Giddens’ conflict critique of Parsons’ functionalism

Parsons’ theory was sophisticated – but at odds with the experiences of liberal democracies in the 1960s characterized by civil rights demonstrations, race riots, student demonstrations, and the ‘Paris Events of 1968’ which marred General de Gaulle’s last year as president of France. All of these events questioned existing author- ity rather than obeying it. None of them seemed to suggest that the moral order was one that was widely shared. It was hard to see the youthful student protestors or the militant blacks just as people for whom the socialization project had failed.

For Giddens, a young scholar making his initial impact in the heated times of the 1960s, authority was the Achilles’ heel of Parsons’ system. All around him, in the universities in which he and colleagues taught, the cities in which they lived, the evidence that society seemed conflict-ridden and fractured along significant cleav- ages of age and race, let alone class and gender, was everywhere visible. Parsons may have been reflective of the assumptions of Eisenhower’s USA in the 1950s, but by the 1960s and the presidencies of LBJ and Nixon, the Civil Rights movement, the dog-days of the war in Vietnam, and the stirrings of feminism, social order seemed more problematic – especially on campus in university organizations.

Giddens observed that Parsons’ power is ‘directly derivative of authority: author- ity is the institutionalized legitimation which underlies power’ (1968: 260). Such a conception hardly seemed adequate to describe a situation where, seemingly every- where in the world’s big cities, one could hear ‘the sound of marching, charging feet’, as the Rolling Stones sang at the time (Jagger and Richards 1968). At base the criticism is that Parsons neglects ‘power over’ in favor of ‘power to’. In consequence, Parsons is seen to play down hierarchy and division, which give rise to different interests, and thus overstates the degree of authority in the social system. Not only was social order seemingly more challenged than theory predicted, but there did not seem to be much positive power about:

What slips away from sight almost completely in the Parsonian analysis is the very fact that power, even as Parsons defines it, is always exercised over someone! By treating power as necessarily (by definition) legitimate and thus starting from the assumption of consensus of some kind between power-holders and those subordinate to them, Parsons virtually ignores, quite consciously and deliberately, the necessarily hierarchical charac- ter of power, and the divisions of interest which are frequently consequent upon it. However much it is true that power can rest upon ‘agreement’ to code authority which can be used for collective aims, it is also true that interests of power-holders and those subject to that power often clash. (Giddens 1968: 24)

Later, Giddens (1984) was to change his ideas quite markedly (see Clegg 1992 for an overview of Giddens) by making a distinction that was premised on Parsons’ systems view: the distinction between allocative and authoritative resources. The former are material resources in the normal sense of the term in the power literature: things that people have access to or can deploy. Authoritative resources are premised on normative order and are clearly closely related to Weber’s sense of legitimacy as Parsons had translated it. Both types of resources, as Allen says, ‘refer to sets of capabilities’ (2003: 45). These resources are ‘the media through which power is exercised’ writes Giddens (1979: 91), something drawn on in the course of social interaction. Resources can be held in store, he suggests, and as resource capa- bilities expand, then so does potential power. Storage is achieved through symbolic and representational devices, which in contemporary times extend to phenomena such as IT systems, and the reach of other media. Actual power is demonstrated by the leverage that can be exerted across space and time. The greater the space and the longer the time over which power extends, presumably, then the more will be the power. Thus, Giddens sees the ability to mobilize and deploy resources across space and time as an indication of the pervasiveness of a power that is ‘distanciated’. To the extent that what occurs in one space is affected by social relations in another space that reach into the first space, then this corresponds to what Giddens (1984) thinks of as distanciated power. It represents, for example, the power of a higher court to settle appeals from a lower court; the power of the Royal and Ancient St Andrews club to settle matters of dispute arising from interpretation of the rules of play of the game of golf; or the power of a video referee to determine a matter of ambigu- ous interpretation of play on a rugby league field. It also extends to situations such as President Gaddafi, of Libya, in anticipation of the likely consequences of main- taining a nuclear arms policy in the face of the US Bush presidency’s policy of pre- emptive strikes, deciding to declare his nuclear capabilities and to desist from their further development. In this case, an anticipated reaction concerning the US mili- tary resources demonstrates the perceived power of US policies and capabilities.

On this criterion, argues Giddens (1990), we are at the cusp of a decline in the powers of states relative to organizations operating globally in increasingly global- ized markets. Organizational action at a distance is increasingly made possible through the storage of resources in phenomena such as databases that can both enable and constrain social actions, rather than through military extension and hardware:

[D]istanciated forms of power may be considered to manifest their abilities through a series of often routinized and repetitive practices ‘stretched’ over space. Administrative power, in transnational institutions for example, can be seen to work through an abil- ity to regulate the timing and spacing of social activities … power generated in one part of a distanciated network is transmitted intact across it … [through] … conduits … [which] … seem to undergo little in the way of displacement or transformation. (Allen 2003: 46–7).

Elsewhere, Giddens makes power a necessary component of the human condition, in a move reminiscent of Arendt: ‘an agent ceases to be such if he or she loses the capability to “make a difference”, that is to exercise some sort of power’ (1984: 14). Hence power seems to be both the transmission of agential capabilities across space and time and the ability of all agents to make a difference: if the former constrains the opportunities for the latter for anyone, they cease to be fully human. Of course, making a difference can always be constituted in positive dialectics as the denial of the will of another by the exertion of one’s will – even to snuff out one’s life as a way of denying the other the opportunity to take it. It is this fundamental and irre- ducible active human agency that denies power the mechanics assumed by the orga- nization theorists and political scientists who follow Hobbes’ causal models. The knowledgeability, skill, reflexivity and recursivity of the human sciences, embedded in language, ensure a radical separation of them from the natural sciences.

Human rationality is always context dependent because, as Wittgenstein (1972) demonstrated unequivocally, no rule could ever account for its own interpretation: thus, context cannot be reduced to rules. All science occurs in the context of what realist philosophers of science refer to as ‘standing conditions’. These standing con- ditions provide for the prevalence of the sense that the science makes of the world of object relations, against naturally occurring conditions. Standing conditions are definite sets of contextual experimental conditions, such as ensuring a sterile labo- ratory environment, maintaining a vacuum, or holding a stable temperature. Without these conditions, maintained by the experimentalist, the predicted rela- tions that the research setting seeks to display would not occur. Thus, a context for stable object relations has to be artfully contrived so that the context has no effect other than that sought experimentally. A science of objects needs to appear to be context-free; otherwise, it cannot provide a general theory.

Put simply, iron filings should always display the same dispositional behavior when introduced to the poles of a magnet, irrespective of whether the experiment occurs in Japan or the United States or of who is the experimentalist. These vari- ables simply are not important to the ‘sense’ that the filings make of their pattern- ing around the magnetic poles. Which is to say, as phenomena from the object realm rather than the subject realm, they can make no sense whatsoever. Nor is it relevant to the sense that the experimentalist makes. They do not index the partic- ulars of their own identity in making this sense.

Had we been thinking about how managers might respond to the twin poles of a strategic threat, rather than iron filings responding to a magnet, the situation would be very different. The patterns that emerge are not the result of laws that inexorably create a certain pattern. There is far more indeterminateness. Patterns are established by rules that are applied locally in situ by the actors themselves. These rules are not external – even though they may exist as such, as material traces, in manuals or procedures. They are, instead, the result of a complex mastery of skills that enable the actors to cope with new situations according to some cate- gories for making sense that involve the application of members’ implicit rules. That is what constitutes skill. But, once such skills are well learnt they become reflexively automatic. That is, they cannot be analyzed simply in terms of those rules that might be thought to constitute them. Such rules become themselves the unspoken and tacit ground of any action, action that is capable of improvising in unpredictable ways around and between any senses that the rules might make. Rules cannot account for their own interpretation in situ by actors. It is such inter- pretations that provide the social science sense of context. Studies that take these interpretations as their frame of reference are only ever as ontologically secure as these intersubjective interpretations are stable.

Giddens says that power is inescapable because all social contexts involve rela- tions of power in which actors who exercise power draw on structures. Structure is ‘the practical accomplishment of the reproduced conduct of situated actions with definite intentions and interests’ (Giddens 1976: 127). How does one know what these intentions and interests are? Well, one way would be to ask the people to whom these putative interests and intentions belong of what they consist. These people may not provide the answers that the theorist requires in order to demon- strate that they are, indeed, shaped by structure. Perhaps if they had read Giddens they would have the appropriate answers, but reading Giddens is only slightly less painful than reading that other grand theorist, Parsons, and neither have the excuse of being translated from the German, as does Luhmann. All three strangle prose, make their meaning opaque, and construct systems that rely upon one accepting the overall systemic worldview. It is the kind of prose that gives sociology a bad name – which makes it seem like some kind of Esperanto that one must learn to speak. Nonetheless, in Giddens’ theory, it seems clear that structures make resources available to actors with which they can then constitute rules. These rules create relations of autonomy and dependence, which actors, drawing on resources, repro- duce as relations of domination (Giddens 1981: 28–9). Structures are rules and resources; systems are reproduced and regular practices. Actors draw on structures to produce systems:

Power is an integral element of all social life as are meaning and norms; this is the sig- nificance of the claim that structure can be analysed as rules and resources, resources being drawn upon in the constitution of power relations. All social interaction involves the use of power, as a necessary implication of the logical connection between human action and transformative capacity. Power within social systems can be analysed as relations of autonomy and dependence between actors in which these actors draw upon and reproduce structural properties of domination (Giddens 1981: 28–29). These structures do not just produce domination, as a negative, restraining experience – they also make possible the creation of power through social order because the repro- duction of structure presupposes structural constraint … whereby actors who threaten systemic stability by new and innovative structuration practices are met by the non-collaboration of others in the reproduction of these new structures. (Haugaard 2003: 94)

It sounds a lot like Parsons’ Weber defunctionalized – where Herrschaft is once again rendered as domination rather than authority and is conjoined with a theory of resource dependency. Power is stored in resources that can be stockpiled and drawn on. The more strategic resources are held, the greater autonomy and the less dependence. Power relations deploy resources which can be depleted as they are used or which, though their use, can increase in value. As Haugaard (2003: 93) sug- gests, creating power through the reproduction of social order presupposes con- sensus and the regular predictability of others’ actions. But, of course, as the post 9/11 world knows, sometimes very surprising things happen.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *