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Rob Greaves

Power and its influence through discourse - an essay

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“When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.” (Lewis Carol. 'Through the Looking Glass'. 1927)
Unfortunately for us the world and the use of words are not as simple as Humpty Dumpty appears to suggest. In fact Lewis Carol was really indicating otherwise. It has been argued that the use of words through discourse has a profound effect upon our lives. There are many terms being bandied around by all forms of the media today that we accept without fully understanding the nature of the terms and more importantly, the hidden authority behind those words that in fact effect us even though we are unaware.

Some of the words we see and hear regularly include terms such as, ‘Economic Rationalism’, which leads to the question, rational in what way? In workplaces, education and training we are faced with the term ‘competent’, which for many people can raise an issue in terms of the possible minimalistic connotation of the word, rather than the concepts that position themselves behind it. Very local, there is a movement to keep McDonald's out of the hillside township of Tecoma. In their campaign words such as 'pristine', 'junk food', 'mass produced fast food', 'child abuse', are all used freely with little thought. Without McDonald's in Tecoma, it will be more pristine than what?

Michael Foucault was a French philosopher and social theorist who dealt power and how it manifests itself and how it works upon us, particularly through the spoken word. In his book Power/Knowledge (1980), he wrote;
“…. broadly in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation and functioning of a discourse.”[i]

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There are so many terms that could be considered such as, Economic Refugees, Internationally Competitive, Clever Country, Productivity, Budget Surplus, Nanny State, Personal Space, Greening and the list can go on and on. We need to consider that the words themselves have a literal meaning but it is how they are used in a discourse and the power behind that discourse that largely goes unnoticed, yet will have a massive effect upon us all.

Throughout the intense debates we are subjected to today, whether they be, economic, political, environmental, educational, social – we are in fact subject to the discourses of the day. It is a mistake to look at the word discourse and to simply dismiss it as ‘intellectual jargon’.

In a paper titled Foucault & Discourse (2012), Dr. Clayton Whisnant defines discourse in the following way;
To begin with, discourse is just one term that scholars have developed to analyze the system of thoughts, images and other symbolic practices that make up what we generally call ‘culture’. Other terms have their limitations.”[ii]

So throughout these debates certain words, ‘truths’ and beliefs keep arising. Yet, crossing all of these aspects is the issue of power, who wields it and how it influences decisions and outcomes. Now this essay cannot set out to provide a full and comprehensive examination of these issues, however it is necessary to raise certain points in order to draw attention to the importance of considering the relationship between power and truth, and, to raise the issue of might control these discourses.

In this regard it is highly appropriate to at least briefly, examine the work of Michael Foucault, whose philosophical contributions to discursive practices, the forms of power and the relationship between power and truth, are considered seminal. Foucault contends that history is written in the context of certain meanings, certain ways of knowing, speaking, questioning, which is to be found in the history of social actions of groups and their effort to generate control in discourses.

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Michael Foucault

Foucault believes that truth should be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, distribution, circulation and operation of statements that form part of the discourses. Yet who determines what these discourses are? Foucault examines the nature of discourse to answer this question by identifying what can be said and thought, who can speak when, who has the authority. He contends that while discourse is not just language but institutional practices, he does not discount the importance of language; in fact he suggests that language and meaning become a field of struggle where the powerful groups and interests attempt to say what the world is like.

There are many discourses but some have more power and legitimacy than others.

Foucault also argues that people, by virtue of their relationships in a given social world, are in a position to acquire and use certain discourses. It is on the basis of these discourses that people access resources and power, and what is then understood, as knowledge is made possible.

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On the issue of power, Foucault writes;
Power isn’t localised in the State apparatus and that nothing in society will be changed if the mechanisms of power that function outside, below and alongside the State apparatuses, on a minute by minute and everyday level, are not also changed.”[iii]

Yet Foucault would contend that determining who has the power and why, is to pose the wrong questions. He writes:
“…analysis should not concern itself with power at the level of conscious intention or decision; that it should not attempt to consider power from its internal point of view and that it should refrain from posing the labyrinthine and unanswerable question: ‘who then has the power and what has he in mind’[iv]

What Foucault is suggesting is that we should make a study of power where it manifests an effect at its point of focus;
…where it installs itself and produces real effects.”[v]

However, it’s not always clear where that is – or even, following Foucault, whether there is always a ‘where’. Using, for example, the discourses on the economy the manifestation of the debate would seem to be primarily with the Government and the Treasury, and to a slightly lesser degree with the Opposition. However with the discourse being generated in environmental issues, the manifestation of the debate would seem to be with groups such as The Wilderness Society (Australia), Greenpeace, and the Australian Conservation Foundation, largely through the mouthpiece of the political party, the Greens.
With the issue of McDonald's in Tecoma, it appeared at first as though it was a popular movement, that the discourse was generated by the many, but over time the numbers dwindled, but the rhetoric didn't. We need to question, where is that discourse being really generated from?

Foucault makes an observation in regard to the use of discourse, where that discourse may appear to give effect to redirecting power back to society, however it may yet be a clever mechanism for supporting the status quo;
"Modern society ... chacterised on one hand, by legislation, a discourse, an organisation based on public right, whose principle of articulation is the social body and the delegative status of each citizen; and, on the other hand, by a closely linked grid of disciplinary coercion's whose purpose is in fact to ensure the cohesion of this same social body. [vi]

Certainly using the examples of either the Economy or the Environment it can appear as though decisions and policies have resulted through a ‘consultative’ mechanism. Employer’s organisations and the Australian Council of Trade Unions would seem to have input into Government thinking. Local groups and regional groups appear to have a say in the decisions and directions of the peak environmental groups (already identified), and thus the policies of the Greens.

This sharing of power and knowledge issue is one that Foucault has examined very closely. One of his observations that are worthy of mention, is expressed by Paul Harrison (a lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe University) writing in A Guide to Social Thinkers – Social Theory (1991).
Foucault arrives at the couplet power-knowledge: a couplet which dramatically expresses both the tying down of the discourse into the relations of force and power, and the productive capacity of power to give rise to discourses.[vii]

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This suggests the rather insidious process by which the discourse of the day is framed in the terms of force and power, and thus its relationship with the objects of its process, and, the fact that this will then have the effect of giving rise to further discourse, which in cyclic manner again affects those same people. We also need to be aware that there will never be just one discourse. There will be competing discourses.

Foucault’s work also shows how the rules of the formation of discourses are linked to the operation of social power. Discourses not only exhibit imminent principles of regularity, they are also bound by the regulations enforced through social practices, appropriation, control and policing. Discourse is a political commodity. [viii]

Following this reasoning, it is not difficult to seen why considerable discourse in general involves economic issues, and thus why almost every issue discussed today has a strong economic element to it. Foucault states:
…the historical raison d’etre of political power is to be found in the economy.[ix]

Foucault also introduces another concept that is worth considering. He believes that the modern discourse of the state is about normalizing humans and that it does that in order to maintain order and control. In this regard he introduces the concept of the ‘gaze’, whereby the object of the gaze is the process of labeling, and by naming something you are controlling it. Certainly it can be argued that the state is bringing its citizens under the gaze via the changes it brings in through Economic Policy, particularly in regard to a ‘budget in surplus”, and the discourse that results.
Returning the budget to surplus is central to our plan to build an even stronger economy. It sends a very clear signal to the world about our strong economic fundamentals, and gives the Reserve Bank flexibility to cut interest rates further if it thinks that is needed." [x]

This essay does not contend that any of the objectives the various groups mentioned, are not worthy or have achievable ends, but merely suggests that the language contained therein can be a form of manipulation, whereby to challenge the concepts encompassed by the current changes, is to challenge these ‘desirable’ ideals.

So how are people bought under the 'gaze'? Let us take an example of a group that is formed as a government economic committee with ACTU representatives. These representatives then affect ACTU policy and therefore the co-opting of the ACTU could bring about manipulation in the way to bring discipline to its constituent unions. These unions in turn apply discipline to its members, thus bringing a significant proportion of the Australian society (the workforce) under the ‘gaze’ with a minimum of effort. If this is true, then it also applies to groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and similar ecology based groups. In fact it would apply to pressure groups and in fact, any group that actively participates in Australian society.

Again, this essay does not attempt to substantiate that these are legitimate claims. It is presented simply to show how the ‘gaze’ might indeed work. However, if Foucault is correct in regard to the use of discourse and its relationship with power, then it is possible to argue that the discourse of the day is a form of sanctioning by the state. It may also be a form of manipulation by the state.

Foucault writes;
… a certain form of authority is given to groups, to group leaders. This authority obeys other rules and requires other instruments, but also produces power effects that are not necessarily valid, owing to the simple fact that they are not state sanctioned, they do not pass through the same network of authority.”[xi]

Here he is undoubtedly tracing power back to ‘the king’, vis-à-vis the individual with the supreme authority. So, with both or either of the consultative and consensus processes, whether in government, community of other, we need to be very mindful that these processes may indeed be illusionary.

As a final example, much is made for the educational basis for the continued implementation of Competency Based Training, a discourse that can be productive in terms of positive change that will benefit the individual and the country. It can also be seductive, in that it may contain hidden agenda.

Chris Duke, in Life-long Education – An Australian Prognosis(1976), may have provided us with a warning some 36 years ago, that would appear to have come true when he wrote on the issues of the dangers of the development of educational processes and practices during technological and economic change, in that they;
… may come to mean merely retooling the workforce to fit the needs of the employer and the economy. Education planning, it is feared, might pass from the educational to the manpower planners.[xii]

So with all current debates, be they economic, environmental, or, local such as the ‘Keep McDonald’s out of Tecoma” campaign”, it may be wise to consider not only the meaning of the dialogue being used in the current debate, but also to consider how and for what reason certain dialogue is being used.

That is to say, we must examine the nature of the discourse.

The work of Michael Foucault (1926 – 1984) is a philosophical contribution to the theory of truth.” (Paul Raymond Harrison - 1991)

[i] Foucault, M Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972-77, Colin Gordon (Ed), Sussex, harvest press, 1980. p.60.

[ii] Whishnant, C Foucault & Discourse (2012),,d.dGY

[iii] Foucault,Power/Knowledge: selected Interviews and other writings,p.60.


[v] ibid

[vi] ibid., p.106.

[vii] Harrison, Paul. Foucault in Social Theory: A Guide To Central Thinkers.North Sydney,Allan & Unwin,1991,p.87

[viii] Foucault, M. The Foucault Reader,Paul Rabinow (ed),Middlesex,Penguin Books,1984.

[ix] Foucault,Power/Knowledge,p.89.

[x] The Hon Wayne Swan MP,”A Stronger Economy For A Fairer Australia”, Press Release for the Treasurers Office,,8 May 2012.

[xi] Foucault,The Foucault Reader,p.380.

[xii] Duke,C. Life-long Education:an Australian prognosis,ANU,cenre for Continuing Education,Occasional Papers in Continuing Education,No 13, 1976,p.104.

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Updated 16th October 2013 at 09:29 PM by Rob Greaves

Rob Greaves


  1. Mick Pacholli's Avatar
    In the main, people don't consider the nuance between verbal conversation and, say, a Facebook or Forum chat, let alone consider that what they often consider 'expert' advice from talking heads from the various media.

    Such catch phrases are the 'cancer' of journalism, once a clever acronym or clever alliteration hits the headlines it is fodder for all weak reporters.

    Having followed the McTecoma wars I solidly follow your drift here, the barrage of waffle over hamburgers has been an insight into the mind set of those that maybe chose way back to not move far enough out of the potential suburban sprawl.

    In McTecoma though there is Foucault other than people talking at each other. Just continuous shots over each others bows...

    None of the subtlties of the of 'power' talk escape me. I recognise the energy behind the words, and energy can be shifted.

    The crux of this continual misinformation and hyperbole, the fear, hate and anger is brought on by journalistic Henny Penny-ism in its most banal sense, to literally see how far they can get the public blood boiling. It has become a game, almost a blood sport
    "You can never underestimate the stupidity of the of the general public." Scott Adams, (American Cartoonist, b.1957) and 'cocky'; parrot type learning and repetition of such inciteful terms and tones of voice, often on camera supported by terrible body language to accentuate the 'drama'.

    Such a long discouse Rob, one I find meaty, might take a coupla days to get my head around the rest...

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