Problematizing special observation in psychiatry: Foucault, archaeology, genealogy, discourse and power/knowledge

J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2006 Dec;13(6):713-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2006.01023.x.


Special observation by mental health professionals is the recommended approach for those people deemed as at risk or risky. Recent research and academic writing have challenged the benefits of observing people/patients who are defined as 'at risk', and a more human engagement process is being recommended. Despite this assault, practice has not changed substantively, suggesting a need for a thorough exploration and questioning of the practices and process. The paper outlines three Foucaultian approaches to historical analysis. It applies aspects of Foucault's archaeology/genealogy, discourse and power/knowledge to explore the practices of special observation as a means of controlling risk, especially suicide risk. We identify the regulatory function of the 'gaze', professional codes and government policy in relation to restricting professional practices. We argue that observation can be related to moral therapy, wherein the person relinquishes madness for responsibility through a disciplinary process and, in governing risk, a 'professional industry' is created. The regulation of statements about people with mental health issues are exposed and related to what can be said and done by professionals. Finally, we look at productive power in relation to observation, and how it is intimately related to resistance. We conclude with 'soft' recommendations for practice discursively produced through the writing of the paper.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Archaeology / history
  • Genealogy and Heraldry
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Knowledge*
  • Mental Disorders / history
  • Nurse's Role / history
  • Nursing Assessment / history
  • Observation*
  • Philosophy, Nursing / history*
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Psychiatric Nursing / history*
  • Risk Assessment / history
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / history
  • Suicide / history

Personal name as subject

  • M Foucault