Sociology Michel Foucault
Gavin Kendall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0021


Paul-Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on 15 October 1926 and died in Paris on 25 June 1984. He was a French philosopher and historian—in his own words, a historian of systems of thought—but his work has had an enormous impact across the humanities and social sciences. His family background was in medicine: His father was a surgeon, and his mother, whose own father was also a doctor, helped run her husband’s practice. The Foucault family led a comfortable, middle-class existence, and there was an expectation that Michel (as he preferred to be known) would continue the family business, training in medicine and eventually taking over his father’s practice; this expectation would never be met, however, as Foucault had other interests. In 1946, he enrolled at the École Normale Supérieure. He passed the agrégation in 1951 and by 1952 was teaching psychology at the University of Lille. His first significant publications—Maladie Mentale et Personnalité and his introduction to Binswanger’s Dream and Existence—were published in 1954. In the next few years, Foucault held posts in Uppsala, Warsaw, and Hamburg before settling in 1960 at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. In 1961 he obtained his doctorate, and his major thesis, “Madness and Civilization,” was published. In 1963 he published The Birth of the Clinic and Raymond Roussel. In 1966, on the publication of the best-selling The Order of Things, Foucault was widely acclaimed as one of the leading figures in French intellectual life. In 1969, he moved to the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes and published The Archaeology of Knowledge. In 1970, he was appointed to a post (Professor of the History of Systems of Thought) at the Collège de France, a prestigious research institution, and he held this position until his death in 1984. The post entailed twenty-six hours of teaching each year, with about half of this commitment being taken up with lectures outlining current research. In 1973, he published I, Pierre Rivière . . . , and in 1975, Discipline and Punish. His final three published books were part of the History of Sexuality project: In 1976, he published the first volume; in 1984, knowing he was dying, he rushed to finish Volumes 2 and 3 (The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self).

General Overviews

There is a glut of general overviews, ranging from a number of texts aimed at undergraduates, which describe Foucault’s main concepts and aim at simplification, through to those that deal with the more complex elements of his work. Veyne 2010 is a good place to start, as it mixes details from Foucault’s life with key points about his philosophical preferences and is an easy read. Of the undergraduate texts, McHoul and Grace 1997 provides a straightforward introduction, while Smart 2002 gives more detail—Smart’s chapters on major themes and on methodology are especially useful for the beginning reader. O’Farrell 2005 and Deleuze 1986 are the best two general accounts of Foucault: O’Farrell concentrates on Foucault as a cultural analyst, while Deleuze’s strength is in taking us in turn through archaeology and genealogy and then knowledge, power, and the subject, without losing sight of their interconnections. Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982 is very useful for their methodological advice, showing us how genealogy emerges as a “solution” to the problems of archaeology; likewise Dean 1994 is most useful for its methodological sophistication and is the recommended text for those who want to know how to try to emulate Foucault’s approach. Gutting 2005 is a useful and interesting collection; for the beginner, the chapters by Flynn, and Bernauer and Mahon, are the best place to start.

  • Dean, Mitchell. 1994. Critical and effective histories: Foucault’s methods and historical sociology. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203414217

    Especially useful for sociologists, as this text makes connections to Weber and Habermas. Concentrates on Foucault’s later work on governmentality. Dean makes a powerful argument for the role of historical work in sociology. This is the best place to start if one is interested in emulating Foucault’s methodological approach.

  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1986. Foucault. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Difficult and idiosyncratic but the best account of knowledge, power, and subjectification. The first half deals with archaeology and genealogy; the second deals with knowledge, power, and the subject. Extremely useful for showing how power and knowledge are not the same thing, a common misconception about Foucault’s work.

  • Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. 1982. Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Very useful for making sense of The Archaeology of Knowledge and in analyzing the turn to genealogy, which is understood as a solution to the “failures” of archaeology. Together with Dean 1994, this is recommended as a methodological guide.

  • Gutting, Gary, ed. 2005. The Cambridge companion to Foucault. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521840821

    A series of essays on various Foucaultian themes. Lacks coherence but takes the reader into a number of fascinating areas. Flynn on history and Bernauer and Mahon on ethics are especially useful chapters. The chapter by “Maurice Florence” purports to be Foucault’s own pseudonymous account of his thought.

  • McHoul, Alec W., and Wendy Grace. 1997. A Foucault primer: Discourse, power, and the subject. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A well-written and easily understood text—perhaps the best place for an undergraduate to start.

  • O’Farrell, Clare. 2005. Michel Foucault. London: SAGE.

    Especially useful for those interested in cultural analysis. O’Farrell emphasizes the utility of Foucault’s definition of culture: the organization of knowledges and social relations and the ways in which these are rendered acceptable or unacceptable. Includes a useful chronology and bibliography. The appendix of key concepts is very valuable.

  • Smart, Barry. 2002. Michel Foucault. New York: Routledge.

    A well-written, thematic treatment of Foucault. Recommended for undergraduate audiences. The first chapter, on major themes in Foucault, and the second chapter, on methodological approaches, are especially well written for a beginner.

  • Veyne, Paul. 2010. Foucault: His thought, his character. Malden, MA: Polity.

    This appreciation, by one of his close friends, stresses Foucault’s skepticism and his debt to Nietzsche. The book dismisses the idea that Foucault was a relativist but allows that he was a nominalist, who nonetheless respected the truth of “stubborn facts.”

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