‘Discipline and Punish’ essay

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Michael Foucault who challenges the accepted norm that the prison is the best and effective way of punishing the lawbreakers authors the book ‘Discipline and Punish’. He challenges the position that the prison system may be defended to be good due to the humanitarian concerns. As he fronts these arguments, he does not deny the capacity of the prison to be a way by which offenders should be punished. He suggests that though many reformists supported the idea of the prison there are challenges with this avenue with regard to reforming the convicts. He brings out these arguments systematically through expounding on the shifts in culture of punishment over time that contributed to the ‘prison’ being a dominant form of punishing convicts. He systematically addresses the issue of power and claims that the ‘prison’ is a form of punishment used by the ‘disciplines’. He refers to it specifically because of the new technological power, which has been applied in many contexts including the hospitals, schools, offices, and military barracks (Foucault, 2004). The book may be categorized into four themes, which include discipline, prison, punishment, and torture (Calhoun 2003, p. 36).

Arguments of the book; ‘Discipline and Punish’

Michael Foucault, a social theorist, gives an interesting account of the changes that have taken place with regard to how offenders are punished. He brings out various arguments with regard to discipline and punishment of the convicts. They include

He directly involves himself in challenging a few existing ideas on the 1700’s and 1800’s prison reforms. He digs further on this subject matter through reviewing the evolution of the different justice systems; this is with a specific focus on the country, France. Michael Foucault advances that the shift of punishment from the executions that were done in public and embracing the ‘incarceration’ idea, as well the changes that were within the prison walls were not effective reforms regarding improving the prison system. Instead, they were employed as a means by which the people in power could reframe the image of the society’s power over an individual’s discretion over the power that belonged to the society (William 2004, p. 43).

In other words, he criticized the motive of these changes claiming that the changes were not embraced for the purpose of improved justice to the offenders but as a means by which the individuals in power could alter the image that the people had of the power of the society. The ancient system of punishing offenders who were convicts through the public prosecution had the effect of making the convicts ‘martyrs’. It was perceived to do less in condemning the crime, but instead it glorified the criminal. Therefore, the changes were made to give more power to the authorities in dealing with the prisoners within the walls of the prison. He argues that the motive of this change was to focus justice away from the public eye. By doing this, then the people in authority would have direct control over the lives of the prisoners defying societal norms (Calhoun 2003, p. 32).

Michael Foucault goes further to raise an argument of the use of prison as compared to other correlative organizations. He does this through comparing the prisons as suggested by the leaders of the society with other corrective organizations. Other corrective organizations in his book included the military barracks, schools, which included the ones for formal learning, those created for juvenile offenders, as well as the charity based schools. The other corrective organizations were monasteries, hospitals, and lunatic asylums. He argues that these corrective organizations gave a new approach to punishment and discipline among the offenders (Books, LLC. 2004, p. 33).

The author of “Discipline and Punish” advances the argument of punishing the body against that of punishing the mind and soul. In this case, he puts the argument that the earliest public execution punishment was focused on punishing the offender’s body. This is contrasted with the punishment that is offered in the mentioned corrective institutions such as schools, hospitals, monasteries and others. The corrective measures that are taken in consideration here have put the focus of the punishment to the offenders mind and soul. He asserted that this shift has played a counter role to the expectations of the authorities through promoting refined criminal activities (Foucault 2004 31).

Michael Foucault puts an argument that despite the reforms that have been embraced with regard to discipline and punishments; there are a number of common things that stand out in all those forms of corrective methodologies. He suggests that when all is said and done, a number of things have remained constant, and this questions the effectiveness of the reforms. A number of the things that are suggested to have remained constant include; constant surveillance, allegiance to internal hierarchy, enforced work, and common discipline (Steger 1999, p.47).

Themes in the book ‘Discipline and Punish’

The main themes that Michael Foucault covers here include; discipline, torture, nature of ‘prison’ and punishment.

Foucault claims that the change from public execution was not immediate; instead, it went through different public spectacle punishments. Public torture led to chain gangs, which led the authorities to embrace “gentle” punishment. This, he argues, was not instituted for humanitarian reasons. He argues that the reformists were not amused by unpredictable punishments that were subjected to convicts (Beaulieu 2006, p.35).

He brings it clear that the “gentle” punishment was the initial progress that was made to shift away from the authorities’ excessive form of punishment. He claims it was more generalized and controlled way by which the convicts were punished. The shift to ‘prison’ he suggests was because of the introduction of a new technology, what he refers to as the development of the "technology" of discipline.

There was an emergence of the need for ‘discipline’ in the 18th century. In this book, he analyses the development of refined way in which people are disciplined. He suggests that the development of ‘discipline’ led people to do things according to the existent political, economic, and military organizations that characterize the modern society (Smart 33).

In his book, he contrasts two common forms of penalty. The two forms of penalty contrasted are the chaotic public torture and the violent form. He suggests that the application of the two depends on the intentions. The two opposing intentions may include; the punishment that targets inflicting violence to a convict in the same measure as the offence; or the violence with intentions to make the convicts body, attract attention, and thus develop sympathy from others.

This is the last theme that Michael Foucault handles in his book. He analyses how the ‘prison’ systems were established as a means of punishment. He asserts that the established ‘prison’ systems may be referred to as a means of punishing the criminals. He asserts that the ‘prison’ system was instituted into the larger "carceral system" which was a system that contained diverse sovereign institutions that are within the structures of the modern society. He explains the ‘prison’ as a section of the cast network of the hospitals, and factories. He advances that the ‘prisons’ provided an opportunity for the creation of ‘disciplinary careers’ for people who are convicted to the prisons (Cohen1996, p. 43).


Overall, Michael Foucault has detailed the progresses that have been made with regard to the implementation of the reform process in justice. The book begins with the author’s opinion on the public executions that took place as a way by which the people were punished. He explains this as a form of punishment that concentrated on punishing the body. This was followed by the ‘prison’ system, which Michael Foucault explains to have been centred on correcting the convict’s soul and mind. Michael Foucault has put clear accounts of what happened at the time, and compared with his own opinion. 

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