Michel Foucault: Discourse

Key Concept

The idea of discourse constitutes a central element of Michel Foucault’s oeuvre, and one of the most readily appropriated Foucaultian terms, such that ‘Foucaultian discourse analysis’ now constitutes an academic field in its own right. This post therefore sets out to describe Foucault’s notion of discourse, and to define in broad terms the task of Foucaultian discourse analysis.

Foucault adopted the term ‘discourse’ to denote a historically contingent social system that produces knowledge and meaning. He notes that discourse is distinctly material in effect, producing what he calls ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’.1Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969) (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, 1972), 135-140 and 49. See also M Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ in R Young (ed) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (1981). Discourse is, thus, a way of organising knowledge that structures the constitution of social (and progressively global) relations through the collective understanding of the discursive logic and the acceptance of the discourse as social fact.2In this aspect, Foucault and Jacques Lacan’s ‘discourses’ on discourse overlap, although their focus diverge. Whereas Lacan considers discourse from the point of view of psychoanalysis and, thus, the inter-subjective setting, Foucault considers discourse from the structural point of view of institutions and power. See J Lacan The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (2007) (trans. R Grigg). For Foucault, the logic produced by a discourse is structurally related to the broader episteme (structure of knowledge) of the historical period in which it arises. However, discourses are produced by effects of power within a social order, and this power prescribes particular rules and categories which define the criteria for legitimating knowledge and truth within the discursive order. These rules and categories are considered a priori; that is, coming before the discourse.3Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above). It is in this way that discourse masks its construction and capacity to produce knowledge and meaning. It is also in this way that discourse claims an irrefutable a‒historicity.4Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above) 126-134. Further, through its reiteration in society, the rules of discourse fix the meaning of statements or text to be conducive to the political rationality that underlies its production.5Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above) 126-134.  Yet at the same time, the discourse hides both its capacity to fix meaning and its political intentions. It is as such that a discourse can mask itself as a-historical, universal, and scientific – that is, objective and stable. Accordingly, Stephen Gill describes Foucault’s concept of discourse as ‘a set of ideas and practices with particular conditions of existence, which are more or less institutionalised, but which may only be partially understood by those that they encompass.’6S Gill ‘Globalization, Market Civilisation and Disciplinary Neoliberalism’ (1995) 24 Millennium – Journal of International Studies 399, 402.

As a discourse fixes text7Following Derrida, I use ‘text’ to denote both the written and the spoken word. See, GC Spivak ‘Translator’s Preface’ in J Derrida Of Grammatology (1967) (trans GC Spivak, 1997) ix. with a specific meaning, it disqualifies other meanings and interpretations. Foucault speaks of this discursive process as reducing the contingencies (the other meanings) of text, in order to eliminate the differences which could challenge or destabilise the meaning and power of the discourse:

In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.8Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ (note 1 above), 53.

One of the ways in which this is achieved is through the commentaries of discourse: the statements or texts which continually reaffirm the meanings enacted by the discourse, without ever breaching the discursive paradigm. Foucault explains thus:

Commentary averts the chance element of discourse by giving it its due: it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is the text itself which is uttered [re-iterated] and, in some ways, finalised. The open multiplicity, the fortuitousness, is transferred, by the principle of commentary, from what is liable to be said to the number, the form, the masks and the circumstances of repetition. The novelty lies no longer in what is said, but in its reappearance.9Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above), 221.

Through this reiterative process discourse normalises and homogenises, including upon the bodies and subjectivities of those it dominates, as Foucault explores in Discipline and Punish 91975), and in some of his later lecture series.10In his later work Foucault discusses how subjects internalise the order of discourse and reproduce its meaning and truth outwardly through confession or even through their own discourse. See, particularly, M Foucault On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-1980 (trans. G Burchell, 2014). By fixing the meaning of text, and by pre-determining the categories of reason by which statements are accepted as knowledge, a discourse creates an epistemic reality and becomes a technique of control and discipline.11Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ (note 1 above). That which does not conform to the enunciated truth of discourse is rendered deviant, that is, outside of discourse, and outside of society, sociality or the ‘sociable’. With effect, Foucault demonstrated these discursive practices of exclusion in the categories of reason and madness in his first major work, Madness and Civilisation.12M Foucault Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961) (trans. R Howard, 1973).

However, it is in one of his last published works that we find a compelling description of the function of discourse analysis as a technique of critique and problematisation: The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I.13M Foucault The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (1976) (trans. R Hurley, 1998). With respect to sexuality and the discourse which produces its historical meaning, Foucault writes:

Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said? […] The central issue, then, is […] to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue, briefly, is the over‒all ‘discursive fact’, the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse’.14Ibid, 11.

What Foucault sets out in broad terms is the task of discourse analysis, for it must ‘account for the fact that [the discourse in question] is spoken about’, and analyse the effects of power that are produced by what is said. Moreover discourse analysis must seek to unfix and destabilise the accepted meanings, and to reveal the ways in which dominant discourses excludes, marginalises and oppresses realities that constitute, at least, equally valid claims to the question of how power could and should be exercised.

Rachel Adams is a Chief Researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Rachel Adams

Dr Rachel Adams is an Early Career Researcher with the Information Law and Policy Centre, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, University of London. 

  18 comments for “Michel Foucault: Discourse

  1. Dear Rachel Adams,

    THANK YOU very much for writing and publishing this, I believe that this is one of the most clear, concise and helpful texts I’ve read about Foucault and Discourse Analysis.

    I am novice researcher trying to learn Foucaultian Discourse Analysis, and this is invaluable for me!

    Thank you,

  2. If you had to assign one short reading from Foucault’s ouevre on ‘discourse analysis’ to undergraduate Communications students, what would it be?

    • Thanks for your question Sarah. For a short(ish) piece by Foucault on discourse, it would have to be:

      M Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ (1970) in R Young (ed) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (1981).

      For a thorough appraisal of Foucault’s “method” of discourse analysis, I would also suggest:

      D Hook ‘Discourse, Knowledge, Materiality, History: Foucault and Discourse Analysis’ (2001) 11 Theory and Psychology 521.

  3. It is very clear and easy to comprehend.But there is question regarding discourse that whether one should take discourse in a positive sense or in a negative sense?

    • Greetings.
      Thanks for this simple analysis.

      Can I use this ‘theory’ to research the ‘perceptions of African students on the decolonization of education curriculums in South Africa’? I am trying to link it with the Conflict Theory and the Critical Race Theory.
      Thanking you in advance.

  4. i have previously strugled with this understanding, but u have done a great job in making it simple to understand.
    thanks for this

    • Thanks for making me better understand this theory of Foucault. It will definitely help me out in my research analysis paper.

  5. Thank you so much, I am doing post grad study and was struggling to understand what discourse meant from my other readings, you have described it clearly in a way I can understand.

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