These are the times when the democratic election is given a massive societal attention, as the votes of the Swedish electorate have been casted and an abundance of experts struggle to understand the result of the recent election. It is hardly a surprise then that the concept of biopolitics comes to one´s mind, even though it can barely be said to constitute a neologism any longer. Those of you who are familiar with the writings on genetics, biomedicine etc., do obviously trace the concept back to the French philosopher Michel Foucault who used the concept to distinguish one of those ruptures in western thought and practices that he tried to understand in many of his texts. Today, the concept is one of the most widely used within the cultural and social sciences as they try to analyze various societal aspects taking place in the wake of the progress in the life sciences. However, the concept of biopolitcs is given an altogether different meaning by scholars who envision an adjustment within political science and sociology in accordance to the findings in genetics and neuroscience. In this text, I will take a closer look on the concept of biopolitics and its various forms, and I will commence with the usage adopted by Michel Foucault.

Power over life and death – Biopolitics according to Foucault.

The most coherent definition of biopolitics made by Foucault can be found in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (Foucault 2002), in which Foucault devoted 21 intense pages upon the change whereby a sovereign´s (the absolute power which resided in the hand of the king) right over life and death becomes modernized, a modernization that Foucault understands as a change in the way power is exercised in our culture and society. The concept of biopolitics stands then, in Foucault´s way of thinking, in an intimate relationship with the concept of power (see Foucault 1994: 326-348, Dreyfus & Rabinow 1983: 104-205: Kalm 2008: 69-78 for some elaborations on the concept of power). According to Foucault the entrance to the modern age can be characterized by a rupture in the way power is exercised within the nation state. Whereas the pre-modern management of life, in the hands of the sovereign, was more about a holding back the absolute right to kill, the modern conceptualization of life (in the form of biopolitics) turned its focus on how to “maximize life” through a proper administration of the population within the newly born nation state (Foucault 2002). In line of this shift, we witness how a whole range of practices make their entrance within the western society (among others: reproductive interventions in the form of eugenics as well as the formation of the concept of Pubilc Health) which marks the shift whereby power within the western state is exercised in accordance to new objectives, as well as in novel forms.     

New answers regarding the “human nature” – Biopolitics on the “basis “of findings produced within genetics and neuroscience.

In this section we will find a slightly different definition of biopolitics, directly tied to the findings of genetics and neuroscience. In their article in Science, James Fowler & Darren Schreiber puts forward that: “Although political scientists have made progress on important questions, their models have become burdened with dozens of ad hoc theories, and they fit poorly to the data” (Fowler & Schreiber 2008: 912). Another well-known scholar who has made the same kind of argument (there are of course many others, we are talking of an entire scientific field here but I merely make use of these examples to make an illustration) is of course Steven Pinker, who in his well-known The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) (Ett oskrivet blad –och andra myter om människans natur Natur och Kultur 2006) devotes a chapter to the issue of politics. According to Steven Pinker, and many others, the development within genetics and neuroscience will eventually give us answers that will open up the innermost core of the human nature, and sociology and political science will then have to take these answers into account and adjust themselves accordingly. Or as Fowler & Schreiber states it in the end of their article: “The new science of human nature demands (my emphasis) that we recognize that genes are the institutions of the human body. They regulate the neurological processes that drive social and political behavior. And we cannot fully appreciate their function in humans without understanding their role in the very complex social and political interactions that characterize our species” (Fowler & Schreiber 2008: 914). The cultural and social arguments of Michel Foucault are here replaced by a vision that defines biopolitics according to a program of a quite strong biological reductionism (Yes, I am aware of that we readily can invoke the concept of sociobiology here, and Pinker´s argumentation in his The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature can in fact be seen as a prolongation of the argumentation that, among others, Ed Wilson started in 1975).

New ways to think and act upon ourselves in a biopolitics for the 21: st century – Somatic and neurochemical selves.

Michel Foucault developed his thoughts on biopolitics/biopower for over 30 years ago when the progress in genetics and biomedicine was just about to pick up its pace. Moreover, Foucault did, even though he had his vision very much on the present, take as his point of departure developments taking place at the birth of modernity. We might ask ourselves then, what form this “foucauldian” thought are given by cultural and social scientists who analyze current interactions between genetics/biomedicine and the society? The sociologist Nikolas Rose proposes that we increasingly have become somatic selves that come to think and act upon ourselves in accordance to biological causal mechanisms (Rose 2007). Another U.K sociologist, Scott Vrecko, adopts the same point of departure in relation to neuroscience when he states that: “In line with their vast expansion over the last few decades, the brain sciences –including neurobiology, psychopharmacology, biological psychiatry, and brain imaging –are becoming increasingly prominent in a variety of cultural formations, from self-help guides and the arts to advertising and public health programmes (Vrecko 2010: 1). He continues: “Over the last few decades, the neurosciences have expanded dramatically, not only in terms of the resources they command and the authority they wield, but also of the scope and range of problems and phenomena they territorialize (my emphasis). In order to follow up this argument, Vrecko lists a number of phenomena -from altruism, criminal-behavior, motivation, as well as love – which today can be visualized in accordance with neurobiological and neurochemical functions and mechanisms (Vrecko 2010:2). However, the current development are still part of the biopolitical context that Foucault drew our attention to in the 1970:s, this time though the focus have been shifted from the population to the individual and his/hers own responsibility in the light of health-care and well-fare systems that are crumbling by a financial strain. As active “somatic citizens”, we are more and more obligated to live our life through acts of prudent calculation and choice, obliged to inform ourselves, not only on our current illnesses, but also on our susceptibilities and predispositions for future illness. And once informed, the active citizen are obliged to take appropriate steps such as adjustment of diet, general lifestyle, and habits, all in the name of minimization of illness and maximization of health (my emphasis) (Rose 2007: 147). The change comes in the way our body is visualized and acted upon, no doubt most of us are still thinking and acting on ourselves in the form of the “whole” body, but this is maybe about to change as we move into an age of an “molecular biopolitics/biopower”(Rose 2007:11) performed on the individual in accordance to maximize life and health.

However, the arguments of Rose and Vrecko are still very much open to empirical inquiries. Are we really becoming somatic and neurochemical “selves” as they suggest? My own research within the context of Huntington´s Disease, a degenerative brain disease with a strong genetic background (autosomal dominant with a 100% penetrance) suggest a different picture which I might return to in later posts on this blog.


Dreyfus, L., H. & Rabinow, P. (1983). Michel Foucault –Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Foucault, M. (1994) “The Subject and Power” i Rabinow, P. (red)  Power –Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, New York: The New Press.

Foucault, M. (2002) Sexualitetens historia – Volym 1. Göteborg: Daidalos.

Fowler, H., J. & Schreiber, D. (2008) “Biology, Politics and the Emerging Science of Human Nature, Science, vol 322: 912-914.

Kalm, S. (2008). Governing Global Migration. Lund: Lund Political Studies.

Pinker, S. (2006).  Ett oskrivet blad –och andra myter om människans natur. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

Rose, N. (2007). The Politics of Life Itself. Pinceton: Princeton University Press.

Vrecko, S. (2010). “Neuroscience, power and culture: an introduction, History of the Human Sciences, 23:1: 1-10.

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

Michel Foucault
Nikolas Rose
Nikolas Rose

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