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Alterity 101: The Alarmist Discourse

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.

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

The Alarmist Discourse

We have understood the concept of alterity and the power it can have in societies. Now, in the multitude of Others that exist in the Occident, a specific one has to be discerned in order to have a concrete example of the Alterity process condemning the Other. The present article will exemplify Alterity by using the case of the delinquent Other.

Around the 1970s there was a shift in the way the media perceived crime: it changed from being localized and specified to being atmospheric, dispersing throughout society (Garland, 2001). Today, the population obsesses over the possibility of being a victim of a criminal act; individuals think that society is full of delinquents who will rob, rape, or even murder them; people are terrified of the delinquency of Others. Representations of those delinquents are present everywhere in Western culture, but especially in literature. For instance, crime novels reveal the delinquent as a stranger to this world, with no connection whatsoever to the familial experiences and daily life of individuals in society (Foucault, 1975). This foreignness that was previously attributed to the madman, the vagabond, and the beggar, is now attributed to the delinquent. The literature about police inquiries recounts a delinquent which reflects a near far-away, i.e. the original environment of the delinquent seems far and stranger but paradoxically his existence is closer than what we think (Foucault, 1975). If it is true that the criminal persona in literature has sometimes been heroized, it is also true that criminality has constantly been identified as a threat to the social corpus, which has contributed to the construction of a hyper-consciousness of crime (Foucault, 1978). These representations in culture will have an influence on the citizens' feelings of insecurity, an alarmist discourse then emerges, arguing that the contemporary world is a dangerous world and that a criminal act could take place at any time. Real insecurity and the feeling of insecurity are not distinguished anymore, and the alarmist discourse makes citizens feel insecure, even if real danger is not present.

Figure 1: Representation of a possible street delinquent

The alarmist discourse is not solely about insecurity. In fact, the discourse of insecurity must be directed to an object of fear in order to become an othering discourse. Most often this target is the street delinquent coming from poor neighborhoods or the immigrant - he is the dangerous one that must not be encountered (Wacquant, 2008). The term ‘dangerous’ itself came into existence in 1859 to define the poor and the individuals receiving low-wage work, or the people which did not belong to the hegemony and who therefore were the ones who ought to be controlled (Bell, 2011). Today, the individuals considered dangerous are still the ones originating from the lowest societal classes or the ones from ethnic-racial minorities background. Because of that, an era of security has emerged that maintains a target population that must be controlled: the delinquents. The resulting collective fear of the alarmist discourse leads citizens to more easily accept the punishment an individual undergoes. They see the delinquent for what he is, rather than for what he has done.

Figure 2: Prejudice: black and white men

Politicians, media, and professional law enforcement insist on the insecurity of our societies and perpetuate the alarmist discourse (Wacquant, 2008). Produced by private or state interests, the media is often image-centered and tells a story that is supposed to come from reality (Appadurai, 1990). Yet as a producer of a narrative, what may be real becomes fiction, or narrative; individuals are transformed into characters and they begin to take on imaginary lives. The media helps to construct narratives about the Other and proto-narratives of their possible lives, fantasies, and movements (Appadurai, 1990). Television documentaries show the 'real' conditions of existence of these Others, and newspapers expose their dreams of modernity (Trouillot, 2003). The media have highly contributed to developing this process by giving more weight to delinquency than to other forms of illegality. They recount day by day a sort of interior conflict against the enemy - the institutional alarm of a ‘he’ being next to us or a ‘he’ being defeated by the state.

Xenophobia has emerged and has penetrated most western countries. This xenophobia can be seen in countries in which the extreme right is taking over the political scenery with discourses against minorities; for instance, among others, in The Netherlands with Thierry Baudet and its party Forum Voor Democratie; Italy with Matteo Salvini head of the Lega party; France with Marine Le Pen and her party Rassemblement National; or in the USA with Donal Trump as the former President, etc. The xenophobia portrayed by these political movements is increasingly diminishing the distinction between immigration, illegality, and criminality. The consequences of xenophobia will be real even if the discourses it portrays are false. For instance, law enforcement professionals will enable the condemning of an individual because he has a biography that is portrayed as dangerous by xenophobic discourses (Foucault, 1975). The repressive forces will have the responsibility to identify the delinquents and restore the symbolic order of society (Wacquant, 2005), and the social norm is what will be used to identify delinquents and bring them before the law.

Figure 3: Trump may be shifting social norms around xenophobia by Gary Waters.

In conclusion, the delinquents are identifiable through multiple representations (economic, political, or cultural), which shows coercive state apparatuses where to search. Alterity has gained power and the Other is identified in society so that he can be separated from it. The discourse, or the “lack of safety” that is urged creates a series of problematic neighborhoods and populations that will become the target of repressive authorities. The fragment of the population targeted by alterity will become the one to whom society attributes all its problems. Therefore, they become the scapegoats of society and will be treated as evil and as the ones who ought to be separated. An enemy within is created and repressive forces are used as a solution to keep the them separated from the Us.


Appadurai, A. 1990. « Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy ». Theory Culture Society 7(295):295‑310. doi: 10.1177/026327690007002017.

Bell, E. 2011. Criminal Justice and Neoliberalism. Savoie, FR: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Foucault, M. 1978. « About the Concept of the “Dangerous Individual” in Nineteenth-Century Legal Psychiatry ». P. 176‑200 in Rabinow, P. Essential works of Foucault. Vol. 3 – Power. London, UK: Penguin.

Garland, D. 2001. The Culture of Control. Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Trouillot, M. R. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wacquant, L. 2008. « Ordering Insecurity: Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge ». Radical Philosophy Review 11(1):9‑27.

Wacquant, L. 2009. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Images references

Figure 1: Representation of a possible street delinquent. Digital Photography School.

Figure 2: Prejudice: black and white men. Tyonote.

Figure 3: Waters, G. Trump may be shifting social norms around xenophobia. Getty Creative Images.


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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