What’s In a Norm? Foucault’s Conceptualisation and Genealogy of the Norm

  • Mark Kelly Western Sydney University, Australia


In this article I survey Foucault’s remarks on norms and normalisation from across his oeuvre, with a view to reconstructing his genealogy of norms, leaning at points – following Foucault himself – on Georges Canguilhem’s seminal work on the topic. I also survey in tandem the existing secondary scholarship on this question, maintaining – pace other schol-ars – that Foucault’s position has not been adequately explicated despite sophisticated attempts. I argue that Foucault’s idiosyncratic conception of the norm, overlooked or mis-understood by other readers, is consistently of an ideal model guiding human action in any particular sphere. This concept is a relatively modern one that may be contrasted to the older form of restricting human behaviour according to binary discriminations that may be called ‘laws’ or ‘rules’. Foucault traces the form of the norm specifically to medieval pro-cesses for dealing with the plague, which later become highly generalised and diffused to produce a normalising society. I conclude with a more speculative discussion of how this society of the norm continues to utilise binarising rules, arguing that norms are typically used in order to ground binarising condemnations of abnormal cases, but that the nebu-lousness of norms ultimately allows any particular case to be condemned by such stand-ards.

Author Biography

Mark Kelly, Western Sydney University, Australia
Mark G. E. Kelly is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He is the author of several books on the thought of Michel Foucault, most prominently The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (Routledge, 2009), as well as other Foucauldian works including, most recently, For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory (SUNY, 2018).


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