The “docile body” as conceived by Foucault is a person who, as a result of disciplinary power is molded into someone who does exactly what they are supposed to in exactly the way they are supposed to. This concept of a docile, malleable, body is applied originally to that of soldiers, where Foucault describes training exercises in which soldiers are instructed not only of what actions to perform, but the exact manner in which they must perform them. However, moving forward in his explanation, the concept of “docile bodies” is then expanded to apply to all people in a variety of institutional settings. Foucault, in his chapter “The means of correct training,” suggests three means of production of these sorts of bodies. He explains these as hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination.

The first mode of producing “docile bodies” described by Foucault is that of hierarchical observation. Foucault discusses the way that institutional spaces have evolved to allow for more visibility and observation of those inside them. He discusses how we have moved from “the old simple schema of confinement and enclosure- thick walls, a heavy gate” and have replaced these instead with architecture characterized by “filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (Foucault, 1975, p. 172). This allows for the constant possibility of viewing and surveillance, particularly by those in hierarchical positions of power.

Foucault’s conception of hierarchical observation is tied to Jeremy Bentham’s creation of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a large structure in the middle of a prison, which features unobstructed views into every cell, allowing for guards to watch any prisoner they choose at any time they choose. What is arguably most important about the Panopticon, however, is that prisoners are not able to see into it and therefore cannot see when a guard is on the stand or when they are not present. The result of the Panopticon is that, whether or not prisoners are actually being watched, they feel as though they are.

This creates an environment that requires constant self-governance and right action, which applies not only to the prison, but a variety of institutions, such as hospitals, mental institutions and schools. In the example of schools, Foucault describes how a teacher is situated on a slightly elevated level, allowing an unobstructed view of every student. This allows them to monitor any student at any given time, without warning or the knowledge of the student, just like in the prison. And just like in the prison, it creates an environment where students are required to constantly act rightly, fulfilling this role as a “docile body,” because there is always the possibility that they are being viewed.

This hierarchical observation, however, is only one of the ways in which Foucault explains how people are turned into “docile bodies.” The next way he suggests is through what he calls, “normalizing judgment.” This is the act of ranking people and hierarchizing “the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ subjects in relation to one another” (Foucault, 1975, p. 181). This means that people are no longer judged simply on whether or not they meet requirements, but how well they compare to those around them. By judging people in terms of their hierarchical relationships to others it measures people in a way that prescribes value to them, rather than simply expressing their abilities as passing or failing to pass a predetermined level.

This leads to people to not only perform in ways that are “acceptable” but to perform tasks at the highest level, being the “best” at what the institution asks of them. They do this partially in order to reap any benefits associated with being at the top of this hierarchy, but also, even moreso, out of fear of being ostracized for being comparatively worse than those around them at a given task. This constant value judgment reinforces a person’s need to act as a “docile body” because they and their actions are described as “good” or “bad” rather than simply “acceptable” or “unacceptable.”

Finally, Foucault describes the process of examination in the construction of “docile bodies.” Examination, according to Foucault’s conception, is the combination of the prior two methods of creating docility in people. Examination involves the detailed recording of each individual person by institutions. This could be a gradebook in a school or a medical chart in a hospital or any other sort of institutional record of a person’s behaviors or traits- positive or negative. It is “to be looked at, observed, described in detail, followed from day to day by an uninterrupted writing” (Foucault, 1975, p. 191).

It is the detailed description of every person that forms from constantly being in view, and constant judgment in terms of value. This constant, inescapable, recording turns people into “cases” to be judged and therefore requires people to constantly self govern, constantly acting as “docile bodies” in order to escape the possibility of being perceived as deviant or “lesser-than” the rest. The creation of “docile bodies” therefore, is not done through a “top-down” power dynamic, but rather, through the power dynamics that work throughout the whole of society, reinforced through every member, not just those traditionally conceived as powerful.

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