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Foucault - The Key Ideas: Foucault and the Panopticon

By Paul Oliver

The Panopticon was an architectural design for a prison. It was developed initially by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) in the late eighteenth century. The principle of the Panopticon was that prisoners could be observed night and day, without realizing that they were being observed. The structure consisted of tiers of prison cells, arranged in a circular design. In the very centre of the circular structure was an observation tower, tall enough for the observer to be able to see the interior of each cell. The windows of the observation tower were masked so that it was not possible for prisoners to know if anyone was in the tower. An arrangement of blinds was suggested to hide the presence of any lights inside, so that prisoners could not guess whether the observation tower was staffed. The psychology of the Panopticon was thus that prisoners would never be certain whether or not they were being observed. The Panopticon later became the inspiration for a number of different prison designs. Its significance for Foucault was that it reflected much of the philosophy of observation that has become a guiding principle of policing in the modern state. The use of video cameras both in cities and on roads employs the same principle of observation, so that the citizen is never entirely sure whether or not they are being watched.

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Foucault - The Key Ideas: Teach Yourself

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