An important step in understanding Foucault's broader projects is to understand his view of power. Foucault's analyses of power are simultaneously articulated at two levels, the empirical and the theoretical. The first level is constituted by a detailed examination of historically specific modes of power and how these modes emerged out of earlier forms. Hence, he identifies modern forms of power, such as the closely related modes he termed “disciplinary power” and “biopower”, and earlier, premodern forms such as “sovereign power”. Indeed, much of his work on power is devoted to the task of articulating the emergence of later modes of power from earlier ones, and his analyses of disciplinary power in particular have been especially useful for subsequent scholars.
Three very simple examples can illustrate these forms of power. First, imagine a pyramid, with a king at the top, his ministers in the middle and the king's subjects (the people) at the bottom. If the king issues an edict, then his ministers will execute the order, imposing it upon the king's subjects. Traditionally, power has been understood as “being at the top of the pyramid”; and that was all that it was understood to be. But Foucault expands (indeed, totally reconceives) what constitutes power, and shows how this traditional view can be situated within a fuller understanding. He observed that in actual fact, power arises in all kinds of relationships, and can be built up from the bottom of a pyramid (or any structure).