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Panopticism is a social theory originally developed by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book, Discipline and Punish.


A Panopticon is a building structured in a circle with an observation tower in the center surrounded by an outer wall made up of cells for the incarceration of mental patients or convicts. The purpose of the design is to increase the security through the effectiveness of the surveillance. The convict cannot see the other inmates through the concrete walls and is flooded with light so that everything he does can be observed by the central tower. To quote Foucault in the "birth of the prison," "We have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way the surveillance is practiced." In this counterintuitive way the administration of power becomes decentered, while increasing the efficacy of the disciplinary mechanism.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault builds on the idea of a panopticon as conceptualized by Bentham, and elaborates upon the function of discipline in the prison, and disciplinary mechanisms in everyday society, as to illustrate the function of discipline as an apparatus of power.

Panopticism in Discipline and Punish

In Discipline and Punish Foucault discusses Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a functioning representation of Panopticism. Although this style of architecture could be used for various institutions, Bentham uses a prison as an example: it is a building with a tower in the center, from which all the surrounding cells are visible. The inside of the tower, though, cannot be seen. It individualizes and leaves them constantly visible; never knowing when they are being observed. The occupant is always “the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[1] This type of design can be used for any population that needs to be kept under observation, such as: prisoners, schoolchildren, medical patients or workers.

“If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.”[1]

By individualizing the subjects and putting them in a state of constant visibility, the efficiency of the institution is maximized. Furthermore, it guarantees the function of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it. It is in this respect that the Panopticon functions automatically. Foucault goes on to explain that this design is also applicable for a laboratory. Its mechanisms of individualization and observation give it the capacity to run many experiments simultaneously. These qualities also give an authoritative figure the “ability to penetrate men’s behavior”[1] without difficulty. This is all made possible through architectural design. In light of this fact Foucault compares jails, schools and factories in their structural similarities.

Examples in modern society

A central idea to Foucault’s Panopticism is the systematic ordering and controlling of human populations through subtle and often unseen forces. This is apparent in many parts of the modernized world. Modern advances in technology and surveillance techniques have made Foucault’s theories all the more pertinent to any scrutiny of the relationship between the state and its population.

Increased surveillance cameras have the effect of reminding us however, of the little use of "panoptic" mechanisms on the part of liberal democracies. It could also be argued that increased surveillance technologies are unnecessary in the face of disciplinary mechanisms as illustrated by Foucault's Panapoicism. Foucault argues that Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon provides us with a model in which a self-disciplined society has been able to develop. These apparatuses of behavior control are essential if we are to govern ourselves, without the constant surveillance and intervention by an agency in every aspect of our lives.

In one of the “Eyes of New York” ads introduced by MTA, close up photographs of several different sets of eyes are juxtaposed while underneath reads in bold print, “There are 16 million eyes in the city. We’re counting on all of them.” This a continuation of the “If You See Something, Say Something” concept first launched in March 1993. MTA Director of Security William A. Morange says, “It is impossible for the police departments to be everywhere and see everything. Our passengers extend our reach and-by sharing their information-make the system safer."

If discursive mechanisms can control and modify the body of discussion within a certain space (to the benefit of a certain class/the government/security), then there no longer remains the point of having an active agent in order to keep the same power under the immediacy of violence.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Part Three: Discipline 3. Panopticism. Cartome. URL accessed on 2008-01-29.
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