restricted access Punishment, Power, and History: Foucault and Elias

This article reevaluates the work of Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias, in so far as it relates to criminal justice history. After an examination of the content of Foucault's Surveiller et punir (1975), it discusses Foucault's receptions among criminal justice historians. Some of the latter appear to have attributed views to the French philosopher that are not backed up by his 1975 study. Notably the "revisionist" historians of prisons have done so. As a preliminary conclusion, it is posited that Foucault and Elias have more in common than some scholars, including the author in earlier publications, have argued. They resemble each other to the extent that they both thought it imperative to analyze historical change in order to better understand our own world.

Nevertheless, Elias is to be preferred over Foucault when it concerns (1) the pace of historical change and (2) these theorists' conception of power. It is demonstrated that Foucault's notion of an abrupt and total change of the penal system between 1760 and 1840 is incongruent with reality and leads to ad hoc explanations. Rather, a long-term change occurred from about 1600 onward, while several elements of the modern penal system (as claimed by Foucault) did not become visible until after 1840. With respect to the concept of power, Elias and Foucault converge again on one crucial point: the notion of the omnipresence of power. However, whereas Elias defines power as a structural property of every social relationship and acknowledges its two-sidedness, Foucault's concept of power has a more top-down character, and he often depicts power as an external force that people have to accommodate. Although Foucault's notion of the interconnectedness of power and knowledge is valuable, Elias has a more encompassing view of sources of power.