The Policing of Families 
by Jacques Donzelot, translated by Robert Hurley.
Hutchinson, 242 pp., £8.95, May 1980, 0 09 140950 0
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Michel Foucault has of late become something of a cult figure in the Anglo-Saxon world. His critics can point out that he has the necessary qualifications for guru status, in that his writings have tended to be cross-disciplinary, obscure and fairly opaque. Yet his work has recently taken on a new clarity and, moreover, he has acknowledged that in his previous studies he had missed an important explanatory variable – namely, ‘power’. In essence, Foucault now argues that the 18th century saw a shift in the nature of power, from a system based on sovereignty to one based on discipline. In the former, power radiated from the personage of the king and through his representatives, courtiers, magistrates and officers directed itself to the body of his subject. This system of power can be illustrated by the various techniques of punishment which involved a public display of violence to the criminal’s body, as in executions, torture and floggings. Within a few decades, however, the criminal found himself not in public, but alone in a cell, and subjected, not to physical attacks, but to constant surveillance. The prison, Foucault argues, was a device of disciplinary power in which the exposure of the criminal’s body to observation instilled a sense of discipline. This new invention in the ‘technology of power’ found its ideal expression in Bentham’s Panopticon and its usefulness in the prisons, schools, hospitals, barracks and workshops that were built throughout the 19th century. Each of these institutions, through their internal configurations, allowed bodies to be constantly visible to an observing ‘gaze’; and appropriate techniques – inspections, clinical examinations, investigations and the like – were devised to further the analysis of these individualised bodies. The body was both the object of the gaze and, more important, an effect: constant surveillance served to constitute the body as a discrete object and to fabricate a personalised individualism. The individual, in Foucault’s words, was both object and effect of power.

Jacques Donzelot describes himself as working on the periphery of Michel Foucault and his book on the family continually displays its indebtedness to Foucault’s work. Thus, in a sense, Donzelot has not written a history of the family but of ‘the social’. This is not a book which charts the changes in the structure of the family over the last two centuries (that would be to assume the prior existence of the phenomenon in question); nor is it a book which describes at the socio-political level the changes which were to influence family structure. Indeed, it is the traditional notion of the family as a part of ‘the social structure’ that Donzelot would object to, in that it suggests a mechanistic and essentialist view of the social. For Donzelot the family is not a thing but a loose collection of alliances, constantly changing under external influences (‘strategies’): the family, like the individual for Foucault, is not the starting-point of the analysis but the consequence, the resultant of ever-changing forces. The family is at once an object on which social practices fix themselves and an effect of those same practices.

Like Foucault, Donzelot starts in the 18th century at the point when the social arrangements of the Ancien Régime were in transition. In particular, he picks up Foucault’s notion of ‘biopolitics’ to explain the contemporary interest in the growth and management of populations, whether in the extraction of labour from individual bodies, in the emergence of sexuality at the points where interest in fertility and the newly problematic relationships between individuals intersected, or in the concern with children as key determinants of population size and quality. In many ways, The Policing of Families is about the policing of children, because it is Donzelot’s contention that it was concern with the child – its growth, development and potential for error – that seems to have motivated many of the medical and welfare strategies of the last two hundred years. In their turn, these various strategies have fashioned the nature of the family unit and the identity of its other members. The mother, for example, as the principle socialiser of children, has managed to increase her power in relation to the old authoritarian rule of the father by establishing alliances with the medical authorities and by her consumption of specialised tracts on mothercraft. Indeed, it might be reasonable to argue that the radicalisation of women in the 20th century is a product of the special and discrete identity that motherhood has achieved: it is noticeable that feminism is somewhat ambivalent towards children, perhaps for the reason that while holding the key to a woman’s separate identity and autonomy, they also require her continued subjugation to the trappings of motherhood.

It is principally the strategies that were directed at the body of the child with which Donzelot is concerned here, and he provides a wealth of examples of techniques, laws, institutions and so on which were created in France to manage the problem of childhood. Whether such developments also took place in Britain at the same time requires investigation, but the broad outlines of the argument can be seen here: for example, in the increasing interest in the surveillance of children at the end of the 19th century as manifested in compulsory schooling and paediatric textbooks; or in the infant welfare movement at the beginning of the 20th century, with its attendant creation of dossiers on individual children such as birth notification, antenatal registration and school medical inspection, or in the growing concern with children’s psychological development as shown, in the inter-war years, by Gesell’s work in the USA and, in the post-war world, by the various longitudinal studies of child development in Britain.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were two kinds of ‘interest’ in the family: the juridical and the medical: both, however, required its members to meet somewhat arbitrary norms. A space was therefore created in which the ‘psy complex’ – those sciences and techniques informed by psychoanalytic traditions – offered a ‘floating’ referrent for individual behaviour and perceptions. This change can be illustrated by the shift from the problem of insanity, which preoccupied the psychiatric and medico-legal authorities in the 19th century, to the invention of the neuroses in the 20th century, which replaced the fixed eternal referrent of reason with a subjective internal referrent of coping. Here then was a fundamental similarity between Freud and Keynes: Keynes managed the economic problems of a fixed monetary system by introducing the notion that money was not an immutable commodity but could be accorded whatever value social necessity demanded of it; similarly, Freud in his invention of the psy complex enabled the family to adjust itself to a new ‘floating’ social order.

This is a book which presents a radical perspective on the family: its chief virtue is that it is brimming with ideas; if on occasion those ideas seem a little outrageous or far-fetched, then their failings can be forgiven. More irritating is Donzelot’s erratic style, at times too detailed, at times too condensed. This is in part a product of the form of analysis he has undertaken, which tends not to follow a slow and even plod through historical events but progresses in a series of jumps linking one happening with another, perhaps a century later. There are no references, which makes it difficult to judge how much of the work is drawn from primary sources.

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