In “The Birth of the Prison” (1975), the French Philosopher Michel Foucault notices that social relationships are enmeshed in a “power field”. For him, the “petty malice’s of those who seek to dominate mean that knowledge itself is increasingly part of the play of domination”.
Foucault identifies two modes of domination, ie, “traditional“ (physical violence) and “disciplinary” (psychological control) and charts the transition from one form of control to the other over time.
Past practices of torture and execution in the traditional mode were horrific. To illustrate this, Foucault quotes extracts of the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757 on the torture to death of the regicide Damiens on the 2nd of March 1757:
“After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body of the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bones, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards. When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he was talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood”.
Foucault contrasted this form of discipline and punishment with the development of rules and regulations drawn up for the House of Young Prisoners in Paris some 80 years later. He concluded that while forms of punishment had seemingly become more civilised, public taste for physical punishment had merely been replaced by punishment and discipline directed towards the soul, the mind and the will. In his view, extreme forms of punishment were simply being replaced by “subtle forms of correction and training”, maintained by hidden techniques of discipline always at work in modern society.
For Foucault, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – a circular building with central observation tower from which inmates can be surveyed at work or sleep without being able to observe their observers – is a metaphor for the disciplinary mode of domination. Modern organisations all have their distinctive arrangement of observation and close surveillance built into its architecture and systems that serve to control and regulate behaviour.
I sometimes wonder if Human Resource Management (HRM) is an example of a modern form of discipline.
HRM is ostensibly about gaining employee engagement and commitment to a common cause or vision. Is this a realistic objective given the diversity of human systems?
Or is it about “committing” individuals to something in the sense of “committing” someone to prison, using psychologically techniques?
Organisations seem overly obsessed about creating a common culture and a unified sense of purpose. HRM techniques for creating this homogeneity range from the use of ‘psychometric testing’ on the one hand, to, ‘training and development’ on the other. Particular attention is placed not to differences between people but instead, how people deviated from the “norm”. People who “get it” or “are a fit” are regulated through appraisals systems and people who “don’t get it” are “performance managed” out.
While discipline and control in modernist organisations differ from overt forms of control, they are nevertheless based on appropriation of bodies using psychological techniques. For Foucault, the elegance modernist methodology lay in the fact that it can dispense with violence but still obtain effects “of utility at least as great”.
The accepted narrative is that HRM is a progressive, humane and enlightened approach to people management.
Is there, however, also a compelling story that (modern and late modern forms of) HRM creates conformance that revolves around controlling the minute details of the lives of those (employees) subject to it?
So [only…] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36