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Biopolitics in Practice

Module titleBiopolitics in Practice
Module codePOL3222
Academic year2018/9
Module staff

Dr Angela Cassidy (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The term ‘biopolitics’ first came into use in the early 20th century, as a range of political thinkers and scientists  applied new ideas from biology to developing political theories of society. Multiple versions of ‘the biology of politics’ have surfaced and retreated over time ever, drawing on a range of biological ideas, from organicism to sociobiology, via genetics and cognitive science.  This idea was turned upon its head during the 1970s by the social theorist Michel Foucault, who used the idea of ‘biopower’ to describe how social and political power over life has increasingly been created since the 19th century. This latter concept, the ‘politics of biology’, has been adopted by many scholars thinking about science and society in the 21st century. In this module we will explore the multiple and contested versions of biopolitics over the past century, as they have played out in public debates over evolution and ‘human nature’; agriculture and environments; health and medicine; and new technologies. 

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will introduce you to historical and contemporary ideas about biopolitics (as biology of politics/politics of biology), but with the ultimate aim of asking whether this binary can be overcome to create more productive debates into the future. In so doing, it will introduce key scientific, philosophical and theoretical debates about politics and the life sciences in the broadest sense, working through a series of case studies drawn from across the world since the early 20th century. The module will enable you to understand, explore and evaluate how interfaces between biology and politics become articulated, debated and campaigned for in policy contexts and the wider public sphere.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Articulate the multiple meanings of ‘biopolitics’ and understand how and why these interpretations have been so politically contested.
  • 2. Identify and critically evaluate one or more case studies of biopolitical debates across a range of domains

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Deploy key theoretical ideas about biopolitics in the contexts of contemporary and historical debates over human nature; environmental politics; biomedicine; and technological futures.
  • 4. Think critically, analyse debates and present coherent arguments about the broader political issues raised by developments in the life sciences.

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Present written material in a coherent and accessible manner; evaluate ideas and debates.
  • 6. Demonstrate critical media literacy skills – search for, contextualize and evaluate mass media content
  • 7. Produce a public presentation and policy briefing; engage constructively in discussion and evaluate others’ performance.

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics:


  • Key ideas and theories of biopolitics from the early 20th century to today
  • Evolution and questions of ‘human nature’ (e.g. Darwin and his opponents; eugenics; sociobiology; cognitive science)
  • Environments, society and agriculture (e.g. food and food production; environmental politics; human/animal relations)
  • Health and medicine (e.g. ethical debates over life and suffering; infectious diseases and biosecurity)
  • New technologies and futures (e.g. GM foods; gene editing; reproductive technologies; posthumanism; network societies)
  • Thinking through the dynamics and dilemmas of interactions between scientists, policymakers and politicians.
  • Following today’s biopolitical debates as they unfold in the media.




In addition, a dedicated ELE site will provide students with links to key texts and lecture materials.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities4422x 2 hour seminars
Guided Independent Study150 seminar preparation
Guided Independent Study106course work


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
‘Biopolitics of the Week’ seminar introductions 10 minutes, approximately once per term1-4; 6Oral
Biopolitics news scrapbook & class discussion of newsThroughout course – assessed via oral contribution. Students will be asked to submit their scrapbooks as an appendix to summative assessments.1-4; 6Oral
Contributions to class discussion Throughout module1-4; 6Oral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Case study research project605,000 word essay report1-5Written Comments
Policy briefing: oral presentation + written paper + media article4010 min talk + 1500 word policy brief + 500 word article (80% of credit weighting on the written policy brief)1-7Written and oral comments


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Case study research project5,000 word essay report1-5August/September reassessment period
Policy briefing: poster presentation, written paper + media article1500 word briefing + 500 word article + poster presentation1-6August/September reassessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Core Texts: specific readings for each week will be available on ELE


Lemke, T. (2011). Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. NYU Press

Sismondo, S. (2010). An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Wiley-Blackwell


Theme One: Human? Nature?

Bowler, Peter (2003) Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley University Press).

Milam, Erika, Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (Baltimore, 2010).

Ruse, M. (2001). The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates. Rutgers University Press.


Theme Two: Friends and Neighbours

Connelly, J., Smith, G., Benson, D. & Saunders, C. (2012) Politics and the Environment. Routledge, Oxford.

Demillo, M (2012) Animals and society: an introduction to human-animal studies. New York: Columbia University Press

Jorgensen, D., Jorgensen, F.A. & Pritchard, S., 2014. New Natures. University of Pittsburgh Press


Theme Three: Health and Care

Lupton, D., 2012. Medicine as culture: Illness, disease and the body. London: Sage.

Mol, A (2008) The logic of care: health and the problem of patient choice. London: Routledge

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

Wilson, D. (2014). The Making of British Bioethics. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.


Theme Four: Futures

Bijker, W.E. and Hughes T. P. (eds) (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems. MIT Press

Mahon, P. (2017). Posthumanism: a guide for the perplexed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Nerlich, B., Hartley, Raman, S & Smith, A (eds.). (2018). Science and the Politics of Openness: Here be Monsters. Manchester University Press. OA Ebook, retrieved from

Stapleton, P. and Byers, A. (eds) (2015) Biopolitics and Utopia: an interdisciplinary reader. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan


The College has produced a fantastic resource to support library and research skills, including Politics specific material:  


Journals and many other electronic resources can be accessed through the library’s main search portal:  

Web of Knowledge – for searching academic journals:

Google Scholar - particularly useful for finding open access copies of material not available through the library:

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Somatosphere– Science, medicine, anthropology, bioethics:

Contagion– Historical views of diseases and epidemics:

Making Science Public– science and society, biosciences:

This View of Life– evolutionary perspectives:


If you have any further questions please consult the Library staff.

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Biopolitics, science and technology studies, science policy

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date