What is Panoptic Surveillance? Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham

The idea of panoptic surveillance was developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1975 by viewing the panoptic as a symbol of the disciplinary society of surveillance. Panoptic surveillance can be understood as a state of constant monitoring. Here, the one is observing is decentralized and those who are being observed are never directly communicated with. It is derived from the term panopticism.

Panopticism refers to a social theory named after the Panopticon which is an institutional building or an architectural structure of a prison designed to increase surveillance. It is a system of control designed by Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, and social theorist. It is a circular building with cells built into the circular walls with an observational tower in the center. Every cell can be watched from the observational tower and in turn, the tower can also be seen from every cell. However, people residing in the cells could not see anything inside the observational tower due to shutters and blinds. This made them unsure if they are being watched or not and thus made them regulate their conduct all the time. Bentham believed that the fear of being observed all the time was enough to keep the prisoners in line.

Foucault realized that these features can very well be applied in society too by emphasizing upon the function of discipline as an apparatus of power. He used the panopticon design as a metaphor to understand the relationship between people and the systems of social control, and the relationship between knowledge and power concept. The observer, by constantly observing and acquires knowledge about the ones being observed thus gaining power. So, the more he observes, the more powerful he becomes. He squeezed out four important principles from the structural design of the panopticon.

First is the pervasive power that lied within the observational tower to see everything happening in the cells and thereby regulating those happenings.

Second, the obscure power that makes the prisoners aware that although they are being watched, they cannot see anything inside the tower, nor can they know when, how, or why they are being observed.

The third principle is that of structural violence that the prisoners are not been punished or regulated directly, but they themselves regulate them.

Lastly, the structural violence could be used by those inside the tower for their own benefit. According to Foucault, these measures of surveillance would serve in expanding power. He further adds that by appointing anonymous people in the public service posts to command the center of this architecture of surveillance, disciplinary mechanism of observation can be decentred which will result in producing more desirable and fruitful outcomes which prove that panoptic surveillance instead of total surveillance is efficacious. Also, the function of power is guaranteed even if there is no one actually observing things because panopticon, for Foucault, functions automatically. When every action will be supervised, and every event recorded, the transition to the disciplinary power takes place.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHRPzp09Kqc
  2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticism
  3. Mason, Moya K, Foucault, and His Panopticon

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