Circuits of power

1. The Aalborg case

Foucault says: ‘power produces knowledge … power and knowledge directly imply one another . . . there is no power relation without the creative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations’ (1977: 27–8). In such a view, rationalities and pow- ers are fused. Rationalities are always situational. And because they are always con- textually situational they are always implicated with power. No context stands outside power. If that were the case, then power would exist nowhere, outside of understanding, outside of possibility, outside of sense. Different power actors oper- ate in and through different rationalities, which have different rules for producing sense and, at the more formal outer limits, for producing truth. In fact, sense and truth cannot be separated from the ensemble of rules that constitute them – and their obverse – as such.

To adopt a discursive analysis of rationality is to see what people say as the means whereby rationality and power become interwoven. People may be in a position to say anything, given the infinity of discourse, but they rarely surprise the well- grounded analyst with their discursive moves. Language games are not predictable but they are explicable. We can understand and constitute the senses that are being made as well as the conditions of existence and underlying tacit assumptions that make such sense possible. And in this way we can begin to understand the different forms of agency that find expression in organizational contexts, where the players make sense of rules that they actively construct and deconstruct in the context of their action.

Clegg (1989) has used the idea of circuits of power to represent the ways in which power may flow through different modalities. Relatively simple is transitive power, where one agency seeks to get another to do what they would not otherwise do. Power in this sense usually involves fairly straightforward episodic power, oriented towards securing outcomes. The two defining elements of episodic power circuits are agencies and events of interest to these agencies. Agencies are constituted within social relations; in these social relations they are analogous to practical experimen- talists who seek to configure these relations in such a way that they present stable standing conditions for them to assert their agency in securing preferred outcomes. Hence, relations constitute agents that these and other agents seek to configure and reconfigure; agencies seek to assert agency, and do so through configuring relations in such a way that their agency can be transmitted through various generalized media of communication, in order to secure preferential outcomes. All this is quite straightforward and familiar from one-dimensional accounts of power.

Episodes are always interrelated in complex and evolving ways. No ‘win’ or ‘loss’ is ever complete in itself, nor is the meaning of victory or defeat definitely fixed as such at the time of its registration, recognition or reception; such matters of judg- ment are always contingent on the temporalities of the here-and-now, on the reconstitutions of the there-and-then, on the reflective and prospective glances of everyday life (Schutz 1967). If power relations are the stabilization of warfare in peaceful times then any battle is only ever a part of an overall campaign. What is important, from the point of view of the infinity of power episodes stretching into a future that has no limits, are the feedback loops from distinct episodic outcomes and the impact that they have on overall social and system integration. The impor- tant question is whether episodic outcomes tend rather more to reproduce or to transform the existing architectonics – the architecture, geometry and design – of power relations. How they might do so is accommodated in the model: through the circuit of social integration, episodic outcomes serve to either more or less trans- form or reproduce the rules fixing extant relations of meaning and membership in organizational fields; as these are reproduced or transformed they fix or refix those obligatory passage points – the channels, conduits, circuitry of extant power rela- tions. In this way dispositional matters of identity will be more or less transformed or reproduced, effecting the stability of the extant social relations that had sought to stabilize their powers in the previous episodes of power. As identities are trans- formed, then so will be the social relations in which they are manifested and engaged (see Figure 8.1).

System integration also needs to be considered. Changes in the rules fixing relations of meaning and membership can facilitate or restrict innovations in the tech- niques of disciplinary and productive power, which, in turn, will more or less empower or disempower extant social relations that seek to stabilize the episodic field, recre- ating existing obligatory passage points or creating new ones, as the case might be. (The model is discussed in detail in Chapter 8 of Clegg 1989; in Chapter 9 of the same text it is applied to matters of state formation.)

Figure 8.1 Representing circuits of power

As an empirical instance, one can consider the detailed case study of planning in Aalborg conducted by Bent Flyvbjerg (1998), which is easily interpretable in terms of the circuits model, even though it does not use it explicitly. Clegg (1989) and Flyvbjerg (1998) are both influenced by Foucault, albeit that both use the resources that he provides creatively. Clegg’s recognition is that there is no fundamental power that should be seen as constitutive of nearly anything and everything: that is, power should not be seen as ubiquitous and that it flows through different circuits of social relations, with different effects, is useful in representing the Aalborg case.

High-level city officials initiated the Aalborg Project in October 1977, as a plan intended to limit the use of cars in the city center. Soon after its initiation, several agencies, trade unions, police, local and national consultants, the business com- munity, private corporations, the media, and interested citizens became involved in order to decide on issues such as redirecting traffic by creating a rational local and national bus traffic system. A task force was established to formulate a three-year plan. The first conflict arose between architects and the bus company over the loca- tion and size of a bus terminal. Originally just a minor disagreement, the discus- sion turned into embittered conflict and division among the main players. There was a public hearing and the production of a counterplan by the Aalborg Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and a revised plan was approved in 1980.

Small business people with retail outlets in the planning precinct grew increas-ingly dissatisfied with the original urban renewal plan. Without a constant stream of cars coming into the city center they feared they would lose business. They succeeded in halving the original plan to construct the bus terminal. The Environ- mental Protection Agency then began to question the environmental hazards and impact of the proposed bus terminal, while another source of local conflict con- cerned a subplan designed to try and maintain the authentic charms of the old shopping streets. The City Council forbade all non-retail businesses (banks, insur- ance companies, and offices) from occupying ground floor premises, to try and preserve the street’s character. However, non-retail business leaders were also pre- sent in the local Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and they agitated against this plan. In its first four years the Aalborg plan underwent six rounds of recon- struction and modification. Although the overall plan was never actually rejected, specific projects became more and more minute, as well as more problematic in content and scope, generating further subordinate and specific episodes of power between local factions: cyclists and planners; planners and small business people; motorists and public transport; and so on.

Unexpected and unanticipated environmental contingencies had an impact on the project, such as the Mayor and several high-level local officials being jailed on bribery charges, thus challenging the overall legitimacy of the urban renewal plan. By this time the original plan had undergone its eleventh revision. The Chamber of Industry and Commerce reversed its original stand and began arguing that redi- recting traffic would hurt businesses by causing falling revenues. However, the City Council survey rejected this fear by revealing that retail profits were increasing. Meanwhile, new Social Democratic politicians came on the scene, deciding to bol- ster the urban renewal project by emphasizing positive aspects of the original plan adopted a decade earlier, which led the Aalborg Project into a total impasse.

The outcomes were not what any faction wanted: instead of reducing car traffic, it increased by 8 percent; instead of creating an integrated system of bicycle paths, unconnected stretches were built; instead of reducing traffic accidents, the number of fatalities and injuries among cyclists increased 40 percent; instead of reducing noise, the levels substantially exceeded Danish and international norms; and air pollution increased.

Flyvbjerg’s (1998) main theme is that power shapes rationality. At various stages the various political actors sought to steer the project through their preferences; they sought to structure what the circuits of power model terms ‘obligatory passage points’. Different claims were made for participation in different committees; differential participation produced different outcomes at different times, favoring different preferences. Small battles were fought over who, and what, could be intro- duced in which arenas and meetings. In this way the relations of meaning and membership in the various locales were contested, reproduced or transformed. As these changed then the obligatory passage points shifted; as these shifted the rela- tions of power that had prevailed shifted also – most dramatically when the Mayor and officials were indicted and imprisoned. Thus, small wins in specific episodes of power had the capacity to shift the configuration of the overall circuitry through which power relations flowed. The actors engaged in the plans were constantly seeking to fix and refix specific schemes, and although the play of power was very fluid, the underlying social integration of the small business people with each other, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and the editorial views of the local newspaper, seemed to mean that the small business people were the prevailing win- ners in the many struggles. The attempts to respecify the system integration of the traffic plan in Aalborg consistently foundered on the reef of social integration. How Aalborg was planned, designed and looked, as well as how it was not planned, was not designed and did not look, was an effect of power relations.

Flyvbjerg (1998) alerts us to one very important fact of power relations and rationalities: that when power and knowledge are entwined then the greater the power the less the need for rationality, in the sense of rational means–ends justifi- cations. The relation between rationality and power was an uneven relation: power clearly dominated rationality. That is, those who presently configured power sought to continue doing so and were quite ready to define the reality of the pro- ject in any way that seemed to them to further their preferences, using whatever strategies and tactics were available to them. In this sense, what was defined as rationality and reality was an effect of power, as it defined and created ‘concrete physical, economic, ecological, and social realities’ (1998: 227). What was advanced and argued as rationality depended wholly on power relations; the more disadvan- taged in these the agents were, the more they were liable to have recourse to con- ceptions of rationality that downplayed power, and sought to position themselves through factual, objective, reasoned knowledge. The most powerful rationalities took the form of rationalizations rather than authoritatively grounded accounts. Often these were public performances of rationality which other agents who were witness to the rationalizations felt compelled not to reveal because they lacked the powers to do so; they anticipated and feared the reaction that their actions would in all probability produce, should they move, for dangers lurked in open conflict and identification of differences.

The greater the facility with which agencies could have recourse to power relations, the less concerned they were with reason, and the less they were held accountable to it. Access to more power produced less reason. In other words, the more that they were able to seduce, manipulate, dominate, induce, rationalize, and so on, the less likely that they would be amenable to the authority of reasoned argu- ment. The Enlightenment project of a rational public sphere is a strategy of the weak and is opposed by the strong, according to Flyvbjerg’s analysis. Power rela- tions were, on the whole, more marked by the gentle arts of power – persuasion, inducements, seduction, etc. – than by antagonistic strategies. The antagonisms were the most visible and publicly reported aspects of power – but they were hardly the most typical. They rarely are: the necessity to throw one’s weight around usu- ally signals a position of relative weakness rather than strength, such that if one needs to use force one is demonstrating that one is weak. Establishing agreements between agents creates the power of ongoing action, a much stronger relation of power than specific episodes enacted in response to conditions of crisis.

In Aalborg, what was most typical was the constant attention to the small things of power relations that continually reproduced the status quo; rather than attempts at transformation, it was largely reproduction that prevailed. The most skilled strategists of power were those for whom reproduction was the preferred strategy; in the case of Aalborg this was the small business community, whose institutional- ized voice was much more actively represented to governmental rationality than that of the various citizen groups – the cyclists, the greens and so on. In turn, these relations were embedded in deeply held local loyalties and relations defined by the forms of symbolic and cultural capital that Bourdieu analyses. When, in openly antagonistic settings, these relations came up against contra-points of view that were well researched and represented in rational terms, power-to-power relations dominated over those defined in terms of knowledge or rationality against power. Mostly, power relations were both stable and inequitable. Where power relations could be maintained as stable and characterized by consensus and negotiations, rationality could gain a greater toehold; the more power relations became antago- nistic, the easier it was to deploy less rational arguments and strategies. Thus, ration- ality must remain within the existing circuits of power if it is to influence them. To challenge them is to play a losing hand.

2. Circuits of power in practice

The theorization of circuits of power has been used in a number of studies,8 but the one that we shall discuss here is a recent study of ‘Circuits of power in practice: strate- gic ambiguity as delegation of authority’ by Sally Davenport and Shirley Leitch (2005). It is a study of positive power enacted through the facilitative circuit, which is the rea- son that we have chosen to discuss this particular application. It pulls together an analysis of power with an analysis of strategic ambiguity to empower stakeholders. Strategic ambiguity (Eisenberg 1984) involves deliberate use of ambiguity to create a ‘space’ in which multiple interpretations and responses by stakeholders are enabled and possible (Davenport and Leitch 2005). The case study analyzes the attempt by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, a public sector research-funding body in New Zealand, to transform the national science system. Given that unclear goals, restive and sometimes resistant stakeholders, and a process of creative engage- ment between the organization and its stakeholders marked the attempt, the use of strategic ambiguity was highly appropriate.

In 1999 New Zealand research funding changed from being a very explicit rules- based funding model in which power relations were highly episodic, with strong non-collaborative competition between grant getters. What changed the situation was the fashion for a ‘knowledge economy’ that had blown across the Pacific and into New Zealand. In the new knowledge economy the idea was to create facilita- tive knowledge sharing and building capacities rather than encourage zero-sum games between researchers in a very small country (less than 4 million people). Policy statements were issued; things were going to change – things had to change. What was changing was that the Foundation was moving from funding research to investing in innovation. Where previously there had been disciplinarily defined fiefdoms there was now to be one investment operation in an innovation strategy accompanied by ‘disinvestment’ in existing areas of research that failed to show promise for future wealth creation.

The focus of the research is on the second circuit of power, the positive facilita- tive circuit, which comes into play when the existing rules of practice characteriz- ing a power arena are changed or destabilized in some way, either by authorities or others internal to the circuits of power, or by some exogenous contingency that has an impact on these circuits. When the existing rules of practice fixing relations of meaning and membership change, then relations of power in the circuit may be either empowering or disempowering of members, stakeholders and others. Here the focus is on stakeholders who are particularly susceptible to what Clegg defines as the central paradox of power: ‘the power of an agency is increased in principle by that agency delegating authority; the delegation of authority can only proceed by rules; rules necessarily entail discretion and discretion potentially empowers delegates’ (1989: 201). The use of strategic ambiguity is one way of achieving ‘high discretionary strategic agency’ through enabling creativity in sensemaking about what changing meanings mean. Strategic ambiguity introduces purposeful discre- tion into the space between organization and delegates. Contested sensemaking shifts the circuits of power in unanticipated but partially creative ways. For anyone familiar with university research circles the immediate results were predictable: confusion, resentment and resistance. However, researchers who were involved in research institutes that already had a private sector funding orientation saw it quite differently – much more positively. The Foundation sought to engage research providers and end users of research in a creative dialog – one into which the insti- tutes jumped with alacrity while the universities were far more hesitant about what the changed conditions meant. Previously they never had to negotiate; they just submitted research applications and were either funded or not, according to the recommendations of expert panels – in a very small national system. Now the pri- orities were being set by the Foundation in terms of investment criteria that were opaque to the community of researchers until they entered into negotiation with the Foundation. The researchers speculated that perhaps, as the rules became more fixed, as meanings settled down and settled in with the new system of funding, the system of relations might shift back into a more episodic mode of circuitry. In which case, one might expect periodic bouts of reformed purpose and renewed use of new sources of strategic ambiguity.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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