Michel Foucault Discourse Theory

Michel Foucault's discourse theories and research into language, power, and social control are some of the most influential of our time. Foucault's discourse theory encourages us to question what is 'true' and to ask who in society benefits. This is one of Foucault's main arguments: everything is an exercise of power, and there is always somebody who benefits.   

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Table of contents

    This article will provide a summary of some of Foucault's most influential thoughts and introduce you to:

    • The concept of discourse

    • Discourse theory

    • Michel Foucault and discourse

    • Foucault and power

    • Foucauldian discourse analysis

    • Criticisms of Foulcault

    Let's begin with the definition of discourse theory!

    Foucault Discourse Definition

    You have probably heard the term discourse before, but what does it actually mean? In everyday life, discourse refers to any written or spoken text. However, for theorists, it usually means a little more than that.

    When discussing Foucault and his discourse theory, the term refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truth. Foucault suggests that the ‘truths’ that shape our lives don’t simply ‘exist’ but are created through discourse.

    It’s important to note that not all theorists agree with this line of thinking. It’s pretty radical to believe there are no absolute truths!

    Michel Foucault Discourse Theory, Statue of the Goddess of Justice and Truth, StudySmarter JustFig. 1 - According to Foucault, knowledge and truth are centred on language.

    Examples of discourse: Foucault

    As you can probably imagine, there are thousands of examples of discourse. Here is a short list just to give you an idea.

    • A professor talking to their class

    • A newspaper headline or report

    • A presidential speech

    • A novel

    • A magazine cover

    • Friends having a conversation

    Foucault Discourse Theory

    Foucault's discourse theory examines how people express themselves through language and suggests that the structures of power shape how people communicate in society.

    Foucault discourse theory summary

    Individuals all draw from a shared ‘pool of knowledge’ when communicating. This knowledge pool is typically accepted by the wider society and becomes further legitimised the more people use, share, and distribute it. Over time, this pool of knowledge slowly changes as people add to it and adapt it, meaning the things society deem to be ‘true’ can, and do, change over time.


    In Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, around 3-4000 people (predominantly women) were executed for being ‘witches’. These so-called witches were typically quite poor, and therefore not powerful, and didn’t conform to society's ‘norms’. There was, of course, no proof that there ever were witches, but the idea that these people could be witches was spread by the more powerful members of society through 'discourse'. The accepted ‘pool of knowledge’ was that the ‘outsiders’ of society could be accused of witchcraft.

    Today, this is no longer the case, and our knowledge pool has changed considerably!

    Discourse theory recognises that certain people, or groups of people, are in a position to influence the pool of knowledge far more easily than others. It is typically people in positions of perceived power who can change and influence what we believe to be ‘true’. The term perceived power has been used here because what is deemed ‘powerful’ can differ across cultures.

    Factors that can affect a person’s perceived power include:

    • Socio-economic status (wealth and class)

    • Occupation

    • Education level

    • Gender

    • Ethnicity and race

    A white male doctor may have more influence than a black female nurse. This isn't necessarily because what he says is guaranteed to be more ‘true’, but because his occupation, gender, and race all play a role in giving him power, directly influencing how others perceive what he says.

    Take a minute to reflect on why you think being a white male doctor gives someone more power in the UK. Do you think this is the same across the world? Do you think power relations are changing?

    Michel Foucault

    Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian interested in the construction of knowledge and power through discourse. Foucault believed that discourse is created by those in power for specific reasons and is often used as a form of social control. He is typically associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist movements.

    Foucault was critical of those in power, especially the French Bourgeoisie, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain yet were able to conceal (hide) their intentions. I.e., Powerful people in society create knowledge that is eventually considered the norm, and others are unaware they’ve done so!

    In this context, it might be helpful to think of discourse as a ‘narrative’. For example, UK tabloid newspapers built a narrative that refugees cost taxpayers lots of money. Who do you think benefits from this narrative?

    Foucault was considered a structuralist as he examined the structures of knowledge (here, knowledge is regarded as the object of discourse). Later, he was considered a post-structuralist when he shifted his analysis to the subjects of discourse (the subjects are people!) and questioned how and why discourse could govern the way people think and behave.

    Foucault and power

    Foucault didn’t believe there was just one form of power. Instead, he recognised several different types, they are:

    • Sovereign power

    • Disciplinary power

    • Pastoral power

    • Bio-power

    Let’s look at each Foucault theory in a bit more detail.

    Sovereign power

    This is the form of power you are probably most familiar with. It is the power held by those in positions of authority, such as Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister, or a headteacher.

    Disciplinary power

    Disciplinary power is related to Foucault’s theory of gaze - the idea that people will regulate their behaviour if they believe they’re being watched. This is the type of power we exercise over ourselves to fit the norm and be an ‘acceptable’ member of society. You could say it’s similar to self-restraint.

    Pastoral power

    This term has religious roots but isn’t necessarily confined to religion. Pastoral power refers to acting in a certain way to ensure the safety and security of all. For example, it could be said that the police hold pastoral power as they exert power for the good of the wider community (although not all members of society would necessarily agree with this).


    Foucault coined the term bio-power to refer to the government’s administration and recording of bio issues, such as birth and death rates, race, class, and gender. Foucault stated that this mode of power impacted how we view ourselves in relation to the wider community.

    Foucault Discourse Analysis

    Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA), sometimes called Foucaultian discourse analysis, is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. The method is based on Foucault’s theory of discourse and social control and aims to expose how those with power control people through language.

    Discourse analysis = An in-depth and usually critical analysis of written, spoken, or signed language, examining how language fits into society.

    Foucauldian discourse analysis is grounded in constructivism and critical theory. It critiques the power structures in society and aims to understand how language can construct societal knowledge and uphold existing power structures. Unlike traditional discourse analysis, FDA is more critical of the political implications of using language to legitimise power.

    How to conduct Foucauldian discourse analysis

    In their book Using Foucault’s Methods (1999)1, Kendall and Wickham outlined five steps for conducting Foucault's discourse analysis. They are:

    1. Recognise that discourse is a set of constructed statements that are organised systematically.

    2. Identify how and why those statements are constructed.

    3. Think about the things that are allowed to be communicated and those that aren't.

    4. Reflect on how ‘spaces’ (e.g. newspapers) where new statements are made are created.

    5. Think about how practices can be both material and discursive at the same time.

    The previous list might look a little daunting to you, so let’s try and make things a little simpler. When conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis, try asking yourself the following questions:

    • Is the information being presented as a fact? Is there any space to reflect or question this?

    • How is the discourse constructed? Who is included or excluded? Are the sources reliable? Is there any evidence?

    • What is normalised in the discourse, and what, or who is made to appear abnormal?

    • Who benefits from this discourse?

    FDA can examine how powerful and authoritative groups in society use language to express dominance, control others, and make gains for themselves. One of the main purposes of FDA is to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppress, and marginalises members of society.

    Michel Foucault discourse theory Image of politician StudySmarterFIg. 2 - Power and politics go hand-in-hand when it comes to FDA.

    Discourse analysis is pretty diverse in its approach and can vary across disciplines. Typically speaking, there is no set way to conduct a discourse analysis.

    Criticisms of Foucault’s theory

    Many theorists disagree on what exactly the term ‘discourse’ means, with some saying that Foucault's definition of discourse theory doesn't go far enough. For example, multimodal discourse analysts also examine things such as whole movies, statues, food, and games to examine what these things can reveal about society.

    Many discourse theorists also disagree about what is deemed ‘real’ and what is constructed. Extreme constructivists believe that everything we know is constructed by discourse, whereas critical realists believe there is a physical reality, which is represented through discourse.

    There are also a few criticisms of Foucault himself which problematises his discourse theory:

    • He often excluded women from his studies and disregarded their role throughout history.

    • He wasn’t great at taking criticisms and often refused to change his views.

    Michel Foucault Discourse Theory - Key Takeaways

    • Discourse refers to the use of communication (written or spoken) to construct knowledge and truths.
    • Foucault believed that constructed discourse benefits the most powerful in society and can be used as a form of social control.
    • Foucault's discourse theory was critical of the powerful, and stated that those with power could create discourses for their own gain, yet were able to conceal their intentions.
    • Foucault recognised several different types of power: Sovereign power, Disciplinary power, Pastoral power, and Bio-power.
    • Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA) is a form of discourse analysis with a particular focus on the relationship between power and language. This discourse theory's main aims are to expose and weaken the accepted dominant discourses that exclude, oppress, and marginalise members of society.


    1. G. Kendall and G. Wickham, Using Foucault's Methods, 1999
    Frequently Asked Questions about Michel Foucault Discourse Theory

    What is discourse and power for Foucault?

    Foucault believed that language was used by the powerful to construct knowledge and truths. These truths could then be used as a form of social control over the less-powerful.

    What does Foucault say about power?

    Foucault believed that power structures were created and maintained through the use of discourse. He believed people with power had more influence over what others deemed to be 'true'.

    What are the two main types of power, according to Foucault?

    According to Foucault, the main types of power are:

    • Sovereign power

    • Disciplinary power

    • Pastoral power

    • Bio-power

    What are the main ideas of Foucault?

    Foucault was a highly influential philosopher, sociologist, and historian, who had a keen interest in the construction of knowledge and power through discourse. Foucault believed that language was used to construct knowledge and truths that benefited the most powerful in society.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose the best definition of discourse in accordance with Foucault.

    In an interaction, all individuals draw from a collective 'pool of _________'?

    According to Kendall and Wickham, how many steps are there to conducting Foucauldian discourse analysis?


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