Michel Foucault

Last updated, 2 Sep 2012

Overview on Michel Foucault and CMS

By Nick Butler

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, historian, literary and cultural critic, and political activist whose work examined numerous domains including psychiatry, medicine, political economy, criminology and sexuality. At the core of his work is a concern with the relation between knowledge, power and the subject; more specifically, how formal systems of knowledge and distributed networks of power stimulate particular ways of thinking about and acting upon human beings and their characteristics and capabilities. Emerging at a time when some of the central tenets of orthodox Marxist thought were beginning to be questioned, Foucault was less interested in conducting a conventional ‘ideology critique’  than in examining the ways in which truth is produced and operationalized within various disciplinary fields. This led him to focus on the discourses used by certain authorities (e.g. psychiatrists, doctors, judges) to classify individuals (e.g. the mad, the sick, the deviant) at the same time as laying claim over their conduct (e.g. to incarcerate, to cure, to reform). By writing the history of how we became who we are today, Foucault ultimately sought to unsettle the self-evidence that has developed around these discourses within the human sciences and, in so doing, hoped to open up the possibility of transforming ourselves along with the knowledge we accept as true and the power relations in which we are implicated. For this reason, Foucault’s overall project may be seen as a ‘critical ontology of the present’.

Foucault’s notable works include History of Madness (1961/2006), The Order of Things (1966/2002) and the first volume of his History of Sexuality trilogy (1976/1998), although it is Discipline and Punish (1975/1991) that has undoubtedly had the most impact in management and organization studies over the last twenty years. Although his ideas were initially taken up by critical accountants in the late 1980s (e.g. Hopwood, 1988; Hoskin and MacVe, 1988), it wasn’t until the early 1990s that organization scholars within the purview of CMS began to draw extensively on the work of Foucault, most prominently his concept of ‘disciplinary power’ (see Carter, 2008; McKinlay and Starkey, 1998). For some, Foucault provides a way to explain new organizational forms and innovative managerial techniques – such as team-working, total quality management and just-in-time production – that cannot be productively understood using a Marxist-inspired ‘labour process theory’ approach (e.g. Knights and Willmott, 1989; Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992). For others, Foucault’s work enables a more nuanced understanding of human resource management practices (e.g. Barratt, 2003; Townley, 1993) as well as ethics and parrhesia in organizations (e.g. Barratt, 2008; Jack, 2004; Wray-Bliss, 2002). Recently, scholars have started to rethink Foucault beyond disciplinary power and some have advocated the use of his archaeological and genealogical methods in organization studies rather than a straightforward application of his concepts (e.g. Butler and Dunne, 2012; McKinlay, 2006; Rowlinson and Carter, 2002). While critical interest in Foucault may well have peaked in the 1990s, it remains the case that his work still has a widespread influence in CMS and continues to provide a useful theoretical ‘toolkit’ for challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about management knowledge and organizational forms.


Barratt, E. (2003) ‘Foucault, HRM and the Ethos of the Critical Management Scholar’, Journal of Management Studies 40(5): 1069-1087.

Barratt, E. (2008) ‘The Later Foucault in Management and Organization Studies’, Human Relations, 61(4): 515-537.

Butler, N. and S. Dunne (forthcoming 2012) ‘Duelling with Dualisms: Descartes, Foucault and the History of Organizational Limits’, Management and Organizational History.

Carter, C. (2008) ‘A Curiously British Story: Foucault Goes to Business School’, International Studies of Management and Organization 38(1): 14-30.

Foucault, M. (1961/2006) History of Madness, trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa. London and New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1966/2002) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. London and New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1975/1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan. London: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1976/1998) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. R. Hurley. London: Penguin.

Hopwood, A. (1987) ‘The Archaeology of Accounting Systems’, Accounting, Organizations and Society 12(3): 207-234.

Hoskin, K. and R. MacVe (1988) ‘The Genesis of Accountability: The West Point Connection’, Accounting, Organizations and Society 13(1): 37-73.

Jack, G. (2004) ‘On Speech, Critique and Protection’, ephemera 4(2): 121-34.

Knights, D. and H. Willmott (1989) ‘Power and Subjectivity at Work: From Degradation to Subjugation in Social Relations’, Sociology 23(4): 535-558.

McKinlay, A. (2006) ‘Managing Foucault: Genealogies of Management’, Management and Organizational History 1(1): 87-100.

McKinlay, A. and K. Starkey (eds.) (1998) Foucault, Management and Organization Theory: From Panopticon to Technologies of Self. London: Sage

Rowlinson, M. and C. Carter (2002) ‘Foucault and History in Organization Studies’, Organization 9(4): 527-547.

Sewell, G. and B. Wilkinson (1992) ‘“Someone to Watch Over Me”: Surveillance, Discipline and the Just-in-Time Labour Process’, Sociology 26(2): 271-291.

Townley, B. (1993) ‘Foucault, Power/Knowledge, and Its Relevance for Human Resource Management’, Academy of Management Review 18(3): 518-545.

Wray-Bliss, E. (2002) ‘Abstract Ethics, Embodied Ethics: The Strange Marriage of Foucault and Positivism in Labour Process Theory’, Organization 9(1): 5-39. 


Other internet resources:

Entry on Foucault in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Website dedicated to Foucault (maintained by Clare O'Farrell, Queensland University of Technology)

Foucault News - blog on activity related to Foucault (also maintained by Clare O'Farrell)