top of page

Foucault: Windows into the Workings of Power

Across anthropology, the work of philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has been hugely influential in understanding how different systems of power emerge and interact throughout history (Lynch, 2013). Identifying sovereign power, disciplinary power and biopower as ways that dominant powers cause a citizen to yield to the will of the state (Foucault, 1982), Foucault also highlighted how the production of ‘docile bodies’ that positively self-regulate to engage with and reproduce normative discourses is crucial in maintaining control, identifying this process as governmentality. It is through the workings of governmentality that Foucault reveals power and resistance to be innate to one another, where his dictum “where there is power, there is resistance” (1978) reflects the entangled concepts. Drawing on Foucault's contributions to the social sciences, this article will explore how the operation of power is innate to resistance itself, upsetting a binary dualism to cultivate an understanding of resistance as embedded within politically constructed ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault, 1980) that provides windows into the workings of power (Abu-Lughod, 1990).

Figure 1: Photograph of women from the National Women’s Liberation Movement protesting against Miss America Pageant (1968)

Studies that focus on resistance at the scale of the body valuably expose the nature of power as productive through analyzing the way methods of resistance against normative discourses involve a disruption to one’s habitus (Bourdieu, 1977), thus halting the manufacture of docile bodies that fit within mainstream behavioral discourses (Heal, 2019). Understanding productive power as the way dominant actors in society, such as the state, control the systems of knowledge production and dissemination to construct normative ways of being, or regimes of truth, highlights how subjects are encouraged to self-regulate towards these truths (Whisnant, 2012).

This incentive for subjects within society to act within the normative framings thus legitimizes the superiority of the controlling forces, and so power is productively reproduced by becoming infused into “the very grain of individuals, touch[ing] their bodies and insert[ing] itself into their actions and attitudes” (Foucault, 1980). However, those bodies who resist such behaviours become identified as deviant, posing a risk to the continued production of power via these constructed regimes of truth (Foucault, 1980; Heal, 2019). By paying attention to the ways in which individuals employ their bodies to counter subordination, the normative practices that they reject are made visible as well as the power structures that support them, and so through analyzing strategies of bodily resist the way power operates in a productive, self-affirming way is revealed.

This is witnessed through Weitz’s (2001) study that discusses how women change their hairstyles as a form of bodily resistance against mainstream norms of female attractiveness, working to disrupt the productiveness of these power structures to pursue their own agendas. Weitz explored how one woman named Wendy cut her hair into a cropped, masculine style to not only express her sexual identity, but to avoid male attention, highlighting through her own resistance at the scale of the body the mainstream narratives that women like Wendy are forced to contend with. Through these resistive actions, the power structures that associate long hair with femininity, submissiveness, and inferiority along with warranting male attention are revealed (Weitz, 1998), and so resistance here provides a window into the workings of power from within which it formed in opposition to (Abu-Lughod, 1990), helpfully framed through Abu-Lughod’s reflection that “where there is resistance, there is power” (a reversal of Foucault’s (1978) dictum). Furthermore, the productive nature of these power structures is exposed through Wendy’s own disruption to the relationship between knowledge and discursive practice; her rejection of the normative action of keeping her hair long to make herself appealing to the male gaze constructs an alternative truth about the value of her hair, revealing herself as deviant and so directly responding to and rejecting the workings of the power/knowledge machine.

Figure 2: President Claire Underwood from Netflix's series ''House of Cards'' (2018)

However, Weitz (2001) also addresses through an intersectional perspective the ways in which women often use their hair to seek power through strategies that accommodate the power structures that place women as subordinate. Following Foucault’s assertion that those who have the greatest ability to enact a valued discourse can wield the highest power through being perceived to speak more truth (Whisnant, 2012), women who challenge longstanding gender oppression through adopting mainstream ideas about female attractiveness in relation to hairstyles can be seen as achieving their own power in doing femininity (Bordo, 1989). Numerous research studies suggest conventional attractiveness is a realistic route to power for women (Hilliard, 1984), with Weitz (2001) interviewing one lesbian woman named Erica who, in contrast to Wendy, maintained that keeping her hair long allowed her to pass as heterosexual and thus helped her to get and keep jobs. These accommodation strategies thus reveal not only the overarching normative expectations of female hairstyle, acting as diagnostics of power, but also shine a light on how in their efforts to gain power through appearance, dominant sexist structures become reinforced (Abu-Lughod, 1990), entangling resistive tactics within the workings of power.

Additionally, Weitz employed this intersectional perspective to analyse how Black women in the workplace felt that keeping their hair long and straight, conforming to European beauty standards, was necessary to contest racist imaginations of aggression through their hair being associated with a gentler femininity, allowing these women to be more successful in their professional careers (Weitz, 2001). These strategies of accommodation that aim to reject female subordination, but do so through co-opting instead of directly challenging the power structures premised on racist, sexist and homophobic ideologies, highlight how the complexities of docility have become obscured through lack of attention to internal subjectivities (McNay, 1992; Butler, 1997). Moreover, reflecting on Abu-Lughod’s (1990) ethnography of Bedouin women in Egypt where she discusses how emancipating oneself from one set often produces subordination by another (Gledhill, 2014), Weitz’s work on different tactics of accommodation by different women demonstrates how the multiple subjective axes of identity play out across the female body to resist some structures whilst obliging others. This crucially shows the inevitable complementarity nature of power and resistance at the scale of the diverse body, where collective subjects engaged in resistance are rarely internally homogenous (Ortner, 1995) and so entangle the two concepts in their habitus.

Figure 3: A BBC article highlighting how Black women face discrimination through their hair (2016)

Moving on from productive notions of power/knowledge, the recognition of power as being able to insidiously disguise itself to regenerate within the realms of resistance is a major way anthropological studies show power as intrinsic to resistance (Navaro-Yashin, 2002), challenging constructions of power and resistance as binary opposites to open up a dialecticism. This relationship, entangled through means of disguise, is highlighted by Foucault in his exploration of sexuality in Europe. Analysing how the repression of sexuality the eighteenth-century lead to “an intensification of each individual's desire, for, in and over his body” (Foucault, 1980) that resulted in the ‘mass revolt of the sexual body’ in the 1960s and 1970s, Foucault contended that as the heteronormative power structures met with resistance, they found new avenues of expression through the institutionalisation of narratives of desired physique. By creating the desire for the perfect physical body through practices of governmentality such as physical fitness and body weight monitoring, a new message of “get undressed – but be slim, good-looking, tanned” (Foucault, 1980) identified that bodies must fit into these categories to be regarded as ‘sexy’ (Pylypa, 1998). This highlights how power finds new ways to manifest itself when met with resistance, exemplified through Foucault’s (1978) “where there is power, there is resistance”, reinforcing how power engenders resistance, which again engenders disguised forms of power.

Through employing a Foucauldian perspective across studies of resistance, the relationship between power and resistance is revealed to be enmeshed to the point of dialectic, whereby processes of one diagnose and engender the other (Foucault, 1978; Abu-Lughod, 1990). This has allowed an understanding of power as operating within spaces and actions of resistance, disguising and manifesting itself through workings of governmentality (Foucault, 1980; Pylypa, 1998), whilst valuably revealing power as productively reproducing the normative discourses required for such control. Furthermore, through exploring how strategies of accommodation can both support and contest dominant power structures, attention to the subjective axes of identity becomes a vital consideration when understanding how power can be both projected onto, and harnessed, by an individual (Weitz, 2001).

Bibliographical References

Abu‐Lughod, L. (1990). The romance of resistance: Tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women. American ethnologist, 17(1), 41-55.

Bordo, M.D. (1989). The lender of last resort: some historical insights. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Structures and the habitus. In Outline of a Theory of Practice, 72-95.

Butler, J. (1997). The psychic life of power: Theories in subjection. Stanford University Press.

Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). Penguin. Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Vintage. Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-795.

Gledhill, J. (2014) Indigenous Autonomy, Delinquent States, and the Limits of Resistance. History and Anthropology, 25(4), 507-529.

Gledhill, J. (2009) Power in political anthropology. Journal of Power, 2(1), 9-34

Heal, J. (2019). Social media and the schoolgirl: performance, power and resistance. University of Manchester.

Hilliard, D.C. (1984). Media images of male and female professional athletes: An interpretive analysis of magazine articles. Sociology of sport journal, 1(3), 251-262.

McNay, L. (1991). The Foucauldian body and the exclusion of experience. Hypatia, 6(3), 125-139.

Navaro-Yashin, Y. (2002). The market for identities: Secularism, Islamism, commodities. In Kandiyoti D. and Saktanber, A. (Eds.). Fragments of Culture: The everyday in modern Turkey. Tauris, 221-253.

Ortner, S.B. (1995). Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative studies in society and history, 37(1), 173-193.

Pylypa, J., (1998) Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body. Arizona Anthropologist, 13(0).

Weitz, R. (2001). Women and their hair: Seeking power through resistance and accommodation. Gender & Society, 15(5), 667-686.

Weitz, R. (1998). The politics of women’s bodies. Oxford University Press.

Whisnant, C. (2012). Foucault & Discourse. A Handout for HIS 389.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Emily Duchenne

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page