Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Iliopoulos, J. Foucault’s notion of power and current psychiatric practice, Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, Volume 19, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 48-58

Underlying Foucault’s accounts of asylums, hospitals, prisons, and schools was a continuing concern with power and knowledge. In the field of mental health, his preoccupation with power relations and the construction of narratives of exclusion and repression in the History of Madness have led many scholars to consider Foucault an anti-psychiatrist (Freeman 1967; Laing 1967; Leach 1967; Shorter 1997, 274). They question the book’s historical data, which prioritize power relations and political analysis over the actual experience of doctors and patients, undermining its scientific worth. Even thinkers sympathetic to Foucault’s ideas argue that, despite the cultural discontinuities that he sought to foreground in his historical analysis, he nevertheless offered a continuous narrative of confinement and exclusion as a result of the oppressive powers of reason (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983, 4). But for Foucault, power is not unilateral, dominant, and oppressive, but distributional. Power is not a substance or a property one can claim to possess. It is not a political structure, a government or a dominant social class. Power is mobile, unstable, and reversible and is not blind but is determined by an internal logic. There is a form of rationality behind the exercise of power, and when that form of rationality is undermined, power loses its foundations. This can be observed in current forms of psychiatric practice, where psychiatric power is in fact being undermined while apparently being ever more closely inscribed in social practices.

Author keywords
Community psychiatry; Dangerousness; Deinstitutionalization; Forms of rationality; Foucault; Governmentality; Power

3 thoughts on “Foucault’s notion of power and current psychiatric practice (2012)

  1. John Desmond says:

    What is needed today is not, as the author suggests, a theory, rather the cessation of the appropriation of psychological problems by psychiatry. Such cessation can be achieved by counselling psychology. Every local authority could employ, as a part of its social services department, a team of counselling psychologists who could respond to the psychological problems of local residents. The cost of such teams could be financed by Government, even though it is under extreme financial pressure, because, in due course, massive savings would result.
    As I recently observed first-hand for myself about a relative, the psychiatrization of a psychological problem unnecessarily ties up valuable resources, specifically the ambulance service, the doctors’ out-of-hours service and, finally, the Accident and Emergency department of a general hospital. Had there been a local team of counselling psychologists, this wastefulness would have been prevented. It should be obvious that, overall, the financing of such teams would have saved the Government money.
    My relative was moved by ambulance in the early hours from the general hospital to a ward in a psychiatric hospital, where she then spent seven days being, to use her word, ‘monitored’. Upon discharge, she was referred to a team of community psychiatric nurses, who provide basic, unrefined off-the-shelf support. She would have been helped, and would doubtless continue to be helped now by a team of counselling psychologists. But, sadly for her and others like her, no such team exists.

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