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Alterity 101: Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

How can anyone not want to get rid, and by means without appeal, of someone who is fundamentally a “criminal”, essentially a “danger”, and naturally a “monster”. The safety of all of us is at stake.

- Foucault, The Proper Use of Criminals


Alterity 101 is a set of articles that strive to understand the phenomenon of alterity from a socio-anthropological perspective. The subsequent six articles will embark on a definition of Alterity and its power dynamics; it will also enable the reader to understand how alterity takes form under societal institutions by using the example of prisons. In a world that is disoriented towards the Other, we must ask ourselves which representations have been ingrained in the population and if these representations originate from dominant mechanisms.

2. Alterity 101: The Power of Alterity

3. Alterity 101: The Alarmist Discourse

4. Alterity 101: Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

5. Alterity 101: Hyper-incarceration

6. Alterity 101: The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner

Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

The alarmist discourse has succeeded in separating the population into two groups. On one side, there is the population that is perceived as being ‘normal’ and on the other, the population that is perceived as being ‘dangerous’ and ‘abnormal’ (Foucault, 1977). As aforementioned in this series, the ‘normal’ fragment of the population, in Europe, has come to be seen as the White European, while the ‘abnormal’ fragment is composed of all the migrants and the lower social classes (Wacquant, 2005a). These individuals do not only suffer from a societal discourse that categorizes them, but this discourse has been implemented in social institutions, and the ones considered ‘abnormal’ have their rights obstructed daily and must fight for recognition as citizens. Repression forces - and the institutions who supervise them - turn out to be a way to separate the individuals seen as ‘abnormal’ from the ‘normal’ citizens.

The most basic example of a societal institution that has the role of dividing one side of the population from the other, is the Immigration Department. The delinquency discourse here plays a role in prevention because these people who came to a country that is not theirs could cause problems and could become delinquents, therefore they must be stopped before they commit a crime. The non-white European will be seen as potentially deviant and the Immigration Department will have to take control of him. However, not all non-white Europeans are migrants and a majority have the nationality of the country or a permit to reside in the country by virtue of work or residency visas, and because of that, the immigration department has no power over them. Still, in Europe and the United States, they are the ones who will be associated with suspicion of criminality (Wacquant, 2005b), and in that case, other institutions must take care of their separation from society.

Figure 1: Immigrant families at U.S-Mexico Border Control, by Sergio Flores

Those institutions will act upon the ‘deviant population’, control whether the laws are respected, and act upon the ones who break them. They function under a jurisdiction that will establish every individual as equal to others. However, how can a side of the population have more probability to be caught up in problems with the law if the law is the same for everyone? Because equality does only function in the scheme of the law itself - moral, metaphysical, and political equality will not be assumed in legal impartiality. While the law is supposed to be the same for all, it does not define equality in society or outside the legal sphere (Althusser, 1995). Nonetheless, legal impartiality is considered as being a moral-legal ideology that presupposes the natural equality of all humans. This ideology has become universal and hides the fact that equality is not present in our society and that, on the contrary, groups do exist in society and they will differ from each other because of their cultural capital, social capital, material capital, etc. The problem is that the foundation of law is forged in the ideology of moral-legal equality and the modalities of repression that ought to defend the respect of laws (police forces, prisons, fines) will also be based upon that same ideology. The legal system will intervene in the reproduction of the discourses of society by structuring and managing repression (Foucault, 1975). And, because the punishment par excellence is a prison sentence, the accused will probably end up in penitentiaries.

Figure 2: Family Separation

The main institution that serves to separate the ‘normal’ from the ‘abnormal’ population is therefore the prison institution, which works as a direct consequence of the false assumptions of moral and social equality in the legal system. Prison has as its prime function the security of the population and the separation of the dangerous. More precisely, the prison has six objectives: security, rehabilitation, prevention, justice, neutralization, and dissuasion of recidivism (Drake, 2012). However, the most important and first purpose of prison is the security (Chantraine, 2003). Prison must keep away the danger - correction only comes after (if it does) - and it is risk management that always predominates in any other prison’s function (Cunha, 2014). The discourse of correction is a form of morally legitimizing the use of prisons but it is not up to date with their reality. Instead, prisons increasingly appear as an alternative to employment for the populations which are seen as inconvenient and unsuitable for work (Chantraine, 2003). In fact, prison will be a space in which people are separated from society, where they do not have any rights for social benefits, and where they work for less than a minimum income. The targeted populations, the Others, will live with the omnipresence of the prison system: the poor neighborhood's inhabitants, for instance, live with the reality of prison engraved on them, on their families, and on their friends (Cunha, 2014). The carceral institution becomes the place to which African Americans of urban areas have the most readily access, more than university or health care (Wacquant, 2005). Real links exist between poor neighborhoods and prisons; in a poor area, everyone knows of someone who has experienced prison. Having dark skin or a low income equals danger in social’s discourses and this is enough to be the target of searches and preventive detentions, “if fines are bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, imprisonment is sub-proletarian” (Aubusson de Cavarlay, 1985, cited by Marchetti, 2002, p. 417).

Figure 3: Jails.

The decision taken by repression forces is influenced by societal discourses. They reproduce a destiny that is already announced by the institutional stigmatization of the Othered fragments of the population (Chantraine, 2003). The prison is a natural continuation of their condition and becomes a place in which to distinguish these individuals from the rest of the population. This is possible because the same action does not mean the same consequences and not all transgressions will be considered deviant (Becker, 1985). There is a dark area for which the transgressor is not only judged for the transgression he has done (Becker, 1985): the norms which define deviance are created by the hegemonic social group and therefore can be modified depending on the person who commits a transgression and the person who judges it. Moreover, prison will only be at the top of a pyramid and is a natural continuation of all the social institutions that have a role to control the marginals. Most probably, the one incarcerated will already have been in numerous of those institutions. In the end, prison becomes a tool for distinguishing and ordering offenses instead of correcting them; it achieves social reproduction, establishes marginalization, and manufactures illegalism.

Prison becomes a way to manage and organize the population (Foucault, 1977), presenting itself as being the solution for crime, but in reality, it serves social reproduction. The success of prison originates in its ability to satisfy the popular opinion by dividing the ‘bad’ fragments of the population from the ‘good’ ones (Wacquant, 2005b). The prison, like other institutions, establishes mechanisms of social differentiation as it captures individuals who were perceived as delinquents and transforms them into prisoners. The enclosure of these individuals means segregation of the ones whom the hegemony did not consider as good enough to reach the quality of citizens; it reinforces the division between the Us and the Them. This dichotomy in place has consequences on the life of millions.


Althusser, L. (1995). Sur la reproduction. Paris, FR : Presses Universitaires De France

Becker, H. S. (1985). Outsiders, études de sociologie de la déviance. Paris, FR: Éditions Métailié

Chantraine, G. (2003). Par delà les murs: Expériences et trajectoires carcérales en maison d’arrêt. Paris, FR : Presses Universitaires de France

Cunha, M. (2014). The Ethnography of Prisons and Penal Confinement. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43, 217-233

Drake, D. H. (2012). Prisons, Punishment and the Pursuit of Security. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris, FR: Éditions Gallimard

Foucault, M. (1977). De la guerre des races au racisme d’état. Paris, FR: Gallimard-Seuil

Marchetti, A. M. (2002). Carceral impoverishment: Class inequality in the French penitentiary. Ethnography, 3, 4, 416-434

Wacquant, L. (2005a). Enemies of the wholesome part of the nation. Sociologie, 1, 31-51

Wacquant, L. (2005b). Race as civic felony. International Social Science Journal, 57, 183, 127-142

Images references

Figure 1: FLORES, Sergio. Children Keep Dying of the Flu in Immigration Custody. The Washington Post via Getty Images. In: The CUT.


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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