Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was born in Poiters, France. The son of a prestigious surgeon, Foucault did not excel in school until enrolling in college, eventually earning admittance to one of France’s most prestigious universities, the École Normale Supérieure. There, Foucault earned degrees in both psychology and philosophy, but his academic success was not easily gained. Foucault suffered from horrible bouts of depression while enrolled at the École Normale, and he also failed his agrégation (a competitive exam for placement in the public education system) the first time around in 1950. Later, in 1958, while serving as a French delegate in Sweden, Foucault submitted his doctoral thesis at the University of Uppsala and had it rejected.
Despite these early obstacles, Foucault eventually became one of France’s most notable intellectuals. His thesis on the history of the concept of “madness” (eventually accepted in France in 1961) was immediately well received, and Foucault continued to write influential books on some of the West’s most powerful social institutions, such as medicine, prisons, and religion, as well as groundbreaking works on more abstract theoretical issues of power, knowledge, sexuality, and selfhood. While the objects of Foucault’s studies seem to range widely, they all tend to focus on how knowledge of human beings is inextricably connected to power over them. For Foucault, the many modern concepts and practices that attempt to uncover “the truth” about human beings (either psychologically, sexually, or spiritually) actually create the very types of people they purport to discover.
Foucault was also well known in France for his political activism. Foucault took a number of leftist (and sometimes unpopular) political stands, like supporting prisoners’ rights in France and protesting the Vietnam and Algerian Wars.
Foucault died in 1984 from an AIDS-related illness. Today he remains one of the most influential and widely read social theorists in recent history. Foucault’s work has been groundbreaking not only for sociology, but also for anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, philosophy, and literary criticism.
Foucault was interested in the phenomenon of discourse throughout his career, primarily in how discourses define the reality of the social world and the people, ideas, and things that inhabit it. For Foucault, a discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking or writing about reality that defines what can be intelligibly thought and said about the world and what cannot. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of "sexuality" had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge (see next entry).
For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related – knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power). It is important to note that Foucault understood power/knowledge as productive as well as constraining. Power/knowledge not only limits what we can do, but also opens up new ways of acting and thinking about ourselves.
Foucault argues that discipline is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behavior of social actors through subtle means. In contrast to the brute, sovereign force exercised by monarchs or lords, discipline works by organizing space (e.g., the way a prison or classroom is built), time (e.g., the set times you are expected to be at work each day), and everyday activities. Surveillance is also an integral part of disciplinary practices. In Discipline & Punish, Foucault argues that modern society is a “disciplinary society,” meaning that power in our time is largely exercised through disciplinary means in a variety of institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, militaries, etc.).
In his later work, Foucault coined the now influential concept of governmentality. According to Foucault, governmentality is the “art of governing,” not simply at the level of state politics, as we generally think of it, but the governing of a wide array of objects and persons such as entire populations at the most abstract level and one’s own desires and thoughts at a more micro level. Foucault was especially interested in how, in contemporary times, the governing of conduct was increasingly focused on the management of populations. Unlike disciplinary power aimed at the training of individual bodies, the management of populations relied on biopower, understood as the policies and procedures that manage births, deaths, reproduction, and health and illness within the larger social body.
As noted above, Foucault has served as theoretical inspiration across a multitude of disciplines, so much so that the term “Foucauldian” is often applied to analyses that utilize his theoretical approach. Outside of academia, Foucault’s work is of interest to anyone looking to better understand and appreciate the subtle ways that power works in social life, particularly with regard to how seemingly mundane practices and ideas structure our personal experiences and senses of self. After reading Foucault, it’s hard to think about your society or yourself in quite the same way.
Reading Foucault is always fascinating, but rarely easy. Foucault’s work covers a wide range of institutions, historical periods, and themes, and his theories contain several difficult concepts. Luckily, there are some good introductory texts to help you make your way through. See, for example,
Sara Mills’ Michel Foucault, part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series.
Gary Gutting’s blessedly brief Foucault: A Very Short Introduction.
To hear Foucault explain his argument in Discipline & Punish in his own words, check out the clips below: