Power in organization and social theory

1. Investigating power

In this book we will investigate various conceptions of power, focusing particularly on the intersection of these conceptions with that of organization in both theory and practice. Power is a difficult idea to pin down and has been very widely ignored, marginalized and trivialized in many discussions of organizations, for a number of reasons that we shall elaborate in this book. We aim to make it impos- sible to claim good faith and still continue to ignore, marginalize or trivialize power in future. Of course, we are not naive, so we do not expect intellectual capital to be liquidated and assets trounced immediately, but we do see ourselves as building the foundations for future generations who want to design both different theoretical understandings of power in organizations and, informed by these, better practices of power in organizations. It is in this way that we interpret the series brief – to provide foundations of organization science.

The broad literature on power is diverse and complex and its ramifications for the study of organizations have remained largely unexplored. In organization stud- ies, discussions of power have remained muted at best. Simplified application of ahistorical formulas serves to confound this understanding. Power is not only contingently situational but also historically formed. Power is not merely a cross- sectional causal variable in a field of instantaneous coterminous correlations. Power can be reduced to a block diagram but there is far more to it than the mere attribution of putatively causal cross-sectional relations will allow for. Power defines, constitutes and shapes the moment. Power is inseparable from interaction and thus all social institutions potentially are imbued with power.

2. Situating power in organization theor y

The Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ) published a forum on power to which one of the present authors contributed (Clegg 2002). In this forum Greenwood and Hinings (2002: 411) noted that enquiry into the consequences of the existence of organizations traditionally defined organization sociology. Such sociological enquiry was deeply embedded in the work of a major founder of the organization theory discipline, Max Weber. As is typical of classical academic work in the social sciences, Weber drew on an Enlightenment tradition. However, despite these impeccable Enlightenment origins, it was utilitarian claims that came to dominate the most powerful branch of organization theory knowledge, that of the United States. Here organization theory found lucrative sponsorship in the gilded cages of the world’s leading business schools from where it disseminated globally.

In much of the work on organizations that became globally disseminated, the dynamics of power are not at the forefront of analysis. That is not to say, however, that power was entirely absent. For those works that did explicitly focus on power, simplified and undertheorized conceptualizations were often used. Our intention here is to broaden and deepen discussion and provide an overview of the varied and nuanced theories of power that are available to organizational scholars.

Greenwood and Hinings (2002: 411) see the key questions concerning organiza- tions to be how they pattern privilege and disadvantage in society. In retrospect, they look back to the 1950s as a golden age extending Weberian enlightenment when scholars such as Selznick (1949), Gouldner (1954), Etzioni (1961) and Blau and Scott (1963), amongst others, still asked important questions. At this time, they suggest, the sociology of organizations had not been wholly incorporated into an apolitical organization theory oriented to efficiency. Thus, they define the central concern of the sociology of organizations to be power while the central concern of management theory they define as efficiency: power and efficiency are seen as the central terms of two opposing and antithetical discourses.

We would characterize a sociological approach to studying organizations as being concerned with who controls and the consequences of that control. The central question emanating from a business school, in contrast, leans more to understanding how to understand and thus design efficient and effective organizations. The perspective is that of the senior manager. (Greenwood and Hinings 2002: 411)

The separation between power and efficiency serves a rhetorical purpose in their essay. Power marks the center of gravity of the world we have lost while efficiency is the fulcrum of the world we have gained. Generally, a concern with power marks the sociology department while a fixation on efficiency characterizes the business school scholar. The terms mark antithetical discourses between which scholars must choose. It appears as if one must be either for enlightenment and against efficiency or for effi- ciency and against power as the analytic through which bearings are pursued.

Greenwood and Hinings’ (2002) argument juxtaposing power and efficiency as central and opposed problematics is an argument that is intriguing. But it is also wrong. The origins of power in organization theory are deeper than the golden age of the 1950s. To oppose efficiency to power as totally distinct and separate terms is to miss, entirely, that it was a concern with efficiency that gave birth to power in management and organizations, as we shall elaborate. Thus, we mark an initial dis- tinction from contemporary accounts, even those as well informed and intentioned as Greenwood and Hinings. We do not understand the relation between efficiency and power as one of opposition. We will argue that efficiency and power are inex- tricably linked and understanding their relationship is the key to understanding power in organizations.

In their ASQ piece, Greenwood and Hinings (2002) cite Aldrich approvingly when he argues that ‘The concentration of power in organizations contributes not only to the attainment of large scale goals, but also to some of the most trouble- some actions affecting us … We might view the growth of organizational society as a record of people enslaved and dominated by organizations’ (1999: 7). We agree with Aldrich in so far as we do ‘view the growth of organizational society as a record of people enslaved and dominated by organizations’, but we do not think that we can arrive at an appropriate understanding of this enslavement and domi- nation other than through a wholesale revision of existing ways of conceptualizing power in organizations. If we were to rely on the central organization theory accounts of power we would find few, if any, pointers to enslavement or domina- tion. Sure, there would be much on managing uncertainty, or controlling resources, but these hardly seem to get us very far in terms of understanding enslavement and domination. For this, we need to investigate the relations between rationality and efficiency in more detail.

Efficiency may be defined as achieving some predetermined end at the highest output in terms of the least input of resources. The concept of efficiency, defined in this way, is constructed in such a way as to slice off the value dimension. It tends to still discussion by making the goals served by any particular efficiency out of bounds. It displaces any serious concern with ends, which are given in terms of the need for efficiency. Consideration of differential means for the achievement of the given ends accompanies the focus on efficiency.

The institutionalization of organization theory may be said to have resulted in the rationalization of rationality without a moral dimension (see also Clegg et al. 2000). Truth is seen as something outside of social practices, located in an auto- nomous sphere of science. In this way, theorists can absolve themselves from moral responsibility. The institution of science will legitimize whatever analytical action they attend to and engage in. They are not the actions of interpretive subjects mak- ing sense with the tools that are available to them (tools often taught, picked up, or reinforced in business school, with all its mobilization of bias toward shareholder values), but the workings of the market, natural selection, structural adjustment, or some other grand and abstracted narrative. The consequence of these tendencies is to gradually obliterate cultural and social differences through the institution- alization of a general project of organizational modernity shaped by efficiency requisites.

In any process of institutionalization, meaningfulness is never ‘given’ but has to be struggled for, has to be secured, even against the resistance of others. Systematic thinking rationalizes the image of the world through the theoretical mastery of reality by increasingly precise and abstract concepts. It was this aspect that Weber sometimes called the de-enchantment of the world. It is the process by which all forms of magical, mystical, traditional explanation are stripped away from inter- pretation. The world laid bare is open and amenable to the calculation of technical reason. Calculable means are connected to given ends.

Uncertainty threatens calculability because it both defines and limits freedom. Where there is a rule there is no freedom other than to obey or not obey, which is really no freedom at all. Uncertainty has the ontological and metaphysical status that it has in organization theory because rationality is a central assumption of the discipline. With rationality, however bounded it may be, the organization theorist will ward off evil, defend the faith of theory, and keep at bay the ever-threatening tide of chaos, undecidability, and indetermination that uncertainty represents. In organization theory freedom is usually defined through posing the existential and environmental conditions under which rational action is possible. These condi- tions limit freedom by imposing an ethic of calculation, as totally objective ratio- nality, upon a freedom to act.

Modernity entails a loss of freedom to the constraints of rationality; it also entails a loss of faith because, as one becomes free of the old dogmas, any authori- tative basis for one’s life, other than rationality itself, disappears. Of course, moder- nity is a variable condition, even in a modern world full of modern, rational, organizations. When such rationality is working properly it will be in dominance – perhaps having to accommodate itself to some split rationalities. One sphere, the dominant one, will belong to commerce, a second to the state, and a third to what- ever transcendent forces are institutionalized and legitimated as those to which one pays homage.

Although the process of rationalization unyokes new possibilities for cultural construction in all spheres of knowledge, rationality modeled on efficiency has become dominant, become an ultimate value in its own right. Opposition to it appears as nothing other than irrationality. Of course, in a truly modern world there would be no such opposition to rationality defined as efficiency because such irrationality would have been rationalized out of existence. Yet, as we shall see in the concluding chapter, modernity has never been so established that it corrals and drives out all those pre-modern elements whose construction preceded it.

It might be expected that the pre-modern would become modern and rational-ized, much as the Protestant ethic (Weber 1976). However, not every set of medieval or ancient beliefs has been so rationalized. Surprisingly, as Chapter 13 will establish, the irruption of a modern remaking of pre-modern ideas has pro- duced a heightened state of insecurity threatening modern organizations. Presciently, as Dumm suggests, we need always to be on guard against ‘the possi- bilities that our own institutional arrangements will encourage the rise of new destructive forces inimical to the possibilities of our being free’ (1996: 153).

3. Situating power in social theor y

Outside the increasingly autonomous discipline being defined by organization theory, the broad power theory agenda was being shaped by a continuing debate with major nineteenth-century theorists. Lukes (1974; 2005) drew on Marx’s legacy, as it had been interpreted by Gramsci, using the concept of hegemony. If Marx offered one coordinate for social theory then Nietzsche provided another. Nietzsche’s (1967) influence could be seen in the work of Michel Foucault (1977), who introduced a mode of analysis that linked power with knowledge. Foucault conceived of power as operating not only in a prohibitive way, by telling people what they cannot do, but also through knowledge. In a permissive, positive man- ner, power can be good, thus constructing the normalcy of the normal, through everyday ways of sensemaking that are more or less institutionalized in disciplinary knowledge.

When Üsdiken and Pasadeos (1995) made a comparison of co-citation networks in European and North American organization studies, they identified Foucault as the seventh most cited researcher in the European journal Organization Studies, just behind Weber, who was fifth. Neither Weber nor Foucault, nor many others influential in the European list, made the top 10 in the comparable North American journal Administrative Science Quarterly based lists; Weber just snuck in at the bottom of the ‘hot 100’, but Foucault didn’t rate a mention. Marx languished in obscurity, out of sight and off the lists. While our book has little to add to the many discussions of Marx elsewhere, including some by one of the present authors (Clegg and Dunkerley 1980; Clegg et al. 1983), it does add to the discussion of both Weber and Foucault.

Weber is recognized as a founding father of institutional theory, and Foucault has been seen as someone with a largely neglected contribution in what has been referred to as the adolescence of institutional theory (Scott 1987b).10 While this book is intended to be a guide not to institutional theory per se but to the literature of power and organizations, it will draw on and add to the classical heritage of institutional theory in order to enable it to become more powerful.

We simultaneously address organization theories of power while breaking with many of the assumptions that frame their current interpretation. The break is orga- nized around a genealogical analysis of power and organizations for which we take our bearings from Michel Foucault (1980), a point of reference becoming increas- ingly known to organization theorists (Burrell 1988). Genealogical theory seeks to understand how what is taken for granted as the truth of one time can be trans- formed at another without analytic recourse either to a teleological theory or to one which relies on the role of great individuals as the ‘switchmen’ of history (Weber 1976).

Foucault makes a theory of power central to the dynamics of change and devel- opment because it is through the dominant regimes of power in place at a certain point in time that particular conceptions of truth and rationality are established (Foucault 1980: 112) while others are marginalized. What is taken to be true ‘is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which induce and which extend it’ (1980: 133). Thus, power has no essential qualities because power is not a thing but a relation between things and people as they struggle to secure ‘truthfully’ embedded meanings. Hence, for Foucault, power is not just something that is prohibitory and negative but it also has a posi- tive side that makes things possible – as well as impossible. As Haugaard argues:

The formation of truth does not simply happen. Rather, the truth of any discourse formation is the consequence of the struggles and tactics of power. This means the disqualification of certain knowledges as idiocy and a fight for others as truth. In the modern period one important tactic for giving discourse formation the status of truth is to argue that it is a science. (1997: 68)

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 *