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Table of Contents





Main Points




Poststructuralism, which surfaced in the 1970s, was brought forth as a theoretical approach by individuals like Michael Faucault to address the dynamics of power as seen in social constructions.  As an anthropological theory, it interprets the ways through which power is expressed in societies and cultures by centering on the notion that power is relational and thus acts as an agent of economic, political, and social trends.  For example, by focusing on the relationships which power struggles unveil, instead of viewing power as an isolated and predetermined force, it becomes a dynamic that shapes cultural landscapes.  The relationships that are emphasized in poststructuralism are often co-dependent and fluctuate.  In this sense, poststructuralist theory maintains that power is not merely held but that it is also a form of either consent or resistance, thereby multi-directional in the ways it influences all parties.  Poststructuralism acknowledges that power is everywhere, that it is disciplinary and discursive, and that it involves the naturalization of specific ideas as truth.[1]  Its emergence in the field of anthropology occurred largely in response to theoretical approaches which came before it, like structuralism, as its proponents sought to both expand on previous notions as well as critique them.  Its focus as an "interpretive science," one hoping to infuse insight into interactions of culture on a global scale, contrasted theories that continued to emphasize the biocultural, ecological and materialistic interpretations of humanity.[2]  In the following figure, the underpinnings of poststructuralist theory are evaluated in relation to anthropological and other theoretical approaches as they have contributed to and played off of one another.  In particular, it illustrates this relationship that was created as poststructuralism emerged in part from structuralist theory and thus portrays the divergences therein.  Poststructuralism responded to the ideas of structuralist theory, namely in terms the idea of universals in human thought as expressed on cultural phenomena through binary oppositions, and subsequently applied these patterns to notions of power and the relationships that are created in the presence of polarizing forces.  Divergences are further conveyed through this chart by the differing notions that in poststructuralism cultural phenomena are fluid and in flux, creating such relationships with power, whereas in structuralism they are more fixed in structure.  The contributions of theorists and theories are thus displayed in this diagram in the context of emerging philosophy that was applied to anthropology.




Figure citation: "Diagram: Post-War French Philosophy." Presentation at the Institute of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions, Amsterdam
Graduate Research Group, ISHSS, University of Amsterdam (2003). Retrieved 11/19/2010. 


Historical Context


Poststructuralist emphasis on power arose largely in response to an increasing importance on global power interactions in the 20th century, primarily through post-colonialism and globalization.  Leading poststructuralists such as Michael Foucault did not entitle themselves as such; they simply responded to structuralism and progressed their work through critiques.  Poststructuralists focus on the historical aspect while structuralists focus on the descriptive aspects.  In this context, they believe that by studying the history of cultures, one will be able to understand cultural concepts in the present day.  


Poststructuralism might examine how the effects of colonial powers are translated to colonized cultures.  Colonial powers, while still maintaining significant outward influence over the economic and political landscape of the countries they dominated, also transferred ideas about social customs that ranged in scope from food to class and racial constructions.  But colonized societies also heavily shaped the colonizing ones, largely through their economic ties and cultural exposure, affording colonizing countries new opportunities that were only available through these relationships.  Poststructuralism would be concerned with how these forms of power dynamics influenced and characterized both cultures, thus looking at the power relationship as multi-directional and influential to all cultures.  These trends were examined in terms of how social traditions continued, carrying over into political, economic, and social relations following the end of colonialism during post-colonial interactions.[3]


Key Terms


Poststructuralist theory comprises the following key terms:

  • Discourses of Power:  Michel Foucault’s phrase for the spectrum of institutions, rhetorics, and strategies employed by one group to dominate another group.[4]  This shaped relations between people at all levels in society.  Foucault argues that whichever group was dominating the relationship also controlled the economic and ideological conditions.
  • Discourse:  Michel Foucault used the term discourse as systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.  He also stresses the importance of truths and the importance of power relations. 
  • Hegemony: A term for one social group to impose particular beliefs or political and economic conditions upon another group through coercion and consent.  For example, you will coerce someone to consent.
  • Postmodern:  The breakdown of established canons, categories, distinctions, and boundaries.
  • Power: The ability to exercise one’s will over another.  This is a very nuanced concept because power is in everything, is everywhere, and is always context dependent.  Power can be found in many different forms.  For example, there is manipulation, force, institutionalized power, and ideologized power.  Power is essentially that which is repressed. [5]
  • Force: A form of power.  It is something that can be suggested or demonstrated.  There are threats and the application of force where one attacks to show supremacy. 
  • Postmodernity:  Condition of a world in flux, with people on the move, in which established groups, boundaries, identities, contrasts, and standards are reaching out and breaking down.
  • Reflexivity:  A popular postmodern analytical strategy of reflecting on the biases and assumptions that inform one’s own theories and perspectives.
  • Resistance: Speaking back to power.[6]  Those who resist power are actually holding power themselves.  Different forms of resistance include physical, ideological, and resignation.  






Key Figures

Michel Foucault

     Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) was a French philosopher and sociologist associated with the theory of post-structuralism.  He considered himself to be a critical historian influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Nietzsche. Foucault is well known for his studies on social institutions -- mainly studying psychiatry, medicine, and the prison systems.  He focused his studies on the subjects of power, knowledge, and discourse in society and how they are all interrelated. [7]


     Foucault's research places strong emphasis on the idea and institution of power.   His genealogies and studies of power reveal ideas surrounding the notion that knowledge is power.  In a work Discipline and Punish (1975) Foucault states " In knowing we control, and in

controlling we know".[8]   According to Foucault, the study and institution of power throughout history is a universal, and the driving force of individuals and, as a result, cultures. 




 Jacques Derrida-

     (1930-2004) was a French, Jewish philosopher from Algeria. He developed a critical theory called the deconstruction theory that is associated with post-structuralism. He is responsible for more than 40 published books as well as many articles and speeches. He is also known as one of the most difficult philosophers of the late 20th century. Derrida had many critiques because he did not have a clear definition of what his deconstruction theory was. He first published in 1964 a two-part essay called Violence and Metaphysics following that there were three books that began to define him. They were titled: Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Grammatology. Derrida used the term deconstructionism and began to catch on with the public[9].

     Jacques Derrida is known as the father of deconstruction. Deconstruction tries to demonstrate that any text contains several facts and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one meaning; that the text itself links these meanings; and that the interpretations can not be simplified for one clear understanding. This because of contradictions built in language, causing the text to be robbed of truth and its absolute meaning[10] . This methodology was later applied to anthropology. Deconstruction trys to prevent violence and pursues justice and test the boundaries of structuralism[11].



Roland Barthes-

      (1915- 1980) he was a French theorist who was very influential in the development of post structuralism. He was a French essayist, social and literary critic and wrote on semiotics[12]. This is the formal study of symbols and signs following the studies of Ferdinand de Saussure who helped develop structuralism. His first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture was a literary manifesto that looked at the randomness of the construction of language[13]. Some of his other works consist of The Death of the Author, his Mythologies of 1957 that look at the contemporary social class values. He examined the process of myth creation as well. He advanced ideas of metalanguage that replaces symbols words. It is a way to make a statement about something in another language. By the 1970s Roland Barthes’s theories had become extremely influential around the world. He influenced or was influenced by Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida[14].



Key Texts


Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison

(Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison) was written in 1975 by French philosopher and political activist Michel Foucault. This book represents a whole period in Foucault's political activism in Prison Information Group. The group was supporting the reform of French prisons. While in this group, Foucault had an opportunity to visit prisons in France and the USA, and this book became a theory to what he had seen.[15]


Discipline and Punish is a history of the modern corrective system, and opens a technological perspective on power. Foucault is trying to analyze punishment in its social context, and to examine how changing power relations affected punishment. By analyzing the justice and prison systems before the eighteenth century, he brings up public execution and corporal punishment as the main punitive methods, and torture as a part of most criminal investigations. Punishment was a spectacle, and prisoner's body was the object of public awes.


Within the eighteenth century there were various attempts to reform punishment. Foucault argues that the reforms were aimed at making power more efficient, not the prisoners more comfortable. By switching focus from physically punishing the criminal, now the justice punishing the morality of the deed, thus the soul of the criminal.


The prisons' development is tightly connected with development of disciplines. Discipline is a series of techniques by which the body's operations can be controlled. Discipline worked by coercing and arranging the individual's movements and his experience of space and time[16]. Disciplinary power has three elements: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and examination. Observation and the gaze are key instruments of power.

Prison wants to capture the individual's only right and property - his freedom. The penitentiary is the next development. It combines the prison with the workshop and the hospital. The penitentiary replaces the prisoner with the delinquent, which is created as a response to changes in popular illegality, in order to marginalize and control behavior of the mass.



The prison is part of a network of power that spreads throughout society, and which is controlled by the rules of strategy alone. “Power … is a name by which complicated strategical situation of a particular society is defined”[17]Calls for its abolition fail to recognize the depth at which it is embedded in modern society, or its real function. The power relations are not just the government and its functions, but the way it builds instruction, families, knowledge of a man and society[18]. The government acts not with its laws, but with stating norms, not just by punishing, but by controlling. The techniques of its authorities go well beyond its borders.


There is no matter to the world outside of jurisdiction, it is always connected through the points of resistance and support. Resistance itself cannot be considered as a single point or an institution. The resistance is endless, and it creates a pivot point for the power to start. The connection between resistance and pivot points is the strategical network of power. The resistance creates a network of opposite poles, which is laid over the network of power. With those networks society is structured and compromised in the sense that a specific field of the society cannot be one, and not another (resistance - power)[19]. Foucault says that the only way to look at the society is through the complex fields of power and resistance. 


Moreover, Foucault thinks the symbolism of the King and the Law coming from him has disappeared[20]. There is no reason for us to pretend that there is a single person and a single law that constructs the relationships and structure of our society. In his point of view, power relations are ubiquitous and productive. The ubiquitousness of the power has already been looked at through the relations of resistance. It can also be looked through its productivity. Power is productive as long as we cannot take it as a particular authority. Since it takes every discourse and social activity, it leaves its footprint at every level of the society, and determines the products of that society. Discourse is not only a text, it is a text embedded in social practices. In other words, it is regulatory practice containing a system of rules[21]. Power is not prohibiting or interrupting, but it is inducing and determining. 


Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule 

     by Ann Stoler




At the time that post structuralism was becoming a relevant theory for anthropologists, the growing division between applied and academic anthropology was becoming more evident.  Post structuralism added to the rift between those who took a more critical and academic standpoint and those who take an applied, or hands-on approach to anthropological issues of power. Reconciling some of anthropology’s outdated theories that were taught and have now gone out of style, perspectives that are based heavily on the “othering” of different societies and cultures, is one area of the field where applied and academic anthropologists have differed.  Academic anthropologists have largely dealt with the discipline’s skeletons by addressing them and then glossing over then in favor of teaching new, more descriptive theories (such as post structuralism)[22].  Applied anthropologists would argue that such a teaching of the discipline's problems and less flattering ideas is disingenuous.  Without addressing what has been done wrong, anthropologists may also fail to see what is wrong with their current ideas and theories. 


Anthropology has sought out new theoretical approaches through which to describe the discipline and distance itself from some of its historical perspectives and approaches that were considered “both theoretically and morally bankrupt” arguing that there is “little need to become acquainted with—let alone embrace—the work of ‘unenlightened’ ancestors”[23].  The difficulties anthropology faced in coming to terms with the less flattering parts of its history was considered a crisis of representation.  By acknowledging that its past was riddled with problems in both theory and practice, anthropologists had to find a way to rectify itself as a discipline, this was the crisis of representation.  Herbert Lewis critiques the ways in which post modern discourse, of which post structuralism is part, has hailed itself as the answer to anthropology’s crisis of representation, but could easily be discarded as a theoretical approach once another approach becomes more popular and adds additional answers to some of the questions with which anthropologists struggle[24]. Without employing some type of reflexive analysis, post structuralists may also fall into the same trap that past theories have, one where the problems in analysis are not seen.


Although feminist anthropologists have largely embraced post structuralism and Foucauldian thought, in recent years the feminist school of thought has offered a number of thoughtful criticisms of Foucault's ideas regarding power discourses, empowerment, agency, and resistance.  Foucauldian conceptualizations of power fail in two critical respects when considering women: first, it erases "women's specific experiences with power" and second, "the inability of the agonistic model of power to account for, much less articulate, processes of empowerment" for women experiencing discursive power[25].    In further criticism of Foucault's concept of female empowerment, Foucault does not offer "a sustainable notion of agency" when considering how women speak back to power and resist[26].  Feminists criticize post structuralism (although the criticism is not unique just to feminist thought) as a theory that fails to reflect upon an individual's actions within a social discourse or set of institutions; "post structuralists deny the subject's ability to reflect upon the social discourse and challenge its determinations"[27].  In employing post structural analysis, issues of how the theory handles individual agency within social realities must be considered.   


Post structuralism is a favored theory for discussing different development discourses.  Understanding the ways in which discourses of development (modernization theory, dependency theory, capability deprivation, etc) affect individuals on the receiving end of these various discourses is where post structuralism can be a useful analytical tool.  However, critical of all development discourse, Arturo Escobar argues that a post structural approach to development strengthens the belief in the need for development throughout the third world, because it only adds to the body of existing literature on development, rather than moving away from the concept all together.  Post structuralism also fails to acknowledge the emergence of social movements, which Escobar sees as an alternative to development.  Escobar questions who gets to access the knowledge provided by post structural analysis and how this analysis contributes to continued discourse on development, instead of moving beyond development discourse.[28] 


Modern post-structuralist anthropologists attempt to take into account their personal background when approaching a culture to study, as this quote exemplifies:


“And even where we have probed the nature of colonial discourse and the politics of its language, the texts are often assumed to express a shared European mentality, the sentiments of a unified, conquering elite.” [29]


However, Post-structuralists confronting the power relations of a particular culture very likely have ties to a dominating country. Or, the anthropologist might have experienced firsthand an economic, political, or social influence which naturally resulted from the power struggles between their country of origin and the country of study creating bias in regards to power, and is therefore of key relevancy when discussing a culture from the post-structuralist point of view. 


Finally, a current post-structuralist also must confront critiques of creating a very black and white, etic, perspective. A culture must be viewed on a emic basis rather than on a strictly, fact-based level, such as reviewing the historical power relations between countries from an armchair. Collecting and analyzing such data without supporting data from an experience crates a narrow,  inaccurate collection of ideas. This information, in turn, has the potential to grow overly idealistic, strict ideological, and downright dangerous conclusions. An immersion in the culture is no longer simply a supplemental piece of support-- it is a necessity. As Murphy and Erikson state, power relations are very complex, and must be understood from several study methodologies and cultural perspectives: “A recent generation of theorists has proposed that the unity, objectivity, and even the existence of culture ought not to be assumed. Rather, the matter-of-fact, taken-for- granted quality of culture should be recast as problematic because a political, economic perspective on the relationships between nation-states raises significant (and troubling) theoretical and moral questions about the historical conditions in which particular “cultures” and social groups come to exist, become powerful or, as the case my be, become dependent or subjugated.”[30]




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  5. Foucault, Michel. "Two Lectures." (1976): 79-80. Print.
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  8. "Michel Foucault (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 22 November 2010. .
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  13. "Roland Barthes." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/54319/Roland-Gerard-Barthes
  14. "Roland Barthes." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/54319/Roland-Gerard-Barthes
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  16. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Discipline and Punish.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 15 Nov. 2010
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  18. Сокулер, З. А. "Концепция «дисциплинарной власти» М. Фуко." Deja Vu - Энциклопедия Культур. Александр Бокшицкий, 08.13.08. Web. 20 Nov 2010. .
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  20. Фуко М. Надзирать и наказывать. Рождение тюрьмы. Перевод с французского Владимира Наумова под редакцией Ирины Борисовой Michel Foucault. Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison. EDITIONS GALLIMARD AD MARGINEM a Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1975
  21. Foucault, Michel. Archeology of Knowledge. trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. Print.
  22. Erickson, P., Murphy, L. A History of Anthropological Theory, Third Edition, p. 206
  23. Erickson, P., Murphy, L. A History of Anthropological Theory, Third Edition, p. 207
  24. Erickson, P., Murphy, L. A History of Anthropological Theory, Third Edition, p. 208
  25. Deveaux, M. (1994). Feminism and empowerment: A critical reading of Foucault. Feminist Studies. pp. 223-247.
  26. Deveaux, M. (1994). Feminism and empowerment: A critical reading of Foucault. Feminist Studies. pp. 223-247.
  27. Alcoff, L. (1988). Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: The identity crisis in feminist theory. Signs 13(3). pp. 405-436.
  28. Escobar, A. (2005). Imagining a post-development era. In Edelman,M., and Haugerud,A.(Eds.) The Anthropology of Development and Globalization. (341-351) Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing
  29. Stoler, Ann. "Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule." Comparative Studies in Society and History,. 31.1 (1989): pp. 134-161.
  30. Erikson, Paul, and Liam Murphy. "A History of Anthropological Theroy- third edition." History of Anthropological Theory- third edition .

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