What is a Panopticon? - Definition & Concept

Instructor: Jason Tauches

Jason is a writer and attorney who holds a Juris Doctor and a Master of Laws as well as an MFA in Creative Writing

In this lesson you will learn the concept of the panopticon, who conceived it, and its purpose. You will also learn how the concept has been used as a metaphor for society.


If you had to build a jail, how would you do it? You would likely take into account that the jail has to keep the prisoners in line, while also keeping costs down for the government. But how many guards would you need? What would be the structure of the cells? Would you create it using a cell block structure? What if you could build it using a concept that would use no guards at all?


A panopticon is a penal structure of circular design in which prisoners are placed in cells along the circumference, and the guardroom is in the center of the structure. The key elements to the structure are that the prisoners cannot communicate with each other from their cells, they can see the guardroom and they are always observable by the guards, and yet they cannot see the guards in the guardroom. The structure was first conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1787 as a way to provide security in prisons at a limited cost.

An artists drawing of a Panopticon

The Concept

Bentham believed this model for prisons would be the most efficient setup. In this layout, the prisoners are always observable to the guards in the guard tower. However, the prisoners cannot see into the guard tower to verify that there is a guard on duty watching them. The prisoners have no way of knowing when they are being watched. Because it is always possible they are being observed, they will always assume a guard is in the tower watching them. Therefore, they will (in theory) remain on their best behavior, even if there is no guard in the tower.

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