Assemblage Theory Part 3: Foucault’s Dispositif

For my PhD project I am going to look at data and Datafication, but I am still in the phase where I try to find the right “vocabulary” for my work, meaning I need to find a theory and approach that I can and will use. If you are reading this, please remember that this blog is meant for me, monitoring my progress and taking notes- that why you will find a lot of long direct quotes and questionable sources as well. However, this is part of me getting this!

Since I would align with the quite new area of Critical Data Studies, the term “data assemblages” is quite central- which is why I started to dig into assemblage in the first place. However, in on of the central texts ( Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,”) the authors write that they draw an Foucaults idea of the dispositif to chart and unpack data assemblages. Further they write:

“This notion of a data assemblage is similar to Foucault’s (1977) concept of the ‘dispositif’ that refers to a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions(in Gordon 1980:194) which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within society.

The dispositif of a data infrastructure produces what Foucault terms ‘power/knowledge’, that is knowledge that fulfils a strategic function: ‘The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge’ (in Gordon 1980:196). In other words, data infrastructures are never neutral, essential, objective; their data never raw but always cooked to some recipe by chefs embedded within institutions that have certain aspirations and goals and operate within wider frameworks.”

So, what exactly is a dispositif and why is it similar to an assemblage?

I have to admit that I absolutely got LOST while I tried to figure out what a dispositif is. The terminology seems to be an absolute mess, the French Dispositif has been translated into in English as; dispositive, apparatus, procedure, machine and others. Most common seems the translation to “apparatus” but some authors favor “dispositive” in English (e.g. Raffnsøe, 2016)

Furthermore, dispositif is difficult to grasp, also due to the fact that Foucault did not give a definition in one of his, as far as I understand. A often cited interview from seems to be closest to a definition: (in this translation, dispositif = apparatus)

“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements. Thus, a particular discourse can figure at one time as the programme of an institution, and at another it can function as a means of justifying or masking a practice which itself remains silent, or as a secondary re-interpretation of this practice, opening out for it a new field of rationality. In short, between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

Thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of–shall we say–formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function.” (taken from:

Kind of as a reaction to the “emergence as a response to a urgent need”, Jäger writes that:

“Foucault apparently sees the emergence of dispositives in this way: an emergency occurs, an existing dispositive becomes precarious. As a result, a need for action arises, and the (Sozius?) or the hegemonic forces confronted with it gather together the elements they can get to counter this state of emergency, i.e. speeches, people, knives, cannons, institutions, etc., in order to seal the “leaks” that have occurred – the state of emergency – again, as Deleuze says. (See Deleuze 1992 and Balke 1998)

What links these elements is nothing other than that they serve a common purpose to ward off the momentary or permanent state of emergency. Whatever kind of “inner bond” that would link them together is not otherwise visible in Foucault’s understanding of dispositive.

But this bond exists in the form of the human-sensual activity or work that mediates subject and object, the social worlds and the representational realities with one another, that is, through non-discursive practices that do not appear explicitly in Foucault’s definition of dispositif.” (Jäger, 2000)

However, Wikipedia also gives us a Jäger’s definition of a dispositive, and he defines it as

“the interaction of discursive behavior (i. e. speech and thoughts based upon a shared knowledge pool), non-discursive behavior (i. e. acts based upon knowledge), and manifestations of knowledge by means of acts or behaviors Dispositifs can thus be imagined as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, the complexly interwoven and integrated dispositifs add up in their entirety to a dispositif of all society.”

I have to say that I am not sure about Jäger’s understanding of discursive and non-discursive practices though.

Another definition made by Frost (2015) emphasizes the power relations within it:

“The dispositif represents the network of power relations which articulates how a power not based upon classical conceptions of sovereignty manifests itself … . It is through the dispositif that the human being is transformed into both a subject, and an object, of power relations. “ (found here:

Seeing power as one of the main features of the dispositive seems to be in line with Foucaults thinking. On a webpage (, dedicated to Foucault, I found the following definition of a dispositif:

“Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.”

The same page elaborates on Power, according to Foucault:

“Foucault argues a number of points in relation to power and offers definitions that are directly opposed to more traditional liberal and Marxist theories of power. It is important to note that Foucault refined his definitions of power over time and his views are not homogeneous.


  1. power is not a thing but a relation
  2. power is not simply repressive but it is productive
  3. power is not simply a property of the State. Power is not something that is exclusively localized in government and the State (which is not a universal essence). Rather, power is exercised throughout the social body.
  4. power operates at the most micro levels of social relations. Power is omnipresent at every level of the social body.
  5. the exercise of power is strategic and war-like”

They do not explain what exactly heir notion of a social boy is though. About “body” they write the following:

“Foucault is particularly concerned with the relations between political power and the body, and describes various historical ways of training the body to make it socially productive. The body is an element to be managed in relation to strategies of the economic and social management of populations.”

So, a social body might just be a body that has been trained to be socially productive (meaning also adopting e.g. hegemonic structures I assume).

Wrana and Lange further elaborate, that Foucault “understands the dispositives – his newly introduced term for power-knowledge complexes – as an ensemble of discursive and non-discursive practices, but in the dispositive concept he merely adds them up without adequately determining their relationship “.

To sum it up a dispositif is:

  1. System of relations/connections/inner bond/link that can be established between elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions)
  2. The established relations are power relations/ the dispositif is a power-knowledge complex
  3. Elements can be discursive or non-discursive
  4. Ever changing and its formation has its major function at a given historical moment
  5. Formation of it is responding to an urgent need and has  therefore a dominant strategic function
  6. validity is limited in space and time and is subject to its rules being followed and its institutions being used. Individual elements can also be part of several dispositives and be inherited by a new dispositive

Wikipedia offers the following example of a dispositif:

“The notion of dispositives can be explained by the example of archaeological artifacts: Objects whose use and purpose are no longer known to us pose riddles. What was object X used for? Who could – and was allowed to – use it? How often has the object been changed until it has reached its final form? How many discursive practices had to be gone through before it was agreed to design the object in this way and not otherwise? There was a time when it was evident – important or even necessary for survival. Today it no longer tells us anything. We miss the talk of that time about its purpose, its integration into a certain system of thinking and imagining the world – this discourse has ceased to exist. With it, the special theory of man’s position in the world, in whose context the object was relevant, disappeared. That which has been forgotten and that which we associate with it today forms in its entirety the dispositif X, or an overall dispositif “archaeological artifacts

It is not decisive which elements make up the dispositif, but how the elements determine the everyday discourses and practices that again produce objects and social facts that either reproduce the old dispositif or produce a new one.”

Attempt analysis according to Jäger(2000)

Discourses are not independent and autonomous phenomena; they are elements of and are the prerequisite for the existence of so-called dispositives. A dispositive is the processing connection of knowledge, which is included in speaking/thinking – doing – objectification. The basic figure of the dispositive can be imagined as a triangle or better: as a rotating and historically processing circle with three central passage points or stations of passage:

1. discursive practices, in which primarily knowledge is transported

2. actions as non-discursive practices, in which, however, knowledge is transported, which is preceded or constantly accompanied by knowledge

3. visibilities/objectivizations, which represent objectivizations of discursive knowledge practices through non-discursive practices, whereby the existence of the visibilities (“objects”) is only maintained through discursive and non-discursive practices.

The dispositive has a certain firmness, but is also always subject to historical change. Moreover, its constant influence by other dispositives must be taken into account.

Dispositive analysis, which deals with the processing connection of knowledge, action and visibility, would therefore have to complete the following steps:

1. reconstruction of knowledge in the discursive practices

2. reconstruction of the knowledge underlying the non-discursive practices

3. reconstruction of the non-discursive practices that led to the visibilities/objectifications and the knowledge contained therein

According to Jäger, it is necessary to firstly distinguish discursive and non-discursive practices, to analyse them separately, however I am not quite sure I got the distinction between discursive and non-discursive practices and whether or not it is actually possible to analyze them separately. Important here to mention is that Jäger also writes that discursive practices connect to sagbares/unsagares and non-discrusive practices, which he connects to Tätigkeiten. So, moving on trying to figure out discursive/non-discursive practices.

Wraner and Lange (2007) point out the problems that Jäger identifies: first, an all too verbally conceived “discourse” evokes a “reality” as its other, which is then, however, neither in itself nor in its relationship to the discourse adequately determined. Jäger’s critique could now be sharpened and formulated: The more one understands the discursive and the non-discursive as two separate realities, the more problematic becomes the resulting question of mediation. However, as the authors further elaborate, Foucault’s concept of discourse is “not characterized by an autonomous linguistic concept of discourse, as Jäger assumes, but Foucault attempts to conceptualize discourse as a boundary between the linguistic and the non-linguistic Sprachlichem & Nicht-Spachlichem)”.

Discourse, in that sense, I would conclude, is not a discussion, conversation, talk, dialogue, communication, conference, debate or essay, treatise, dissertation, paper, study, critique, monograph, but in a more theoretical sense.

As I have understood, Foucault has been quite infuental in discourse analysis, however attempts have been made tie extent discourse analysis to a dispositive analysis “which – starting from the discursive – includes an analysis of power relations and non-discursive practices.”

Since discourse, discursive practices, non-discursive practices are key here, I thought I would read a bit about that as well.


According to Wikipedia “Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and, thus, every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power.[19] Even further, he would state that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth.[14] Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse, therefore, is controlled by: objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak.[2] Coining the phrase power-knowledge, Foucault (1980) would argue that knowledge is both the creator of power and the creation of power. An object becomes a “node within a network”. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network: a book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences”. The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, overarching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.

One of the key discourses that Foucault identified as part of his critique of power-knowledge was that of neoliberalism, which he related very closely to his conceptualization of governmentality in his lectures on biopolitics.“

I came across a forum, where someone asked a question related to discursive practices:

 “Discourse is the collection of hegemonic accepted norms of any given period […]. In simple terms, discourse has mores or acceptable behaviors according to the discourse of the era. As discourse is constantly in flux, hegemonic acceptable norms are too. Discursive practices are the way in which discourse brings these hegemonic norms into life and are usually determined within the power/knowledge dichotomy.” (

Explanation of one of Foucoults key terms (

Discourse is as Foucault admits himself a rather slippery notion in his work but at the most basic level he uses the term to refer to the material verbal traces left by history. He also uses it to describe ‘a certain “way of speaking”‘.

Discursive practices:

Key term Foucault (

 “This term refers to a historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on people’s thought, rather it is a matter of rules which, a bit like the grammar of a language, allow certain statements to be made.”

Same forum I found an interesting reply in (

“A discursive practice in foucauldian terms is “the process through which [dominant] reality comes into being”. This is a very nebulous process, of course, and Foucault focuses on questions of power. His notions of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopower’, from his later work, are helpful to understand this. Foucault does not only focus on formal and semi-formal institutions like the state, the law, schools, clinics, prisons, the family, race, gender, and sexuality, or not just on what the critical theorists and neo-marxists call the ‘Culture Industry’ (like the media); he notoriously concerned with how power is inscribed on the body, at the level of people’s movement and perception of themselves. How does Power produce ‘docile bodies’? is another way in which he poses the question. Biopower in this sense refers to the capillary living network (like veins or hairs) of how Power is propagated and inscribed on docile bodies.”

“The word “discursive” also needs some explanation because “discourse” has accumulated many senses in recent years. In its original sense in applied linguistics, “discourse” refers to stretches of language above the level of the sentence in conversations or written texts. More recently, “discourse” has also taken on an extended meaning that differs from its use in applied linguistics in at least two ways. First, in the extended meaning of the word, language is not the sole system of signs to be studied as discourse; other semiotic systems are included, such as habits of dress, the built environment, and, of course, gesture. Second, the meaning of “discourse” has been further extended to include societal meaning‐making systems such as institutional power, social differentiation of groups, and cultural beliefs that create identities for individuals and position them in social relationships. This sense of “discursive” in “discursive practice” is accurately advertised in the description of the program in discursive practice that I quote from the Web site of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i: “The discursive practice approach is grounded in four insights concerning discourse. One is the affirmation that social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed. The second is the appreciation of the context‐bound nature of discourse. The third is the idea of discourse as social action. The fourth is the understanding that meaning is negotiated in interaction, rather than being present once‐and‐for‐all in our utterances.”

Studying discursive practices involves paying attention not only to the production of meanings by participants as they employ in local actions the verbal, nonverbal, and interactional resources that they command, but it also requires attention to how employment of such resources reflects and creates the processes and meanings of the community in which the local action occurs. As Erickson (2004) wrote, although the conduct of talk in local social interaction is unique and crafted by local social actors for the specific situation of its use at the moment of its uttering, it is at the same time profoundly influenced by processes that occur beyond the temporal and spatial horizon of the immediate occasion of interaction. The aim of discursive practice is to describe both the global context of action and the communicative resources that participants employ in local action. When the context of a practice is known and the configuration of communicative resources is described, the ultimate aim of Practice Theory is to explain the ways in which the global context affects the local employment of resources and vice versa” (Young, 2008)

Non-Discursive practices:

Foucault key term (

“In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault lists non-discursive practices as including ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes’ (p.162). He also argues that discourse does not underlie all cultural forms. Forms such as art and music are not discursive. He also notes: ‘there is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me’.”

I have not read enough about Focuault to say that I KNOW what archeology/geneology in his approach imply, but this citation might come in handy later:

”While archaeology examines the unconscious rules of formation which regulate the emergence of discourse, genealogical analysis focuses on the specific nature of the relations between discursive and non-discursive practices, and on the material conditions of emergence of practices and of discursive systems of knowledge. Genealogical analysis is thus essentially a method for looking at the historical emergence in the search for antecedents. While archaeology examines the structure of discourse, genealogy gives a greater weight to practices, power, and institutions.


So, if I had to sum up the dispositive in one sentence: the dispositif is a heterogenous ensemble consisting of discursive as well as non-discursive elements (discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions) that create the contingent power-knowledge complex also called dispositif.


I am not sure if this brought me closer to understanding what an assemblage is, but it might help- and also the dispositif might be a theoretical lens I could use in my thesis instead. But to know that, I have to answer a couple of questions:

  1. What is the difference between dispositif and assemblage? RIght now I think it might be that the dispositif focuses more on knowledge/power while assemblage might focus more on agency, but not sure about that!

2. Why have Kitchin & Lauriault decided to go with data ASSEMBLAGES, without referring to either Deleuze/Guattari or DeLanda and why have they chose to name it data assemblages while citing Foucault’s DISPOSITIF?

3. Why haven’t they named it data dispositive? Or dispositive of a data infrastructure?

4. If there are connections/lines between the elements, isn’t it like a network? What is the difference to a network? Ecology/ Ecosystem and Actor-Network? What would be “my dispositif”?


Jäger, Siegfried. “Kritische Diskurs- Und Dispositivanalyse.” 2000, Accessed August 6, 2020.

Frost, T. (2015). The Dispositif between Foucault and Agamben. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 15 (1), 151–171. Available from [Accessed 12 February 2019].

Kitchin, Rob, and Tracey P Lauriault. “Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work,” 2014, 20.

Raffnsøe, Sverre, Marius Gudmand-Høyer, and Morten S. Thaning. “Foucault’s Dispositive: The Perspicacity of Dispositive Analytics in Organizational Research.” Organization 23, no. 2 (March 1, 2016): 272–98.

Wikipedia (Dispositif)


Wrana, Daniel, and Antje Langer. “An den Rändern der Diskurse. Jenseits der Unterscheidung diskursiver und nicht-diskursiver Praktiken,” n.d., 30.

Young. “What Is Discursive Practice?” Language Learning 58, no. s2 (2008): 1–8.

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