Power and the metaphysic of uncertainty

1. Maintaining bounds

A whole metaphysic of uncertainty was at work in these rediscoveries of power. What is uncertainty? In some general way it denotes a lack of assurance or convic- tion in what will transpire. Certainty, by contrast, represents a situation where one can predict with absolute surety what a future state of affairs will be. For instance, one may be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Certainty represents a situation in which outcomes are absolutely predictable. Certainty is the state of affairs that formal organization theories sought to be midwife to through their commitment to one best way of organizing. They sought to drive out soldiering, craft control, and production rates that were inexplicable and unpredictable. What was wanted was no possibility of untowardness. Inexplicability, strangeness, and surprise would be strangers to the formal organization just as much as they were to be strangers to the rational system. Within the dreams of rationality one should have a situation in which a rule existed for each and every thing that might ever occur, but of course, following March and Simon (1958), it was realized that ratio- nality was not a dream but a world bounded by cognitive capabilities, human pro- cessing, and incomplete information.

The notion of bounded rationality is meant to capture the way in which organi-zational decisions are actually made; evidence is searched for, usually through channels of information that are known in advance. The evidence weighed is by no means exhaustive, but it is usually thorough in terms of the familiar ways of mak- ing sense that the organization and its decision makers use. Hence, rather than seeking optimization, in an economic model of the rational consumer under con- ditions of perfect competition, organizations typically seek to ‘satisfice’, a term that Simon created to capture the process of drawing on limited but familiar channels of information to arrive at the most satisfactory decision with regard to the evi- dence available.

The links to Pareto and his opposition to utilitarian theory should be clear. Satisficing is not too far removed from another made-up meaning, ophelimity. From this perspective, uncertainty would represent an inability to go on, doubt as to how to apply a rule, or what rule to apply. Thus, metaphysically, uncertainty rep- resents a situation in which rules for remedying surprise have yet to be enacted, in which the bounds of action have not yet been staked. When one thinks of where the whole metaphysic began, with Thompson’s and Crozier’s maintenance workers, then this account seems substantially correct. What these employees did was to handle, by resolving, the uncertainties contingent on machine usage and main- tenance. And, at least in Crozier’s case, there was evidence to suggest that the uncertainty that others had vis à vis the machines was a state of bounded ignorance that the maintenance workers actively conspired to keep reproducing.

Bounded rationality is the recognition of a limited freedom to act, of the irra- tionality/emotionality of the actions of individuals and of the need to control as much as possible of these behaviors through the design of structures of control in organizations. It implies, in a first historical stage, the design of the disciplinary society and the bureaucratic organization, and in a second (current) stage, the design of the control society and the post-bureaucratic IT organization. The sec- ond stage has deep implications because it entails a paradoxical freedom of indi- viduals to become obedient cyborgs. Everyone is free to move inside limits; the composition of the limits changes, but the centrality of restraint remains.

2. Who has what resources?

Similar to the strategic contingencies view of power, in terms of theoretical approach, is the resource dependency view (Pfeffer and Salancik 1974; Salancik and Pfeffer 1974; Pfeffer 1992). It derives from the social psychological literature that Emerson (1962) developed and which was implicit in Mechanic’s (1962) study of the power of lower-level participants. Sources of power include not only uncer- tainty but also information, expertise, credibility, position, access and contacts with higher-echelon members and the control of money, rewards, sanctions, perceptive- ness, social capital, etc. (e.g. Crozier 1964; French and Raven 1968; Pettigrew 1973; Benfari et al. 1986; Krackhardt 1990; Burt 1992). Such lists of resources are infinite, however, since different phenomena become resources in different contexts. They are also extremely ad hoc and tautological, as Kramer and Gavrielli suggest: ‘we infer what social actors have power by observing what they are able to obtain. We explain what they actually obtain, in turn, by invoking the notion of power’ (2005: 322). Without a total theory of contexts, which is impossible, one can never achieve closure on what the bases of power are. They might be anything, under the appro- priate circumstances.

Possessing scarce resources is not enough in itself, however, to confer power. Actors have to be aware of their contextual pertinence and control and use them accordingly (Pettigrew 1973). This process of mobilizing power is known as poli- tics (Pettigrew 1973; Hickson et al. 1986), a term whose negative connotations have helped to reinforce the managerial view that power used outside formal authorita- tive arrangements was illegitimate and dysfunctional. It was the dichotomous nature of power and authority that created the theoretical space for the contin- gency and dependency approaches. The concept of power was thus reserved pri- marily for exercises of discretion by organization members, which were not sanctioned by their position in the formal structure. Such exercises are premised on two assumptions: first, that there is an illegitimate or informal use of resources; second, that the legitimate system of authority may be taken for granted and its existence as such rendered analytically non-problematic.

All resource dependence theorists view a certain resource as key in organizations, but they differ in which resource is regarded as key. Pfeffer and Salancik (2002) argued that power could be both vertical and horizontal in organizations, and their focus, similarly to Hickson et al. (2002), was on subunit power. They hypothesized that power would be used in organizations to try and influence decisions about the allocation of resources. Subunits may be thought of as departments in the organi- zation. To the extent that subunits contributed critical resources, including knowl- edge, that the organization needs, other subunits submitted to their demands and ceded power to them. The similarities to strategic contingencies theory are striking. Using archival data on university decision making in the University of Illinois, they confirmed their hypotheses, suggesting that power is a positive-sum game for those that have control of critical resources. Using the power these resources bestow means yet more resources can be obtained to leverage more power. Those that have resources attract more resources and thus more power.

Power was still played out in daily struggles over the rules of an uncertain game. There is no doubt that uncertainty, as well as the other contenders for strategic resource status, can be a source of power, but not in a context-independent way. What counts as a resource can be made to count only in specific contexts. For instance, box cutters, which are used for cutting paper and cardboard, are not usu- ally thought of as a powerful resource, or at least they were not until September 11, 2001. Then, in the hands of determined terrorists, they were responsible for what has now passed into history as 9/11. So, if information, uncertainty or box cutters are to count as resources for power, they will do so only in specific contexts. For this reason control is always the key word.

To the extent that specific resources are related to power in a general way, with-out regard for context, they are not very helpful. Anything can be a resource in the right context but it is the context that is important. Thus, possessing scarce resources is not enough to deliver power over and above that formally authorized; one also needs to have an explicit knowledge of context (Hickson, et al. 1986; Pettigrew 1973; 2002) and of how to use resources accordingly.

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

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