I would argue that Latour and Foucault are closer than they sometimes first appear – up to and including their respective critiques of Hobbes.

    So, I guess I’m willing to buy that Foucault has had less impact in sociology than perhaps in some neighboring fields (Anthropology, literary studies, etc.), but I’m not sure it’s that “little” or how you would really measure that. It would be interesting to compare citations to some major works by Foucault in the top Anthro, PoliSci, and Soc journals (say), although you would miss the book-length works that might be more heavily influenced.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 5, 2011 at 11:54 am

  10. Dan: Foucault is widely adopted in the humanities. Nearly every student read multiple works. In sociology, Foucault is optional, or at best one week in a theory course. You can easily have an entire sociology career that is Foucault free. Of course, there is variation. “Theory” people read Foucault, as do sexuality people. And there is dept variation as well.

    Another measurement: How many PhD students have recently Foucault dissertations? I can think of two (Sauder, Goffman) but not many more. YOu have to go back to Phil Gorski (1990s) to find another leading Foucauldian in a soc research program. That might be it, because I’ve been on job search committees and journal review boards and I’ve seen *very* few explicitely Foucauldian works.



    July 5, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  11. Dan’s experience notwithstanding, i have to agree with Fabio here on Foucault’s general place in American sociology. Through grad school, i wasn’t assigned any Foucault in any of my courses. When i was prepping to teach grad theory, i surveyed my colleagues (representing training from a pretty wide range of programs) about including Foucault on the syllabus and many of them couldn’t begin to figure out a reason i would even consider it, much less actually go through with it. We ended up giving a day to selections from D&P, HoS & OoT.



    July 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  12. I’m not sure why we’re going to grad school syllabi to examine the influence of Foucault in our field. People will teach Foucault in their grad classes if scholars begin using his framework in their work. If you can begin to identify a trend of Foucauldian concepts and ideas in the contemporary literature, then people will feel compelled to instruct grad students in Foucault. Look at what happened with Simmel. He was ignored for many years, but most grad theory courses now include Simmel because social network scholars made him relevant to sociological theory. Before that can happen with Foucault someone needs to identify a deficit in our current way of thinking that can only be remedied by becoming more Foucauldian.

    That said, I’m actually more on the side of Dan in thinking that our field may already be sufficiently influenced by Foucault. The fact that we’re talking about him as a theoretical subfield suggests that he’s gained widespread influence. I suspect that most citations to Foucault in sociology are ritual and don’t really get into the substance of what he said, but that again is a good indicator that Foucault has made a big dent. If there’s nothing more than a dent, perhaps it has more to do with deficiencies in Foucault’s thought than it does with the current state of sociology.


    brayden king

    July 5, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  13. @Fabio, Brayden – I actually wasn’t arguing that Foucault’s influence has been “sufficient”, if by that we mean that I think we’ve got enough citations to Foucault and discussions of his ideas in mainstream work. I was just arguing that it wasn’t minimal, and then posing the question of how we would actually try to assess how much impact he’s had. There’s also the question of indirect influence, and subfields – if we are reading and citing Hacking, Latour, Rabinow, Scott, Mitchell, Miller & Rose, etc. and they are all influenced by Foucault and in dialogue with his work, then does that count? And if certain subfields are strongly oriented around his ideas or at least in dialogue with them (med soc, criminology, STS) while others ignore them (say, social movements), how do we count that? I agree that Foucault isn’t the sort of standard reference theorist that he is in anthro, say, or that Bourdieu seems to be in soc right now. Just that his influence has certainly been felt.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 5, 2011 at 9:01 pm

  14. @BK: PhD syllabi are one indicator of what a person should be familiar with if they are to be considered an expert. I’d measure influence in multiple ways – syllabi, cites, real use of the ideas, dissertations, etc. My hypotheses is that outside of sexuality and maybe soc of science, Foucault is not well integrated into sociological theory or practice.



    July 5, 2011 at 9:01 pm

  15. @Dan: I’d say soc in the middle of the Foucault influence spectrum:

    cultural studies > political theory > soc > econ.

    I think the influence is highly concentrated in subfields.



    July 5, 2011 at 9:07 pm

  16. In my experience, it is the graduate students who are the most interested in Foucault and who are the most disappointed to find out that his work does not occupy a central position in mainstream sociology. I travel in an area that has heavy crossover with political science and area studies, so I see a bit more of it his work the area studies people at meetings, but do not find that there is much explicitly Foucaldian work being done.



    July 6, 2011 at 1:05 am

  17. FR: True, syllabi are an indicator. I guess I’m trying to make the point that there’s no reason to include someone or some theory on a syllabus if it isn’t relevant to contemporary theory or empirical work. So, in that regard, I’m sort of on the fence with Foucault. He’s a ritual citation but there isn’t a body of Foucauldian research that has been extremely influential. If you’re going to spend time reading lots of Foucault in grad school classes, what about Dahrendorf, Giddens, Offe, or Thevenot/Boltanski? Are they not equally deserving? Given his importance in the field right now, I think a chapter or two of Foucault would suffice for most theory courses.


    brayden king

    July 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  18. […] Fabio is discussing Foucault and his connection to sociology. Fabio began the discussion with a nice, brief summary of the major themes of Foucault’s work and an argument that Foucault has only been picked up selectively by Sociologists. Particularly, […]


  19. While I think it’d be hard to argue that Foucault has had a bigger impact on Sociology than on the humanities, I thought it might be useful to dig into at least one source of readily available data to see how “Foucault-free” sociology is.

    JStor’s Data for Researchers is a fantastic tool for doing faceted searches on JStor’s corpus. You can search full-text (or just titles, abstracts, etc.) by discipline, journal, year, and more. For this simple comparison, I searched in the full-text for Bourdieu and Foucault and compared the numbers of articles they appeared in by journal. Foucault and Bourdieu are nice here because almost all uses of those letters refer to the appropriate theorist (although there are a couple hits that clearly do not), and because I believe there is more or less consensus that Bourdieu has had a major influence on mainstream American sociology.

    So, the data.

    In all Sociology journals (according to JStor’s definitions), “Foucault” appears in 4,371 articles, “Bourdieu” appears in 4,846.

    Top Tier:
    In AJS, “Foucault” appears in 270 articles; “Bourdieu” in 296.
    In ASR, Foucault = 72; Bourdieu = 158. (Here’s a nice finding on the differences between AJS and ASR!)

    Theory Journals:
    In Sociological Theory, Foucault = 127; Bourdieu = 182.
    In Theory & Society, Foucault = 271; Bourdieu = 251.

    For some subfield analysis:
    In Gender & Society, Foucault = 83; Bourdieu = 40.
    In ASQ (near and dear to OrgTheory’s heart!), Foucault = 29; Bourdieu = 21. AMR is F:37; B:8.
    In Sociology of Education, Foucault = 8, Bourdieu = 193 (!).
    In J of Marriage and Family, Foucault = 15; Bourdieu = 16.
    In Law and Society Review, Foucault = 119; Bourdieu = 70.

    I was honestly surprised by these numbers. I expected much more of an advantage for Bourdieu, especially in the mainstream journals and in several of the subfields. Clearly there is large variation in subfield journals – Foucault having an advantage in Gender (and likely a much larger advantage if we moved to sexuality journals, not indexed by JStor under Sociology I believe) and Bourdieu having a huge advantage in education (in spite of Foucault’s potential relevance to studies of education – favoring Fabio’s argument that Foucault’s critique of institutions has largely been ignored). But overall, both Foucault and Bourdieu receive what seems to be a large number of citations across a range of subfields and in a sustained way, with perhaps Bourdieu gaining ground in the last 10 years and Foucault holding steady or dropping a bit (such that in the early 2000s, Bourdieu ranged from 175-250 citations/year while Foucault ranged from 145-175).

    (Also posted on my blog.)


    Dan Hirschman

    July 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm

  20. Small point on the STS – Foucault connection. The linkages are stronger than Fabio implies, especially with the ANT (ie. Latour and Callon) folks. Latour’s “Science in Action”, for example, is a straight application of Archaeology of Knowledge to the laboratory. You can literally swap whole passages between these two books and it would be difficult to tell the difference.



    July 6, 2011 at 5:29 pm

  21. @Dan, that empricical comparison is a wonderful idea. (In fact, that search engine is absolutely addictive!). I just repeated the same comparison you mention though, and got different numbers. I wonder what we are doing differently?

    In Sociology, I have:
    2,454 for Bourdieu (
    1,535 for Foucault (

    These totals can be also read right off the “Subject” list if you just search for a keyword in any field. So, going off this list, this appears to be the distribution of Fouacult:

    Feminist & Women’s Studies (6,248)
    Philosophy (6,048)
    British Studies (3,458)
    Education (2,221)
    Anthropology (1,961)
    Film Studies (1,856)
    Law (1,718)
    Performing Arts (1,609)
    * Sociology (1,535)
    Political Science (1,328)
    Latin American Studies (1,318)
    History of Science & Technology (1,308)

    Economics (108)

    Zoology (12)

    Now for Bourdieu:
    * Sociology (2,454)
    Education (2,339)
    Anthropology (2,194)
    Feminist & Women’s Studies (1,645)
    Philosophy (1,273)
    Population Studies (1,031)
    Language & Literature (699)
    Asian Studies (665)
    Latin American Studies (647)
    Political Science (599)

    Economics (102)

    Zoology (9)

    So, by these rankings, sociology appears to be a fairly average consumer of Foucault, and the leading consumer of Bourdieu.

    However, these ratings may actually be quite misleading. The article subject is assigned not by journal of publication, but based on some strange article-by-article rating scheme. This means that some Anthropology articles may be labelled as “Sociology” just because they cite Bourdieu, for example. But what’s more unfortunate is that a lot of sociology articles do not appear to be categorized as such. For example out of the 23,123 articles in AJS, JStor counts only 5,833 as “sociology”! For curiosity’s sake, here are the other fields under which JStor files articles from AJS:

    Public Policy & Administration (2,078)
    Philosophy (1,915)
    Education (1,754)
    Political Science (1,493)
    Psychology (1,362)
    Feminist & Women’s Studies (1,116)

    Statistics (416)
    Economics (315)

    Zoology (1)
    Management & Organizational Behavior (1) (?!)

    P.S., If you are curious, the one Zoology article in AJS is Wallace Craig’s “The Voices of Pigeons Regarded as a Means of Social Control”. In spite of its title, it does not cite Foucault.


    Andrei Boutyline

    July 7, 2011 at 12:46 am

  22. @Andrei – Confusingly, Sociology appears as both a *subject* and a *discipline*. I believe the disciplines are just groupings of journals, while the subjects are something messier. That’s why our results differ. If you want though, you can just restrict to journals of interest and do the disciplinary categorizing yourself.


    Dan Hirschman

    July 7, 2011 at 12:53 am

  23. Just to chime in re: Canadian sociology, I can’t imagine a graduate student in Canadian sociology avoiding some non-negligible amount of Foucault’s work, which seems to be introduced through any of the following topics: criminology, policing, socio-legal studies; gender, sexuality; power, social control, surveillance; health, illness, and medicalization; discursive, textual, and socio-historical analysis; or simply as straight ‘sociological theory’.

    I don’t have any good explanations, only off-the-cuff speculation: Canadian grad students and faculty move more frequently among sociology, political science, cultural studies, and so forth in their careers as students, instructors, and faculty; and Foucault is both dispersed and a common reference point as a result. Or Canadian institutions have fewer specialized departments, so that joint departments e.g. soc/anth exist, or sociology or political science departments are home to research that would otherwise fall under a ‘cultural studies’ dept. in the US. I don’t think these explain enough about how this came to be the case, however (nor that they are necessarily true!).


    Greg B

    July 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  24. “I can’t imagine a graduate student in Canadian sociology avoiding some non-negligible amount of Foucault’s work”. Anglophone Canadian sociology yes, it is very Foucauldian. Francophone Canadian sociology, I’m not so sure.



    July 11, 2011 at 3:28 pm

  25. […] foucault and american sociology ( […]


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