Historical Changes and Social Movement Resistance

Foucault and Bourdieu on Historical Changes and Social Movement

Social movements aim at introducing resistance and change. This indicate the opinions and values that focus on creating change and exploring certain elements of the society. In elaborating the social movement, Bourdieu indicates that class is an important determinant of social movement. He also lays the claims that power is interwoven in the daily relations and structures in the form of divisions. He also considers that new social movements are in most cases aimed at attaining personal transformation and self-change. On the other hand, Foucault was interested in determining how knowledge is generated. He indicated that modern societies created regimes of truth which indicated that systems of ordered procedures aimed at the production, regulation, and circulation of statements. Foucault changed the perspective on power which led to changes in the understanding of the resistance. He illustrated the configurations of power, the common sense, and subjectivity which were not natural but rather appeared to be historical and contingent. Among his famous quote is, “Where there is power, there is resistance (Foucault, 1990)”

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Both theorists have been criticized for failing to incorporate or overlook the self-agency and thus explain “social reproduction better than social revolutions.” Foucault, like Bourdieu, argue there is “no escaping” the reproduction of power; however, this paper seeks to provide support that both theoretical frameworks positions social subjects as active agents in the process. As such, Bourdieu and Foucault offer useful and complementary theoretical tools in the exploration of the shift in power best exemplified in civil rights based social movements. This paper will illustrate how the similarities and differences between Bourdieu and Foucault can contribute to the analysis of social movements concerning rights (e.g., disability rights activism).

Comparison Theorist on Social Reproduction and Social Revolution

I agree with the accusation that the theorists have explained the concept of social reproduction better than social revolution. An analysis of Foucault’s perspective indicates that most of his works deals with the emergence of new regimes of power or social reproduction. He is very effective in describing this through his concept of “bio-power”. This is relevant in providing the description of social reproduction of capitalist relations which are said to have supported the growth and proliferation of capitalism. In explaining the concept of social reproduction, Foucault questions the concept of rationality and the existence of a rational economic agent. He first criticizes the traditional perspective of power, especially the juridical model of power comprised of the Ruling Class that provides the laws. He supports the concept of general matrix, which he defines as “binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled, for all power relations”  (Caffentzis, 2002) . He further rejects the assumption that power operates mostly on a structure of prohibitions and instead proposed a concept of productive character.

Foucault’s concepts and support for social revolution can be noted through his support for the Iranian revolution that he considers as ‘the birth of ideas where the intellectuals will work with the journalist to document where ideas and events intersect (Foucault, 1990)” He celebrated the revolution and commended the Iranians for the introduction of a spiritual dimension the political life. His optimism however dwindled when he realized that the religious regime that had taken over Iran was oppressive and brutal (Alshaibi, 2015).

Bourdieu’s work mainly focuses on social reproduction where he discussed the dynamics of power in the society especially the methods through which the power is transferred and social order established within and across generations. Bourdieu was convinced that total revolution was not achievable. For this reason, Bourdieu concentrated on a method that would offer enough pressure to the power of social reproduction as opposed to just affirming it (Calhoun, 2006). In his works covering cultural sociology, Bourdieu discusses how individual actions contribute to the reproduction of the large structures of social inequality. Bourdieu is viewed by some as a reproductionist and determinist who was unable to describe social change mainly due to his focus on the elements of power and domination that were elements of social movement (Husu, 2013).

Comparison on Power

Foucault views power as a productive force that enhances social movement (Foucault, 1990). He noted that power cannot easily be identified specifically to certain actors and institutions. Social movements represent the actors that challenges the power. He argues that power is not concentrated but rather diffuse where it can be embodied and enacted but never possessed. He believed that power is everywhere. Foucault’s concept of power in critical to his studies of discourse and governmentality (Husu, 2013). Power according to Foucault is a function of knowledge. He views power and knowledge, not as different terms but as inter-connected to each other where “knowledge is an exercise of power and power is a function of knowledge” (Husu, 2013). This informs the process which leads to the formation of social movement such as the one dealing with disabilities rights. The formation of such a movement would take place in three phases; definition of the problem, solutions and aftermath. Identification of the need to a disability rights movement requires a common knowledge that without the protection of the law, the people with disabilities will always be marginalized. A law in form a public policy and practice would then be created to help address this issue.

He further indicates that this power is regulated through a mechanism referred to as discipline that guides the thoughts and behavior of social actors through subtle means. He introduces a concept of bio-power that indicates how physical bodies become subjugated and forced to act in a certain manner thereby instilling social control to the larger population. Foucault’s perspective on power goes above politics and considers it as an everyday, socialized and embodied phenomenon. It is because of this reason that state-centric power struggles such as revolutions do not always yield to social order. This can be applicable in the introduction of disability rights social movement. The biopower as descried by Foucault would assist in putting in place mainstreaming measures that would accommodate the people with disability.

On the other hand, Bourdieu makes attempts to specify the processes in different societies where order and social restraint are produced by secondary and cultural factors as opposed to direct and coercive social control. He defines “symbolic power as a power of constructing reality.” (Geciene, 2002)This power is regarded as the unseen power that can be practiced with the complicity of individual who are not eager to know that they are part of it and that they even exercise it. It is said to represent a subordinate power that can be easily transformed to take other forms. Bourdieu notes that power is something that can be possessed. It represents an instrument that can be used to “imply a certain claim to symbolic authority as the socially recognized power to impose on a particular social world (Geciene, 2002).” Using this knowledge it is possible to comprehend how the administrative organs can use their power to ensure that the rights of the people are respected. The disabilities rights social movement is one movement that can use these principles in their advocacy for the rights of the people living with disabilities. This is important in ensuring that they are not marginalized for their disabilities and also strive to ensure that they environment in made conducive and accommodative of their needs.

Bourdieu put emphasis on the importance of knowledge in the social construction. Bourdieu views the social systems as symbolic systems of mental structures, classification, and principles of hierarchization. It is through these systems that the function of political function is attained where one class dominates the other (Geciene, 2002). The battle for the promotion of the rights of all people can only be achieved through the political faction of the administration. Laws promoting various rights can only be advanced and enforced through the political function engaged in governance.

Similarities of Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s Work

The two theorists have similar ideas in reference to the structure of social reproduction. Their arguments converge to indicate that people act on universal rules. This can be established by reviewing Foucault’s concept on governmentality and Bourdieu’s concept of Symbolic violence. It is on such basis that there are universally accepted rights as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is based in different legal and cultural perspective and sets out the fundamental human rights that are protected all over the universe.

Governmentality is described as a reasoning way of how to govern best through tolerance and wisdom (Foucault, 1990). Symbolic violence on the other hand refers to the undetected or unnoticed power by people through the socially constructed rules and regulations on the manner in which people perceive the natural order. In this perspective, the two theorists are found revealing that the structure helped determine individual life’s and how governance is advanced in the society. Both Foucault and Bourdieu bring out an argument that people are historically structured agents. Through their existence in the world, people have also been found to structure the world back. From this knowledge, it is important to note that by being structured agents, most people will tend to adhere to the laws set. It is for this reason the disability rights social movement continuously strives to fight for more recognition of the people with disability. This is because when the law makes it mandatory to accommodate the people with disabilities, the social systems adapts itself to the change.


Foucault and Bourdieu have been accused on concentrating their works more on social reproduction as opposed to social revolution. The discussion has provided some elements of the works of these theorists that makes me agree with the accusation against them. Foucault work’s mostly deals with the emergence of new regimes of power or social reproduction. On the other hand, Bourdieu’s work mainly focuses on social reproductions where he discussed the dynamics of power in the society especially the methods through which the power is transferred and social order established in the within and across generations. The two theorists hold very different ideas in terms of power in the society. The similarity in their works has ben noted to be exist on the structure of the social reproduction.


Alshaibi, W. (2015). The Intellectual Destroyer: Michael Foucault and The Iranian Revolution . CU Scholar.

Caffentzis, G. (2002). On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction : A Theoretical Review . The Commoner.

Calhoun, C. (2006). Pierre Bourdieu and Social Transformation: Lessons from Algeria . Development and Change, 1403-1415.

Foucault, M. (1978). 1990. The history of sexuality1, 16-49.

Geciene, I. (2002). The Notion of Power in the Theories of Bourdie, Foucault and Baudrillard. Nudienos Socialianes Teorijos.

Husu, H.-M. (2013). Social Movements and Bourdieu: Class. Embodiment, and the Politics of Identity. Jyvaskyla Studies in Education, Psychology, and Social Research .

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