The Carceral System

The complex system introduced towards the end of Discipline and Punish. It attempts to explain both the operation of the modern prison and its failure. The carceral system includes the architecture of the prison, its regulations and its staff: it extends beyond the prison itself to penetrate into society. Its components are the discipline of the prison, the development of a rational technique for managing prisoners, the rise of criminality and strategies of reform. The carceral system therefore contains both the failure and reform of the prison; it is part of Foucault's argument that failure is an essential part of the working of the prison. See also delinquent.

The Classical Period

The time-period from 1660 to the end of the 19th century. Discipline and Punish, like most of Foucault's works, refers mainly to this age. For Foucault, the classical period is seen as the birth of many of the characteristic institutions and structures of the modern world, as well as of mechanisms of control and the human sciences.


The concept that eventually replaces that of the "prisoner", according to Foucault. The delinquent is created by the operation of the carceral system and the human sciences, and strictly separated from other popular illegal activities. He is part of a small, hardened group of criminals, identified with the lower social classes. Most importantly, he is defined as "abnormal", and analyzed and controlled by the mechanisms that Foucault describes. There are several advantages in replacing the criminal by the delinquent: delinquents are clearly set apart from the rest of society, and therefore easy to supervise and control. A small, controlled group is far easier to cope with than the alternative: large roaming bands of brigands and robbers, or revolutionary crowds. In part, Foucault argues that the figure of the delinquent was a response to the danger presented by the lower orders in the nineteenth century.


Discipline is a way of controlling the movement and operations of the body in a constant way. It is a type of power that coerces the body by regulating and dividing up its movement, and the space and time in which it moves. Timetables and the ranks into which soldiers are arranged are examples of this regulation. The disciplines are the methods by which this control became possible. Foucault traces the origins of discipline back to monasteries and armies. He is clear, however, that the concept changed in the eighteenth century. Discipline became a widely used technique to control whole populations. The modern prison, and indeed the modern state, is unthinkable without this idea of the mass control of bodies and movement.


The basic unit that Foucault analyzes in all his works. Foucault defines the discourse as a system in which certain knowledge is possible; discourses determine what is true or false in a particular field. The discourse of psychiatry, for example, determines what it is possible to know about madness. Saying things outside of a discourse is almost impossible. Foucault's argument about prisons is a good example: abolishing the prison is unthinkable partly because we do not have the words to describe any alternative. The prison is at the center of the modern discourse of punishment.


Foucault traces exercise back to monasteries and the activities of monks. In its early form, it involves regulating the body by imposing religious activities upon it in order to please God and achieve salvation. Foucault argues that the concept changed in the classical period. It became an attempt to impose increasingly complex activities on the body in order to control it. Military drills, or physical training at school are examples of this later form of exercise.


A concept that Foucault originally borrowed from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, but made his own. A genealogy is an attempt to consider the origins of systems of knowledge, and to analyze discourses. It attempts to reveal the discontinuities and breaks in a discourse, to focus on the specific rather than on the general. In doing so, it aims to show that there have been other ways of thinking and acting, and that modern discourses are not any truer than those in the past. Most importantly, it aims to show that many modern ideas are not self- evidently "true", but the product of the workings of power. Foucault's genealogies aim to allow individuals trapped or excluded by such systems of knowledge to speak out; one of the aims of Discipline and Punish is to give modern prisoners, who are categorized as abnormal, examined and analyzed by criminologists and prison warders, a voice. The genealogy is somewhat similar to Foucault's idea of "Archaeology", found in The Order of Things, which emphasizes discontinuity to a greater extent.

The Human Sciences

Sciences, or bodies of knowledge that have man as their subject. Psychiatry, criminology, sociology, psychology and medicine are the main human sciences. Together, the human sciences create a regime of power that controls and describes human behavior in terms of norms. By setting out what is "normal", the human sciences also create the idea of abnormality or deviation. Much of Foucault's work is an attempt to analyze how these categories structure modern life. See norm.


An average standard created by the human sciences against which people are measured: the sane man, the law-abiding citizen, and the obedient child are all "normal" people. But an idea of the "normal" also implies the existence of the abnormal: the madman, the criminal and the deviant are the reverse side of this coin. An idea of deviance is possible only where norms exist. For Foucault, norms are concepts that are constantly used to evaluate and control us: they also exclude those who cannot conform to "normal" categories. As such, they are an unavoidable but somehow harmful feature of modern society. See human sciences.


The particular system of investigation and punishment that a society uses. Penality includes all aspects of the examination and treatment of those who break the law. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault charts the development of the modern system of penality, which us based around the prison and the observation and control of convicts.


The penitentiary is a prison that does more than merely deprive men of their freedom. It also makes them work, and observes and treats them in a prison hospital. This combination of workshop, hospital and prison is the defining feature of the modern prison system for Foucault. The penitentiary also has a major role in creating the delinquent.


Foucault's conception of power is a central part of this work. Essentially, power is a relationship between people in which one affects another's actions. Power differs from force or violence, which affect the body physically. It involves making a free subject do something that he would not have done otherwise: power therefore involves restricting or altering someone's will. Power is present in all human relationships, and penetrates throughout society. The state does not have a monopoly over power, because power relations are deeply unstable and changeable. Having said that, patterns of domination do exist in society: for example, the modern power to punish was established through the action of the human sciences. The relationship between power and knowledge is also an important one. The human sciences are able to control and exclude people because they make claims to both knowledge and power. To claim that a statement is true is also to make a claim to power because truth can only be produced by power. Criminology can make claims that exclude the delinquent, for example, because a system of power relations exists in which the delinquent is dominated.


The intellectual climate in France in the middle of the 20th century was dominated by the philosophy of structuralism. Structuralism has been applied to a diverse range of fields, from anthropology to philosophy to mathematics. Structuralism claims that meaning doesn't rest in the individual units of a given system (e.g. words in a linguistic system) but in the relationships between these units. We come to understand the world not by understanding the individual things that make it up, but by understanding the relationships between these things. Structuralist thought influenced Foucault's early career.