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date: 05 March 2021

Governmentality and Biopoliticsfree

  • Benjamin J. MullerBenjamin J. MullerDepartment of Political Science, King’s University College


Governmentality and biopolitics has emerged as a chief source of scholarship and debate within contemporary international relations (IR), particularly among those involved in the sub-disciplines, Critical Security Studies and International Political Sociology. Governmentality, first and foremost, is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault, and refers to the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace. Meanwhile, biopolitics, which was coined by Rudolf Kjellén, is an intersectional field between biology and politics. In contemporary US political science studies, usage of the term biopolitics is mostly divided between a poststructuralist group using the meaning assigned by Michel Foucault (denoting social and political power over life), and another group who uses it to denote studies relating biology and political science. The foci of literatures on governmentality and biopolitics are particularly agreeable to many scholars critical of traditional IR scholarship and its distinct articulation of “world politics.” The shifty nature of both concepts, as defined by Michel Foucault and the subsequent use by various scholars, presents challenges to setting any specific account of these terms; yet the blurriness of these concepts is what makes them productive, contrary to the zero-sum, rationalist accounts of power and behavior so central to much of conventional IR.


Even the most cursory appraisal of contemporary global politics indicates that the generally straightforward, relatively unproblematic articulation of power to which international relations (IR) was beholden for decades was unsatisfying to a great many scholars, particularly in the post-1989 epoch. In his 1993 book, Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, Rob Walker noted the extent to which in the immediate aftermath of the events of 1989, staid lines of demarcation on the map were atrophying rapidly, new divisions based on old animosities resurfaced, and much of what was “known” about the international system and the nature of world politics was in question (1993:2). It seemed politics in the world had streamed on and had increasingly little in common with “world politics” as IR knew/made it. Sovereign power “went global” as Michael Dillon put it (2004), and as such, while much had atrophied and the discourse of sovereignty's demise was fashionable, the political imagination remained limited and beholden to the narrative of sovereignty and sovereign power. As an astute analyst of power, Foucault was a logical figure to which many turned.

In coming to terms with the mutations, circulations, and relations of power, Foucault's work was particularly insightful. Unlike the zero-sum notions of power to which prior accounts were often beholden, Foucault sees power as a force in circulation and in relational terms. The preoccupation with power over the maintenance of life for the purposes of the management of the population, rather than the power over death is one manifestation of this differing notion of power: biopower. Coming to terms with ethnic violence in its most heinous forms involving rape and genocide, the ethical imperative of liberal states to intervene for humanitarian purposes in such circumstances is one area where analyses influenced by biopolitics and notions of biopower can be particularly fruitful (one strong example in this field is Claudia Aradau's Rethinking Trafficking in Women: Politics Out of Security, 2008). The contradictions between capital punishment in the local context and interventionist strategies in the global, is another site where simple articulations of sovereign power will not suffice. In particular, the collection of articles edited by Edkins, Pin-Fat, and Shapiro, entitled Sovereign Lives: Power in Global Politics (2004), takes a wide range of issues that are clearly international/global in nature and begins to unpack the complex relations and circulations of power at play. Not only does this collection go some lengths to theorize sovereign power in the everyday, in many cases vis-à-vis Foucault's work on biopolitics and biopower, but it also considers the question of citizenship, politics, and resistance. Although these accounts challenge the simple notion of power commonly associated with government and forms of governance, such questions are not altogether absent from analyses in international studies (IS) that are influenced by Foucault.

The field of Governmentality and Biopolitics has emerged as a major source of reflection and debate within contemporary IR scholarship, particularly among those involved in the subfields of Critical Security Studies and International Political Sociology. In both cases, amenable to existing critiques of the rather homogeneous and traditional accounts of power and sovereignty found within conventional realist/idealist IR, as well as the relatively longstanding commitment to a particular rationalist methodological agenda, the claims and foci of literatures on governmentality and biopolitics are particularly palatable to many scholars critical of conventional IR scholarship and its specific articulation of “world politics.” The slippery nature of both concepts, as defined by Michel Foucault and the subsequent range of uses by various scholars, poses challenges to setting any specific account of these terms in a context such as this compendium; yet the fuzziness of these concepts is what helps to make them particularly productive, contra to the zero-sum, rationalist accounts of power and behavior so central to much of conventional IR. Reflections on initial uses, the literatures, debates, and articulations of power motivated by the use of governmentality and biopolitics in IR and the potential future directions of research that are driven or influenced by these concepts can provide some sense of the broad terrain of governmentality and biopolitics within IS.

Governmentality and biopolitics speak both of the construction and articulation of “population,” and to the management of said population. Through these concepts, Foucault describes the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state, its reliance on statistics of birth, death, recidivism, health, and so on, for the purposes of the management of the population. Through his genealogies of various institutions of the modern bureaucratic state, such as the school, prison, hospital, and asylum, Foucault describes the construction of the population as a collection of “docile bodies,” who are disciplined and managed vis-à-vis the range of “correctional” institutions that deal with various articulations of “delinquency” and “abnormality.” Fundamental to his argument is the extent to which coercion is relatively subtle and indeed contributes to and works with forms of self-government, such as Foucault's other work on the “care of the self” (see Burchell 1996; Foucault 1988, 1998, 2006). Through disciplinary regimes fostered by statistical data collected and managed by the bureaucratic state – which have contributed to the design of public disciplinary institutions and are thus a constitutive part of the modern state – in much the same way as the Panopticon operates, the existence of real surveillance is secondary to its disciplinary effects. Whether or not one is actually being watched at any specific time, as is the case in the Panopticon – a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in which prisoners could be observed at all times, but the observer was not visible to the observed – conceals the fact that one is potentially always being watched, which has a powerful effect on the self, slowly eroding difference and reinforcing a self-disciplined homogeneity, which is the portion of the Panopticon on which Foucault focused his attention. In this sense, governmentality and biopolitics can be read as a culmination of Foucault's thought, and an exposure of the complexity and resilience of sovereign power and its close relationship with biopower, sometimes termed by Foucault as political theory's failure to “cut off the king's head,” or displacing the role of sovereignty in dominant ontologies of the political.

This essay begins with an account of governmentality, biopolitics, and liberalism, both as developed by Foucault, and in secondary literature. It then moves to provide an account of the development and impact of governmentality and biopolitics within IS, the core areas of IR scholarship that continue to draw on or are in dialogue with these concepts, and finally, raises some potential future directions of scholarship. There is much to offer in the contemporary literature on governmentality and biopolitics in IS, much of which has already been alluded to here. However, in order to come to some notion of clarity with these concepts, it is worthwhile going back to Foucault.


As an attempt to describe the changing status of liberal government (and as is noted later, it has also been applied in non-liberal contexts), the term governmentality seeks to come to terms with “arts” and “regimes” of government and administration emerging since the evolution of state power in early modern Europe (among others, see Dean, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010). Motivated by dissatisfaction with the conventional account of power in IS, in particular the trope of sovereignty integral to IR theory and the discourse of world politics, and its ontology of the political, Foucault's notion of governmentality has found favor among those attempting to come to terms with emerging regimes and constellations of power and governance. Those concerned with critiquing formations/assemblages or dispositifs of power and governance have also deemed governmentality compelling.

As already noted, there is a close connection between Foucault's notion of disciplinary power, biopolitics, and governmentality. Although sometimes various appropriations of Foucault's concepts are critiqued for the “slippage” that is evident between these concepts, such slippage is evident in Foucault's own articulation of these concepts – something that is unpacked here. Put another way, as Dillon and Neal (2008:1) assert, “Foucault is fallible,” which leads one to ask not only what one can receive from a thinker, but what is desired from such a theorist. They go on to argue (2008:1) that Foucault is there to provoke thinking rather than to tell you what you ought to think. This assertion underscores the overall claim that rather than a distinct account of politics and power, biopolitics and governmentality provide productive spaces for critical (re)examination of power, governance, the international, the global, and the political, and it is the nebulous nature of the concepts that is precisely responsible for its productive and critical capacity in contemporary scholarship.

Drawing on a notion of government defined as the “conduct of conduct,” governmentality asks questions beyond simply “who governs” or how, and seeks to expose the relationship between the government of the state, the governing of ourselves, and of others (Dean 1999:2). The “conduct of conduct” refers to the means by which governance is focused on directing how subjects of government act and behave. As Mitchell Dean notes, something worth underscoring is that if studies of governmentality form a new subdiscipline in the social sciences – and they have certainly developed a relatively rich literature, though “subdiscipline” might be hubristic – this field of study is not theory based. Dean (1999:3) goes on to assert: “Its concerns are problem-centered and present-oriented.” Hence, the appeal to those many scholars throughout IS who are motivated by phenomena that challenge the domestic/international dyad integral to IR theory and which fall more into the category of global/local trends and experiences, happenings that are not easily captured by either the comparative politics approaches to the domestic nor the articulation of the international from IR theory.

One of the odd misconceptions, particularly from traditional IR scholarship, is the claim that the introduction of governmentality and biopolitics to IR is the introduction of deeply theoretical claims and issues that are aside from or even outside of “real world politics.” Certainly there may be difficulties associated with framing these issues within the typical discussion of anarchy and its impact, or rather the attempts to ameliorate it that motivates much of IR theory. As Dean (1999:3), and indeed the most cursory appraisal of studies in governmentality indicates, governmentality studies are deeply rooted across a range of domains in issues such as the economy and finance, law, architecture, insurance, European integration, and welfare state, and so on (Burchell et al. 1991; Walters 1994, 2000, 2001; Barry et al. 1996; Dean and Hindess 1998; Ericson and Stehr 2000; Barry 2001; Neal 2004; Lippert 2005; Walters and Haahr 2005; de Goede 2006; Lint 2006; Sparke 2006; Elden 2007; Elden and Crampton 2007; Nadesan 2008). Although Dean's account is a succinct and at the same time in-depth analysis of governmentality, in terms of its relevance and impact in IR, little has come close to the collection edited by Wendy Larner and William Walters, Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces (2004). Both in terms of the issues discussed and the scholars included in this collection, it remains a core contribution in this regard.

Referring both to Foucault's original essay on “Governmentality” and Dean's in-depth appraisal of studies in governmentality, Larner and Walters (2004:2) consider two uses of governmentality in the literature. One understanding of governmentality draws attention to the extent to which governing involves the production of particular “truths” or in Foucault's terminology, “regimes of truth,” about state finance, security, and personal health and well-being. The second usage of governmentality refers more to what Foucault (1991:2) refers to as: “The ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.”

Although, as Larner and Walters (2004:3) point out, this notion of governmentality is comparable with other forms of power such as sovereignty, they also note the extent to which governmentality is preoccupied with “ordering” the population in a way that is distinct from articulations of sovereign power. Thus, these two meanings are to a certain extent a question of emphasis as opposed to distinctly different meanings. In one sense, governmentality is making reference to Foucault's knowledge/power argument and the extent to which governing involves and enables the production of knowledge, in many cases vis-à-vis experts and expertise embedded in the bureaucracy that appeal to/produce “regimes of truth.” The second usage draws attention to the overlapping relations involved directly in the production of these regimes of truth. This “field of governmentality,” as Larner and Walters put it, is limited and/or subject to the prominent ideologies of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism in particular.

Indeed, there have been a variety of attempts to understand these terms outside of liberal government, such as Ismail's Political Life in Cairo's Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (2006). Accounts such as this underscore the politics of/in the everyday where the questions of micro-power are both more apparent and of greater import, in contrast to the grand narrative of sovereign power to which conventional IR remains beholden. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and general work on empire and identity, which stimulated postcolonial theory, has also made attempts to understand and (re)articulate the central binaries of us and them, identity and difference, self and other, and civilized and barbarian, that are integral to IR theory, and thus indirectly critically reassess the machinations of sovereign power (in particular see Salter 2002).

In terms of a research agenda, Larner and Walters, and indeed many others already cited here, have noted the extent to which governmentality offers an agenda that is problem centered, and accepts an account of power as fragmented, shares many of the assumptions of social constructivism regarding intersubjective understanding and constitutive explanation, and embraces the contingency of identities. Not least among these, there is work on a range of issues from security, identity, and illicit drugs (Grayson 2008), to the politics of sovereignty and sanctuary (Lippert 2005), and contemporary border security matters (Salter 2004, 2007; Walters 2004a, 2004b, 2006a, 2006b; Muller 2005), specifically deportation and detention (Pratt 2005). The literature inspired by governmentality studies continues to expand, making any attempt to capture the breadth of this research simply a snapshot in time.

What all this scholarship shares has some affinities with certain strains of poststructuralism, specifically answering the call for alternatives to the positivism that has come to dominate many areas of the social sciences, and has had a particular hold on comparative politics and to a lesser extent IR scholarship. Critically, Larner and Walters (2004:5) argue that: “As much as governmentality research has challenged the lines and demarcations of these disciplines – indeed, it has argued that they play a constitutive role in the exercise of modern power – it has nevertheless tended to respect the division of domestic and international.”

Although challenging in terms of the account of power, and exposing the regimes of truth integral to contemporary governance and the ordering and disciplining of the population, governmentality research nonetheless does little to challenge the reification of the inside and outside, domestic and international in such contexts. Here non-Western texts, such as Ismail (2006), offer perhaps better examples of more disruptive work. Considering Edward Said's intellectual debt to Foucault, it should come as no surprise that many contributions such as Ismail's in postcolonial IR have been influenced by governmentality studies.

As the subtitle of the Larner and Walters collection, Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces, indicates, governmentality research covers the range of “spaces” preoccupying IR scholars, from security, globalization and the economy, development, intervention and sovereign breach, regional integration, critical geopolitics, and displaced and mobile subjects, such as refugees and migrants. Although the Larner and Walters collection covers a great many of these issues, this is one of the reasons it is a strong collection and representation of governmentality research in IR. However, since 2000, and arguably this trend has been accelerated since the publication of the Larner and Walters collection, there has been a proliferation of research on the range of issues noted and others, in some cases influenced extensively by governmentality research and by direct contributions to the ever evolving literature on governmentality.

In these cases, the twofold distinction made by Larner and Walters remains apparent. On the one hand, the Hardt and Negri tract (2000) and related work find Foucault helpful to describe a new form of (global) power, or what is oft referred to as “global governmentalities”; on the other hand, they look to there is the wider range of authors concerned with critically assessing various forms of governance both past and present. Many of the developments within critical security studies are particularly apt examples of the second branch considered by Larner and Walters (see Larrinaga and Doucet 2010), in many instances, not least being Reid's The Biopolitics of the War on Terror (2007), which challenges the conventional articulation of war as geopolitical/geostrategic struggle, emphasizing the biopolitical aspects of the liberal way of war, focusing more on “killing the interests of species survival” (see also Jabri 2007b; Dillon and Reid 2009).

In a great majority of cases, Reid's being no exception, there is a close relationship between Foucault's account of “biopolitics,” particularly the one found in his recently published lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics (2008), rather than the older “biopolitics” of The History of Sexuality ([1978] 1990, 1988), and governmentality and/or global governmentality. The next section will unpack in some small measure, biopolitics and its influence on IS.


According to Foucault, biopolitics refers to the “management of the population.” Perhaps one of the most elastic of Foucault's ideas, already evident in the portion of Foucault's Discipline and Punish ([1977] 1995) on “Docile Bodies,” it is most evident in his later work The History of Sexuality ([1978] 1990, 1988). Collectively throughout much of Foucault's work the evolving capacity to “manage the population,” and indeed the construction of the “population” itself as a category and regime of knowledge/power vis-à-vis governmentality, is clear. However, in Foucault ([1978] 1990) the specific shift from the preoccupation of governing with power over death to power over life is noted:

power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles […] centered on the body as machine; its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: the anatamo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of intervention and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulation of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.

(Foucault [1978] 1990:139)

This passage is integral to understanding biopolitics in its essential form. Here the reference to biopolitics as a way of articulating the constitution of the “population” itself as the general disciplining of bodies is evident, as is the focus on the body itself and its capacities and mechanics, or what is sometimes referred to as the “life sciences” (see Rose 2006). The disciplining techniques of the liberal state articulate the population as a collection of productive bodies, risky bodies, consumptive bodies, and so on, and focuses on strategies to optimize these capacities. The second part of biopolitics refers directly to the biological body, and considers governance of the self, health and well-being, issues of longevity, birth and mortality, and so on. The connection between these two poles of biopolitics is somewhat self evident, and the disciplinary techniques of liberal regimes further underscores how governmentality overlaps and reinvests itself in biopolitics. Unfortunately, in the recently published lectures by Foucault (2008) the separation between governmentality and biopolitics is murkier, making the analysis of these concepts in separation from one another all the more difficult. Moreover, it contributes to the noticeable trend toward potential “conceptual stretching,” as the “biopolitics of […]” nearly everything and anything seems possible. Thus further clarity is required.

Foucault's lectures (2008) have had a significant impact on existing understandings of biopolitics. Perhaps more than anywhere else, here the close relationship between governmentality and biopolitics is evident. Moving from the specific dualistic account provided in Foucault ([1978] 1990, 1988, 2007), in this series of lectures, that is basically the lectures of a 12-week course in 1978–9 at the Collège de France, Foucault gives the impression that biopolitics is closely related to neoliberalism. The connection with “population” remains, as Foucault (2008:21–2) notes in his first lecture:

I thought I would do a course on biopolitics this year. I will try to show how the central core of all the problems that I am presently trying to identify is what is called population. Consequently, this is the basis on which something like biopolitics could be formed. But it seems to me that the analysis of biopolitics can only get under way when we understood the general regime of this governmental reason I have talked about, this general regime that we can call the question of truth, of economic truth in the first place, within governmental reason […] only when we know what this governmental regime called liberalism was, will we be able to grasp what biopolitics is.

In the conclusion and summation of the course, Foucault himself notes that rather than taking up only the introductory sessions, liberalism and neoliberalism end up preoccupying the bulk of all the lectures. Noting the paradox of liberalism, in so far as it is driven by the following question Foucault (2008:319) points to the dilemma liberalism grapples with: “How can one govern as much as possible at the least possible cost?” In fact, Foucault moves even further to ask “why must one govern?” In the case of liberalism, Foucault focuses on liberalism as a technology of government, or as Michel Senellart (2008:327) notes in his essay on the context of Foucault's course on the birth of biopolitics, the focus is on how liberalism “constitutes the condition of intelligibility of biopolitics.” In other words, liberalism is considered to be the general framework of biopolitics, where the problem is essentially driven by the paradox of a political ideology that begins from society and not the state, which then begs the question “why must one govern?”

The influence of biopolitics and liberalism is particularly widespread throughout contemporary IS, and is likely to continue to burgeon. However, references and appraisals of such accounts are reserved for the following section on liberalism.


It is perhaps unsurprising that liberalism plays an important role in Foucault's analysis, and an equally central role in much of the broad scholarship in IS influenced by Foucault's specific appraisal of biopolitics, governmentality, and liberalism. Central to Foucault's argument is the continuity between the governing of the self, governing the population and the state, and as he puts it, to structure the field of possible action or focus on the “conduct of conduct.” Thus, the preoccupation of liberalism with the relationship between the governing and the governed makes it integral to Foucault's analysis. Indeed, for Foucault it is liberalism that is focused on the management of the population and governing life rather than possessing the power over death. Liberalism focuses on the welfare of the population, its wealth, longevity, rates of recidivism, healthcare, and so on.

For Foucault, liberalism supports these through freedom, as Nikolas Rose (1999) has argued this is the “power of freedom” insofar as liberalism promotes self-regulating habits to contribute to these wider objectives of the management and welfare of the population. Both Dean (1999) and Rose (1999), as preeminent governmentality scholars have developed the account of (neo)liberalism and the promotion of choice as a regulatory and disciplinary strategy. This ranges from the strategic marketing of individual choice and regimes of appraisal through which individual choice is promoted and expanded to aspects of government historically subject to more overt forms of government regulation. As noted earlier, the preoccupation with liberalism is most evident in Foucault's lectures (2008), where in the end rather little is said of biopolitics specifically. Instead, an in-depth analysis of liberalism and neoliberalism as technologies of government – government in the sense of the activity of governing or the “conduct of conduct” as opposed to the official “government” as a collection of institutions – is forwarded by Foucault.

In particular, the role of liberalism, or “liberal ways” à la Foucault, have influenced IS scholarship with regards to questions of warfare, violence, and the extent to which such regimes foster “illiberal practices” (see Bigo and Tsoukala 2006). Operating in the intellectual milieu of governmentality and biopolitics enables scholars to engage more critically in the extent to which liberalism helps to conceal questions and even the presence of violence in global politics, and the shift from geopolitics toward biopolitics (in particular, see Jabri 006; 2007a; 2007b; Dillon 2007; Dillon and Reid 2009).

Governmentality, Biopolitics, and International Studies

In general, conceptual approaches, research designs, and studies inspired by these later works of Foucault – both governmentality studies and biopolitics – make some specific observations about world politics, IS scholarship, and attempts to come to terms with the rearticulation of sovereign power and “the global.” Specifically picked up by scholars who are located under the broad umbrella of international political sociology (IPS), this plethora of research makes a series of key observations, both regarding global politics, as well as the study and articulation of “world politics.” It is worth beginning from the standpoint of IPS, not least because governmentality and biopolitics have a firm foothold within sociology and social theory. In the past, the general consensus in IS, and conventional IR specifically, ceded little credibility to these approaches, yet an increasing number of scholars engaged with “international problems” were seeking theories, approaches, and inspiration from beyond the confines of institutionalized IR.

Within social theory, the works of Foucault – specifically governmentality and biopolitics – were embraced by many as fruitful approaches for coming to terms with problems that are international in character, and yet appear to run amok with conventional IR. As with the aims of IPS – stated specifically in the editorial of the first issue of the journal International Political Sociology (Bigo and Walker 2007) – the adoption of governmentality and biopolitics is often motivated as much by its potential to come to terms with contemporary problems which are considered “international,” as by ways of opening dialogue with alternative scholarly communities beyond the Anglo-American confines of institutionalized IR, raising some important concerns about the nature of contemporary IR scholarship.

In both instances, research inspired by these Foucauldian approaches remains, to borrow from Larner and Walter's language, “problem oriented.” The invocation of governmentality and biopolitics in the analysis of the international is motivated in the first instance by its “value-added” potential. Whether considering the problems of contemporary warfare (Jabri 2006, 2007a, 2007b; Reid 2006; Dillon 2007; Dillon and Reid 2009), the proliferation of “camps” and “detainees” in contemporary global politics (Edkins 2000; Edkins et al. 2004), be they for refugees, IDPs, prisoners of war or “detainees” (Lippert 2005; Pratt 2005; Nyers 2006; Howell 2007), or examining the changing nature of borders and bordering practices and the bodies that cross them (Bigo 2001, 2002; Muller 2004, 2008, 2010; Huysmans 2006; Epstein 2007), state foreign policies and the relationship to security and identity (Campbell 1992, 2005), war (Jabri 2006, 2007a, 2007b; Dillon and Neal 2008; Dillon and Reid 2009), the war on terror (Dillon 2007; Reid 2007), disaster relief and the politics of disposability (Giroux 2006), the burgeoning significance of technology (Hayles 1999; Dillon 2003; Bigo 2004, 2006; Bonditti 2004; Muller 2004, 2008, 2010), or specific sites such as the airport (Marx 2007; Salter 2008), studies inspired by these Foucauldian approaches grapple with the changing nature of sovereign power, its relationship to law and society, and its function in articulating the international and “world politics” (e.g., Falk et al. 2002; Edkins et al. 2004; Larner and Walters 2004; de Larrinaga and Doucet 2010).

Within IS, governmentality studies and research inspired by Foucault's work on biopolitics focus on four key developments in contemporary global politics: the importance of knowledge/power both in global politics and institutionalized international relations scholarship, the changing nature of sovereign power and the shift from the geopolitical toward the biopolitical, the importance of “rationalities” and technologies of government, and emerging dispositifs of security. A now relatively in-depth and broad range of scholarship has taken up governmentality and biopolitics in its appraisal of contemporary problems that are international in nature, raising some or all of these issues in its consideration of both “international problems” and critical reflection on the study and articulation of the international. The four broad developments that research inspired by governmentality and biopolitics has contributed to IS are discussed below.

Knowledge/Power and Institutionalized IR Scholarship

Indeed nearly all research, which takes as its conceptual starting point or simply as inspiration the later works of Foucault considered here, has to varying extents engaged Foucault critically with institutionalized international relations scholarship. As Bigo and Walker (2007) note in their introduction to the first issue of the journal International Political Sociology, the range of approaches now embracing sociology and social theory of varying sorts have found utility in these approaches when it comes to grasping problems of an international nature. However, the decision to look elsewhere has also resulted from a general frustration with the limitations of the conventional approaches within Anglo-American international relations scholarship. In either case, recognition of the relationship between political theory and political practice is essential, as when critical scholars exposed the bipolarity and mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, which realists embraced as stability, as a condition of radical insecurity.

In his Presidential Address to the International Studies Association in February 2003, Steve Smith raised a number of issues regarding the complicity of the discipline of international relations in international events, such as those of September 11, 2001. Although not explicitly focused on governmentality and biopolitics, Smith's analysis is clearly inspired by Foucauldian scholarship and is a sound representation of the importance of what Foucault refers to as “regimes of truth,” which, as Smith (2004) suggests, “sing the world into existence.” As he notes from the outset: “Nothing that follows, nothing, is an attempt to justify or excuse the actions of the suicide bombers, although it may represent an urgent call to understand why they acted as they did, and possibly, more saliently, why those actions were so strongly supported in parts of the world” (Smith 2004:500). Perhaps of even more importance is Smith's assertion that the conditions of possibility, or the world that made 9/11 possible, was “sung into existence” by all those engaged in the discipline of IR, “[…] not just ‘them,’ whoever they are, not just the ‘mainstream,’ whatever that is, and not just ‘the US discipline,’ however that is defined” (Smith 2004:500). In other words, Smith asks all those engaged in the discipline of IR to reflect on the link between research, teaching, writing, and international events and to take seriously the knowledge/power constellations of the discipline: making world politics and the relationship with politics in the world.

Scholars drawing on governmentality studies, in particular, stress the importance of regimes of truth and knowledge/power constellations in global politics; however, the reflexive aspects of such analysis are not easily separated from such aims. To reiterate Larner and Walters’ assertion raised earlier, governmentality research not only challenges the disciplinary lines and demarcations reified through regimes of knowledge/power, but also the extent to which this has a constitutive role in the exercise of modern power (Larner and Walters 2004:5). A wide range of studies, many of which focus on citizenship, the contemporary securitization of citizenship and “what's left?” of this concept (see Nyers 2004), engage this precise terrain. However, the impact of this aspect of governmentality and biopolitics on IS is by no means narrowly confined. In particular, the broad range of scholarship touched by the role of discourse, and its role not as a way of learning about something, but producing something as knowable; in the words of Jim George (1994:30), “a discourse makes real that which it prescribes as meaningful.” Therefore, discourse in the Foucauldian sense is taken up by many in IS to unpack the knowledge/power constellations in global politics; or perhaps more aptly put, the knowledge/power that makes “real” world politics and what is knowable, meaningful, classifiable, and so on.

There is a large swath of research in IS, particularly since the 1990s and onward, which has been influenced substantively by or wholly taken on this approach. Some of the most notable examples being: Jim George's Discourses of Global Politics (1994), which takes a rather holistic approach to the disciplinary knowledge claims of IR; Bradley Klein's Strategic Studies and World Order (1994), which considers the discourse of strategic studies; and, perhaps most notable, David Campbell's Writing Security (1992), which considers the discursive construction of threat, danger, and insecurity vis-à-vis national identity and foreign policy. In all these cases, and in a plethora of others, the production of political space by specifically dominant discourses is examined, and also the extent to which the knowledge/power constellations which foster particular discourses produce a world politics that is considered meaningful, knowable, classifiable, and so on. These analyses that are clearly influenced by Foucault's work are closely linked to some critique and/or engagement with the ahistorical and apolitical articulation of sovereignty and sovereign power to which traditional IR theory has tended to adhere.

Technologies of Government and Dispositifs of Security

In addition to the broad range of areas in IS regarding discourses of power, Foucault's work on biopolitics and governmentality has also had a profound impact on critical security studies. The central aspect of critical security studies lies in its contingent understanding of security itself. In other words, security is basically “comprised of different discourses of danger” (Dillon 2007:10). Not only is the notion of power as relational and something in circulation embraced here, but also what Foucault called the “dispositif”: strategies and assemblages of power that are beyond disciplinary power, de-institutionalized, and more akin to Deleuze's postdisciplinary “society of control” (Foucault 2003; see Muller 2008). According to Dillon (2007:10), two dispositifs of security have dominated modernity: the biopolitical and the geopolitical: “Different discourses of danger revolve around different referent objects of security, such that different referent objects of security give rise to different governmental technologies and political rationalities.” In other words, for biopolitical security, the referent object is life and the population (and identity – see Campbell 2005), whereas for geopolitical security, the more familiar preoccupations of territorial sovereignty are central.

By expanding beyond the familiar trope of security taken up in traditional IR and strategic studies, not only does the introduction of biopolitical security challenge the notion of security as an objective concept, raising questions such as “whose security?” but it also considers the extent to which “security” may indeed be motivated by aims other than territorial integrity and concerns associated with the maintenance of territorial sovereign power. The resiliency of liberal democracy and the liberal marketplace become integral preoccupations for the maintenance of biopolitical security, which is instructive when considering the expanding discourses of humanitarianism, to name but one example. What some have termed the security-development nexus (see Duffield 2002) is another case in point, where the pressure to pursue particular development strategies for security cannot be accounted for simply by geopolitical metrics. Indeed, even contemporary border security and the hand in glove relationship with “identity management” vis-à-vis the plethora of trusted traveler programs and range of entry/exit tactics, not to mention the general securitization of migration the world over, are also not comprehensible if confined to geopolitical considerations.

Throughout the literature on critical security studies, the inspiration of governmentality and biopolitics is nearly ubiquitous. Taking security as a contested concept, deconstructing the assemblages of power responsible for propping up particular articulations of security, or what the conditions of possibility for differing notions of security might be leads scholars to consider Foucault's points regarding the “conduct of conduct” and wider critical engagements with the nature of contemporary power. The knowledge/power constellations in IR that factor in to proffering particular accounts of zero sum power, rational action, mutually assured destruction, and so on, as a path toward security rather than a condition of impossibility for security in any real sense, is unraveled vis-à-vis research inspired by governmentality and biopolitics. Furthermore, it can provide critical (re)assessments of the displaced referent object of security that the human security agenda allows, in so far as the individual becomes the central object to be secured, rather than the state. Biopolitics and not geopolitics is far more helpful in unpacking the extent to which this challenge to human insecurity is insufficient.

Future Directions in International Studies

The impact on IS of biopolitics and governmentality is wide-reaching and highly significant. As such, a broad overview of some of the dominant themes cannot do justice to the rich literature that has emerged over roughly the past two decades in IS. As is the case with all interdisciplinary endeavors, drawing distinctions between literature that is within this branch of scholarship and that which sits outside is fraught with difficulty. One can say with some assurance, that the range of literature in IS, which is either influenced by or engaging directly with Foucault's and others’ work on biopolitics and governmentality is a burgeoning one. As the reference list that follows this discussion attests, the past 10 years in particular have witnessed almost an explosion in the literature, which reflects both the influence of these approaches and the institutional support for such research. The exponential growth in the human sciences is just one relevant consideration, which consistently raises complex questions regarding “life,” its maintenance, termination, and even definition, both locally and globally, making biopolitics ever more relevant to coming to terms with contemporary politics in the world.

Although the strains of research in IS touched, inspired, motivated and structured by governmentality and biopolitics are definitely broad – and an ever burgeoning literature suggests this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future – there are some core points to reiterate. Although loosely bound, one can organize the contributions of governmentality and biopolitics inspired scholarship in IS in the following directions: an emphasis on the importance of knowledge/power both in global politics and institutionalized international relations scholarship, the changing nature of sovereign power and the shift from the geopolitical toward the biopolitical in understanding power and/in ‘the global’ as opposed to the international, the importance of “rationalities” and technologies of government, and emerging dispositifs of security, something particularly manifest in contemporary scholarship among those engaged in critical security studies.

First, the import of knowledge/power in IS, specifically highlighting the intimate relationship between theories of international relations, the theorist, and “world politics,” is to a great extent shared by nearly all scholars influenced by this work. Regardless of directions of scholarship, the vast majority of research in IS willing to take on the inspiration of Foucault's notions of governmentality and biopolitics must in some manner accept the import of Foucault's conception of knowledge/power.

The second aspect, which notes the shift from a geopolitical dispositif toward a biopolitical one, specifically in coming to terms with the nature of power in a global age, is also widely shared among scholars. At the very least, the majority of research in this vein recognizes the limited scope and problematic distinction between domestic and international that IR and comparative politics have consistently reified over time. In particular, this aspect of research inspired by governmentality and biopolitics tends to consider a perspective embracing a more fluid local/global vision as opposed to the rigid domestic/international dichotomy. Moreover, the introduction of the biopolitical, in addition to the geopolitical, takes account of both the deterritorialized nature of sovereign power, as well as the move toward what Foucault refers to as the shift from the Aristotelian dictum that man is a living animal with the capacity for political existence toward “modern man as an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (Foucault 1984:265). Moreover, this deterritorialized constellation of power and the unraveling political existence relate closely to an additional core issue, which is the direct challenge to the dichotomy of public and private, also reified throughout conventional IR theory and the modern articulation of sovereign power. These aspects of the addition of biopolitics to geopolitics are highly significant in terms of the contribution to scholarship that much of the research inspired by these approaches has made, and given its import is likely to have an integral role in future directions of research.

Considering particular rationalities and technologies of power and governance follows well from the previous points and is also a significant area of current and potential future scholarship. Research on surveillance and society, the globalization of particular identity technologies such as biometrics, and the consistent commitment to some articulation of risk management that is closely related to these developments speaks to the evolving rationalities and technologies of contemporary governmental power. The emergence of a global risk society noted by Ulrich Beck is picked up here, in terms of the overwhelming centrality of risk management as a logic of governance. The relationship with technology, and in particular a burgeoning reliance on various surveillance technologies at borders, in national identity cards, and by occupying military forces, among other examples, place it at the center of contemporary global politics. This is directly related to the next contribution, which is the emerging dispositifs of security.

In considering changing notions of security, or at the very least introducing the belief that security is itself a contested concept, scholarship influenced by governmentality and biopolitics has also had a measurable impact on IS scholarship. Again, beyond the displacement of the state as the referent object of security, as is the case with the human security agenda, much of the research in this vein critically engages the security-development nexus associated with the human security's agenda motivated by the “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” (e.g., Duffield 2002; Grayson 2004, 2008; Elbe 2005; Fierke 2007; Aradau 2008). Also worth taking into consideration is, the extent to which the confluence of diverse actors in the field of security, particularly those of a non-state nature, be they pirates, private military companies, or transnational commercial enterprises, have all been engaged by the diverse body of research influenced by these Foucauldian concepts (see Leander 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Lobo-Guerrero 2007; Martin 2007).

As global politics continues to evolve, as well as the complex assemblages of power, and particularly the ongoing rearticulation of sovereign power, the resiliency of research motivated, influenced, and inspired by governmentality and biopolitics is likely to increase rather than wither away. The increasing reliance on surveillance technologies globally, the complex web of public and private interests that help to shape this field of action, the ever burgeoning capacity of the state in the daily life of its citizens, the continued resilience of private actors in sectors of security, be they mercenary-like figures of simple service providers or the persistent illiberal practices of liberal regimes, are some of the ongoing issues that are central to contemporary global politics, for which Foucault's work on governmentality and biopolitics has much to offer. The dominant dichotomies so central to IR theory, reified throughout much of its theorizing, clearly no longer hold. Borders are virtual and deterritorialized, often managed by private actors vis-à-vis surveillance technologies, the resiliency of citizenship as a meaningful concept and founding principle of modern political community is constantly in question, and often the most vigorous political debates are centered around concerns relating to food security, risk management, catastrophic imaginaries, and global non-state actors, be they terrorists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), tourists, and so on, so the import of governmentality and biopolitics seems likely to persist in IS research, and if anything, expand further.


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Links to Digital Materials

Biopolitics of Security Network. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Particularly strong and regularly updated reference and resource list of relevant literature on biopolitics and governmentality in IR. Sound list of scholars currently engaged in governmentality and biopolitics research, and contemporary events, workshops, research projects, conferences, etc.

BIOS. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Research on social and policy aspects of the life sciences. Nikolas Rose, one of the key figures in governmentality and biopolitics scholarship is a core member of this collective.

CHALLENGE – Liberty & Security. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Research consortium funded by the Sixth Framework Research Programme of DG Research (European Commission). Deals with wide range of issues associated with the relationship between liberty and security in the EU, specifically post-9/11.

Global Biopolitics Research Group. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Interdisciplinary research group, large number of sources relating to human sciences. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Broad range of information and references on Michel Foucault with existing and forthcoming publications.

Politics – State – Space. At, accessed May 6, 2011.

Research consortium from Durham University dealing with a range of questions regarding sovereignty and governmentality.

Surveillance Studies Centre. At, accessed May 6, 2011. Research center at Queen's University with a large bibliography of research and scholars dealing with issues of biopolitics and governmentality in relation to surveillance studies.


I wish to thank Mark Salter, Alex Macleod, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this contribution. The breadth of work that this topic encompasses makes any attempt at a definitive account of this body of research both impossible and, arguably, undesirable. It is the slippery and fuzzy nature of this research field that makes it fecund.