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"The panoptic scheme, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.(Foucault reading, p.207)


Discuss this statement. What is the panoptic scheme? In what sense can it be said to characterize our society as a whole? Do you agree?

The Panoptic Scheme

Julia Derouard

The Panoptic Scheme is a mechanism of power, which was developed by Bentham. It is a mechanism of power that can be applied to different institutions, which contain large groups of people, “on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed” (205). It is based on the rule that, “each actor is alone, perfectly individualization and constantly visible” (200). This makes it so that the individuals no longer possess the power. And also by separating the individuals the institution is no longer faced with problems that result from confining masses of people together.


I think that the panoptic scheme can be applied to many different institutions within our society.

The visibility of the individuals is essential to the whole scheme. I do think that many aspects of our lives are not private. Internet and new technology are making it increasingly difficult for the individual to keep aspects of their personal lives off the public radar. The panoptic scheme can easily be applied to our society, as our personal space is transparent.


Our society’s lack of personal privacy makes us a prime candidate for the panoptic scheme, however I do not like to think that it characterizes our society as a whole. Instead, I think that it characterizes specific institutions within our society. The example of the military is given in the reading. The military is based on the unity of the group and obeying authority. The military is described as a structure, which prevents individuals from petty crime and enrolls them in an institution in which they will work for the military and help it function as a power structure. The panoptic scheme can definitely be applied to institutions in our society, such as the military, in which all the individuals are working for the same purpose. These individuals create the power, which makes the mechanism function.

I do not want to believe that the Panoptic Scheme characterizes our society as a whole because I think it assumes that members of our society lack personal power and only answer to higher authority.


Alexandra Gagne

The panoptic scheme is "a laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and the ability to penetrate men's behavior" (206). Essentially, Foucault takes Bentham's architectural model and transforms it into a social ideal. Panopticism's main goal is to maximize observation by emphasizing the individual and creating an omnipresent authority figure. The fear of authority itself is enough to keep the scheme going- an actual person does not even need to guard or observe all the time. Foucault builds from Bentham's example of a prison. His model creates a more efficient jail in which anyone can "guard" the inmates. Foucault claims that panopticism is "a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad" (202). This dissociation is what creates such a stable and rigid surveillance. It also creates a self check aspect- the guard can check up on the people helping to run the prison, hospital, or what have you. Everyone is in check at all times. "It is in fact a figure of political technology" (205).


"Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used" (205). If Foucault does in fact believe that it is destined to spread throughout society, he must too believe that culture does impose restrictions on people. If the Panopticon facilitates observation, and people are forced to adhere to a society's rules, there will inevitably be some figure enforcing these restrictions.


I think Foucault makes a convincing argument. In the literal sense, Panopticons are not present in every institution, or building- I do not walk into a supermarket and see a tower hovering over me. But I do see those mirrors in the corners that are installed to make sure I do not steal. There are cameras on the roads, in our school, and all around this city. While these are all examples of his panoptic scheme materializing, I believe it is people who exemplify this concept most. I think that as a society, we are trained to look out for deviants. If someone is not doing what they are supposed to, we might alert someone with power to punish them. This is what I boil down Foucault's idea to mean: if people are forced to do certain tasks or obey rules, they will keep an eye on their neighbors in order to make sure they are submitting to the overarching system of guidelines as well.


re: alexandra

allison moss

I like the connection Alexandra draws between the idea of the Panopticon and the concept of culture as a form of restriction. I think, building on that, you could say that Foucault's arguments can be adapted to modern society in that people tend to want to behave normatively. When people behave in ways that go against cultural norms, it is often a conscious choice, and it does not tend to go unnoticed. I think the constant consciousness of individuals within a culture to do things correctly and 'normally' is sort of like a Panopticon--there is always a fear that someone is observing, but the actual observer may or may not be present.


Lindsey Scott

The panoptic scheme, as Foucault uses it, is a social mechanism that keeps the members of a society in check. Through the observation of people by the omnipresent authority, the panoptic scheme "gains in efficiency and the ability to penetrate men's behavior" (206) and keeps them in line. This idea started with restrictions put in place to help people survive the plague. These people were forced to adhere to rules that seem ridiculous to us reading them, but in the end aided in fighting off death associated with the plague. The Panopticon started with this idea in mind, but instead of increasing the power held by the omnipresent enforcer, the panopticon kept the power in balance by allowing any member of the society to come and observe how things are being run and how the observed are responding (207).


I think that in a sense Foucault has hit modern US society on the head with this idea the Panopticon as a social idea. In our society, people behave under the fear that they will be wisked away to jail the second they commit a crime. At any point in the day, someone could be observing you whether its through a security camera or the cashier in the store keeping an eye on you. This feeling of being observed follows us around and keeps most of following the laws and restrictions set forth by our society, even if we are not being watched at all. I also think that the fact the observer is omnipresent and we do not know who it is (or could be at any moment) creates a stronger sense of being observed and gives way to a stronger desire to follow the rules.


Savannah Fetterolf

Panopticism, as explained by Foucault, is a theory set forth by Bentham that describes the perfect architectural layout to mechanize power and control behavior in a particular setting. Architecturally speaking, panopticism allows for potential surveillance of behavior at all times. Part of the panoptic infrastructure’s success, as I understand it, is its ability to implement a set of behavioral constraints upon a group of people without the fear that the “inmates” could join forces and topple the ruling regime. Additionally, panopticism is functional because its mere structure solidifies the hierarchy of power in such a way that those wielding control do not need to be present at all times for the system to work. In a psychological sense, the threat of being seen forces the “inmates” to live in isolation from one another, but in constant knowledge that there is an omnipresent power mandating appropriate behavior at all times.


I think the principle behind the panoptic scheme correctly describes life in modern society. If I think of all of the instances of “Big Brother” watching us, it is clear to me that the government uses the threat of surveillance not necessarily to monitor behavior at all times, but to dissuade potential law dissenters from committing a crime. For example, along the highway there are often signs that read something along the lines of “Speed enforced by aircraft.” Clearly, there is no way that an airplane or helicopter can fly over every stretch of interstate and monitor every single vehicle on the road, so why post these signs? The signs inform drivers that, although there may be no visible police presence, they are subject to the threat of surveillance and, therefore, inevitable punishment if caught breaking the law.



Sara Ray

As many others have explained, the panopticon is a way of explaining power differentials in society. The presence of a panopticon in an architechtural sense strips the individual of autonomy, the act of being constantly watched deemphasizes the importance of the individual and places them in a subordinate position of power. Foucault uses this idea as a social convention, taking it away from a literal architechtural function and using it to show how creating a societal panopticon causes people to act in certain ways due to the idea of always being watched and always being subjected to someone elses greater power and the loss of autonomy.

I don't know how much I agree that the panopticon model speaks entirely to American society on the whole. As has been said in previous posts, there is a constant sense of being watched and a certain loss of privacy within our culture. There are certainly institutions that utilize this model, such as prisons and the military, but I generally think that- in some ways- the lack of privacy in our culture doesn't create a true panopticon at all. There are certainly some situations, such as the previously cited example of being watched via camera to prevent stealing, that cause individuals to act in certain ways. But I can't help but think of how the internet factors into this-- sites like Facebook and Myspace are absolutely overrun with somewhat questionable behavior on an essentially totally public forum. While people are accountable for waht they have on Facebook and Myspace it doesn't really coerce anyone into NOT putting up photographs or information of themselves. And I can't help but think that when our generation grows up and runs for political office, etc, the degree to which EVERYONE has "dirt" based on Facebook and Myspace will sort of erode away our sense of accountability.

In short, there aer definitely times where a panopticon model are fitting but I do not believe it speaks to our society as a whole.


Elly Hirano

Panoptic scheme is a mechanism to check the society and showcase the power relationship. It diminishes the individual freedom and power and emphasizes on a central power that regulates people. Panopticon is meant not to have power in its self but to “strengthen the social forces—to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality” (208). Panoptic scheme may be used “whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed” (205).

I disagree that panopticon characterizes our entire society. Panopticon may have characterized USSR and to some extent USA during the Cold War but I don’t think it applies to the structure of the contemporary society as a whole. Military, prisons, hospitals and some schools do still have this character. Comparatively, I think western countries have less panopticon than other countries. East Asian education system is more panoptic. Even now, many schools in Japan constantly check if you have earrings, dyed hair, shirts out or skirts short. (It had to be knee length.) Although teacher were strict at school (and we obeyed) most of us rolled our skirts up and made them short, untucked shirts, wore earrings as soon as we walked away from the school. Out of school no one checked them. If we live in a society that was totally panoptic, I think society would be watching us and we wouldn’t have done these things.



Tyson Johnson

The panoptic scheme transforms the nature of power and control. Traditional methods of societal control focus on a top down implementation of power. Foucault argues that the "strange material and physical presence" of power compromises its efficacy (208). In the panoptic, scheme power is restructured so that it gains its coercive power from the people who live under it rather than the government or king that rules the society. Control becomes a pervasive element of the society because it is nurtured by the population rather than the government. The power employed in the panoptic scheme is subtle, it manifests itself as a fear of reprisal from some unknown overseer. The people often known that they are not under constant surveillance, but they also know that their privacy is not sacrosanct. The government has the ability to learn what its people are doing with relative ease, and has the right to persecute its citizens if it finds any evidence of wrongdoing. The knowledge that they can be watched leads people to live in a state of constant awareness of the government's power.


I think the panoptic scheme can be said to characterize our society. Most Americans are acutely aware of the power our country holds. However, very few of us have had personal encounters with the agencies of social control that exists within our government. The mingled sense of respect and mild fear that most American citizens feel toward the power of the state arises from the knowledge that we have relatively little control over it, but it can easily destroy our lives. This knowledge is not something we are specifically taught, it arises gradually and evolves simply from living within our society. Many Americans believe they live under the radar, so to speak, but they are also aware that the radar exists. The awareness creates compliance and the compliance nurtures power.


emma roberts

While I do agree with what many said about how we, in modern US society consider ourselves under constant surveillance and are well aware of the punishments that exist for specific infractions, I do not think that this is a trait specific to technologically advanced societies. Technology does indeed make it easier and more accessible for this “watching presence” to find and make example of those who transgress the laws and social norms, however I do believe that a sense of being watched and critiqued can also manipulate behavior in smaller, more personal settings. I was thinking about something like gossip and how, although it does not necessarily have a hierarchy enforced by an individual like that of the tower in the panopticon, it is a constant check on individuals behavior – and a quite effective one at that, especially in more close-knit groups. I believe that people have a certain ability to sense when they are being insensitive or neglectful of others’ basic needs, safety etc and gossip helps to enforce the repercussions of such actions with similar ideas of being watched or spied on. I guess the main difference is that there need not be a specific hierarchy to the “gossip chain”.


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