Jose Mier On Foucault’s Genealogy

Jose Mier screen shot of Foucault genealogy book

Jose Mier is far from a philosopher, being merely a Sun Valley, CA businessman and amateur genealogist, but on that subject (genealogy) one often stumbles upon Michel Foucault’s treatise on genealogy and it bears mentioning and learning a bit about Foucault.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, social theorist, and historian whose work has had a profound impact on various academic disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, political science, and cultural studies. His influential ideas on power, knowledge, and the intersection of institutions with individual lives have shaped intellectual discourse in the latter half of the 20th century and continue to be influential today.

Jose Mier screen shot of Foucault genealogy book
Jose Mier screen shot of Foucault genealogy book

Early Life and Education:

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, France. He grew up in a solidly middle-class family and demonstrated academic excellence from an early age. Foucault pursued classical studies at the Lycée Henri-IV and later enrolled in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, a prestigious institution known for producing many influential intellectuals.

His early intellectual pursuits were focused on psychology and philosophy, and he earned degrees in psychology and philosophy. Foucault’s academic journey laid the groundwork for his interdisciplinary approach, drawing from philosophy, sociology, psychology, and history.

Archaeology and Structuralism:

In the early stages of his academic career, Foucault aligned himself with structuralism, a theoretical framework prominent in French intellectual circles during the 1950s and 1960s. Structuralism aimed to uncover the underlying structures governing human behavior and society.

Foucault’s first major work, “Madness and Civilization” (1961), explored the historical development of the treatment of the mentally ill. This early work already displayed his distinctive method, which he later termed “archaeology.” Instead of presenting a linear historical narrative, Foucault delved into the layers of discourse surrounding madness, revealing how societal attitudes toward the insane evolved over time.

The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish:

Foucault’s exploration of institutions continued with “The Birth of the Clinic” (1963), in which he applied his archaeological method to the history of medicine. The book analyzed the emergence of modern clinical medicine and how medical knowledge shaped the perception of the body and illness.

His next major work, “Discipline and Punish” (1975), examined the historical transformation of punishment and surveillance in society. Foucault introduced the concept of “disciplinary power,” highlighting the ways institutions, particularly prisons and schools, exert control over individuals through surveillance and normalization. This work marked a shift from archaeology to genealogy, as Foucault became more concerned with tracing the historical processes and power relations that produced contemporary institutions.

Power/Knowledge and Bio-Power:

Foucault’s understanding of power is central to his body of work. He argued that power is not simply a hierarchical structure but is diffused throughout society and operates at various levels. In his famous formula, “power/knowledge,” Foucault emphasized the intrinsic connection between power and the knowledge systems that shape our understanding of the world.

In the 1970s, Foucault extended his analysis of power to what he termed “bio-power” or “governmentality.” This phase of his thought explored how modern societies manage populations through various institutions and practices, such as medicine, psychology, and government policies. His lectures at the Collège de France, later published as “Society Must Be Defended” (2003), and “Security, Territory, Population” (2007), delved into these themes.

Sexuality and The History of Sexuality:

Foucault’s exploration of power dynamics extended to the realm of sexuality. His monumental project, “The History of Sexuality,” was intended to be a multi-volume work but remained incomplete due to his untimely death. The first volume, published in 1976, challenged prevailing notions of sexuality and argued against the idea that the 19th-century West experienced a sudden release of pent-up sexual repression.

Foucault’s approach to sexuality emphasized its intersection with power relations and the ways in which discourses on sex are used to regulate individuals and societies. He famously argued that rather than a history of sexual repression followed by liberation, modern Western societies have experienced a “deployment of sexuality” wherein sexuality becomes a key element in the regulation of social life.

Late Career and Activism:

Toward the end of his life, Foucault engaged more directly with contemporary political issues. He participated in various activist movements and was vocal about his concerns regarding human rights, prisons, and state power. His engagement with Iranian politics and the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s generated significant controversy and discussion.

In his last years, Foucault continued to explore the complexities of subjectivity, power, and resistance. He left an indelible mark on postmodern thought, influencing a wide range of disciplines and intellectual movements.


Foucault’s work has had a lasting impact on fields such as philosophy, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, and postcolonial studies. His ideas have been both celebrated and critiqued, with scholars drawing on his concepts to analyze various aspects of society, culture, and politics.

One of Foucault’s enduring contributions is his methodological approach, challenging scholars to question established narratives and power structures. His emphasis on the relationship between power and knowledge has influenced critical theories and social analyses that seek to unveil the mechanisms through which authority operates.

In conclusion, Michel Foucault’s intellectual journey took him from the archaeological investigations of institutional histories to genealogies of power and the complexities of modern society. His exploration of power dynamics, knowledge production, and the regulation of bodies and behaviors has left an indelible mark on academic discourse and continues to shape discussions about the nature of society and the individual. Foucault’s legacy endures as scholars grapple with the enduring relevance and implications of his thought in an ever-changing world.

Foucault on Genealogy

Michel Foucault’s genealogical method is a central aspect of his intellectual framework, particularly evident in his later works, such as “Discipline and Punish” (1975) and “The History of Sexuality” (1976). Unlike the archaeological method that characterized his earlier works, genealogy is concerned with tracing the historical development of ideas, practices, and institutions, emphasizing discontinuities, conflicts, and power relations. Foucault’s genealogical approach is a critical tool for understanding how power operates in society and how certain concepts and practices become normalized over time.

Key Features of Foucault’s Genealogy:

  1. Historical Inquiry with a Critical Edge:
    • Genealogy is a mode of historical inquiry that challenges traditional historical narratives, seeking to unveil the contingent and conflict-ridden nature of historical events and ideas.
    • Rather than presenting a linear and continuous history, genealogy exposes ruptures, discontinuities, and the often overlooked struggles that have shaped the evolution of institutions and practices.
  2. Focus on Power Relations:
    • Genealogy is fundamentally concerned with power relations and how they manifest in various forms. Foucault was interested in understanding how power operates at different levels of society and how it shapes individual subjectivities.
    • By analyzing the development of institutions and practices, genealogy reveals how power is exercised through strategies of exclusion, marginalization, and normalization.
  3. Interconnectedness of Knowledge and Power:
    • Foucault’s genealogical method emphasizes the inherent connection between knowledge and power. He argued that knowledge is not a neutral, objective representation of reality but is deeply intertwined with power structures.
    • Institutions, practices, and discourses are seen as sites where knowledge and power intersect, and genealogy seeks to expose the power dynamics inherent in the production and dissemination of knowledge.
  4. Uncovering the Margins and Exclusions:
    • Genealogy pays attention to what has been marginalized or excluded from dominant discourses and institutions. By examining what is deemed deviant or outside the norm, Foucault sought to shed light on the power dynamics that determine what is considered acceptable or unacceptable in society.
    • This aspect of genealogy is evident in Foucault’s exploration of marginalized groups, such as prisoners, the mentally ill, and sexual minorities.
  5. Critique of Totalizing Narratives:
    • Foucault’s genealogy challenges grand, totalizing narratives that attempt to provide a unified and comprehensive history. Instead, he advocates for a more fragmented, localized approach that acknowledges the diversity of experiences and perspectives.
    • This critique of totalizing narratives is in line with Foucault’s broader skepticism toward metanarratives and his emphasis on the contingent and contextual nature of historical processes.
  6. Application to Various Domains:
    • Foucault applied the genealogical method to a diverse range of subjects, including prisons, as seen in “Discipline and Punish,” and the history of sexuality in the first volume of “The History of Sexuality.”
    • The genealogical approach allows for a nuanced analysis of different social practices and institutions, revealing the complex interplay of power, knowledge, and historical contingencies.

Contributions and Criticisms:


  • Foucault’s genealogy has been influential in shaping critical approaches to history, sociology, cultural studies, and political theory. Scholars across disciplines have embraced the genealogical method to analyze power relations, uncover hidden histories, and challenge dominant narratives.
  • The emphasis on discontinuity and contingency has encouraged a more nuanced understanding of historical and social processes, moving away from deterministic and linear explanations.


  • Some critics argue that Foucault’s genealogy is too focused on critique and deconstruction, potentially leaving little room for positive alternatives or proposals for change.
  • The genealogical method has also faced criticism for its emphasis on power relations at the expense of other factors, such as economic structures or individual agency.

In conclusion, Michel Foucault’s genealogical method represents a critical and innovative approach to historical analysis. By interrogating the development of institutions and practices, genealogy reveals the complexities of power relations and challenges traditional narratives that often present history as a linear progression. Foucault’s genealogy continues to inspire scholars to explore the multifaceted ways in which power operates in society and to question established norms and structures.