‘Power to’ conceived as a functionalist relation

1. Power as a circulator y medium

Power is similar to money, says Parsons (1964): both are circulatory media. Just as money functions as a generalized mechanism or means for securing satisfaction of desires within the economy – without money you may want things but you cannot buy them because you lack ‘effective demand’ – so does power in political systems. Both power and money are anchored in popular confidence in their currency; it is this which provides them with their legitimacy. Given this perception of legitimacy, power can be deployed in the expectation that others will respect it and follow its injunctions, because those over whom its remit runs will regard its obligations as binding. Symbolic legitimacy is the orderly background within which Parsons’ view of power is embedded. Indeed, he theorizes power as the medium of order for social systems, including organizations. We may diagram Parsons’ account of power as in Figure 7.2. Power is defined as a generalized capacity to influence the allocation of resources for attaining collective goals. Members share institutionalized obligations by virtue of being members and, within the context of membership, certain sanctions are legitimized through those obligations and institutionalized roles involved in the power system. Power is the legitimate mechanism regulating commitments.

Authority, on the other hand, comprises the general rules that govern the making of specific binding decisions. Parsons’ view of power diverges from Weber’s formulation of power within a context of domination. Instead, individuals are conceived as moral agents acting within a normative context; they are effectively socialized to be so. Where they are not, then socialization must be amiss. Thus, actors routinely use power not as a form of resistance to domination but as a way of ensuring the reproduction of authority, as a positive force, as a capacity to produce an effect. ‘Power is exercised within the context of norms,’ as Clegg (1989: 132) suggests. Thus, when power is exercised organizationally it is always within the context of binding obligations shared by the power wielder and the power subject, and the sanctions that are threatened for non-compliance are always normatively constrained. One may not agree to consent but one does so in the knowledge of what one can expect the authorities to do in consequence. Deviance and resistance to power, because they call forth the appropriate sanctions, actually strengthen the organizational order rather than weaken it, something captured in US criminal justice parlance when it is said that ‘you’ve done the crime, so you serve your time’.

Barnes (1988: 26) refers to Parsons’ views as normative determinism: it is easy to see why. The assumption is that norms are invariably operative and shared; when they are not then a failure of socialization mechanisms is held responsible. However, this is too strong a line: many forms of social action can flow from authentically held norms that do not happen to be shared by others who hold equally passionately to the authenticity of their norms. Much of organizational life is like this.

The solutions to current problems that are provided by one specialist form of knowledge may differ markedly from those offered by another: each may be held authentically but they may not share much in the way of normative assumptions. As skilled social actors navigating their way in complex organizations, such as hos- pitals, people may share a common commitment to the wellbeing of the patient. However, this is at such a general level of normative framing that it is less conse- quential as a practical relevancy than the contestation concerning appropriate courses of treatment that arise from time to time. Concerned, conscientious providers from different systems and perspectives can interact with the same client in situations of crisis but have marked differences of opinion concerning what con- stitutes the best care that the client should receive. In such cases, a framework of clinical governance has to deal with the conflicts that ensue.

Sometimes the public realm within which individual actions are enacted lacks the normative clarity and coherence that Parsons assumes.2 Consequently, the dis- cursive availability of norms often functions to fuel competing calculations of interest by different agents, who make estimates of the probability of sanctioning for the actions that they propose. Whatever normative order ensues is not so much the cause of the power actions that are taken as the result of these actions. Or, as Clegg put it, ‘normative order is the emergent effect of their calculations and dif- ferential access to, utilization of and effectiveness in sanctioning resources, just as much as is normative disorder’ (1989: 133). We cannot assume a priori that the structures of what Weber termed dominancy will be legitimate and thus function as authority: it is a matter of empirical determination.

2. The limitations of power/money analogies

Habermas (1987b) has drawn attention to some important differences between the analogies of power and money in Parsons. Money is a free-floating resource: a promissory note can buy anything anywhere that its value and legitimacy are recognized. By contrast, the power that one might have as a result of being a pro- fessor in a particular university is much more limited. It may relate to an ability to compel students to submit to assessment and examination and not much else; it certainly would be insufficient to be the basis of a generalized power out with specific contexts of classrooms and committees. In a word, power requires and is specific to a particular organizational context.

Given a certain structure of relations, enacted through hierarchies, committees and routines, certain limited powers may be available but they are hardly transfer- able to other contexts. Bob Dylan (1965) may have said that ‘money doesn’t talk, it swears’, but it does so in a way that almost anybody can translate, in market trans- actions. The authority that enables an organizational incumbent to do as they wish, within certain limited contexts, is much more circumscribed, normatively. It requires legitimation. If the organization collapses then power lodged in it col- lapses. A currency collapse is hardly analogous: it represents a catastrophic gener- alized system breakdown where there is an overall loss of confidence in the currency but, for as long as the central bank can cover what is drawn on it, it retains a diminished legitimacy. In 1992 when the British pound fell out of the European Monetary System the currency lost 25 percent of its value. In the circumstances of a specific organization collapse, legitimacy in the overall system of organizations may remain intact, while in any specific organizational case in question it does not. Authority and power are closely related in Parsons. Habermas is good on this: he sees that the relation between the two concepts entails a systematic lack of reci- procal balance between them because ‘a person taking orders is structurally dis- advantaged in relation to a person with the power to give them’ (1987b: 271). In trying to make the subject do what is wanted, the ultimate sanction against non- compliance is the threat of withdrawing the continuing condition of organization membership. The right of withdrawal is clearly not reciprocal. The power subject in a hierarchical relation lacks the authority to impose this as a sanction: some obligations are more binding than others, and some actors, those who are hierar- chically superordinate, are in a stronger position to impose them. They determine the conditions under which legitimacy is defined and authority dispensed. They can define what is seen to be authority, because it is legitimate, just as they can define what is not taken to be legitimate. Those who are not in the top management team, and are thus not hierarchically superordinate, cannot enter into the process of goal formation, unless invited to do so, and thus can never offset their organi- zational structural disadvantage. The currency of their ideas will never be spent because, unlike economic actors, they are not free to spend.

The point of these comments should be clear: power may be positive and may serve collective goals, but only if one is incorporated within its remit. If one is other to power, if one is the object of its exercise by those who are its subjects, then its authority to do what it wants with one’s life chances might seem rather less than legit- imate. And this is what usually happens: few organizations operate on polyphonic or collectivist principles. Discursive participation in consensual goal formation is not a normal condition for most subordinate organization members. I don’t need to agree with you to spend my money on something you sell; however, if I sell my labor to you, then there has to be some subjugation of my preferences, dispositions and attitudes to those that are organizationally defined as legitimate. By accepting the offer of employment one makes the assumption that this is a fair exchange – that one wants to be in this specific position of subordination. It all depends on the alterna- tives; short of many, most will accept almost anything, no matter how repugnant it may be. ‘To be invariably told, infrequently consulted, and be expected not to par- ticipate in the formation of collective goals is hardly a secure basis for obtaining commitment to these goals’ (Clegg 1989: 135). Parsons focuses on ‘power with’ but unfortunately does so to the extent that he neglects that what often seems to one party to be ‘power with’ may seem to some other party to be much more a case of ‘power over’, where, given that the superordinate has power over one, it is not sur- prising that one should string along with the power that is being shared.

3. Parsons’ power – a theor y half-right

‘Power to’ works creatively, it is facilitative; should such power fail then the power to enforce sanctions authoritatively will be exercised as power over deviants. The latter is the unusual and intermittent aspect of power: power does not normally work through coercive exercise to secure its objectives, but only does this when the order that is ordinarily secured breaks down. Parsons argued that the creation of power normally ‘presupposed consensus on system goals’ (Haugaard 2003: 90), thus pro- viding a framework within which facilitative power operated. Power only needed to be coercive when order broke down, periodically, and members needed to be disciplined – in order to reassert the central value system of the normative order.

Power flows through the social order as a circulatory medium that positively reinforces authority through creative facilitative episodes as well as being invoked negatively when deviance is punished. Power, much as money, is a circulatory and symbolic medium. The modern market economy requires some widespread shared confidence in the currency for orderly transactions to occur. Think what happens when there is a run on the currency and it is rapidly devalued: assets are frozen, banks close and confidence crashes. Similarly, power resources have to be viewed as a source of confidence by the society at large, much as are monetary resources: thus, as they circulate in an orderly way they build confidence by reassuring members of the appropriateness of the consensus that exists about their appropri- ate use. Hence, power resources have what one of Parsons’ successors, Niklas Luhmann (1986), was later to call an autopoietic or self-referential – quality (see Hernes and Bakken 2003).

Parsons did get it half-right. He perceived that power was not the exception which is somehow outside the system. He understood that for power to be effective it had to be a constituting and systemic property. Viewing it as a circulatory medium he prefigures the postmodern perception of power. Furthermore, he was not totally mistaken in linking it to legitimacy and authority. His crucial error was in the assumption that authority and legitimacy derive ‘naturally’ from system goals, rather than that the consent behind legitimacy and authority will always be constructed through complex means which have nothing to do with the realization of system goals and are very far from a Habermasian ideal speech situation. Legitimacy grounds truth somewhat more than truth grounds legitimacy, as we shall see in Chapter 8, when we consider the work of Flyvbjerg (1998).

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

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