Weber and Foucault on Intellectual Stimulation

As a student who has experienced both a western and eastern educational curriculum, I have discovered an area where discipline and freedom go hand in hand. I have had the privilege to understand and balance the importance of one’s own values in judgment making, yet relate this knowledge so not to deviate too much away from the norm of society. A school is one of the primary institutions for socialization, a place to learn right from wrong; a safe haven before the realities of life begins. This is a place to learn objectively, to define truths and to gain knowledge of the everyday.

Max Weber and Michel Foucault have identified rationalization or the conscious pursuit of desired ends as a dominant trend in Western civilization. This trend has been fueled by an explosion of scientific knowledge about the consequences of various courses of action, particularly in a school curriculum based on precision and excellence. This paper will begin with a comparison of Weber and Foucault’s thoughts and ideas of rationality and power. An application of their theories will be placed towards the goals of Canadian (western) education. For Weber, science means truth for all who want it (Zeitlin, 1997).

The methodological foundation of Weber’s theory rests behind the notion of objectivity, social action and ideal types. Weber places huge emphasize on objectivity, separating between facts and value judgments. Objectivity can be reached only by seeking for the greatest possible precision, even at the cost of challenging deep-rooted prejudice and opinions of extreme judgment. Science should not be the systematic regurgitation of societal norms and ideals. Evaluation which praises or criticizes, approves or disapproves has no place in science. Empirical statements should be freed of values.

This is very idealistic of Weber as this notion creates many criticisms. Value judgments are all around us regardless of whether it is in physical or social sciences. For example, preventing the discussion of value judgments would lead to a lifeless, insincere description of the facts of nine-eleven in New York 2001, while having to omit the sadness and atrocity that occurred that day. It is unrealistic to study social phenomena without making value judgments, for it is impossible to understand thought or actions without evaluating it (Gingrich, 1999).

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Therefore, without adequate evaluations, it cannot be assumed that we have succeeded in understanding adequately. The rejection of values in sociological analysis also endangers historical objectivity (Nikaido, 1998). Set values are needed for distinguishing and acknowledging mistakes of the past, it is necessary to attempt to understand the past as it understood itself. However, although Weber’s concept of value-free is very righteous, nothing can ever be completely value-free. Social scientists are mostly Caucasian, highly educated and more liberal than the average citizen.

Thus, sociological concepts and ideas are originally ethnocentric and bias towards certain class and social status. Max Weber stressed the meaningful, purposive nature of human action, and following Nietzsche, argued that scientific rationality is focused on means and not on ends. Conversely, instrumental reason cannot tell us anything about how to live our lives. Foucault reiterate the fears of Weber by stating that reason “uncovers the mythology in the world, but science itself is a myth which has to be superseded” (Foucault, 1975).

Rationality for Weber is a term signifying systematization, consistency, logic, calculation and efficiency, which is applied both to religion and to social institutions. Foucault sees rationality in power, as his imperative to “reduce everything to power” stands. Power is a relationship between people in which one affects another’s actions (Ritzer, 1995). It differs from force or violence as it does not have to affect the body physically. He sees discipline as an important aspect of socialization and places primary focus on training individuals in settings such as schools, churches and prisons.

Foucault acknowledges two modes of disciplinary: sovereign power, which is expressed in recognizable ways through particular and identifiable figures such as kings, the law, and even teachers; and the more effective disciplinary power, which is less visible, difficult to locate and therefore difficult to resist. In Foucault’s article, “The Means of Correct Training”(1975), the success of disciplinary power is said to depend on three factors: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination. Firstly, discipline operates best by calculated gaze and not by force.

This invisible impersonal gaze is only effective when the subject and not the power is seen, the subject must know itself to be under watch, yet the gaze must be completely invisible so that it will still be effective even if it is not actually tuned towards the individual. Secondly, normality becomes whatever does not meet the rule and departs from it. Therefore, it is the function of punishment to correct anything that departs from the average behavior. In addition, punishment also creates gaps and arranges qualities into hierarchies as discipline rewards and punishes by awarding ranks.

Normalization makes people homogeneous and allows a chance to measure differences between individuals. Lastly, the evaluation of normality through examinations in school settings is an example on how society uses the “normal” as a goal and an ideal for disciplinary powers to define for us the way we are supposed to be as it qualifies, classifies and punishes. Ironically, examinations allow individuality as it also subjects each person to be analyzed and described if their evaluation escapes that of the average.

The Canadian schools system lies within both systematic and disciplinary power. While Foucault uses schools as one of the models of disciplinary institutions, as teachers are themselves subject to the web of disciplinary power, teachers also exercise power intermittently over specific parts of the students’ lives with great visibility. This is a reason that the school can become a site of resistance and rebellion as a revolt against this sovereign power. As students see themselves being forced to act in way that they would not, it is logical for them to resist and/or rebel.

This resistance to power has harmful effects as it only helps ensure children to follow into their predetermined “niche” in society based on race, culture and socio-economic background. For Foucault, power is not simply a repressive, law-like force that controls and prohibits (Foucault, 1975). For Foucault, power is productive as well as repressive. Power does not just come from those in authority: it manifests itself in diverse ways and from different points at once. Power directs the transmission of knowledge and discourses and shapes our concepts and self-image (Foucault, 1975).

The use of discipline is an effect of power. Discipline is a way of controlling the movement and operations of the body in a constant way. It is a type of power that coerces the body by regulating and dividing up its movement and the space and time in which it moves. The modern educational system, and indeed the modern state, is believed to be impossible without this idea of the mass control of bodies and movement. Conversely, Weber would oppose with Foucault’s imperative of power as the importance base for all aspects of life.

Weber agreed that with power, people can more easily realize their maximum potential against the resistance of others. However, this all depends on the social context of historical and structural circumstances such as the struggles of Blacks in North America during the sixties/seventies as they tried to enter the education system. Weber also acknowledges that people do not only strive for power to enrich themselves as social honor and status are more important factors for social approval. This can be seen in classrooms as the bully is usually not the most popular student.