Grappling with some of Foucault’s “bizarre machinery”

Lynelle completed her doctoral study  in 2015 and is now working on applying some of the findings from the research into classroom practices with students. This post is a reflection about one aspect of using a new method. You can find Lynelle on ResearchGate here or on Twitter @watts_lj

For one of the lines of inquiry in my doctoral research about reflective practice in Australian social work education I employed an archaeological analytic, outlined by Foucault in his work in The archaeology of knowledge (1972), to consider how reflective practice had emerged in social work education as a ‘thing’? I use the term bizarre machinery after Sheridan (1980, p. 103) who suggested that Foucault’s attempts to “replace the old unities of discourse” resulted in the development of methods that are able to encompass transformations, engage in comparisons and map innovation in discursive formations. Likewise, Koopman and Matza (2013) suggest Foucault’s methods can be seen as tools aimed at diagnosis, analysis, and critique. It is a critique of a particular kind as I discovered.

My study juxtaposed methods from distinct paradigms of qualitative inquiry (autoethnography, archaeology and interpretivism). While this proved to be a challenge, it also turned out to be fruitful in an unexpected way. Autoethnography has interpretation at its centre – it’s built around the idea that human consciousness and interpretation is central to understanding and meaning-making. Therefore, autoethnography is based around one of the unities of discourse that Foucault’s machinery is aimed at suspending, or at the least, constraining. Why? Well, the idea is that you can consider discourse through a field rather than through a “single mind, thought or subject that engendered it (Foucault, 1992, p. 61). Discourses in this sense are seen as incorporating more than language, they include practices (Garrity, 2010).

For an archaeological analytic, the analyst must engage in the constraint of two main operations of thinking to establish the field in which one might locate statements. Statements are considered to be a basic unit in discourses and they are not mere linguistic propositions, but events (Bernauer, 1990). The operations of thought which must be constrained turn out to be pretty central to accepted practices of scholarship. The first is where we place humans as the originators of all interpretation – this is referred to as the sovereignty of the subject (Bernauer, 1990). This is an idea close to the heart of all human services work – the human being is central to our professional consciousness. The second operation is the idea that history is about the search for origins, requiring the scholar to engage in looking deeper for meaning. Suspending these scholarly habits is part of the scepticism (Kendall & Wickham, 1999) deployed through Foucault’s machinery. If we place humans at the centre, it becomes less possible to clear a space to even see discourses. It also means that we should be careful not to see language and discourse as the same thing – a point which Zoe Garrity (2010) discusses so well in her paper here on the issue.

The upshot of all this was that I spent considerable time looking at a so-called ‘field’ but one that I had constructed out of authors and origins – it was very interesting but it wasn’t archaeological in the Foucauldian sense.  No statements were to be found there. The operation of thought I needed was the equivalent of seeing the vase instead of the

Vase mit zwei Gesichtern
©Klaus Eppele

faces. Once I was able to engage in this different operation of thought it became more apparent that there are different kinds of critical reflection possible – something that may not have been possible to see if I had stayed with the familiar interpretive and/or critical kinds of reflection I was more familiar with. It may not have happened if I had not spent some time grappling with some of Foucault’s bizarre machinery.

Bernauer, J. W. (1990). Michel Foucault’s force of flight – Towards and ethics for thought. . New Jersey, USA: Humanities Press.

Foucault, M. (1992). Politics and the study of discourse. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect – Studies in governmentality with two lectures by and an interview with Michel Foucault (pp. 53-72). Chicago, Illinois University of Chicago Press.

Garrity, Z. (2010). Discourse Analysis, Foucault and social work research: Identifying some methodological complexities. Journal of Social Work, 10(2), 193-210. doi: 10.1177/1468017310363641

Kendall, G., & Wickham, G. (1999). Using Foucault’s methods. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Koopman, C., & Matza, T. (2013). Putting Foucault to work: Analytic and concept in Foucaultian inquiry. Critical Inquiry, 39(4), 817-840. doi: 10.1086/671357

Sheridan, A. (1980). Michel Foucault: The will to truth. London; UK: Tavistock.


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