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Foucault and Sociology

Article in Annual Review of Sociology August 2011

DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-081309-150133


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Michael Power
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Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011. 37:3556 Keywords

First published online as a Review in Advance on discipline, discourse, governmentality, power-knowledge, accounting
March 7, 2011

The Annual Review of Sociology is online at Abstract
Michel Foucault was a gifted but elusive thinker with a wide and con-
This articles doi: tinuing impact across many academic elds. This article positions his
work as a historical sociology of knowledge and evaluates its contribu-
Copyright  c 2011 by Annual Reviews. tion. After reviewing Foucaults central preoccupations as they emerge
All rights reserved
in his major works, the argument briey considers their inuence on
0360-0572/11/0811-0035$20.00 accounting scholarship as an informative exemplar of a wider Foucault
effect. Four key areas for the sociological reception of Foucault are
then considered: the nature of discourse and archaeology, his histori-
cal method, the problem of agency and action, and his conception of
power. Articulating Foucaults relationship to sociology is inherently
problematic, not least because he takes the emergence of the sciences of
man as something to be explained rather than augmented. Yet his work
remains a rich resource for inquiries of the sociological type, is broadly
aligned with a practice turn in social theory, and intersects with several
themes in both mainstream and critical sociology.

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

INTRODUCTION spite his complex association with structuralism

(a label he continually denied and from which
In this piece of research on prisons, as in my earlier
he sought to escape) and its stylistic densities,
work, the target of analysis wasnt institutions,
readers are also struck by his evident love of
theories or ideology, but practiceswith the
facts (Hacking 1986) and detailed description.
aim of grasping the conditions which make these
Indeed, Veyne (2010, p. 108) describes Fou-
acceptable at a given moment . . . practices being
cault as a good positivist for whom nothing
understood here as places where what is said and
exists except that which is empirical and philo-
what is done, rules imposed and reasons given,
sophical. This positivistic aspect of Foucaults
the planned and the taken for granted meet and
work explains why territorial and methodolog-
ical disputes with traditional historians and
Foucault (1991b, p. 75) concerns about empirical sufciency among
sociologists were inevitable, especially as he
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Michel Foucault did not aspire to produce a sought to create a new philosophical frame for
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

systemic view or to establish a eld of inquiry. existing historical narratives. Second, this re-
In his many interviews, a form of dissemination view does not address the inevitably complex
to which he was committed (Kritzmann 1988, and contingent issues of translation that have
p. vii), he engaged in extensive self-commentary shaped the timing and diffusion of Foucaults
and clarication, repeatedly describing himself works in the English language [see, for exam-
as only producing fragments and speculations, ple, Szakolczai (1998b) on Foucaults lectures,
and often correcting earlier claims. His work Gordon (1992) on his Histoire de la Folie, and
is also implicitly and elusively working through Donzelot & Gordon (2008) on the UK recep-
and opposed to both Marx and Weber, and its tion of his work on governmentality], prefer-
relation to sociology understood as a social sci- ring to focus on the specic themes at the heart
entic discipline is a complex and sometimes of Foucaults mix of concept building and his-
contradictory one. Yet for all its analytical dif- torical empiricism.
culties and frustrations, and the many cryptic The next section begins by reviewing the
denials and restatements by Foucault himself development of Foucaults work. Although
as his focus evolved, his work is a serious and this is well-trodden ground and the subject of
attractive resource for its range and virtuosity numerous commentaries and critical exegeses
and for its alignment with many of the preoccu- (e.g., Downing 2008; Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982;
pations of modern sociology. He is the subject Gane 1986; Gutting 1989, 2005; Kurzweil
of an intellectual industry of interpretation and 1977; Mills 2003; Sheridan 1980; Smart 1983),
extension that has continued to thrive since his Foucault can be fruitfully approached in terms
death in 1984, not least because the lectures and of his evolving articulation of a historical
notes from his time as professor of the History sociology of knowledge, practice, and the
of Systems of Thought at the College de France individuation of persons. The second section
continue to be transcribed, translated, and pub- deals with the reception, adaptation, and
lished. This review provides a necessarily lim- extension of Foucaults thought within specic
ited overview of his reception within sociology subelds of sociology. Accounting is chosen
and of his wider inuence. as an exemplar of this reception, both because
A few comments are necessary by way of it represents precisely the kind of immature
introduction. First, Foucault was trained in a science (Hacking 1979) upon which Foucault
distinctive French school of philosophical his- focused and because of its intrinsic sociological
toricizing that creates exegetical and analyti- interest. The third section addresses four inter-
cal challenges for many commentators. Even related critical preoccupations with Foucaults
those most favorably disposed admit that he work, areas that are indicative of his audacity
is sometimes difcult to read. However, de- and originality but that also create challenges

36 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

for his reception within sociology and other possible ofcial and authorized statements of
disciplines: discourse, history, agency, and knowledge. Foucault seeks to reconstruct the
power. shift in the nature of the relationship between
medical knowledge, disease, and intervention.
From a position where disease is regarded as
BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY independent of its physical manifestations, the
AND SOCIOLOGY body increasingly becomes the focus for expert
Foucaults (1961) early work on madness interpretation and diagnosis. It is important to
reveals his methodological determination to note that Foucault is not developing a norma-
defamiliarize and to provide a counterpoint to tive humanist concern for the subjugated indi-
enlightenment and functionalist narratives of vidual as a patient in an asymmetric relationship
progress. He argues that the emergence of the with doctorsas critical medicine scholars have
category of madness results in the progressive preferred to interpret him (Petersen & Bunton
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

exclusion, institutionalization, and subjection 1997). Indeed, he is careful to argue that he is

Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

to expert knowledge of groups of people. Fou- not judging one kind of medicine against an-
cault narrates the prehistory of this category, other (Osborne 1992). Rather, his approach is
reaching back to a time when the distinction a form of historical-philosophical analysis of the
between madness and reason, the mad and the manner in which practices come to individuate
sane, had not yet been drawn. Famously, he uti- their objects of concern, specically how the
lizes a temporal distinction between three ages, human body is subjected to a newly combined
namely the preclassical, classical, and modern juridical and medical apparatus.
periods. In the preclassical period to the middle This analytical focus becomes clearer in
of the seventeenth century, madness as a social The Order of Things (Foucault 1966), which
category is not a given. This changes with the represents the most explicit articulation of
creation of the general hospital in Paris in 1657 Foucaults historically oriented sociology of
that included those categorized as mad. The knowledge, coincidentally published in the
end of the eighteenth century to the beginning same year as Berger & Luckmanns (1966)
of what Foucault calls the modern age is marked The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in
in 1794 by the creation of the asylum and by an the Sociology of Knowledge (see also Downing
institutional distinction between the treatable 2008, p. 47). Foucault famously begins with
and the irredeemable who must be contained. a series of, often humorous, reections on an
At this point, he suggests, a completely new ancient Chinese taxonomy in which relations
relation between madness and medicine comes of similarity across categories seem impossible
into existence. Yet Foucaults analysis should to understand for the outsider. His point is
not be mistaken for another history of psychol- to make familiar knowledge practices seem
ogy or of madness. Rather, he addresses the strange and historically contingent, to ask how
historical conditions for psychology to emerge these practices function, and to analyze the kind
as a body of expert knowledge and addresses of order they create. As before, and in contrast
its relation to a range of new objects. to a pure history of ideas, he is concerned with
Notwithstanding debates and misunder- the hidden conditions of possibility of knowl-
standings about Foucaults apparent romanti- edge and the contingently formed relations of
cism of the mad, arising in part from problems similarity that underlie classications. From
of partial translation (Gordon 1992), this early this perspective, the earlier works on madness
work establishes the contours of an approach and medicine can be read as historical case
to knowledge that becomes more pronounced studies in how specic regimes of truth, as
and explicit over time. In The Birth of the Clinic he calls them, came into being.
(Foucault 1963), he is also concerned with the Commentators have drawn attention to par-
hidden system of rules that underlie and make allels between Foucaults form of historicized Foucault and Sociology 37

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

epistemological inquiry and Kuhns views on In The Order of Things, Foucault is trying
normal and abnormal science (Kuhn 1970, to lead the reader to those key points of rup-
Hacking 1979). Yet unlike Kuhn, Foucaults ap- ture in history when much of what we take
proach can also be compared to Bloors (1976) for granted now in the modern landscape of
strong program demand for sociological sym- knowledge came into existencea time when
metry in the explanation of true and false be- the clinical and social sciences could not be dis-
liefs. For Foucault, the question at stake is not tinguished. He is suggesting that the actors of
truth as such but the social and institutional modern social science are made up and invented
historical conditions under which authorized via knowledge practices that necessarily indi-
statements can be made that count as true. He viduate their objects in ways we take for granted
conducts a comparative study of the discourses today. Foucault suggests that our contemporary
of three elds of knowledge that become con- landscape of academic disciplines, including so-
ceptually transformed at the end of the eigh- ciology, is the product of the combined emer-
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

teenth century. Before that time, knowledge of gence of an empirical domain, new forms of
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natural history, of wealth, and of general gram- (Kantian) philosophical reection on the sub-
mar is essentially classicatory in nature, with- ject, and the growing authority of mathemat-
out consciousness of the role of human subjects ics in the natural sciences (Kennedy 1979). In-
in practices of representation. This gives way to deed, Foucaults approach was much inuenced
the forms of knowing that reect on the role of by his reception of Kants anthropological writ-
the subject more directly and are the precursors ings (Foucault 2008). If he is correct, then some
of modern biology, economics, and linguistics, contemporary conicts in social sciencesuch
respectively. According to Foucault, they mark as the so-called Methodenstreitcan be traced
a radical break with their predecessors and es- back to these three components of this episte-
tablish what he calls a new episteme in two im- mological shift and their relationship to each
portant respects. other. Foucault also suggests that reections of
First, each eld of knowledge acquires a new the sociological type were necessarily preceded
epistemological depth in the form of demands and conditioned by material problems of social
to get below the surface of things: Behind living order, thereby hinting at the practical origins of
organisms are hidden developmental processes; articulated knowledge that he develops in later
beyond the surface features of money is a dy- work.
namic system by which wealth is produced; and In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault
beneath the structures of grammar are mech- (1969) provides the most explicit, yet most ab-
anisms by which language changes and adapts. stract and challenging, reection on his method
Second, Foucault interprets this break as mark- of analysis and core conceptual apparatus. It is
ing the origins of new human sciences situated an attempt to show how to do what he calls ar-
at the boundaries of life, labor, and language chaeological analysis, but Foucault makes few
and increasingly focused on man as a new ob- concessions to the reader. Statements or propo-
ject of investigationa recent invention, as sitions (enonces) are the basic units of discourse,
he famously puts it. Though Foucault clearly and their totality comprises discursive forma-
does not intend human to correspond to the tions that are the conditions of possibility of
humanities or social sciences in their modern thought and hence of action. Specic discur-
meanings, he does imply that the conditions of sive formations, or epistemes, create positions for
possibility for the elds of psychology and so- subjects to occupy and in which they may be au-
ciology are to be found in the inauguration of thorized to speak; for example, the enunciative
modern bodies of knowledge that are incom- modality describes the legitimized position of
mensurable with what went before (Hacking the individual in a eld of knowledge, enabling
1979, Kennedy 1979). statements to have a performative character in a

38 Power
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way that parallels the Austinian theory of speech discipline in Foucaults senseboth as con-
acts (Wagner-Pacici 2010, p. 1359). For Fou- straint over the individual and as an individ-
cault, who is authorized to speak matters more uating positive body of knowledge. Foucaults
than the intentions and actions of any specic analysis also pushes its boundaries beyond pris-
speaker. ons as institutions to encompass all system-
It is often argued that the underlying atic, calculating forms of observation that are
methodological position of Foucaults archae- grounded in a mundane world of registers and
ology leaves no place for individual intentions, multiple practices of examination.
personality, or agency. Yet in subsequent inter-
views he repeatedly stresses that that he does The examination that places individuals in
not exclude interest-based explanations of ac- a eld of surveillance also situates them in
tions. Rather, his concern is with something a network of writing; it engages them in a
different, namely the historical conditions of whole mass of documents that capture and
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possibility for the positivity and facticity of the x them . . . the accumulation of documents,
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taken-for-granted rules inhabited by human ac- their seriation, the organization of compar-
tors. In its critical emphasis, Foucaults method ative elds making it possible to classify, to
has obvious afnities with other analysts of the form categories, to determine averages, to x
hidden, not least Marx and Freud, and in later norms. (Foucault 1975, pp. 18990)
work he looks back on, and reinterprets, this
Kantian style of approach as being centrally Importantly, Discipline and Punish marks the
concerned with the way that humans are made beginning of Foucaults increasingly explicit
into the subjects of systems of knowledge. For analysis of power as an enabling and constitu-
example, he reects further on the historically tive eld of force, rather than emanating from a
contingent origins of the idea of a sovereign self, central source that is essentially repressive and
epitomized by the Cartesian cogito. He traces dominating in nature. His construct of power-
this idea back into monastic practices and to knowledge ( pouvoir-savoir) is intended to con-
even earlier doctrines of asceticism and self- ceptualize the embeddedness of knowledge in
management (Foucault 2004a,b). practices of control and their related forms of
Discipline and Punish (1975) is arguably Fou- resistance. The historical starting points for
caults most accessible monograph. The book thinking about power-knowledge are not the
begins with a methodological device that Fou- institutions of law or the state and their abstract
cault uses several times: the dramatic juxtapo- capacities and intentions, but rather what Fou-
sition of two events separated in time to create cault calls the ignoble archival foundations of
a sense of change and rupture in the mind of local and specic forms of disciplinary knowl-
the reader. The rst is his famous description of edge that are progressively materialized in doc-
public torture and execution; the second, a cen- uments. Foucault directs attention to the sys-
tury later, concerns the prison as an institution. tems of intense registration such as modern
Foucault uses this juxtaposition to argue that accounting, discussed below, that exert power
the public iniction of pain has been displaced over bodies, behavior, and cognition from
by a new mode of discipline of the body, via the bottom up and that may evolve into sci-
surveillance, correction, and training in an en- ences of greater or lesser maturity. Accordingly,
closed space. Drawing on Benthams design for Foucault does not provide a theory of power
the panopticon, Foucault argues for the signi- in the sense understood and debated by mod-
cance of the permanent possibility of visibility ern political theory. Rather, he directs ana-
as a general principle of exercising power over lytical attention to the often mundane rules
the body and of coordinating individual bod- embedded in practices that govern what can
ies with others. The prison is the exemplary be said, known, and done, by whom, and to
organizational location for a double sense of whom. Foucault and Sociology 39

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

Although Foucaults emerging analytics of and legitimacy, with their corresponding focus
power-knowledge may seem intuitively obvi- on law and legal process, came to be eclipsed
ous in the case of prisons and even hospitals, the by more operational issues of population and
same cannot be said about his work on sexuality. its management. The notion of economy began
Yet here his views on power are most explicitly to lose its basis in the model of the family and
developed. The rst volume of The History of acquired its modern meaning in the nineteenth
Sexuality (Foucault 1976) is not about sex in the century. At the same time, technologies such as
contemporary sense of that term, but about dis- statistics emerged as critical conditions of pos-
courses and categories of sexuality and the va- sibility for a new mode of governing (Hacking
riety of mechanisms for producing acceptable 1991). In short, Foucault traces the formation
statements about sexual behavior. In particu- of the new science of political economy to the
lar, Foucault argues for the conditioning role conjunction of operational and administrative
of Christian confessional practice in translat- preoccupations with population, territory, and
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ing desires into discourses that seek ever more wealth:

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elaborate analytical vocabularies. He also ar-

gues against the repressive hypothesis, namely, I wanted to demonstrate the deep historical
the idea that power acts on sex in a repressive link between the movement that overturns
manner, and he suggests the more productive the constants of sovereignty in consequence
and constitutive role for statements about sex- of the problem of choices of government, the
ual conduct, which proliferate into concerns movement that brings about the emergence
with population and liberal political economy of population as a datum, as a eld of inter-
more generally: vention and as an objective of governmental
techniques, and the process which isolates the
[T]he political signicance of the problem of economy as a specic sector of reality, and po-
sex is due to the fact that sex is located at litical economy as the science and technique
the point of intersection of the discipline of of intervention of the government in that eld
the body and the control of the population. of reality. (Foucault 1991a, p. 102)
(Foucault 1980a [1977], p. 125)
From Foucaults point of view, both the
For Foucault, there is an important conti- state and the economy are mythicized abstrac-
nuity between the concerns of individual sexual tions that refer to the entirety of techniques
conduct and those of the regulation of popu- that today straddle public administration,
lation; he explicates the links between ascetic macroeconomic management, regulation,
practices of bodily self-discipline and those of private management, and many other expert
liberal government in a way that cuts across tra- practices besides. The afnity with core themes
ditional efforts to distinguish micro and macro in economic sociology are clear. What Foucault
levels of analysis (Lemke 2001a). He is not (1991a, p. 103) calls the governmentalization of
directly interested in government understood the state also has many parallels with the idea of
narrowly as the executive arm of representative the regulatory state in political science (Pildes &
democracy but in governmentality as a broad Sunstein 1995); it is a phenomenon that invites
range of highly specic practices that individu- analysis of the specic roles played by multiple
ate and operate on persons (van Krieken 1996, instruments of economic and social knowledge
Rose et al. 2006). His archaeological approach operating beyond the traditionally conceived
reconstructs the emergence of an art of govern- boundaries of the state and serving various pro-
ing from its pastoral origins to its manifestation grams of control (Dean 2003, Rose & Miller
in complex, autonomous elds of administrative 1992, Rose et al. 2006). Not least is that this
practice (Foucault 1988, 1991a; Steiner 2008). project also involves the analysis of how differ-
Foucault argues that problems of sovereignty ent strands of neoliberal political philosophy

40 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

inform the specic shape of governmentality classical reference points in sociology, com-
practices and reect specic conceptions of the mentators have also taken the view that, for all
relations between state, market, and rational the amboyance, other scholars have covered
action (Gordon 1991; Lemke 2001a,b). much of the same ground. Collins (1989, p. 131)
The year 2009 marked the 25th anniversary admits that Foucault is the most signicant of
of Michel Foucaults death. Publication of his the French discourse school, but the histori-
taped lectures at the College de France between cal patterns Foucault emphasizes are congruent
1970 and 1984 is ongoing (Venn & Terranova with Weberian and Durkheimian theories of
2009; see also the journal Foucault Studies). The modernity. Indeed, The Order of Things can be
exegetical account of his work given above is read as an attempt to show the historical condi-
necessarily partial; little has been said about his tions of possibility for Durkheims reections
later preoccupations with experience and ethics on the problem of order (Smart 1982).
and their grounding in ascetic technologies for In subsequent debate, Collins (1990) is
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shaping the self, preoccupations that were al- more overtly critical of the amateur sociology
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ways latent in his earlier work and became of the French intellectual classthough he
more salient for him over time (Callero 2003, exempts Bourdieu from this charge. Foucault
pp. 11718; Foucault 1984a,b; Steiner 2008). is valuable at best for taking ideas that parallel
Rather, the shape of a historical sociology of existing sociological ideas and applying them
knowledge (Swidler & Arditi 1994, pp. 314 to fresh empirical materials (Collins 1990,
15) visible in Foucaults major works has been p. 462). The empirical documentation of
elaborated, consisting of two key elements: the processes of bureaucratization in prisons and
analysis of an epistemological shift at the end mental institutions is valuable, but for Collins
of the eighteenth century that makes possible and others it is not a great departure in
the sciences of man, including sociology; and an general theory. He also adds that although
analysis of the material practices of control and much of Foucaults work relates to the mi-
data gathering that evolve into the instruments crofoundations of macrosociology, it lacks
of political economy and population manage- any microinteractions, other than an appeal to
ment. How these two elementsknowledge micropower, which might make a contribution
and power, respectivelycontribute to the (Collins 1990, p. 462). Yet, although Foucault
making up of human actors is the major focus himself (1980a [1977], pp. 12425) admits this
of Foucauldian scholarship and interpretation. difculty of relating body-specic technologies
of control to the population as a global body, he
defends the application of similar methods at
THE FOUCAULT EFFECT both levels and in Discipline and Punish carefully
Foucaults reception within sociology is mixed, describes microprocesses of normalization via
and perhaps necessarily so. Those who recog- the examination.
nize his brilliance, breadth, and depth never- Reviews of his books in the main American
theless acknowledge the density of his prose and sociology journals are also lukewarm. Shelleys
his tendency to rhetoric over analysis. Yet such (1979) review of Discipline and Punish suggests
barriers are often by-products of translation that Goffman made a bigger contribution to
issues. Furthermore, he engaged extensively our understanding of totalizing institutions.
in interviewsmany of which are lucid and Similarly, Kurzweils (1979) review of the rst
clearin a process of self-commentary and volume of The History of Sexuality warns read-
clarication. So to say that his combination ers that they will require a high tolerance for
of topics, methods, and style is completely structuralist textual analysis and abstractions.
foreign to the university-trained Ameri- Yet equally there are many sympathetic read-
can scholar (Kennedy 1979, p. 269) is a little ings. Hacking (2004) argues for a complemen-
unfair. Because he does not directly engage with tarity between Goffman, the sociologist, and Foucault and Sociology 41

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

Foucault, the archaeologist: Both are con- is incorrect about Webers universalism and
cerned with what Hacking (2004, p. 288) argues that Foucaults concept of discourse
describes as the institutional and classicatory can be read as an ideal type. Others also point
conditions of making up people, and both to important afnities (Deem 2000, p. 743;
are strong where the other is weak: Gordon 1987; Steiner 2008). For example,
ONeill (1986, p. 43) argues that Weber was
Goffman analyzed, by a series of ideal types, also an archaeologist of the power man exerts
the ways in which human roles are constituted over himself and that Foucaults analysis
in face-to-face interactions within an institu- of discipline complements Webers formal
tional setting, and how patterns of normal- analysis of the bureaucratic state. In addition,
ity and deviance work on individual agents ONeill suggests that Foucault broadens the
and how the agents change these norms, by Weberian concept of administrative power
a sort of feedback effect. Foucaults archae- into the embodied strategies of industrial
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ologies established the preconditions for and power, although Alford (2000) warns that it
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the mutations between successive institutional is a mistake to compare Foucault and Weber
forms. in terms of marginal and central conceptions
of power, respectively. Szakolczai (1998a,b)
So where Goffman coproduces a brilliant further elaborates the close afnities between
account of asylums and a method appropriate Foucault and Weber, specically between
to the asylum as an object, Foucaults object is Foucaults archaeology and genealogy of
much broader: not just the prison but an en- subjectivity and Webers history of science and
tire apparatus or setup (dispositif ) of laws, ar- analysis of the conduct of life. On this latter
chitecture, administrative practices, and words, point, Smith (1999) draws out the parallels
for which the archaeological method is needed between Foucaults later work and that of Elias.
(Veyne 2010, pp. 3031). Even if one believes that the amateur soci-
Agger (1991, p. 117) locates Foucaults work ology of the Paris philosophers and literary the-
within postmodernist sociology where he has orists is impressive mainly to people who lack
been inuential in cultural studies, the sociol- much grounding in what sociology has already
ogy of social control, and the study of sexuality. achieved (Collins 1990, p. 462), there can be
Like Hacking, he suggests that Foucaults posi- no doubting the empirical reality of Foucaults
tivistic fascination for facts and archives is com- inuence as both a social fact and a problem
bined with methods that are, in intention and to be explained (Szakolczai 1998a, p. 1403).
spirit if not execution, close to ethnomethodol- Foucaults inuence and style of analysis can be
ogy; parts of Discipline and Punish can be read traced to the history and sociology of medicine
in parallel to Goffmans treatment of labeling ( Jones & Porter 1994), crime (Garland 2001),
and its effects. And according to Agger (1991, law (Hunt & Wickham 1994, Simon 1994, Rose
p. 124), any apparent sloppiness of method is & Valverde 1998), and psychology (Rose 1989).
compensated for by the imaginative use of his- Yet the impact has been much wider than this,
torical and cultural data, assembled into a the- extending into literary criticism (During 1992),
ory of social control. the history of statistics (Hacking 1991), and risk
Foucaults relationship to Weberian think- management (Ewald 1991, Defert 1991). To
ing is a complex topic in its own right. He this list, Fox (1998, p. 416) adds patriarchy, mas-
says repeatedly in interviews that he, ap- culinity, architecture, dentistry, developmen-
parently contra Weber, is not interested in tal psychology, religion, pornography, educa-
rationalization as such, or in worldviews, but tion, beauty, and tness. And it should not be
in analyzing specic rationalities of practices. forgotten that Foucault has also been taken
Interestingly, Veyne (2010, pp. 3435), a seriously by philosophers (Rorty 1991) and
strong supporter of Foucault, thinks Foucault historians (Goldstein 1994, Megill 1979).

42 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

His reach, inuence, and reception stretch Yet the accounting eld encompasses many
across both substantive concerns and academic of the processes and problems that deeply
disciplines. interest sociology scholars, not least those who
It is dangerous to generalize about the na- analyze culture, cognition, and science. How
ture of these diverse tributaries of inuence. knowledge and categories are produced, how
Yet a core part of his impact lies in the ap- this shapes what people attend to and how they
plied potential and attraction of the historical act, and how the cultural position of expertise
sociology of knowledge described above. Fou- takes shape are all at stake in accounting.
caults emerging focus on what he calls power- The accounting reception of Foucault is
knowledge directs empirical attention to the a reection of his inuence on the study of
documents and discourses that apparently en- management generally in the United Kingdom
mesh people as subjects of disciplines and that, for historically contingent reasons (Carter
in doing so, recursively form subjectivities and et al. 2002). As business schools expanded
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

practices. This work, and particularly key parts in the 1970s and 1980s, they became homes
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of Discipline and Punish, has been appealing as for displaced sociologists (Carter 2008, p. 21)
a platform for sociologies of specic practices, who applied their critical insights to the study
providing both the theoretical and stylistic con- of organizations (Burrell 1988, McKinlay
dence necessary to address the signicance of & Starkey 1998, Sewell & Wilkinson 1992,
the apparently mundane. However, this sense of Townley 1993). These peculiar conditions in
a Foucault effect (Burchell et al. 1991, Donzelot UK business schools meant that [b]y the late
& Gordon 2008) should not be mistaken for a 1990s, Foucault was indisputably one of the
series of efforts at purity of interpretation and most important sources in organization stud-
application; his work is perhaps better under- ies (Carter 2008, p. 24). Foucaults reception
stood as a sociological resource and as a set of within UK accounting, as a subeld of manage-
genealogical sensibilities about forms of know- ment studies, was due largely to a small number
ing (Rabinow & Rose 2003). One unlikely area of highly inuential papers that appeared in the
where these sensibilities have been evident is mid-1980s. A footnote reference to Discipline
accounting. and Punish rst appears in the Burchell et al.
Accounting is of sociological interest for (1980) study of the roles of accounting in or-
several reasons. First, its claim to be an aca- ganizations and society and develops as a more
demic eld has always been problematic; the fully articulated point of reference in several
University of Cambridge excluded accounting later key publications. Two specic papers
from its economics and politics degree be- are emblematic of what came to be called the
cause it was not a proper university subject Foucauldian turn in accounting research.
(Puxty et al. 1994, p. 153). This marginal First, Burchell et al. (1985) analyze the rise
and mundane status locates it precisely in the and fall of a specic innovation in external
epistemological twilight (Goldstein 1984, accounting: the value added statement. This
p. 178) that interested Foucault most. Second, was a reporting experiment that provided a new
although Weber and Sombart had recognized kind of visibility to the contribution of different
the central signicance of calculation in general agents to organizational prot and wealth.
and bookkeeping in particular (Carruthers The emergence and decline of this new kind
& Espeland 1991), accounting came to be of accounting report in the United Kingdom
studied, if at all, by economists and those in the 1970s are explained as an event formed
with economics training. Sociological views of at the conjunction of three distinct policy dis-
accounting as practice (as opposed to accoun- courses, namely (a) accounting standard setting
tants as professionals) are relatively recent, and the problem of corporate performance
evolving largely on the back of developments measurement, (b) macroeconomic policy pre-
in organizational theory (Miller 2008, p. 52). occupations with improving UK productivity, Foucault and Sociology 43

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

and (c) new ideas about industrial relations and for a historical constellation in which cost ac-
employee reporting. The case suggests a counting was redened. In this view, so-called
standard costing was much more than a techni-
three branched genealogy . . . of the specic cal innovation, although it came to seem merely
social space in which value added appeared and technical and common sense; it was a new basis
developed . . . . [T]he space which the value for observing the workings of the individual and
added event occupied is seen to be comprised for monitoring deviation from costing norms.
of a very particular eld of relations which ex- Its historical conditions of possibility could be
isted between certain institutions, economic found in wider discourses about efciency be-
and administrative processes, bodies of knowl- tween 1900 and 1930:
edge, systems of norms and measurement, and
classication techniques. We have called such [W]ithin this period a diverse group, in-
a eld an accounting constellation. (Burchell cluding engineers, psychologists, accountants,
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

et al. 1985, pp. 399400) medical practitioners, proponents of eugen-

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ics, journalists and politicians, propose various

Importantly, value added accounting state- projects for improving the life of the person
ments were far from being technically stan- and, thereby, of the nation . . . . [T]he rm can
dardized and were highly ambiguous in their be seen as one of the sites in society towards
meaning and scope. This was an ambiguity that which such projects would address themselves.
was critical to the conjunctural support they re- (Miller & OLeary 1987, p. 261)
ceived from the three arenas described above:
[T]he very ambiguity of value added might, in Both Burchell et al. (1985) and Miller &
other words, be implicated in its emergence and OLeary (1987) use history to reveal the con-
functioning (Burchell et al. 1985, p. 390). tingent and nonautonomous nature of technical
Secondly, Miller & OLearys (1987, p. 237) practices, a critical act for a practice such as ac-
approach is also self-consciously genealogical counting that tends to forget its own history and
in the specic oppositional sense of question- promote functional narratives of progress, such
ing . . . our contemporarily received notions by as harmonization and best practice. Both de-
a demonstration of their historical emergence. velop analyses that do not appeal to the interests
Against functionalist and progressivist stories of specic agents, but rather seek to describe the
of accounting change, on the one hand, and formation of a historical a priori, in Foucaults
interest-based accounts, on the other, they po- sense, that shows how new accounting prac-
sition the emergence of standard costing prac- tices emerge at the conjunction of signicant
tices as part of the new management sciences discourses governing what it is possible to say.
taking shape around the end of the nineteenth Like Foucault, both papers appeal to event-type
century and beginning of the twentieth. At this constructs in the accounting eld (e.g., constel-
time, the employee was being surrounded by lation). Although the sense of event is at best im-
multiple standards of conduct and work prac- plicit, both papers reveal the circulatory nature
tice. A web of surveillance and control practices, of power-knowledge in time (Wagner-Pacici
partly inspired by eugenics, focused on reduc- 2010, p. 1367), which results in the coforma-
ing waste and increasing efciency, at the levels tion of both specic accounting practices and
of both the nation and the individual. The rm, the networks of power that enable those prac-
in the early twentieth century, like the clinic and tices to be accepted, albeit temporarily. Here,
the prison in Foucaults analyses, became a site there are analytical and empirical parallels with
for intersecting strategies with a common fo- Abbotts (2005) concept of linked ecologies.
cus on the idea of efciency. Together with the Interestingly, both papers anticipate ideas of
emerging authority of scientic management performativity as they have subsequently de-
and industrial psychology, conditions existed veloped in the sociology of nance (e.g.,

44 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

Mackenzie & Millo 2003). For example, would expect, but does not nd, institutional
Burchell et al. (1985) emphasize how account- resistance to new control practices, namely
ing gives rise to, and shapes, the context in the use of rankings and league tables for
which it operates, echoing Goldsteins (1984) universities. Instead one nds that, for all their
appraisal of Foucault. And in both papers, the epistemological weaknesses, rankings become
formal organization or rm is conceptualized embedded in these organizations, shaping re-
as porous to its environment, providing over- source allocation, management attention, and
laps between Foucault and new institutionalism conceptions of self. From Foucaults farsighted
in organizational analysis (DiMaggio & Powell point of view, as Sauder & Espeland (2009)
1991). note, rankings are exactly one of those ignoble
Both papers are also governmental in the human sciences of man: The distribution
sense of locating accounting as a hybrid of tools according to ranks or grade has a double role:
and ideas enacted in a wider and more uid it marks the gaps, hierarchizes qualities, skills
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

web of regulatory arrangements for knowing and aptitudes; but it also punishes and rewards
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

people, populations, and organizations (see (Foucault 1975, p. 181).

also Hoskin & Macve 1986, Hopwood 1987). In summary, Foucaults inuence on an
Miller & OLeary take the further step of ex- emerging subsociology of accounting and
plicitly positioning accounting in the space of quantication sits easily with the wider prac-
the managerial human sciences, in Foucaults tice turn in social theory (Schatzki et al. 2001).
specic sense of that term, for knowing and He combines a sociology of knowledge with an
governing subjects. The echoes of Weber are analytics of control, and historical facts with a
also undoubtedly present in this reception of philosophical style of analysis. He shifts the fo-
Foucault; the construction of the governable cus from specic agents and their interests to
person is not to be equated with the entirely the contemporaneous conditions in which prac-
obedient individual but more subtly with the tices are formed to make such interests think-
creation of zones of freedom of choice through able. As Hacking (1979, p. 51) suggests, under-
which the soul of the citizen is made real standing how any practice, such as accounting,
and visible (Gordon 1987, 1991, pp. 56). And constitutes both objects and subjects must be
both papers reect a principle of explanatory one of the most important topics in theory
symmetry (Bloor 1976)failed practices are of knowledge. Without doubt, the accounting
as signicant as those that endure and must be tributary of Foucaults inuence is one of many
explained in the same way. However, like Fou- that could have been chosen; his impact on law
cault himself, the absence of a clearly articulated or the history of statistics might seem more ob-
critical standpoint has led both of these papers vious choices. Yet the positioning of accounting
to be accused of an apparent neoconservatism as a discipline in Foucaults double meaning of
(Armstrong 1994, Grey 1994, Neimark 1990). that term is an important reminder of its com-
These exemplars, and other accounting plex role in modern societies and of the specic
studies (Power 1997), have become reference shape it gives to governmentality. This is a fact
points in a larger body of work on the sociology that Weber recognized clearly and was redis-
of quantication, where Foucaults inuence covered in the 1980s in the United Kingdom
is also visible. Espeland & Stevens (1998, with the help of Foucault.
p. 331) analyze the constitutive power of
practices that commensurate and standardize
and their role in the expansion of accountability CRITICAL THEMES
movements and organizations that hold others If the Foucault effect described above can be
to account. Specically, Sauder & Espeland taken as an empirical fact, no doubt requiring
(2009) argue for the utility of Foucaults work more formal support by way of citation analy-
in understanding situations in which one sis (such as Sallaz & Zavisca 2007 do in their Foucault and Sociology 45

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

review of Bourdieus inuence), then the cre- his positivism remains empirically thin. And
ation of subsociologies in elds such as account- yet critics need to be reminded that Foucaults
ing nevertheless leaves open many analytical focus is not with implementation and insti-
and empirical issues and questions. His shift- tutional variety as commonly understood to-
ing and sometimes contradictory concerns with day, but with the conditions of possibility of
the historical production of meaning and cat- what can be said and done at specic histori-
egories of the normal establish Foucault as a cal juncturesa Kantian style of approach that
thinker who sometimes claimed a poets priv- may be alien to empirical sociologists.
ileges (Rorty 1991), a fact that creates many A second issue for Foucaults ontology of
ambiguities and tensions for some sociologists. discourse and his methodological preference
Four interrelated themes are considered below. for documents suggests that it has its own life in-
dependent of human agency, radically divorced
from the subjectivity of agents. Foucaults com-
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

Discourse and the

plex relation to structuralist thought informs
Archaeological Method
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his methodological imperative that statements

As with the Wittgensteinian notion of language must be described in and for themselves, not re-
game, which has been inuential within the so- lated to intentions: discourses are anonymous
ciology of knowledge, discourse is a primitive and autonomous (Hacking 1979, p. 42). This
ontological commitment for Foucault, whose not only suggests a form of discursive function-
structure and method of investigation he seeks alism, but also raises difculties about how one
to clarify in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Yet is to study them (Fox 1998). If discourse is the
the unity and boundaries of Foucaults concept surface manifestation of power-knowledge and
of discursive formation are problematic, and it is dispersed rather than owing from a center,
is well known that the precision and explana- then what is the principle of relevance by which
tory purchase of an analytical concept dimin- one element of discourse is selected over an-
ish as its scope of application expands. If dis- other? Foucault hardly helps when he says, My
courses are pervasive, how can we determine books arent treatises in philosophy or studies
when they stop and start? The line between of history: at most, they are philosophical frag-
discourse and nondiscourse is also undoubt- ments put to work in a historical eld of prob-
edly difcult to draw (Goldstein 1984, p. 181; lems (Foucault 1991b, p. 74).
Fox 1998, p. 418); the registers and documents Yet Hacking defends the notion of discourse
of Discipline and Punish, as well as maps, dia- as the surface manifestation of a system of
grams, accounting statements, and rankings, are thought, whose depth is empirically revealed
both material inscriptions and bearers of ideas. in the archive. He argues that the job of the
Foucault does not always help by shifting archaeological historian is not that of interpre-
the weight placed on different concepts with tation but of displaying relationships between
overlapping roles: sentences. Hence, Foucault can be positioned as
. . . what I call an apparatus is a much more a philosopher of relationality (Emirbayer 1997,
general case of the episteme; or rather, that Veyne 2010) in which the relational process
the episteme is a specically discursive appa- is prior (Abbott 2005, p. 248). Like a Chom-
ratus, whereas the apparatus in its general skyan depth grammar, the regularities that
form is both discursive and nondiscursive, its determine a system of thought are not a con-
elements being much more heterogeneous. scious part of that thought and perhaps cannot
(Foucault 1980b, p. 197) even be articulated in that thought (Hacking
1979, p. 42). Yet clear descriptions of epistemes
Furthermore, Alfords (2000) empirical remain as elusive as those of depth gram-
work on prisons suggests that Foucault mar, and Hacking suggests that Foucaults
illuminates discourses but not practices, where archaeology is less a theory than a body of

46 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

speculations. However, it may be a mistake to of structuralism, Foucault also became clearer

regard Foucault as articulating a methodology about his real interest in the problem of the for-
in the sense in which sociologists commonly mation of selves and individuation, which was
understand this term (Rabinow & Rose 2003). always implicit in earlier work.
The Kantian reading of archaeology as a way Notwithstanding these two issues,
of investigating the groundwork of bodies of Goldstein (1984, pp. 17172) suggests that
knowledge (Hacking 1986, p. 40) suggests Foucault also has considerable appeal to histo-
that a history of the rules for the production of rians; despite the irritations of insufcient data,
statements will not look like ordinary history the indigestibility of analytical vocabulary, and
(Davidson 1986, p. 222). the absence of actors, his work remains attrac-
tive because it denes a unique philosophical-
historical orientation toward the things that
History and Genealogy have not been articulated but that nevertheless
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

Although Foucault is not trying to replace or contribute to the apparent stability of objects
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

displace conventional historical work, his con- and practices. Furthermore, historical inaccu-
tribution has been disputed by historians and racy of a certain kind may be less worrisome for
historical sociologists on the grounds of method sociologists. Goldstein argues that Foucaults
and empirical rigor. First, the genealogical idea of discipline makes an important contribu-
method inherited from Nietzsche is precom- tion to a sociology of bourgeois liberal profes-
mitted to a kind of critical defamiliarization of sions, thus linking him back to Weber. Whereas
the authority of the present via accounts of rup- the sociological tradition has tended to concep-
ture and discontinuity. Whereas archaeology is tualize professions as a combined product of
more descriptive in intentlaying out the re- knowledge, monopoly rights, autonomy, and
lations between sentencesgenealogy is more service ideals, Foucaults notion of discipline
explicitly oppositional in tracing elements of begins with the mundane administration of
the present to their contingent origins of for- control, specically over bodies. For him, pro-
mation. Using history as a critical resource in fessional knowledge is not a given, but is consti-
this way can be perceived as a theory-led ap- tuted from prior practices aimed at shaping and
proach to data. Far from clarifying, Foucaults moderating behavior, not necessarily in a neg-
appeal to notions of emergence and assemblage ative sense. These disciplines inhabit an epis-
reproduce an apparent blurring of method and temological twilight and consist of groups of
substance. statements that borrow their organization from
Second, it is argued that Foucault operates scientic models, which tend to coherence
with temporal slices and periodizations that are and demonstrativity, which are accepted,
large and thematic, rather than inductive. This institutionalized, transmitted and sometimes
results in a history that is schematic and to- taught as sciences (Foucault 1969, p. 178).
pographical. It has been described as a succes- According to Goldstein (1984), the implied
sion of synchronicities, a succession that lacks a dynamic by which practices of control give
proper theory of change, despite his efforts to rise to formal systems of knowledge is Fou-
renew the concept of event that had been evac- caults major methodological and substantive
uated by structuralist analysis (Foucault 1980a, contribution to the sociology of professions
p. 114). Although Foucault later relaxed the and knowledge. Foucault is more interested
rigid periodization of the classical and modern in the coming into being of proto-sciences
age of his early work, regarding these epochal and bodies of expertise than in fully formed
categories as thematic rather than chronologi- professions. He contributes to an epistemo-
cal, the working conception of temporality re- logical revaluation of specic archives that
mains problematic as an episodic succession reveal how individuals are known and made
of governing epistemes. Stung by the charge subjects via rituals of examination, dossiers, Foucault and Sociology 47

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

tables, balance sheets, and registers. Fou- issues in contemporary sociology. Yet Foucault
caults work demonstrates an ontological and is also read as demonstrating that
epistemological respect for the mundane and
material dimensions of practices. Organized actors orientations are historically and cultur-
routines for record keeping (like accounting) ally produced and . . . that specifying the na-
constitute both a kind of empirical knowledge ture of these orientations and the processes by
of the individual and a form of administrative which they are produced raises difcult theo-
objectivity (Porter 1992). Foucaults special retical and empirical questions about interpre-
theoretical contribution lies in showing how tative, historical, and ethnographic method
professional knowledge is constituted by and and about varying cognitive processes, con-
originates in practice. For all the slippages of structs of the self, emotional dispositions,
data and temporality, he offers historians a way epistemological frameworks, and concepts of
of conceptualising the relationship between space, time and causation . . . (Sewell 1987,
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

forms of applied knowledge and their external p. 168).

Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

environments (Goldstein 1984, p. 184).

Goldstein and other enthusiasts may over- Sewell reads Foucault as representing a kind
state the direction of causality from practices to of inquiry that does not abstract the problem of
knowledge; for Foucault, knowledge is not sim- action from its real dialectical complexitythe
ply a reex of efforts at control. However, there question of how structurally constituted actors
is a general appreciation of the Foucault effect act in such a way that the combined effect of
as a way of writing history and doing sociology their actions changes the very structures that
that illuminates the manner in which material constituted them. Sewell also suggests that a
technologies like accounting are a vehicle for proper sociology of action needs to borrow
ideas and therefore mediate aspects of their cul- heavily from anthropology and history, and in
tural context. Hacking (1986, p. 30) concurs: Al- this respect Foucaults method has considerable
though many of Foucaults dramas have been appeal (Sewell 1987, pp. 16970; 1992).
told in calmer terms by others, his histories Aligning Foucault with Sewells view of
are also what I call philosophy: a way of ana- the endogeneity of agents and their inter-
lyzing and coming to understand the conditions ests is not to say that Foucault has a discrete
of possibility for ideasnot only ideas of disease theory of action that sociologists might use.
or insanity or imprisonment but also the tradi- For example, Fox (1998, p. 415) is skeptical
tional concept of epistemology, namely knowl- that Foucault contributes to a solution of the
edge, and of ethics, namely power. This is the agency/structure issue via an ontology of the
essence, if there can be one, of Foucaults eld- body, and, Fox argues, Foucault is ambiguous
work in philosophy (Rabinow & Rose 2003). on the question of the passivity and docility of
people, making it impossible to take from his
writings any clear view of the conditions under
which some people resist efforts at control and
Action, Reaction, and Performativity others do not, as Friedland & Alford note. Al-
One of the most persistent criticisms of Fou- though Foucaults later work (1984a) is increas-
cault and those working under his inuence is ingly focused on ethics, these imagined possibil-
the absence of a recognizable theory of action. ities for autonomy and resistance do not amount
Consequently we do not understand the pro- to a clear theory of action.
cess of how people ended up in . . . normalising These concerns reveal the frustrations of
organizations (Friedland & Alford 1991, some sociologists, but perhaps they also miss
p. 253). Foucaults focus on archives provides the point. Producing a theory of action is
no feel for the play between specic actors and not Foucaults purpose; he is interested in the
multiple institutional logicsone of the central historical conditions under which persons have

48 Power
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the possibility to be talked about and acted upon positions himself outside sociology as such.
as actors of a specic kind. Smart (1982) argues From his point of view, our contemporary
that far from solving the structure/agency prob- sociological analytical apparatus can and must
lem, Foucault helps us to understand its origins be traced back to the constructed autonomy of
in the emergence of a sociological region that the Cartesian ego, itself in turn a contingent
is dened by the irresolvable tension between by-product of the power-knowledge complex
man as both subject (agent) and object (struc- of monastic rules for self-governance.
ture). In many places, Foucault readily acknowl-
edges that specic actions may be explained and
referred to specic interests, and he does not Power, Governmentality,
preclude such an inquiry. He is simply not in- and Institutional Theory
terested in it himself. He is investigating how Foucaults conception of power within power-
subjects, in the sense of actorhood in general knowledge ( pouvoir-savoir) has troubled many
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(Meyer 2010), are constituted. commentators (Hindess 1996). Like discourse,

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Nevertheless, there is an action-theoretic the idea of power as all pervasive, permeating,

Foucault effect: like Sewell and Goldstein, Es- and unowned (Hacking 1986, p. 35) threat-
peland & Sauder (2007) argue for Foucaults ens to make the concept empty. Despite the
contribution to an understanding of the per- intended counterposition to hierarchical and
formative and reactive character of agents in dyadic conceptions, it remains a relational con-
relation to rankings. They unpack the dynam- cept of power without agents and their interests.
ics by which measures change how people make In addition, it is argued that Foucaults empha-
sense of situations and become more valid be- sis on the microtechnologies of power deliber-
cause behavior is increasingly directed toward ately underplays the role of the modern state
them as a goal. Both resources and cognition (Walzer 1986; but see also Constable 1991) as
shift gradually away from forms of knowledge a more or less coordinated ensemble of such
that are not relevant to the ranking, despite ev- techniques: Foucaults power-centered analy-
ident misgivings and concerns by agents. Sig- sis of modern society unhinges governmental-
nicantly, Espeland & Sauder move beyond ity and bio-power from any particular institu-
Foucault methodologically via interviews with tional conguration (Friedland & Alford 1991,
agents and observation of their strategies in p. 254).
the shadow of ranking systems. So a socio- Yet it may be wrong to see Foucault as
logical reception of Foucault may be strongest engaged in a theory of power that invites
when combined with more substantial concep- comparison with Lukes and others, especially
tions of human agency and related dynamics as his later interests shift toward the nature
of reactivity (performativity/looping), and/or of experience (Hoy 1986b, p. 3) and the
grounded in ethnomethodological approaches analytics of how we form a relationship with
(Moon 2005). ourselves. For Foucault, power is exercised
In summary, a large part of the tension where disciplinary knowledge is formed. His
between Foucaults work and some of the approach focuses attention on the origins of
traditional preoccupations of sociology ows the sciences of the individual at the level of
from his historical-philosophical approach that a material apparatus of architecture and doc-
takes the very distinction between micro and uments, whose reproduction, repetition, and
macro levels, between agents and structure, as a formalization drives the formation of bodies
disciplinary vocabulary in need of explanation. of practical knowledge. If anything, this is a
And though Foucault might side with Sewell Kantian knowledge-constitutive conception
and others against the centrality accorded of power that is not a consequence of law or
to rational actor models and related theories social structure but that has its own specic
of institutions in social explanation, he also dynamics and rationality. The contemporary Foucault and Sociology 49

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

ambiguity of discipline connoting both control Any reconstruction of Foucaults notion of

and knowledge is at the heart of Foucaults power-knowledge and its alignment with the
conception of power-knowledge, suggesting, new institutionalism in organizational sociol-
but unfortunately not fully substantiating, the ogy is likely to remain controversial. On the
historical origins of sociology as a science of the one hand, Foucault speaks promisingly to a tra-
state (Smart 1982) and validating a sociology dition of organizational scholarship concerned
of the small things that control people. with how external pressures become absorbed,
Foucaults sense of power-knowledge has negotiated, and embodied: Foucaults insights
afnities with DiMaggio & Powells (1991) about disciplinary power offer a compelling ac-
articulation of the new institutionalism in count of how cognitive, normative and affec-
organizational analysis. Where the old institu- tive processes mediate members responses to
tionalism tended to emphasize values, norms, environmental pressures, including multiple or
and attitudes as properties of subjects, the new coercive pressures from powerful outside or-
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

emphasizes the explanatory value of classi- ganizations (Sauder & Espeland 2009, p. 66).
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cations, routines, scripts, and schemas, a shift On the other hand, the apparent neglect of the
in ontological commitment from the cognitive state, the suggestion that the search for the ori-
basis of social order to a conception of order gins or center of power is futile, and a form of
grounded in surface habits and practical action. oppositional critique that threatens to collapse
For Foucault, these very routines and scripts, into nihilism, notwithstanding the ethical as-
and their materialization in documents, are ceticism of his later work, all remain vectors of
also the places where the possibilities of the difculty for Foucault and his reception within
immature but powerful sciences of man are sociology.
created and sustained. And it is at the level Some of the difculties concern Foucaults
of organizational habits and routines that political philosophy. Rorty (1991) identies the
power-knowledge can be grounded empirically tensions between the American and French
as a reactive dynamic of both conformity and Foucault. The former is a humanist liberal; the
resistance. latter is a fully Nietzschean self standing outside
Furthermore, just as the relevant unit of of society. From the latter point of view, all lib-
analysis for the new institutionalism is the or- eral institutions exert power, and despite what
ganizational eld, so too discursive formations Foucault says, the concept of power remains
and disciplines are, in Foucaults sense, trans- pejorative but empty. Relatedly, Walzer (1986)
organizational, relational, and of a network suggests that Foucaults emphasis on discourse
character, notwithstanding his specic interest leaves no basis for distinguishing between the
in prisons and hospitals. When DiMaggio & prison and society at large, or between liberal
Powell (1991, p. 13) state that Environ- and authoritarian states. His focus on the va-
ments . . . are more subtle in their inuence: riety of practices at the micro level and self-
rather than being co-opted by organizations, conscious distancing from macro factors brings
they penetrate the organization, creating the him into collision with both the inheritors of
lenses through which actors view the world Marx and the defenders of liberal political the-
and the very categories of structure, action, and ory, rendering his politics oppositional and an-
thought, there are strong afnities with Fou- archic: Despite his emphasis on local strug-
caults (1991a) conception of the discursive and gles, he is largely uninterested in local victories
nondiscursive technologies of governmentality (Walzer 1986, p. 59), a product of an analysis of
that act beyond the state and across organiza- power that is implicitly functionalist (Brenner
tions. In addition, Drori et al. (2003, pp. 276 1994). The Habermas-Foucault debate turns
79) draw explicitly on Foucault and his follow- on similar issues (Kelly 1994, Simon 1994).
ers in analyzing the role of science as a mode of As understandable as these reactions may be,
global governance. they fail, perhaps inevitably, to come to terms

50 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

with Foucaults continuous efforts to create a and failing, and the very distinction between
form of nonautonomous critical thought that is the categories of amateur and professional is it-
more ethical than sociological in character and self implicitly challenged in his conception of
that, contra Habermas, is not a kind of quasi- the specic intellectual (Kurzman & Owens
judicial tribunal (Rabinow & Rose 2003). In- 2002, p. 70). Rather, his genealogical approach
deed, Foucault was very much concerned with focuses on how expertise in specic elds comes
how local victories and places of resistance, in- to have authority at specic times.
tellectual or otherwise, become forced to ar- Skeptics continue to suggest that those who
ticulate new ways of governing. That Foucault work with Foucault might be better served
clearly understood the necessary ambiguities, by other, more conventional sociological ref-
both personal and analytical, of any critical erence points. Some suggest that Foucauldian
projectsociological or otherwiseis hardly analysis is in the end indistinguishable from
the nihilistic stance that is often attributed to more traditional approaches. Yet this review has
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

him. pointed to several places where scholars have

Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

created productive encounters between Fou-

caults workthe space he occupies between
CONCLUSIONS philosophy and sociologyand new empirical
This review of Foucaults work, his impact, and investigations. In addition, scholars have argued
several critical issues of interpretation suggests that a wide-ranging Foucault effect is visible
that there is no ready-made and applicable Fou- in several subelds. His work has provided, if
cauldian sociology capable of exegesis and for- not a univocal set of methods and theory, then
malization. Yet there can be little empirical a distinctive set of sensibilities and a style of
doubt about the way his work has been, and inquiry (Hacking 1991) that, as noted above,
continues to be, a rich resource for investiga- have opened up the phenomenon of accounting
tions in a wide variety of subelds of sociology to broader social scientic investigation. At the
and beyond. Indeed, this impact is consistent heart of this style are Foucaults historical soci-
with Foucaults self-understanding of his en- ology of knowledge and the question of how
terprise as providing tools and fragments for the distinction between true/authorized and
others. There can also be no doubt that his var- false/silenced statements comes to be formed
ied efforts to excavate the relationships linking in a multiplicity of elds and arenas.
knowledge, practice, and what Ian Hacking calls
making up people are rmly within the territory My general theme isnt society but the dis-
of sociology and its concerns. course of true and false, by which I mean the
Nevertheless, there are methodological, correlative formation of domains and objects
empirical, and reexive difculties that beset and of the veriable, falsiable discourses that
any productive encounter between mainstream bear on them; and its not just their formation
empirical sociology and Foucault (though such which interests me, but the effects in the real to
difculties may be more pronounced in the con- which they are linked. (Foucault 1991b, p. 85)
text of North American sociology than in, say,
the United Kingdom and continental Europe). Finally, any consideration of Foucault and
These are difculties that reect, but are not sociology must keep in mind his underlying
identical with, larger incommensurabilities be- stance toward the sciences of the human and
tween poststructuralist and empirical traditions toward the strands within sociology that be-
in sociology. Agger (1991, p. 126) notes that gin with Comte and Durkheim and lead to
Foucault would have been comfortable with the contemporary study of social facts. Fou-
the label of amateur sociologist, notwithstand- caults work challenges the territoriality of so-
ing his prestigious position at the College de ciology including its differentiation from other
France. He was not trying to be a sociologist disciplines in the human sciences (Agger 1991, Foucault and Sociology 51

SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

p. 126). This opposition is complex, embody- decline) of the domain of the social. At the
ing both humanist skepticism about the math- very time when sociologists and many others
ematization of the social, and also antiliberal are looking critically at the role of Chicago-
disdain for the relative privileging of subjects style economic thinking in the shaping and un-
own accounts. Sociology in Foucaults view is making of our developed world, Foucaults rich
inseparable from the broader sciences of the body of work remains a deep reservoir of ideas
state, and his work undoubtedly contributes to and insights into the history of our evolving
our understanding of the very emergence (and present.

1. Foucault is best understood as a philosopher-historian who is also a resource for socio-
by London School of Economics and Political Science on 07/11/11. For personal use only.

logical inquiry.
2. Foucaults work addresses issues of core interest to sociologists such as the formation
Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2011.37:35-56. Downloaded from

of knowledge and disciplines, the nature and effects of practices of control, and the
constitution of actors and identities.
3. Viewed in terms of a historical sociology of knowledge, his work focuses repeatedly on
the historical conditions of possibility of what can be said and taken as true at specic
times and places.
4. Foucaults relationship to the foundational thinkers in modern sociology (e.g., Marx,
Weber) is often complex and implicit and continues to be a subject of scholarly
5. There is an identiable Foucault effect, meaning the reception and use of his work and
ideas in a wide range of subelds in sociology and beyond. One area where a Foucault
effect is visible is accounting studies.
6. Foucaults conceptions of archaeology and genealogy are not methods, as that term
has come to be understood in empirical sociology, and his work has a strong empirical
dimension that has been a source of conict with historians and others.
7. Over time, the theme of individuation and the constitution of actors and identities became
a more explicit focus for Foucaults work, leading to his later and incomplete writings on
ethics as a mode of self-transformation.
8. Foucaults views on power and power-knowledge remain controversial, but he was most
interested in analyzing the power we exert over ourselves rather than the more con-
ventional central, coercive, institutional conception.
9. Foucault died in 1984, leaving a body of unnished work.

The author is not aware of any afliations, memberships, funding, or nancial holdings that might
be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of the intellectual and institutional leadership of Anthony
Hopwood, who, among many other qualities, was an instinctive Foucauldian and defamiliarizer

52 Power
SO37CH03-Power ARI 8 June 2011 20:42

of accounting. I am grateful for the invaluable comments and support of Chris Carter, Wendy
Espeland, Anastasia Kossov, Linsey McGoey, Andrea Mennicken, Peter Miller, and Nik Rose. I
am also grateful for the research assistance of Eva Moratinos.

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