Anthropology Biological Citizenship
Jessica Mulligan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0164


Biological citizenship—also called medical citizenship; biocitizenship; health citizenship; therapeutic citizenship—describes forms of belonging, rights claims, and demands for access to resources and care that are made on a biological basis such as an injury, shared genetic status, or disease state. The term ties political subjectivity to processes of (bio)medicalization, the exponential growth in genetic knowledge in a post–Human Genome Project world, the profitability of biotechnologies, and struggles over access to life-saving care. In an increasingly globalized world, these biologically based rights claims are not made exclusively on states, but also on transnational actors like nongovernmental organizations, international governmental bodies, and pharmaceutical companies. Most uses of the term biological citizenship are explicitly influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, particularly his writings on biopower and the premise that the control and management of life is one of the major targets of governance. Since the early 2000s, anthropologists, science and technology studies scholars, sociologists, and philosophers, among others, have employed the term. Biological citizenship produces new identities, communities, expertise, and hope. But it also has a disciplining and differentiating capacity, as biological citizenship generates new forms of inequality and strengthens the hegemony of biomedical frameworks. Rose and Novas 2005 and Rose 2007 describe biological citizenship as an active form of citizenship that produces new forms of belonging, claims to expertise, and access to resources oriented around biological claims. They are interested in political economies of hope, the potential of new biotechnologies to cure and treat disease, and the creative and generative potential of new biologically oriented forms of belonging. Others have argued that biological citizenship is better understood as a highly stratified form of citizenship that excludes the non-compliant, non-normative or disabled subjects, racialized and immigrant bodies, as well as the very poor. As claims for rights and recognition are increasingly made in biological terms, this potentially crowds out other forms of citizenship that are articulated around more traditional solidarities such as national identity, labor organizing, and party politics. This article discusses the primary debates and tensions among proponents of this framework and introduces some of the critiques of biological citizenship both as a conceptual tool and social process. The article is organized according to the major fields that the term biological citizenship has been applied to interpreting: addiction and pharmaceuticals; HIV-AIDs; mandating health, genetics and disability; and race and immigration. Though the major works on biological citizenship are classified into one of these groupings, there is quite a bit of crossover (for example, all of the works on HIV-AIDs are also necessarily about pharmaceuticals). Therefore, reading around in other sections may be valuable. The article ends with a discussion of the major critiques of the term.

General Overviews and Foundational Texts

Petryna 2002 first introduced the term biological citizenship in her ethnography of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster Life Exposed. She defines biological citizenship as “a massive demand for but selective access to a form of social welfare based on medical, scientific, and legal criteria that both acknowledge biological injury and compensate for it” (p. 6). She locates this as a particularly “post-socialist” phenomena in which citizenship claims were being radically transformed in the wake of state building projects in the former Soviet Union. Other major treatments of the term are Rose and Novas 2005 and Rose 2007. In these later works, the authors reflect on global transformations in citizenship and argue that new forms of biological knowledge are increasingly connected to citizenship projects. These reflections are not tethered to a specific site of ethnographic engagement which allows the authors to make larger claims about the newness and pervasiveness of this form of citizenship, but also sacrifices the specificity of Petryna’s treatment of the term. Rose and Novas 2005 define biological citizenship quite broadly as “all those citizenship projects that have linked their conceptions of citizens to beliefs about the biological existence of human beings, as individuals, as families and lineages, as communities, as population and races, and as a species” (p. 440). Around the same time as the biological citizenship literature emerged, other authors were describing very similar processes, but adopted different nomenclature; biosociality (Rabinow 1996), genetic citizenship (Heath, et al. 2007), and biomedicalization (Clarke, et al. 2003) are three important examples. Rabinow’s use of biosociality was widely adopted in the field and has the advantage of referring to social processes and social life more broadly than biological citizenship which is usually employed to talk about the more explicitly political acts of organizing and advocating for access to resources and treatment. In their important reference text on anthropology and biomedicine, Lock and Nguyen 2010 also take this more holistic view; they discuss how biomedical knowledge and practices that work to “make up” selfhood must be contextualized within kinship and social life more broadly. In Heath, et al. 2007 the use of genetic citizenship is particularly notable for its rigorous discussion of the concept of citizenship. While the literature on biological citizenship almost always explores the biological in depth, it often uses “citizenship” metaphorically to refer to identity or political subjectivity more broadly. By 2008, the term “biocitizenship” had gained sufficient notoriety to merit an entry in The Lancet as a historic keyword.

  • Clarke, Adele E., Janet K. Shim, Laura Mamo, Jennifer Ruth Fosket, and Jennifer R. Fishman. 2003. Biomedicalization: Technoscientific transformation of health, illness, and U.S. biomedicine. American Sociological Review 68.2: 161–194.

    DOI: 10.2307/1519765

    Important article in the sociology of medicine. Since 1985, the authors argue, we have entered the era of biomedicalization characterized by political economic reorganization of medicine, a new focus on health understood through risk calculations, a technoscientific turn, new knowledge practices, and the increasing salience of biomedical identities and body work. Describes many of the same processes discussed in Rose and Novas 2005, but in a decidedly less optimistic tone that centers stratification. Uses term “technoscientific identities” and not biological citizenship.

  • Cooter, Roger. 2008. Biocitizenship. The Lancet.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61719-5

    Described as a “key work in-the-making,” this brief entry in the Lancet cites Petryna 2002 and Rose and Novas 2005. Biocitizenship understood as a new form of identity, that of a biological consumer. The consumerist and transnational biocitizen challenges a traditional nation-state framework of rights and responsibilities.

  • Heath, Deborah, Rayna Rapp, and Karen-Sue Taussig. 2007. Genetic citizenship. In A companion to the anthropology of politics. Edited by David Nugent and Joan Vincent, 152–167. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470693681.ch10

    Multiple ethnographic examples recount new forms of patient activism, identities, and novel alliances formed among state actors, patients, family members, scientists, and pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The piece argues that knowledge, science, and the public sphere have been increasingly “geneticized” with lay people becoming experts. Contains a useful discussion of how conceptions of citizenship have changed with feminist, queer, and disability rights scholarship and activism.

  • Lock, Margert, and Vinh-Kim Nguyen. 2010. An anthropology of biomedicine. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    In this comprehensive survey of the anthropology of biomedicine, the authors provide an overview of anthropological works on subjectivity in relation to healing and biomedical practices (pp. 283–302). Though the term biological citizenship is not used in this text, the kindred terms of genetic citizenship and biosociality are employed in the chapter on genetic testing and screening (pp. 315–319).

  • Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life exposed: Biological citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Is the earliest ethnographic monograph that employs the term biological citizenship. Those exercising biological citizenship made demands on the Ukrainian state for access to medical care and social welfare following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. These demands (which were not always recognized or acted upon by the state) for services, care, and reparation were made in the name of a biological injury.

  • Rabinow, Paul. 1996. Artificiality and enlightenment: From sociobiology to biosociality. In Essays on the anthropology of reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Builds on Foucault’s understanding of biopower. More expansive than most uses of biological citizenship; biosociality describes and troubles nature/culture. Argues that new practices of life enculturate nature. These practices include gene modification, the obligation to improve health in response to risk factors, and new forms of sociality organized around genetic and disease status.

  • Rose, Nikolas. 2007. The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Rose’s 2007 book on biopolitics contains a revised and expanded chapter on biological citizenship. Rose provides a genealogy of the term, relates it to terms such as biosociality and genetic citizenship, and argues that traditional, national understandings of citizenship are inadequate to globalized realities. Rose characterizes biological citizenship as individualizing and collectivizing, reliant on hope, imposed from above, and issuing from within individuals who increasingly understand themselves in biological terms.

  • Rose, Nikolas, and Carlos Novas. 2005. Biological citizenship. In Global assemblages: Technology, politics and ethics as anthropological problems. Edited by Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier, 439–463. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    The second major source of the term. Rose and Novas argue that new notions of vital damage and vital rights have come to animate citizenship claims. The media, science education, and pharmaceutical marketing “make-up” biological citizens. A fundamentally active form of citizenship, it requires new forms of knowledge and responsibility and is oriented around a political economy of hope. However, it can also be highly exclusionary and create new inequalities.

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