How Biopower Puts Freedom to Work: Conceptualizing ‘Pivoting Mechanisms’ in the Neoliberal University

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Human Relations, 2022, 75, (10), pp. 1986-2007
Issue Date:
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Academics working in the neoliberal university embody a key tension. They enjoy substantial occupational freedoms and yet endure formidable levels of control. The two attributes are not necessarily opposed. Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower explains why. Unlike disciplinary power (modelled after the prison, factory, school, etc.), biopower operationalizes significant freedoms in order to render workers productive. Studies examining how employers achieve this have several limitations that this article seeks to remedy. Biopower does not frame or subjectify employee agency but pivots it instead. I develop the concept of ‘pivoting mechanisms’ and illustrate its utility with respect to academic labour in the neoliberal university. This provides a more nuanced explanation of how biopower can infiltrate professional autonomy and sheds light on its troubling effects in higher education today.
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