Michel Foucault's perspective on biopolitics

Vanessa Lemm, Miguel Vatter

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The social sciences are indebted to Michel Foucault for a new, more sophisticated and scientific conception of power. Whereas traditionally it was thought that power was simply the capacity to make someone else do what they would not otherwise have done, Foucault discovered that power went much deeper because it was deeply intertwined with knowledge. Power not only governs our actions but it also structures our sense of ourselves: it makes us be someone who we would not otherwise have been. For that reason, power is not an attribute of persons: it is more like a network or field of asymmetrical relations between individuals as well as between individuals and machines. Individuals and things are akin to nodes in the network. For the same reason, power is not just repressive, but enabling or empowering for these individuals and things.

Late in his career, Foucault discovered that the meeting between biological sciences and policy sciences occurs in the context of a major transformation in this general conception of power. When he first employed the term “biopolitics” in the mid-1970s, he meant to identify a new kind of power which is carried forward by technologies and discourses of security that take the life of populations as their object and play a central role in the emergence of modern racism and eugenics. However, Foucault also connects biopolitics to the kind of political rationality characteristic of the liberal and neoliberal forms of government and governance. Biopolitics then refers not only to technologies of security but also to what he calls technologies of self. This has led to an ongoing debate in the secondary literature about the relation between biopolitics and the study of what Foucault calls governmentality (Foucault, 2008).1 Lastly, there is in Foucault a third use of the term where biopolitics refers to the possibility that life itself may function as a source of critique and resistance to these power formations: “it is not that life has been totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly escapes them” (Foucault, 1990: 143).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of biology and politics
EditorsStephen A Peterson, Albert Somit
Place of PublicationGlos, UK
PublisherEdward Elgar Publications
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781783476275
ISBN (Print)9781783476268
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • biopolitics
  • power


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