Biopolitics

Definition


Biopolitics refers to how politics and government policy directly impact biological aspects of health in people's lives. Drawing from Michel Foucault, biopolitics can be understand as examining ways in which the state controls people through political power. Largely involving analysis of state power, biopolitics explores policy impacts on biological health and questions how the state governs individuals and influences their biological frameworks. A biopolitical anaylsis of health may also examine the political economy of health to consider how structural inequality impacts health. Furthermore, understanding healthcare inequality and health disparities through a biopolitical lens allows for a biocultural perspective, as biopolitical frameworks explore social influents of biologies.

Key Figures


One of the most influential figures of biolitics is Michel Foucault, whose 1963 work, Birth of the Clinic, examines how political and social changes impacted approaches to medical care and conceptualizations of individual's health. These changes included the increased administration of reproduction, the management of chronic illness and death, and the maintenance and optimization of the human body.[1] . Furthermore, these changes reflect broader social changes as the state shifted to focusing on the obedience of citizens through political power, a process Foucault referred to as biopower.

Nikolas Rose, a British sociologist, also utilizes a biopolitical framework in his research. He is concerned with how the economic, political, scientific, technological and social conditions allow for new ways of thinking about neuroscience and health. In his book, The Politics of Life Itself, Rose asserts:

“As human beings come to experience themselves in new ways as biological creatures, as biological selves, their vital existence becomes a focus of government, the target of novel forms of authority and expertise, a highly cathected field for knowledge, an expanding territory for bioeconomic exploitation, an organizing principle of ethics, and the stake in a molecular vital politics.”[2] .
Rose talks about how politics in the twenty-first century focus on the growing capacity of human beings to control the vital capacities of human beings, which he calls "the politics of life itself." Policy and state practices construct biologies for citizens, and can also have a direct influence on how individuals view and respond to health problems.

Examples


Drug Use

Examples of biopolitics encompass a wide range of policies, from Nazi practices of group extermination, to laws concerning drug use. One example from Bourgois and Schonberg's ethnography on drug use, Righteous Dopefiend, is the story of Tina, a homeless woman in San Francisco. Tina engaged in sexual labor to satisfy her addictions to crack and alcohol, and was often involved in crimes related to violence and theft. A biopolitical perspective reveals ways in which "gender power relations, household instability, poverty, racism, and abusive violence" are structures that shaped Tina's life. Consequently, Tina engaged in a "commonsense adaptation of a vulnerable child struggling to decipher the turmoil among the men and women around her."[3]

Genetics

Another example of biopolitical power is evident in the field of genetics. With modern technological advances, genetic testing and selection have become available to medical consumers. As a result, governments have attempted to control genetic knowledge, enacting restrictions and bans related to specific types of genetic knowledge, particularly related to genetic selection in human reproduction. Policy shapes the way in which the field will grow and impact how how individuals perceive types of genetic knowledge. The intersection of biology and politics in controversial projects involving genetics illustrates well the concept of biopolitics.

Applied Anthropology

Biopolitics and biopower are both tied to applied anthropology in terms of making a difference through policy and interventions. Shaping policy through biopower can help individuals helps reduce the impacts of structural violence and suffering. Bourgois and Schonberg argue for using biopower to intervene on the behalf of heroin addicts, and call for "a good-enough applied anthropology, rooted in critical theory and aimed at redressing the 'useless suffering' that is imposed politically and institutionally on the socially vulnerable."[4] . Specifically, Bourgois and Schonberg argue that a policy like a heroin prescription program would be an example of biopower "controlling and redefining pathologized individuals via medicalization rather than criminalization."[5] . This proposed program, among others mentioned in Righteous Dopefiend, would help harness biopower to help individuals and treat medical problems rather than harming them or misunderstanding their illness.

Other Resources


Farquhar, J. and Qicheng, Z. (2005). Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China's Capital. Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 303–327.

References


  1. ^ Rose, N. (2006). The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-first Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. ^ Rose, N. (2006). The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-first Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 4.
  3. ^ Bourgois, P. and Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 53.
  4. ^ Bourgois, P. and Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 298.
  5. ^ Bourgois, P. and Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 298.