Hartsock, Nancy. 1987. “Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?” In Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Reader, 3rd edition, ed. Charles Lemert.


Hartsock, Nancy



Summary By



Overview: In this excerpt, Nancy Hartsock contends that poststructuralism vitiates the women’s liberation movement and proposes a set of principles essential for emancipatory theory.
The Problem: Marginalized groups – including but not limited to women – need theories of power that are emancipatory. These theories should be constructed by including the previously excluded voices of those at the margins. We should not fall into the trap of essentializing various minority group identities in constructing such theories; however, we should consider whether emacipatory theories of power require a particular epistemology and are incompatible with certain other epistemologies.
Not the Solution: Foucault
Hartsock uses Memmi’s concept of “the colonizer who resists” (see The Colonizer and The Colonized) as a metaphor for postmodernists (in contrast to the modernists, who are “colonizers who accept” and those at the margins, “the colonized.”) Postmodernists like Rorty ignore power relations, while postmodernists like Foucault resist them, but neither really transforms power relations.
Ultimately, Foucault’s emphasis on resistance and passivity offer nothing in place of the existing power relations. Foucault’s rejection of subjectivity and the subject undercuts any emancipatory project and offers nothing to those who have been objects of history and want to become subjects. He presents passivity and resistance as the only options, closing the door to empowerment. Finally, people at the margins need to understand how the world works so that they can change it, and this presumes that knowledge is possible.
The Solution:
Hartsock proposes 5 key principles fo theories of power that are truly emanciaptory:
1. Understand how people are constituted as objects and subjects.
2. Assume that knowledge is possible. People who want to change society first need to understand how it works.
3. Recognize marginalized people’s understandings of the world in their day-to-day practices.
4. Recognize that it is difficult to create alternatives to the current power structure and will take work, in the realms of both theory and education.
5. Recognize that such theories involve a call to political action.
We need to critique the dominant power and then create alternatives.
Key Quote:
“For those of us who want to understand the world systematically in order to change it, postmodern theories at their best give little guidance. (I should not that some postmodernist theorists are committed to ending injustice. But this commitment is not carried through in their theories.) Those of us who are not part of the ruling race, class, or gender, not a part of the minority which controls our world, need to know how it works. Why are we—in all our variousness—systematically excluded and marginalized? What systematic changes would be required to create a more just society? At worst, postmodernist theories can recapitulate the effects of the Enlightenment theories which deny the right to participate in defining the terms of the interaction. Thus, I contend, in broad terms, that postmodernism represents a dangerous approach for any marginalized group to adopt.

Discussion points

1. Do you accept Hartsock’s criticism of Foucault as a “colonizer who resists”?
2. Do you think Hartsock and Foucault are defining power in the same way? Are they talking about the same thing?