Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Using Foucault's Methods

Gavin Kendall and Gary Wickham
Sage Publications: London
1999
0761957170 (pb); 0761957162 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)
176 pp.

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This book sets out to counteract the impression, derived from certain parts of an immense secondary literature, that Foucault is primarily a strange and difficult theorist, and to provide both a straightforward introduction to his methods of analysis and a practical guide to how they might be employed by the social researcher. It is part of a new Sage series Introducing Qualitative Methods edited by David Silverman, and the text is organised in a way that reflects the ethos of the series: that is to say, it is very much a 'hands-on' tool kit of a book, scholarly but accessible, which makes use of copious practical exercises to develop the reader's understanding via active participation (in the manner adopted by Open University and other distance learning texts for example). The intention is a very worthwhile one, in that there is no comparable text on Foucault's methods, and also in that procedural discussions of qualitative method often ignore Foucault's approach. The authors have identified the need for a clear introduction to the topic, and have gone some way to providing one; however, the book has some idiosyncrasies which, for this reader at least, prevent it from being a complete success.

The book begins by introducing Foucault's approach, and setting it in an intellectual context. The first chapter explains the rationale for, and practice of looking for contingencies instead of causes, and moves on to an original and insightful discussion of different forms of scepticism and their relevance for a Foucaultian approach; the second chapter focuses on the concepts of archaeology, genealogy, discourse and power. This first part of the book is for the most part both erudite and accessible, although some of Foucault's trickier formulations, such as the distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive, seem partially resistant to clear elaboration. The second part looks at some areas in which Foucault's methods can be put to use, and focuses on science studies (particularly the work of Bruno Latour) and cultural studies. The latter discussion in particular provides some very useful insights into the kind of approach implied by Foucault's work, and the treatments of culture, education and the turn from the study of meanings to the study of management are valuable. There are also some useful warnings about the dangers of simplistic 'applications' of Foucault's method, for example by taking 'panopticism' as a general and generalisable theoretical construct.

The discussion of science studies, however, does not work quite so well. The authors acknowledge that the use of Latour's work to illustrate a Foucaultian approach might not meet with Latour's approval, and that the latter has made comparatively little reference to Foucault. The key issue for a textbook however is different: whether Latour's work (regardless, as Foucault might say, of the author's view of the matter) can be used to illustrate the approach effectively. It seems to me that, in this respect, there are certain problems. First, a great deal of background discussion of science studies is required in order to make sense of the significance of Latour's position, and consequently Foucault is left to one side for long passages. Secondly, the connection between Latour and Foucault is not discussed sufficiently to be convincing or clear. The recurrent (and very un-Foucaultian) assertion that Latour was 'inspired' by Foucault seems unsatisfactory as either justification or explanation. Some suggestive continuities are indicated but the overall impression, inadvertently confirmed by the commentary from fictional students that runs throughout, is that this is in some respects an awkward diversion.

As I have indicated, the text features narrative passages in which a number of students attempt to get to grips with Foucault. The intention seems to be to flag some common misreadings and errors that lie in wait for those new to Foucault's work, a reasonable pedagogic strategy. However, the tone of these sections of the text - humour is the intention but is not always convincingly accomplished - may not be to everyone's taste, and I must confess to having found them irritating, particularly as they become harder to avoid in the latter stages of the book, being incorporated into the exercises, and forming the entirety of the concluding chapter. I also think that the attempt to incorporate an imagined reader's likely response to the text within the text, in the fictional passages and elsewhere, is slightly overdone and can become alienating for the actual reader.

The fact that so much of the book's form and content is derived from a concern to counter misreadings points to another issue. The authors do an excellent job of contextualising Foucault's work, and distinguishing it from other approaches, but in places I became uneasy about the book's slightly doctrinaire character: one such place is the discussion of misuses of Foucault's notion of power, by such as Stuart Hall, for political purposes. This is a teaching text, so setting out an unambiguous line of interpretation is certainly justifiable, possibly advisable, in the interests of concentrating on how the approach can be used; but I wondered whether, in a book replete with questions and exercises, there could not be some space for considering criticisms of Foucault's approach, or at least some acknowledgement made of the possible legitimacy of different readings.

Nietzsche stated that contemporary discourse was becoming dominated by a form of commentary in which authors are answerable to an 'echo [which] is heard immediately, but always as a "critique", though the moment before the critic did not so much as dream of the possibility of what has been done'. I am mindful that this describes my position. If Using Foucault's Methods does not always meet the admirable goals it sets itself, it remains a very useful textbook which approaches its subject in an original way.

Geoff Cooper
University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999