Power, conflict and consensus

Conflict theory, the major rival to functionalism, centered on power (Bartos and Wehr 2002), especially as developed by Ralf Dahrendorf (1959). Dahrendorf had incorporated important aspects of Weber’s (1978) work into a basic schema derived from Marx (1976). From Weber, Dahrendorf derived the concept of authority lodged in imperatively coordinated association as the fundament of organizational life, in which there are institutionalized superordinate and subordi- nate positions. The distribution of authority created the basis for competition that plays itself out in specific conflicts. Conflict was seen as the basis of organizational life. The resolution of one conflict would become the foundation for the next. Social change was seen as ubiquitous, rather than unusual, and conflict was nor- mally one of its major mechanisms. Order emerges because some members of society are able to constrain others. Their acts of containment are episodes of power, usually accompanied by conflict. Thus, in conflict theory power plays the role of a key mechanism. It creates conflict and conflict hastens change.

Because the stress in functionalism had been on social order and consensus rather than on contradiction and conflict, it had been widely believed that it lacked a theory of power – until Parsons (1964) provided it with one. Parsons had been the leading sociologist in the US, and much of the rest of the world, since the 1930s, when, relatively late in his career in the 1960s, he turned his attention explicitly to the concept of power. That Parsons (1964) developed a theory of power was sig- nificant for functionalist analysis. Parsons defined the central problem of social theory as being able to answer how social order is possible and why society exists, rather than there being a bleak and violent war of all against all in a life that is soli- tary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In other words, how was it that what Hobbes (1651) had conceptualized as a state of nature did not prevail?

Figure 7.1 Parsons’ basic AGIL model of everything

The conflict theorists’ answer was that order occurred because dominant elites imposed it on their terms through imperative coordinated association in and through organizations. Parsons sought to show how order was possible on the basis of uncoerced action. He conceived of all forms of social action being organized in terms of four subsystems (Figure 7.1): two of these were specialized on political and economic rationalization, with the attendant risks of change and conflict, but there were also distinct spheres of integrative and normative processes whose task was to deal with those conflicts that arise.

These four processes were referred to as the conceptual and analytical universe of subsystems of adaptive, goal-oriented, integrative and normative processes. The latter two subsystems provided a plurality of moral orders which countervail eco- nomic and organizational adaptation. Think of religious ethics holding up scien- tific research on human gene technology, for instance. There is always a gap between the expectations raised by some moral categories and the possibilities cre- ated by economic and political rationalities. Power is the medium whereby this gap is narrowed, in either direction, such that, despite moral and other differences, effective goal orientation is facilitated and efficient organization produced, using sanctions if necessary. These sanctions should be authoritative: for instance, shoot- ing abortionists dead might be a sanction of the extreme right-to-life community, but it is not authoritative. What would be authoritative would be to use the law courts to challenge existing rulings and thus change the legislative framework within which abortion is practiced. Challenging and changing existing rulings would indicate the sanctioned exercise of power. Thus, power is facilitative in Parsons’ schema: it helps create binding obligations. And, if these are not obeyed, then authoritative sanctions can be enacted.

Figure 7.2 Talcott Parsons’ positive power

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

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