Foucault and Habermas Debate on Power and Media

In this paper, an attempt is made to explain the importance of power and its effect on media and the key points of the Foucault/Habermas debate on power. This debate that has never took place in real life. The only interaction between Habermas and Foucault was in College de France when Foucault invited Habermas for a conference in 1983. Habermas and Foucault followers created this debate between genealogy and power analytics as ways to explain the behavior of power in society and the communicative rationality and discourse ethics other ways proposed by Habermas to explain the same behavior of power. In this paper, we will be talking about the ideas of Foucault in power and their relation with media. In addition, we will be mentioning the critiques that he received for seeing power from that angle. We will be talking about Habermas who criticized Foucault in addition to his contribution to the concept of public sphere and its relation to media. Power is a critical variable that determines how media will operate in a certain society. If power is taken as an absolute tool that cannot be discussed, media become a tool in the hand of the regime to manipulate people’s voice and show what the regime wants to appear and hide what can lead to question it. On the other hand, if the power is taken as a tool to protect people’s voice by giving them the chance to talk and discuss the issues that concern their environment, media become a free and an important element in the growth of any nation. When we question power, we should mention the French philosopher Michel Foucault who tried for years to explain how power works. He talked about some important concepts such as discipline, punishment, knowledge, and discourse. We will be talking as well about Habermas who criticized Foucault in addition to his contribution to the concept of public sphere and its relation to media.

Power is a visible and productive relation that is exercised in the social body. It is not something that it is strictly related to the State. Foucault stated that power “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault, 1980). He tended to explain that power is not possessed by certain elite, or it is related exclusively to the actions of certain individuals. In addition, it reflects that Foucault is interested in people’s freedom and how people behave under various circumstances. So, power is everywhere, and it works in every level of the social body. Foucault’s definition of power opposed how the Marxist and Liberal theories defined it. They limited it just to the Bourgeoisie which is wrong according to Foucault who considers it as a cross-levels relation. In addition, he relates the existence of resistance to the existence of power, so wherever there is power, there is resistance. Moreover, when we talk about Foucault and power, we should mention the Power/Knowledge theory by Foucault which defines a correlation between and knowledge since knowledge is a form of power:

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations (Foucault, 1977).

Foucault did not interpret power as a negative thing. He saw it from a different perspective as an effect on people’s actions and as a relationship between individuals . He questioned the difference between individuals’ actions secretly and their actions when a power is exercised on them or by them. In order to explain power from his angle, he defined three types of power: sovereign power, disciplinary power, and postoral power.

First, sovereign power is usually related to the obedience by the rules and people who are in charge of managing the society and it is defined by blood-right or blood-conquest (Foucault, 2007).

Second, disciplinary power refers to the fact that discipline is the mechanism that manages the behavior of individuals within the society. It can be done by organizing space, time, and the daily lives of individuals. He argues that discipline power gave birth to prisons since they are a type of the spatial organization (Foucault, 1977). Discipline is implemented by setting up complex surveillance systems.

In order to explain this relationship, Foucault used the concept of the panopticon introduced by Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon is a circular-like prison that facilitate the surveillance process. The panopticon allowed Foucault to explain the Power/Knowledge relationship and the actions of individuals in a disciplinary context. In order to understand the change in people’s behavior, he related the different actions of the observer and the observee (Foucault, 1977). The surveillance lead to the acceptance of the rules by the individuals being watched because they always act as someone is watching them even if this assumption can be wrong. On the other hand, Foucault focused also on the observer side to explain the Power/Knowledge relationship. The observer’s behavior changed depending on how the individuals that he or she is watching are acting. So, his or her behavior depends on how much knowledge he or she gained from the multiple observations. He or she became powerful according to the individuals because they know more about them (Foucault, 1977).

At this point, we can conclude that surveillance is not necessary related to the technology because the term surveillance is being used in that exclusive context. Surveillance and panopticon can explain how the individuals nowadays deal with media and technology. Individuals shape their actions on social media to fit what people that monitor the media want. They do not act as they want because they always have the assumption that someone is tracking and monitoring them because at this point individuals do not pay explicitly for social media services. On the other hand, the privacy has become the new currency. Individuals pay for services in an implicit manner which requires them to act in a certain way that does not necessary reflect how they behave in real life. Individuals tend to deliver the perfect image that they want to share with the world and not necessary how they are. This concept is applied on media. Surveillance is the key element in disciplinary power because it establishes control over the individuals and media. However, power is not discipline because discipline can be defined as a way to exercise power and not a power in itself.

Third, postoral power focuses on governing individuals by putting them in political groups that can be managed. In addition, he talked about knowledge and power. He said that they cannot be separated because power is an exercise of knowledge, and knowledge is a function of power. In other words, knowledge is a power in itself. Thus, this relationship explains why Foucault considers power as a productive relation. When the social institutions use knowledge to produce weapons, they just represent their power on these fields because knowledge is just a form of power.

Foucault’s main critics came from his approach on understanding power. He considered the historical analysis as a main key in order to understand how power behaves and is exercised in a certain society because it shows how Humanity has been moving from traditionalism to modernity. Foucault said about Habermas”I am interested in what Habermas is doing. I know that he does not agree with what I say. I am a little more in agreement with him.” (Foucault, 1983) which explains that this intellectual debate intersects at some point. They both consider knowledge as a key element to understand the relationship between power, society, and individuals’ actions.

On the other hand, Habermas said: “I can only relate what impressed me [about Foucault]; the tension… between the almost serene scientific reserve of the scholar striving for abjectivity on the one hand, and, on the other, the political vitality of the vulnerable, subjectivity excitable, morally sensitive intellectual.” (Habermas, 1984). Habermas main critics of Foucault’s approach of power came from the fact that Foucault derived his ideas from knowledge which is ambiguous according to Habermas (Habermas, 2014). In addition, he criticized Foucault for rejecting enlightenment and modernity. However, both Habermas and Foucault relate power to knowledge and vise versa, but they have seen them from different angles because Foucault relates reason to power while Habermas defines different types of reason.

Habermas claimed that the public sphere has a power that can shape the political opinion which can legitimate the regime in any society (Habermas, 2014). Public sphere is not necessary a place because it can exist virtually. It provides a platform for individuals to share their opinions and ideas that have a general aspect regarding their society. He gave a historical analysis of the public sphere from a liberal era to a media-centred era. Thus, the role of media changed from facilitating the debate in the public sphere to constructing, shaping, and influencing the public opinion by the discussed topics in media (Habermas, 2014). At this point, Foucault discussed the issue from a different angle. He mentioned the concept of surveillance which is used to control the society because individuals act differently when they know that they are being watched. In addition, the surveillance is also applied on media in order to limit its freedom and shape the discussed topics to serve systems’ agendas. So, the flow of information that was in the public sphere has been manipulated using media which transform the citizens into consumers that absorb the content that media provide them. Thus, the public opinion builders became just spectators.

To sum up, Michel Foucault defined power as a productive relation that is not gain, but it is exercised. Power, according to Foucault, can be in all social levels which criticizes the Marxist view on power which limits it to Bourgeoisie only. In this paper, we attempted to relate the concept of surveillance as defined by the experience of panopticon which explains the change in human behavior if surveillance is exercised on him or her on one side. On the other side, the change in the behavior of people who control or monitor the tools. The more knowledge people have on each other, the more power they gain on each other. This relationship is valid in the social media and internet context because individuals tend to act as being watched and not as they are. In addition, he mentioned the concept of surveillance which is applied on media and citizens to manipulate the public opinion in order to gain a political stability. On the other hand, Habermas criticized Foucault because he linked power to knowledge. Habermas considers that this knowledge has different types. He mentioned in his writing an important concept which is public sphere. He showed how it was evolved from its liberal state to a media-centred state. This transition changed the essential role of public sphere which is gathering opinions about general decisions that concern the individuals who form the public opinion to a manipulated opinion which is concentrated on what media provide.


Edmonds, J. S. (2011). Criticism without Critique: Power and Experience in Foucault and James.

Foucault Studies,(11), 41. doi:10.22439/fs.v0i11.3204

Foucault, M. (2012). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.

Foucault, M. (2007). Key concepts. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from

Foucault, M., & Gordon, C. (2015). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. New York: Vintage Books.

Habermas, J. (2014). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a

category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Isenberg, B. (1991). Habermas on Foucault Critical Remarks. Acta Sociologica,34(4), 299–308. doi:10.1177/000169939103400404

Kellner, D. (2014). Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy. Re-Imagining Public

Space,19–43. doi:10.1057/9781137373311_2

Panneerselvam, S. (2000). A Critique of Foucault’s Power And Knowledge. Indian Philosophical

Quarterly ,1/2(27), 13–28. Retrieved from

Image Copyright: social-media-mobile-icons-snapchat-facebook-instagram-ss-800×450–3–800×450.jpg