Sociologists and philosophers who take on the power-conflict perspective believe that structural-functionalists and symbolic interactionists do not adequately take into account the use (or abuse) of power within societies. Many thinkers of this school tend to base their explanations of crime from the division of classes and the inequal distribution of power among different groups within the context of the larger group of the society.
Michel Foucault's works in the field of Sociology covers a wide range of topics, but his book Discipline and Punish is a work concerning the study of crime, punishment, and discipline in the modern society.
Torture was the mode of punishment in the middle ages in Europe because in those times, crimes were perceived to be injuries upon the power of the sovereign himself. Therefore, the sovereign felt a need to use his power to inflict pain upon the criminal. Thus, torture was widespread during this time.
As the power shifted over from the sovereign to the individual, the view of crime and punishment changed entirely. The sovereign was no longer the most important figure of the state; rather, the various states in Europe started to represent the individuals within it more fully. Therefore, crimes became to be seen as deviation from the norms and the values of the state rather than injury to the power of an individual or groups of individuals. Since crimes were no longer viewed as providing injury, it was also unnecessary for the state to punish in a vengeful way.
Another shift in power relations made torture unnecessary in the modern world. In the middle ages, catching criminals and subsequently punishing them was not an easy task. States were very weak and power was unevenly distributed. Therefore, it was necessary to make punishment public. The various methods of torture and execution were made public so that everyone could see it. This was used to show off the power of the state and was used as a warning to future criminals. However, as states gained more power and as they stabilized, it was easier to enforce civil laws. Because the states no longer had to rely on extremely powerful sovereigns to control a feudal based society due to the modern city making it easier to control the new liberal society, power could be more evenly diffused throughout society. The individual gained power along with the state, which also gained stability. Therefore, a strong show of violence became unnecessary to facilitate order.
These two factors helped to provide the punishment of the modern era, which is that of imprisonment, or the revoking of freedom. Because individuals became more important, and there was no longer any need to punish in a vengeful or public way, punishment became more of a hidden phenomenon. Prisons are places which control the actions of the individual, implicitly prescribing and proscribing certain actions. In order to control action, prisons instill a sense of discipline. Discipline is the control of individuals in a certain institution.
Even though punishment is now hidden, discipline became one of the most important and visible uses of power in the modern times. In the modern society where individuals supposedly are the most important, something is required to keep the institutions running. Discipline comes down from the institutions in order to regulate the society. The prison therefore is the template for modern institutions because the prison (or panopticon) is the institution with the best use of discipline. Therefore, schools, militaries, bureacracies are all built with discipline in mind. These institutions all observe the individual (with or without the individual's knowledge) with the threat of punishment lurking by in order to control these individuals. In the modern age, not only are individuals closely watched but their physical actions are now controlled as well. Soldiers in a military move in unison, to a prescribed pattern set by the institution. Students are controlled by the bureacracy of the school and learn according to the wishes of the society, under the watchful eye of the teacher or the professor.
In other words, institutions have come to dominate the society instead of the individual as some think. It is the institutions, norms, and values that guide the individual, instilling discipline into the group. Foucault believes that humans no longer have a right to their own fates because it is institutions that govern the society.