Power and the control and management of it are elements that are constantly present in society and in institutions.

The management of the behaviour of citizens and acting according to more or less agreed and accepted rules of coexistence by the whole of society is carried out by various agents throughout our lives. This monitoring and control would be analysed in Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon .

Understanding the term: what is panopticon?

Although the theory of the panopticon has become popular thanks to Michel Foucault, the panopticon concept was devised by Jeremy Bentham as a mechanism applicable to the control of the behaviour of prisoners in prisons.

The panopticon itself is a form of architectural structure designed for prisons and jails . This structure assumed a circular arrangement of the cells around a central point, with no communication between them and the inmate could be observed from the outside. In the centre of the structure, a surveillance tower would be erected where a single person could view all the cells, being able to control the behaviour of all the prisoners.

The latter, however, could never be aware of whether they were being watched or not, since the tower was built in such a way that from the outside it was seen as opaque, not knowing where it was or what the watchman was doing. Thus, the inmate could be watched at every moment, having to control his behavior in order not to be punished.

  • You may be interested in: “The 13 types of prisons (and their psychic effects on inmates)”

Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon

The idea of the panopticon would be taken up by Michel Foucault, who would see in today’s society a reflection of that system. For this author, the passage of time has caused us to immerse ourselves in a disciplinary society , which controls the behaviour of its members by imposing surveillance. Thus, power seeks to act through surveillance, control and correction of the behavior of citizens.

Panoptism is based, according to Michel Foucault’s panoptic theory, on being able to impose behaviour on the whole population based on the idea that we are being watched. It seeks to generalize typical behavior within ranges considered normal, punishing deviations or rewarding good behavior.

Self-management and self-censorship

This social model makes the individual self-manage his behaviour , making it difficult to coordinate and merge with the group in order to keep the behaviour within a range established as correct by the power. The formation and action of groups diverging from the established order is made difficult.

The use of mechanisms based on the same principle of the panopticon means that power does not have to be exercised and manifested continuously, since while in antiquity there was a person who exercised power and watched over whether it was obeyed, now any person or even object can be a representative of that power.

The fact that surveillance is invisible, i.e. that the persons observed cannot determine whether they are being watched or not, means that individual behaviour is controlled even when there is no surveillance. The subject under possible observation will try to obey the rules imposed in order not to be punished.

Foucault says that the panopticon expresses very well the type of domination that occurs in the contemporary age : the mechanisms of surveillance are introduced into the bodies, they are part of a type of violence that is articulated through the expectations and meanings that spaces and institutions transmit.

The panopticon in society

For Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon, the panopticon-type structure in which some agents enjoy the power to monitor and sanction the behavior of others without the latter being able to discern whether or not they are being monitored is not limited only to the prison environment in which Bentham imagined it.

In fact, according to Foucault all current institutions have in one way or another this type of organization . Although it does not have to be carried out physically, and even without real surveillance at some point, the fact of knowing or believing ourselves to be monitored and evaluated is going to modify our behaviour in different environments.

For example, Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon is applicable in the business world, where employees control their behavior in the knowledge that their superiors can visualize their actions. Such control improves productivity and reduces dispersion. The same is true at school, with students self-monitoring their behaviour when they think they are being watched by teachers and even with teachers when they think they are being watched by management. The idea is to make the mastery blurred in the dynamics of power and social relations.

For Foucault, everything today is linked through surveillance, from participation in different institutions to our daily lives. Even in areas such as sex, the control mechanisms of today’s society are visible , seeking to control our drives through the normalisation of sexuality . This has been reinforced with the birth of information technologies, in which cameras and surveillance systems have been implemented and improved in order to control the behaviour of others.

Some aspects that can be linked to Psychology

Both the structure designed by Bentham and Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon have an important consequence at the psychological level: the emergence of self-control of the subjects due to the presence of surveillance .

This fact corresponds to the operating condition according to which the emission or inhibition of a behavior will be given by the consequences of such action. Thus, the fact of being watched implies, depending on the case, the expectation of a possible reinforcement or punishment if we carry out certain behaviours. This will cause the responses to be carried out that will try to carry out the behaviour that causes positive consequences or that avoids the imposition of a punishment, while all that behaviour that implies aversive consequences will be avoided.

While it can improve work performance and behavior in certain areas, such constant vigilance can often lead to the birth of stress reactions and even episodes of anxiety in people who end up being excessively inhibited, thus promoting excessive control of behavioral rigidities and psychological distress.

Likewise, the imposition of power will generate a high level of reactance in many other people s, inducing behaviours opposite to those initially intended.

Such control can also be conducted in a positive manner. The fact of being monitored can incite subjects to make behavioural changes that may eventually be of adaptive advantage. For example, it can help improve adherence to and follow-up on treatment or therapy or even prevent acts such as assault, harassment or abuse. The problem is that many of these modifications will be merely superficial and public in nature, not leading to attitudinal changes or being carried out in the private sphere. Behavioural change is made basically by the possible consequences and not by the conviction of the need for change.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir. Éditions Gallimard: Paris