Power, possession and causality

Systems theory used general attributes to explain phenomena, because the theory was supposed to function as a set of coherent and transcendental terms. Along with the key conception of power being an emergent property that appears at the limits of rationality, where there is uncertainty, some other key terms were imported from political science. These were that power was something people possessed where these possessions could be conceptualized as bases of power, or resources, which could be mobilized in causal episodes.

The definition of power that entered these open systems theories stressed that power is a causal relation predicated on possession of situationally valued resources. Many different entities can possess the resources that enable power. We have encountered organizations, subsystems and individuals, but had we delved into political science we would have found other entities such as groups, roles, offices, governments, nation-states or other human aggregates (Dahl 1957). Where these exercise power then any one of them, conceptualized abstractly as an A, has to be able to get some other party, conceptualized as a B, to do something that the B would not otherwise do. The basis for this causal exercise is important, as there will be a source, domain, or base to it, conceptualized in terms of resources that A possesses and can exploit vis à vis B. Power will be expressed through means or instruments of power, such as love, fear or money. It will be a probabilistic capa- bility, not an absolute one: where an A’s probability of securing consent is higher than a B’s then one may say that A is more powerful in respect of that specific prob- ability. Finally, it will be a conditional capability, having applicability that is limited in scope over B to some specific areas of B’s behavior.

The political science definition of power was enormously influential in debates from the 1950s to the 1970s (see Clegg 1989), although its provenance stretched back to debates that occurred from 1924 to 1926 in the American Political Science Association (Caton 1976: 155, n. 1). Its importance for organization theories was in the promise that it held of a scientific definition of power as a properly causal con- cept. The subsequent Nobel laureate Herbert Simon saw this importance clearly:

When we say that A has power over B, we do not mean to imply that B has power over A … [It is] a problem of giving operational meaning to the asymmetry of the relation between independent and dependent variables … identical with the general problem of defining a causal relation between two variables. That is to say, for the assertion, ‘A has power over B’, we can substitute the assertion, ‘A’s behavior causes B’s behavior’. If we can define the causal relation we can define … power. (1957: 5)

Such a treatment of power as a causal relation is consistent with the epistemological source in logical positivism that seeks to explain facts only in terms of their objec- tive relations. Simon (1957) was articulating a representative experience in terms of his conception of power, one shared by other theoreticians, including Dahl (1961: 41), March (1955: 437) and James (1964: 50). McFarland (1969) asserted that power and causality were fundamentally equivalent. That this was not a new assertion would be familiar to anyone that had studied Hobbes (see the discussion in Clegg 1989: 21–38). What was new was that the grammar in which causal rela- tions were constructed had shifted from the mechanics of Hobbes’ (1651) clock- work, or Hume’s (1902) billiard balls, to a stripped-down behaviorism of stimuli and responses. It was to be through the responses of a B to the stimuli of an A that power should be registered, according to these political science accounts.

The organization theory accounts of power as a causal phenomenon that we have encountered thus far either look at what elapses in specific cases (such as Thompson 1956b and Crozier 1964) or adopt a conception of causal power that conceives of causal statements in terms of what Blais (1974) refers to as ‘if … then’ statements, referring not to actual occurrences but to the independent variable’s ability to affect a dependent variable, in probabilistic and theoretically coherent terms. It is in this sense that strategic contingencies theory conceptualizes power. Gibson captures this sense when he says that ‘It is simply not the case in any but the most idiosyncratic use of the word “power” that to have the power to do something is the same as actually to cause it to happen. It is merely to be able to cause it to happen’ (1971: 102). It is this formulation that translates a causal conception of power as a relation into a conception of power as something structural; it shifts it from a property of relations to a capacity of actors. These capacities are such that ‘if something were to occur, such and such effects would happen’ (1971: 105). Power becomes equivalent to it being possible to produce certain effects, theoreti- cally, given certain environmental conditions, which is how strategic contingencies theory operates. It regards power as a conditional state.

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

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