Cultural Studies of Science Education

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 915–927 | Cite as

The problem of bio-concepts: biopolitics, bio-economy and the political economy of nothing

  • Kean Birch
Original Paper


Scholars in science and technology studies—and no doubt other fields—have increasingly drawn on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics to theorize a variety of new ‘bio-concepts’. While there might be some theoretical value in such exercises, many of these bio-concepts have simply replaced more rigorous—and therefore time-consuming—analytical work. This article provides a (sympathetic) critique of these various bio-concepts, especially as they are applied to the emerging ‘bio-economy’. In so doing, the article seeks to show that the analysis of the bio-economy could be better framed as a political economy of nothing. This has several implications for science education, which are raised in the article.


Bio-concepts Biopolitics Bio-economy Political economy of nothing 


  1. Barkan, J. (2013). Corporate sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. doi: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816674268.003.0007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Birch, K. (2015). Review. Clinical Labor (2014) by M. Cooper and C. Waldby. New Genetics and Society, 34(4), 444–446. doi: 10.1080/14636778.2014.940451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Birch, K. (2016). Market vs. contract? The implications of contractual theories of corporate governance to the analysis of neoliberalism. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 16(1), 107–133.Google Scholar
  4. Birch, K. (2017a). Rethinking value in the bio-economy: Finance, assetization and the management of value. Science, Technology and Human Values, 42(3), 460–490. doi: 10.1177/0162243916661633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Birch, K. (2017b). A research agenda for neoliberalism. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Birch, K., & Tyfield, D. (2013). Theorizing the bioeconomy: Biovalue, biocapital, bioeconomics or …what? Science, Technology and Human Values, 38(3), 299–327. doi: 10.1177/0162243912442398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. CEC. (2012). Innovating for sustainable growth: A bio-economy for Europe. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.Google Scholar
  8. Clarke, A., Shim, J., Shostak, S. & Nelson, A. (2009). Biomedicalizing genetic health, diseases and identities. In P. Atkinson, P. Glasner & M. Lock (Eds.), Handbook of Genetics and Society (pp. 21–40). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Cooper, M. (2008). Life as surplus. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  10. Cooper, M., & Waldby, C. (2014). Clinical labor. Durham: Duke University Press. doi: 10.1215/9780822377009-001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dawson, A. (2013). Biohazard: The catastrophic temporality of green capitalism. Social Text, 31(1), 63–81. doi: 10.1215/01642472-1958899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Di Palma, G. (2014). The Modern State Subverted. Colchester: ECPR Press.Google Scholar
  13. Ernst, & Young, (2012). Beyond borders: Global biotechnology report 2012. Boston: Ernst and Young.Google Scholar
  14. Foucault, M. (1976[1998]). The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality 1. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  15. Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978–1979. New York: Picador.Google Scholar
  16. Franklin S. & Lock, M. (Eds.). (2003). Remaking Life and Death: Toward an Anthropology of the Biosciences. Santa Fe: SAR Press.Google Scholar
  17. Frow, E., Ingram, D., Powell, W., Steer, D., Vogel, J., & Yearley, S. (2009). The politics of plants. Food Security, 1, 17–23. doi: 10.1007/s12571-008-0007-6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gaskell, G. et al. (2010). Europeans and Biotechnology in 2010. Brussels: European Commission. Accessed August 2014.
  19. Gerlach, N., Hamilton, S., Sullivan, R., & Walton, P. (2011). Becoming biosubjects: Bodies, systems, technologies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  20. Helmreich, S. (2007). Blue-green capital, biotechnological circulation and an oceanic imaginary: A critique of biopolitical economy. BioSocieties, 2(3), 287–302. doi: 10.1017/s1745855207005753.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Helmreich, S. (2008). Species of biocapital. Science as Culture, 17(4), 463–478. doi: 10.1080/09505430802519256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hilgartner, S. (2007). Making the bio-economy measurable: Politics of an emerging anticipatory machinery. BioSocieties, 2(3), 382–386. doi: 10.1017/s1745855207005819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hopkins M., Crane P., Nightingale P. & Baden-Fuller C. (2013). Buying Big into Biotech: Scale, Financing, and the Industrial Dynamics of UK Biotech, 1980–2009. Industrial and Corporate Change, 22(4), 903–952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hopkins, M., Martin, P., Nightingale, P., Kraft, A., & Mahdi, S. (2007). The myth of the biotech revolution: An assessment of technological, clinical and organisational change. Research Policy, 36(4), 566–589. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2007.02.013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Huggett, B., & Lähteenmäki, R. (2012). Public biotech 2011—the numbers. Nature Biotechnology, 30(8), 751–757. doi: 10.1038/nbt.2320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Landström, C., Hauxwell-Baldwin, R., Lorenzoni, I., & Rogers-Hayden, T. (2015). Experts’ views on the (mis)understanding of scientific uncertainty by policy makers, media and the public. Science as Culture, 24(3), 276–298.Google Scholar
  27. Lemke, T. (2011). Foucault, governmentality, and critique. London: Paradigm Publishers. doi: 10.1080/089356902101242288.Google Scholar
  28. Levidow, L., Birch, K. & Papaioannou, T. (2012). EU agri-innovation policy: Two contending visions of the knowledge-based bio-economy. Critical Policy Studies, 6(1), 40–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.Google Scholar
  30. Martin, J., Hamilton, B., Ventura, S., et al. (2011). Births: Final data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports, 60(1), Hyattsville. MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Accessed August 2014.
  31. Nightingale, P., & Martin, P. (2004). The myth of the biotech revolution. Trends in Biotechnology, 22(11), 564–569. doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2004.09.010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. OECD. (2006). The bio-economy to 2030: Designing a policy agenda. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.Google Scholar
  33. OECD. (2013). Self-employment, in OECD Facbook 2013: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics. Paris: OECD Publishing. Accessed August 2014.
  34. OECD. (2015). Self-employment rate (indicator). doi: 10.1787/fb58715e-en. Accessed on 23 July 2015.
  35. Petersen, A. (2013). From bioethics to a sociology of bio-knowledge. Social Science and Medicine, 98, 264–270. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.12.030.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pisano, G. (2006). Science business: The promise, the reality, and the future of biotech. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
  37. Plows, A. (2010). Debating human genetics: Contemporary issues in public policy and ethics. London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203926925.Google Scholar
  38. Plows, A. & Boddington, B. (2006). Troubles with biocitizenship? Genetics, Society and Policy, 2(3), 115–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ponte, S., & Birch, K. (2014). Introduction: Imaginaries and governance of biofueled futures. Environment and Planning A, 46(2), 271–279. doi: 10.1068/a46296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rabinow, P. & Rose, N. (2006). Biopower today. BioSocieties, 1, 195–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Raman, S. & Tutton, R. (2010). Life, science, and biopower. Science, Technology & Human Values, 35(5), 711–734.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Richardson, B. (2012). From a fossil-fuel to a biobased economy: The politics of industrial biotechnology. Environment and Planning C, 30, 282–296. doi: 10.1068/c10209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rose, N. (2001). The politics of life itself. Theory, Culture and Society, 18(6), 1–30. doi: 10.1177/02632760122052020.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rose, N., & Novas, C. (2004). Biological citizenship. In A. Ong & S. Collier (Eds.), Global assemblages: Technology, politics, and ethics as anthropological problems (pp. 439–463). Oxford: Blackwell. doi: 10.1002/9780470696569.Google Scholar
  45. Staffas, L., Gustavsson, M., & McCormick, K. (2013). Strategies and policies for the bioeconomy and bio-based economy: An analysis of official national approaches. Sustainability, 5(6), 2751–2769. doi: 10.3390/su5062751.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sunder Rajan, K. (2006). Biocapital. Durham: Duke University Press. doi: 10.1215/9780822388005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sunder Rajan, K. (Ed.). (2012). Lively capital. Durham: Duke University Press. doi: 10.1215/9780822393306.Google Scholar
  48. Taussig, K.-S. (2010). Book review: Biocapital by K. Sunder Rajan. American Ethnologist, 37(3), 583–584. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01274_1.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. The White House. (2012). National bioeconomy blueprint. Washington, DC: The White House.Google Scholar
  50. Thorpe, C., & Gregory, J. (2010). Producing the post-Fordist public: The political economy of public engagement with science. Science as Culture, 19(3), 273–301. doi: 10.1080/09505430903194504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tyfield, D. (2009). A surplus of ‘surplus’? Science as Culture, 18(4), 497–500. doi: 10.1080/09505430902951334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. van Dooren, T. (2007). Terminated seed: Death, proprietary kinship and the production of (bio)wealth. Science as Culture, 16(1), 71–93. doi: 10.1080/09505430601180912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Vermeulen, N., Tamminen, S., & Webster, A. (Eds.). (2012). Bio-objects: Life in the 21st century. Farnham: Ashgate. doi: 10.4324/9781315569376.Google Scholar
  54. Wahlberg, A. (2007). Measuring progress: Calculating the life of nations. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 14, 65–82. doi: 10.1080/1600910x.2007.9672939.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Waldby, C. (2000). The visible human project: Informatic bodies and posthuman medicine. London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203360637.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Waldby, C. (2002). Stem cells, tissue cultures and the production of biovalue. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 305–323. doi: 10.1177/136345930200600304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Waldby, C., & Mitchell, R. (2006). Tissue economies: Blood, organs and cell lines in late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press. doi: 10.1215/9780822388043.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Webster, A. (2012). Introduction. In N. Vermeulen, S. Tamminen, & A. Webster (Eds.), Bio-objects: Life in the 21st century. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  59. Weinstein, M. (2008). Captain America, Tuskegee, Belmont, and righteous guinea pigs: Considering scientific ethics through official and subaltern perspectives. Science & Education, 17(8–9), 961–975. doi: 10.1007/s11191-006-9053-7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Welsh, I., & Wynne, B. (2013). Science, scientism and imaginaries of publics in the UK: Passive objects, incipient threats. Science as Culture, 22(4), 540–566. doi: 10.1080/14636778.2013.764072.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyYork UniversityTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations