The distinct element method is a numerical model capable of describing the mechanical behaviour of assemblies of discs and spheres. The method is based on the use of an explicit numerical scheme in which the interaction of the particles is monitored contact by contact and the motion of the particles modelled particle by particle. The main features of the distinct element method are described. The method is validated by comparing force vector plots obtained from the computer program BALL with the corresponding plots obtained from a photoelastic analysis. The photoelastic analysis used for the comparison is the one applied to an assembly of discs by De Josselin de Jong and Verruijt (1969). The force vector diagrams obtained numerically closely resemble those obtained photoelastically. It is concluded from this comparison that the distinct element method and the program BALL are valid tools for research into the behaviour of granular assemblies.