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Foucault on institutions


Explanations > Critical Theory > Concepts > Foucault on institutions

Madness and asylums | Prisons | See also


Here are very brief notes on Foucault's two main works on institutions. What is perhaps notable is the extension of institutional practices into everyday life -- many societies are now built

Madness and asylums

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault traced the history of how insanity has been treated.

At one time, mad people were an accepted part of society, sometimes thought of as living in a spiritual world and treated with kindness.

From the Middle Ages the principle of exclusion was applied to madness. Insane people were either sent away or locked up. This has been linked with the disappearance of leprosy, which had previously been the condition of exclusion.

In the Age of Reason, as open thought started to break free from ecclesiastical domination, madness was seen as the opposite of reason -- an inability to reason. Treatment of madness was thus punishment until they became 'reasonable'.

Only in the 19th century, with the rise of investigative medicine, was madness seen as an illness, although many of the insane continued to be locked up and many treatments would appear cruel and ineffective to modern eyes. Behaviorist approaches such as aversion therapy were little removed from punishment.

It was only with the rise of psychoanalysis that inquiry into the thinking processes of the mentally ill gained prominence.

Control and prisons

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, he showed how public brutalization and execution of prisoners (monarchical punishment) was replaced by incarceration and control (disciplinary punishment) as the purpose prisons became less about retribution and more about reformation. The goal become to turn people into conforming members of society.

Foucault noted how prisons, rather than punishing less learned how to punish better, and how many many institutions from hospitals to schools based their systems of control on that of prisons. He identified three main methods of control:

  • Hierarchical observation
  • Normalizing judgment
  • Examination

Control not only seeks to make sure people do not do wrong things but that they also do right things. Thus non-observance of rules is punishable.

Foucault also noted how sexuality is controlled now by making both objects of scientific study that provides simultaneous knowledge and domination.

See also

Foucault, M. (1998). Madness and Civilization, New York: Vintage Books (originally published in 1959)

Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books (originally published in 1975)

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