For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Re-Framing Foucault the Case of Performance Appraisal"

by Findlay, Patricia; Newton, Tim (1998)


In this chapter we aim both to explore the insights that derive from a Foucauldian perspective and to consider some of the limitations of this perspective. The chapter will start narrow and work broad. In order to focus our analysis, we will commence by examining a particular area of management, namely that of performance appraisal. Focusing in on one area allows us a particular scope in examining the benefits and constraints of a Foucauldian analysis. Further, performance appraisal is an area to which Foucault clearly speaks, and one which has already received some attention from writers on organizations applying Foucault (for example, Grey, 1994; Townley, 1994). Having used appraisal practice as a vehicle to close in on the constraints of Foucauldian work, we will then broaden our analysis to consider some issues raised by the wider developments in human resource management over the past decade. The final section of the chapter will address the theoretical limitations of Foucauldian analysis that our preceding work indicates. We shall proceed by first presenting a brief introduction to appraisal, and then considering the broader relevance of Foucault to understanding appraisal. We will then consider difficulties that arise with a Foucauldian analysis of appraisal, through a critical evaluation of those applying Foucault (to appraisal), particularly Barbara Townley and Chris Grey. We will argue that a Foucauldian framework runs the danger of detracting from critical analysis, and we shall explore these issues more broadly by considering trends in the recent development of human resource management. We shall assert that, contrary to Foucault, monarchic power is not clearly on the wane (Newton, 1994; Newton et al., 1995), and that there are reasonable reasons why our ‘representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy’ (Foucault, 1979: 88). We shall further suggest that the problem with detracting from the relevance of monarchic power is that it runs the risk of softening rather than sharpening critical analysis. Finally, we will argue that Foucauldian work has proved limited in its ability to address one of the central questions for sociology and organizational sociology, namely how we deal with the subject and human agency.

Key Passage

The emphasis upon discipline and surveillance in Foucault's earlier conceptualization of power (most especially in Discipline and Punish, 1979) finds an easy application in performance appraisal. Appraisal can be seen as epitomizing a desire for observation and surveillance, to make the employee a ‘knowable, calculable and administrable object’ (Miller and Rose, 1990: 5). It appears as one tactic working towards the notion of disciplinary power enshrined in Foucault's reference to Bentham's ‘Panopticon’, the model prison in which prisoners can always be seen, yet cannot see themselves. It is easy to see the panoptic power of appraisal in the plethora of appraisal measures, such as the use of Likert scales, graphic rating scales, critical incidents, mixed standard rating scales, behaviourally anchored rating scales and so on. All such measures are designed to refine the observational assessment of the appraisee, to provide an unfettered gaze upon their job performance and, particularly, to identify any inabilities they may have in meeting expected norms. At the same time, such techniques are not the only form of performance monitoring, since managers now have available a number of sophisticated ‘electronic surveillance’ possibilities, as illustrated by writers such as Zuboff (1988) and Sewell and Wilkinson (1992). However appraisal is about more than surveillance since it is not just about monitoring ‘sub-standard’ performance, but knowing why it occurred. Answering this question requires an ability to gaze upon the subjectivity of the worker, to know her feelings, anxieties, her identity and her consciousness (Newton et al., 1995). Only that kind of observation is really playing the kind of celestial power game envisaged in Foucault's symbolic use of the Panopticon, with its architectural metaphor of ‘a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form’ (Foucault, 1979: 205). (p.214)


Foucault, Performance Evaluation, Performance Review, Human Resources, Sociology, French Social Theory, Organisational Theory


On Foucault, Foucault, Critical Management Studies

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