Biopolitics: An Overview | The Anthropology of Biopolitics

        “To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to…

Biopolitics: An Overview | The Anthropology of Biopolitics

        “To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to say that power at least takes life under its care in the nineteenth century, is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population. We are, then, in a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general – with the body as one pole and the population as the other.” ~ M. Foucault (1976:252-3)

        “What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists), nor is it the individual body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem.” ~M. Foucault (1976:245)


            Biopolitics is a complicated concept that has been used and developed in social theory since Michel Foucault, to examine the strategies and mechanisms through which human life processes are managed under regimes of authority over knowledge, power, and the processes of subjectivation. As Thomas Lemke points out, a great deal of the inconsistency with which the concept of biopolitics has been deployed in more recent decades results depending upon whether one takes as their starting point the notion that life is the determining basis of politics, or alternatively, that the object of politics is life. Meanwhile, as Nikolas Rose and Paul Rabinow point out, the original interests in and conceptions of biopower drawn out by Foucault, quite usefully, do not grapple with these opposing positions- something that has remained underappreciated by many theorists who have worked to develop alternative conceptions of biopower to match more contemporary phenomena. As Lemke states most clearly, Foucault avoids this conflict by taking as his starting point the assumption that “life denotes neither the basis nor the object of politics. Instead, it presents a border to politics- a border that should be simultaneously respected and overcome, one that seems to be both natural and given but also artificial and transformable” (2011:4-5). In what follows within this post, I attempt to pull out the foundational underpinnings upon which Foucault began to develop a theory of biopolitics. Paying attention to the historicizing treatment Foucault gives to a notion of power in relation to the rise of biopolitics, I ultimately reflect upon present-day phenomena which have been taken by scholars as signalling the movement and transformation of biopolitics into new forms and trajectories.

            In “The Birth of Biopolitics”, Foucault begins to theorize liberalism as a practice and as a critique of government, the rise of which he argues is inseparable from the rise of biopolitical technologies of governance, which have extended political control and power over all major processes of life itself, through a transferral of sovereign power into “biopower”- that is, technologies and techniques which govern human social and biological processes. Pointing to the fact that liberal thought takes society, and not the state, as its starting point; it follows, consequently, the critique of state governing institutions that is internal to liberalism must always, in practice, be negotiating its legitimacy of governance in a relationship between changing internalities and externalities foregrounded in the state, between self-governing “liberal” individuals and the population. This results in liberalism’s necessary ability to take many forms and strategies for self-rationalization. For example- the neoliberalism of the U.S., in which the logic of a free market economy has been extended over non-economic domains of human social and biological existence, so that we now conceive of a number of life processes, such as family and reproduction, in economic terms.

            The 17th-century historical rupture in the flow of power over life and death that occurred with liberalism should be seen as more of an integration of sovereign power (the “right of the sword”) into what Foucault calls “biopower”, as opposed to seeing the process as a moment of disjuncture in which biopower came to replace the classical notion of sovereign power. As he writes in “Society Must Be Defended” (1976:241),

“I think that one of the greatest transformations political right underwent in the nineteenth century was precisely that, I wouldn’t say exactly sovereignty’s old right- to take life or let live- was replaced, but it came to be complemented by a new right which does not erase the old right but which does penetrate it, permeate it. This is the right, or rather precisely the opposite right. It is the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die. The right of sovereignty was the right to take life or let live. And then this new right is established: the right to make live and to let die.”

            The effects of the process through which these mutations in the exercise of power occurred can be characterized as having formed two opposite poles of a continuum. The first of these occurred through the development of techniques that operated in and on the individual body as apparatuses of discipline: and “that discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and…punished” (Foucault 1976:242). This pole is referred to as “anatamo-politics”, and it is chiefly concerned with the atomization of a collectivity for the purpose of governance and productivity to a certain end. The second pole is of explicitly biopolitics, concerning the whole of a population, with the ultimate effect being characterizable as “massifying, that is directed not at man-as-body but as man-as-species” (1976:243). Said otherwise, biopolitics takes population as its problematic, making it both scientific and political, “as a biological problem and as power’s problem”.

            What does all this mean in less-theoretical terms? To begin, it means that the contemporary historical era in which we exist and have come to know in very particular ways, is governed over by means of particular mechanisms that simultaneously operate on our bodies and subjective selves, and on our collective relations taken as a whole- as a global human race. “Biopower” can be understood as a social field of power and struggle, in which the vital aspects of human life are intervened upon for the purpose of rationalizing regimes of authority over knowledge, the generation of truth discourses about life, and the modes through which individuals construct and interpellate subjectivities between a sense of self and the collective.

             With respect to populations and governance in the present day, scholars such as Lemke, Rose and Rabinow emphasize the viability of Foucauldian biopolitics in understanding the operability of truth discourses, or regimes of truth, when approaching the study of mutating biopolitical spaces in the contemporary. These spaces, such as genomics and reproductive choice, represent profound biopolitical efforts to exercise the power “to make live” and “let die”. As such, questions concerning choice and every day modes of practice surface as the most critical issues when theorizing the border that, according to Foucault, is posed by life, to politics, as it continues to transform within both new and old biopolitical spaces like race, reproduction, medicine, health, science, technology, and so on.


1. M. Foucault. 1997. “The Birth of Biopolitics,” 73-79 in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth: P. Rabinow and J.D. Faubion eds. New Press.

2. M. Foucault. 2003. Lecture 11, 17 March 1976, 239-264 in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France. Picador Press.

3. T. Lemke. 2011. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press.

4. P. Rabinow & N. Rose. 2006. “Biopower Today,” Biosciences 1(2):195-217.

Source Article