The Economization of Life

By Michelle Murphy. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2017. 232 pp., $24.95 paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8223-6345-3.


In The Economization of Life, Michelle Murphy traces the processes and imaginaries that have come to assign differential value to human lives based upon their ability to contribute to the future thriving of the macroeconomy. Murphy, a leading voice in feminist technoscience studies, is a Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. The project she undertakes is to expose the historical events and socio-technical processes by which concepts and practices of “population” and “the economy” were developed and powerfully conjoined over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Together population and economy have come to shape our ways of knowing, ways of feeling, and modes of experimentation and data collection. This book builds on Murphy’s extensive record of scholarship on the history of feminism, American empire, environment and materiality, population control, and political economy. Bangladesh is centered in her analysis as a key site of United States intervention and transnational knowledge production for Cold War, imperial, nationalist, and feminist projects at the intersections of demography, economics, public health, and population science. Murphy uncovers for reader the complex power entanglements between reproduction, experiment, information, and economy in the late twentieth century. This is a vital project while that period informs current global realities and constrains our future possibilities.

The Economization of Life is organized into three sections or “arcs.” The flow is chronological reflecting the development of the infrastructures of experimentalizing population that Murphy traces. The book includes a total of twelve chapters in addition to an introduction and coda. The first arc, “Phantasmagrams of Population and Economy,” is comprised of four chapters that examine the building of Cold War era quantitative practices in the 1950s and 1960s. These are the practices that Murphy argues produced both “economy” and “population” as objects that could be tracked, governed, felt, and intervened in. These processes produced a new calculability of life that deemed certain lives as not worth living, certain lives as not worth saving, and certain lives not worth being born at all. Murphy’s analysis is novel in its exposure of how these racist practices devalue the lives of brown, black, and/or poor persons, determining that many must not be born at all so that others might be ensured of more prosperous economic futures. In the second arc, “Reproducing Infrastructures,” over the course of five chapters Murphy analyzes the experiments that served to formalize the calculability of life worth. These experimental projects were undertaken in the context of family planning practices from the 1960s through the 1980s. It is in this section that she turns to Bangladesh as significant site for interventions by scientists, economists, public health officials, and feminists. Murphy’s work meticulously demonstrates for the reader how certain forms of infrastructure were chosen, developed, and reproduced in order to rearrange population through affect and quantification in service of data production that was understood to hold the promise of future prosperity. The final arc, “Investible Life,” over the course of three chapters tells the story of how the data accumulated in the previous period was deployed in spaces such as the “girling of human capital” in the 1990s. It is in this period that life became fully entrenched as a form of capital with a value that is explicitly tied to the calculable risk of its milieu (9). Taking a historical perspective is essential to Murphy’s core argument that these practices amount to an “economization of life.” Such an economization is produced through the accumulation of infrastructures and data by which differential life worth is understood as a unit that can and should be measured. It is only over time that valuation of human capital became so deeply naturalized that it becomes difficult to see, and to even imagine, the possibility of a different world.


Murphy repeatedly emphasizes throughout the introduction that her overarching goal in this book is not to prove conclusively that the economization of life exists. She argues that such a task is doomed to fail. However, despite her claims to the speculative nature of her analysis, the evidentiary support Murphy offers through a new reading of economic theory and archival evidence is exceptionally strong. Her aim of uncovering for a multidisciplinary audience that the processes by which life has come to be valued were not inevitable or ahistorical ones is admirably achieved. By bringing to light decisions, designs, and imaginaries she challenges readers to reject current systems of value and geopolitical order. More specifically, she wants to move us toward a dismantling of the violent status quo of both population as a key reproductive justice term and economy as our “collective container.” These goals are in line with her approach of drawing upon diverse literatures and archival materials. Historians, science and technology studies scholars, economists, public health scholars and officials, cultural theorists, scholars of South Asia, and advocates for reproductive and social justice will find their epistemologies and methods challenged and advanced through engagement with this book. While the goals of this book speak to audiences far beyond the academy, its language and readings of economic theory would require detailed deconstruction for undergraduate and other audiences less familiar with these topics and approaches. The book does not offer all of the answers to as to what alternative systems and structures we need to create or how to go about doing such work. However, Murphy’s work provides a solid and crucial theoretical foundation upon to begin the process of imagining and creating a different and more humane world. Information and culture scholars would be well advised to turn to The Economization of Life as a sobering and hopeful touchstone for our collective project of thinking and working our way out the contemporary neoliberal world order.


Marika Cifor, Bowdoin College.