Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and social theorists who explained the connection between power, knowledge, and discourse. Focusing on the human body, he also theorized three techniques that are used to establish disciplinary power on docile bodies. One being scale of control, where one treats the body as individual parts rather than a whole, allowing for subtle coercion. Second, there is the object of control where the focus shifts from behavior of the body but the movement that the body exerts and our control over this body through exercise/repetition. Finally, we have modality where there is unyielding control through supervision and the individual body is supervised to make sure movements and activities are done right. However, these three techniques are only used to establish disciplinary power and once the body is controlled, there is no longer a need for this to be constant. The controlled body is now conditioned to behave and move a certain way in the field.
Foucault also elaborated on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and how this was an example of disciplinary power once behaviors were internalized. The panopticon was set to make power visible yet unverifiable through its positioning in prisons. A large tower in the center of a prison with inmates’ cells surrounding it, it was used to enforce its power without any inmate actually knowing if it was vacant or not. The panopticon was seen to have three main purposes, to enclose and bound space, deprive of knowledge (of knowing if a guard was actually in the tower or not), and finally conceal its power. Retail industries are able to control docile bodies, their employees, by establishing disciplinary power and utilize panoptic power through its use of the “mystery shopper.”
It is no surprise that majority of industries require employees to behave and speak a certain way in order to represent the company in the best way possible. A “mystery shopper” is a company’s way of testing where their employees are in terms of initiative, knowledge, and customer service. Management is usually aware of what time of month this shopper will be present, but they themselves do not know exactly who this person is. The entire store is critiqued and given a score based on the experience of this “shopper.” It is with the training and discipline from employers that one is able to receive an admirable score, thus reflecting the training and effectiveness of that store’s management.
In this field, the employees can be seen as docile bodies, unaware of company specifics and how to perform in reflection to their store’s needs. Retail companies establish disciplinary power the way Foucault theorized. Companies treat the body as individual parts by controlling their movement and enforcing the proper ways in which to act. Their voice is an example of this segmented control. In order to appeal to the customer, an employee must modify their approach with vocal inflection, showing a tone of concern for the customer’s wants and needs. In order to upsell, a customer must be given all the information of current promotions or sales, treating this part of the employee’s body as a means of profit. Handing out shopping bags, taking items from customers or offering similar items also relate to how the body is treated as individual parts for subtle coercion.
The object of control then offers us with the idea that employees must practice the movement efficiently and repeatedly. Through exercise, an employee knows how to approach customers, speak to them, and offer what the company is offering. These practices are perfected throughout the day and employers have a control over the bodies within its store. This control is evident when management continues to push for better customer service or even more amounts of interactions between customer and employee. This repetition is instilled within every employee, appearing automated when approaching guests.
Following the establishment of proper and correct movement and once repetition is present through exercise there must be unyielding control. Supervision is needed to ensure that this routine is institutionalized within the body. Therefore, management plays a major role in critiquing their employees on their actions. This enforces the already routinized movement and ensures all activity is done right. The docile body is then disciplined to act in accordance to company expectations, creating disciplinary power.
The panoptic power Foucault theorized allows for companies to create a self-policing behavior within employees through its use of the “mystery shopper.” As mentioned earlier, management is aware of when the shopper might be present (usually at the beginning of month) but not exactly whom this person might be. The mystery shopper reflects the symbol of a panopticon in that he or she is present among the masses, but does not reveal his or her power. This power is enclosing, meaning there are bounds in which the employee must stay within. A specific department or section of the store is an example of such, always expected to be present in that area where the mystery shopper might appear. This idea of the mystery shopper then regulates the movements among the employees to become more aware of their surroundings. The employee does not know who this shopper is, depriving him or her of this knowledge and attending to every customer as if they might be the person critiquing their store. Due to their lack of knowledge on who this person is, the power this person has is also hidden. The once docile body is now able to perform in such a way that reflects the disciplinary power established by the company.
Although an individual entering the work field may not necessarily be unaware of proper etiquette or selling critiques, it is through the disciplining of the individual company that the docile body is conditioned to perform and act in accordance to their expectations, for the repercussion may be warnings, write-ups, or even termination.