In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Michel Foucault and the Government of Human Life
  • Giorgio Agamben and the Biopolitics of Law
  • Biopolitics, Capitalism, and the Multitude
  • Biopolitics and the Category of Immunization
  • Thanatopolitics
  • Biopolitics and Human Health
  • Biopolitics and Race
  • Biopolitics and Feminism
  • Biopolitics of Citizenship
  • Biopolitics of Security

Political Science Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life
Michael Laurence
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0170


“Biopolitics” is a term that refers to the intersection and mutual incorporation of life and politics. In literal terms, it signifies a form of politics that deals with life (Greek: bios). Yet if we begin from this basic definition, a series of questions immediately arises: What is life? What is politics? What is the precise nature of the relation between these two things? Do all forms of politics relate to life? Different answers exist to these questions. As a result, the term is employed in different ways across academic disciplines. In political science, the term “biopolitics” tends to take on two competing and irreconcilable meanings. The first meaning was developed by scholars in the United States in the 1970s and seeks to use theories and data from the life sciences to achieve a more complete understanding of political behavior. This kind of “naturalistic” research begins from biological origins and factors and works outward in an effort to explain the causes of political behavior. For these scholars, biological life is understood as a foundation of politics. The second (and more prevalent) meaning, took effect when Michel Foucault broke radically with this “naturalist” tradition by redefining the term in his writings and lectures in France in the late 1970s. For Foucault, life cannot be understood in terms of biological forces or determinants that exist outside of political processes. Instead, life must be understood as both an object and effect of political strategies and technologies. Biopolitics, he argues, refers to a historical transformation and development, beginning in the 17th century, whereby the sovereign right to seize, repress, and destroy life is complemented by a new form of power that aims to develop, optimize, order, and secure life. Foucault often uses the term biopower to denote this new form of productive power. Biopower is both individualizing and collectivizing: it intervenes through disciplinary technologies in order to control and manage individual bodies while it also intervenes at the level of the population conceived of as a social or biological corpus defined by its own characteristics and processes (i.e., birth rates, death rates, measures of health, and so on). Since Foucault’s pioneering work on biopolitics, there has been a proliferation of research inspired by him. Some have even suggested a biopolitical turn has taken place in the humanities and social sciences. The works cited here focus exclusively on the variants of research that emerged with and after Foucault. This article privileges Anglo-American and western European forms of scholarship and therefore does not represent the full range of thought on the subject.

General Overviews

A growing number of articles and books have been published that provide useful overviews of the different forms of research on biopolitics in the Foucauldian tradition. Lemke 2011 offers the first book-length introduction to the field. It is an important starting point for any student of biopolitics, as it makes a clear distinction between the numerous conflicting uses of the term. For a critical overview of the dominant forms of research in the field by two renowned Foucault scholars, see Rabinow and Rose 2006. Although less theoretically nuanced, Lieson and Walsh 2012 offers a useful overview of the state of research on biopolitics in political science. Campbell and Sitze 2013 has assembled a collection of the most influential texts on biopolitical governance, while Clough and Willse 2011 offers an innovative assemblage of writings concerned with the future and limits of biopolitics under neoliberalism.

  • Campbell, Timothy, and Adam Sitze, eds. Biopolitics: A Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

    This volume brings together the foundational texts and articles on biopolitical governance. Includes texts by Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, Achille Mbembe, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Donna Haraway, Roberto Esposito, and others.

  • Clough, Patricia T., and Craig Willse, eds. Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    A collection of essays concerned with the future and limits of biopolitical governance under neoliberalism. Includes essays on national security, racism, constitutional law, mnemonic control, necropolitics, and more.

  • Lemke, Thomas. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

    English translation of Biopolitik zur Enführung first published in 2007. The most authoritative introductory text available on the theme of biopolitics. The first scholarly introduction, general orientation, and historical overview of the concept to appear in book form.

  • Lieson, Laurette T., and Mary Barbara Walsh. “The Competing Meanings of Biopolitics in Political Science: Biological and Postmodern Approaches.” Politics and the Life Sciences 31.1–2 (2012): 2–15.

    A brief overview of the history and scope of biopolitical research in the discipline of political science. Argues that two competing and contradictory usages of the term exist: a scientific biopolitics concerned with using data from the life sciences to help understand politics, and a Foucauldian biopolitics that focuses on the ways power takes hold of life in society.

  • Rabinow, Paul, and Nikolas Rose. “Biopower Today.” BioSocieties 1.2 (2006): 195–217.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1745855206040014

    An important article that offers conceptual clarification concerning the concepts of biopower and biopolitics. Also offers a critical discussion of three of the major theorists of biopolitics: Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Giorgio Agamben.

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