Repositioning Foucault

1. Life-paths

How might we use Foucault? We shall suggest some applications developed from human geography, namely the idea of life-paths as developed by Hannah (1997) from the work of Hägerstrand (1970), to show how Foucauldian ideas might oper- ate outside the confines of institutions – and in more open organizations. The life- path is a way of representing and understanding how people ordinarily move through time and space (a method that has been elaborated by Pred (1977), but which we need only address in its fundamentals in this context). The reason why the life-path methodology is important is that it enables us to take some of Foucault’s ideas about total institutions and apply them to more mundane situations.

Some life-paths are almost entirely confined and visible: the prisoner in a high-security jail with closed-circuit TV surveillance of the cell, for instance. Such a person may move only through a very limited and very visible set of spaces – from cell to dining hall to exercise yard and back. Most life-paths are not like this: they have many moments of invisibility and a lack of confinement, as we move and min- gle with others from one arena of action to another. We may be confined, in the classroom, the office, the factory floor, for intervals in these trajectories, and we may be more or less visible during some of them; but in other areas, at home, in the cin- ema, on the subway, we are largely invisible as a specific object of any surveillance or inspectorial gaze, even though in a generalized sense we may be captured in the lens of multiple electronic Panopticons – albeit that they are not explicitly focused on one, as would be the case in a prison. The electronic eyes are both more plural in number and aimed at much more generalized bodies, and we are aware of their exis- tence in creating a normative environment – but it becomes a matter of choice as to whether we allow them to target us specifically. Our deviance defines their acuity; in total institutions their acuity defines our deviance. The everyday life that is confined differs dramatically from that which can, apparently, wander free. The extent of wandering free, however, is often more of an illusion than a reality. Bear in mind Bourdieu: we are always subject to and subjects of discriminatory judgments made in terms of fine distinctions in the various fields through which we roam.

Outside of total institutions we are able to interpret the normative environment in such a way that we have a degree of freedom to orient our actions as more or less in accord with whatever knowledge we have of the situational constraints, such as speed limits, office hours, the use of the office phone, appropriate deportment, bearing, and language, and so on. In other words, we can get away with things – and the more that we are not being subject to surveillance the more that we can get away with, should we choose. Nonetheless, no one is entirely free to be whomso- ever he or she chooses to be – from the discourses of choice available – because we do share some features with the confined. We are not fixed permanently by con- finement in space – but we are often confined at prescribed times of the day and subject to more or less systematic surveillance either in real time (CCTV; computer monitoring; keypad entry and exit, etc.) or in audit time, retrospectively (tax returns; standards; legal notices, etc.). Moreover, we are confined through the many data traces we leave in the world: our permanent address; tax file number; passport; driving license; credit cards; bank accounts, etc. These devices, which Rose (1999) and Power (1997) argue are the modern liberal technologies of regulation, make us partially visible, not always in real time but sufficiently so that our life-paths, or critical incidents in them, can be made accountable. Not only that, but we are aware, constantly, of the threat of observation by the authorities – the tax audit, the speed trap, and so on – as well as being found out for not passing adequately as a member of those communities of practice in which we claim membership (see Garfinkel’s (1967) discussion of Agnes’s strategies for passing as a female).

As Hannah (1997: 352) says, ‘despite only imperfect success’, there are authori- ties to whose power we are, in principle, held accountable. They govern our idea of ourselves: we are people who take risks with speed limits or always observe the letter of the law; we are likely to park where and when we should not or only where and when we should; and so on. ‘For the average “free” citizen the life-path of infor- mation traces is full of gaps, but retains its unity through the matchability of names, permanent addresses, social security numbers, etc.’ (1997: 352). Moreover, there are those internal governors of the soul: the sense of self that we seek others to have of our self through the presentations that we make of it (Goffman 1956). The responsibility for the judgments we make lies entirely with us: as Foucault (1988b) put it in his later work, we have ‘a care for the self ’ – we are responsible subjects – but we are responsible not only to our sense of our self but also to gov- ernmental norms that will have variable salience for us, depending not only on who we think we are but also on where and when we think we are. To be able to conduct one’s self implies some degree of consciousness and reflexive capacity.

We face not total institutional powers but a variety of normalizing, imperfectly coordinated, partial regimens of authority and power of sanction. These will be vertically and horizontally fragmented organizationally. Vertical fragmentation means that the three moments of normalization (receipt of information traces, judgment, and enforcement of normality) may all take place in uncoordinated and distinct arenas with only imperfect communication between them. Horizontal fragmentation occurs when the individual leaves traces across different organiza- tional arenas, in which these organizations, for reasons of law, technology, or igno- rance, are unable to exchange and match information regarding different activities. Omniscience recedes dramatically in possibility as the walls of the total institutions are breached and the citizen moves in everyday life; nonetheless, some citizens have greater freedom of unsupervised movement than others, in various organizational arenas, and are subject to more or less coordinated authorities. Additionally, we ‘have some leeway to protest, appeal, and complain about the exercise of normal- izing authority. We may demand a certain degree of balance between our visibility and that of the vigilant authorities’ (Hannah 1997: 353). Of course, crises such as 9/11 may lead the authorities to step up their attempts at coordination and we may become less inscrutable in more places in consequence.

A life-path is a metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). It suggests a journey. Now, that journey may be temporally extended or restricted: we might consider a path through a day at work, a week at work, months at work. For many people it would hardly matter, for their discretion is so limited that repetition of the same routines is the order of the day: think of one of those jobs designed by F. W. Taylor that we encountered in Chapter 2. For others, however, there may be little repetition of routines even though the life-path remains tightly constrained physically: the life- path of the writer of this text would fit this pattern.

The writer’s day might strike many as a dull life, but it is one he enjoys, none- theless. Every day the journey to and from various keyboards is clearly delineated – but the nature of the work that is pounded out through the fingers and the neural connections to the brain is very different. Already today the writer has planned a research paper in a meeting with colleagues; written some of this text; answered the phone and addressed and read e-mails; and scoped a commercial development of a research center – all in the space of two hours.

Clearly the life-path is insufficient in itself as a mapping device, because while life- paths through organizations may be represented and analyzed they also require the addition of Elliot Jaques’ (1967) ideas on the time-span of discretion. The time-span of discretion points up responsibilities; the life-paths show the limits to those free- doms enjoyed organizationally. Indeed, as Ibarra-Colado (2001b: 361) shows, for academics especially, these limits are particularly evident: the CV and periodic reports on performativity (how many papers published in which journals) make the university a particularly clear case of the state steering a neoliberal course from a distance. Although academic work is often creative, always producing new results, we are also prisoners of our own careers, institutions, routines, schedules, etc. We are inscribed as academics, as ‘subjects’ of the structures that modulate our careers and trajectories. If we want to be successful we need to represent properly our role as researchers and scholars, appropriately interpreting and following the rules to win a privileged position. In this sense we are, as routinized workers, prisoners of our own existence, always institutionally modulated. And, in the end, maybe we are happy and content with our own conditions of life – like a contented cow chewing on its cud as it surveys the rich pastures around it, ripe for grazing and it fresh for milking.

We can compare the life-paths of individuals through organizations. We can analyze the visibility and accountability of organization members in terms of dif- ferent regimens of authority, as well as in terms of the different members’ time- span of discretion (Jaques 1967). As a general rule we may hypothesize that:

  • the greater the individual members’ time-span of discretion
  • the less the surveillance of their organizational life-path
  • the less that the subjects correspond to the ‘usual suspects’ thrown up by bio-power analysis
  • the less subject they will be to disciplinary power.

Organizationally, the majority of those who are outside total institutions live under the conditions of an imperfect panopticism and regimes of governmentality that are never perfectly socialized; deviance is always possible, and is likely to occur from time to time. Of course, deviance is hardly a governmental surprise: specific segments of the population can be targeted for renewed governmental focus through the mechanism of bio-power, as the authorities learn to anticipate their deviance statistically on a probabilistic basis. One can predict accurately on past probabilities that drivers under 25 years of age are more prone to break the speed limits and be involved in accidents, or that supporters of a particular football team are more likely to be ‘soccer hooligans’ than those who support some other teams. Through using life-path analysis in conjunction with an account of the responsi- bilities of members’ time-spans of discretion we can make comparisons between the power relations to which different categories of organizational member are subject. While power is exercised in specific episodes (for instance, of domination, author- ity, seduction, coercion and manipulation), it has some presence as a capacity that retains potential effectiveness even when it is not being used, something which life- path analysis can illuminate. Organizations, we may say, are theaters for the consti-tution of power and all its attendant dramas, as so many life-paths traverse them.

To say that power is constitutive does not mean that it should be seen as consti- tutive of nearly anything and everything, as being ubiquitous. Power can be woven through different media: through domination, authority, seduction, manipulation, and coercion, for instance. Moreover, rather like the character from the evocative song of ceaseless travel that Bob Dylan (1974) conjured, the effects of power are always ‘tangled’ up in the rhythms and routines of everyday life. And everyday life is always lived in specific places: the East Coast; out West; New Orleans; outside of Delacroix; a topless place; or Montague Street. They are a part of a topological land- scape through which we move here-and-now, there-and-then, in the present, the recollected and imagined pasts as well as those futures we aspire to. And as we move we seek to conjure up the powers we wish to exercise and vanish those we wish to avoid, seeking to stabilize interaction rituals associated with specific places; these can place people in terms of markers of their identity, they can be displaced, they can be contained in specific places or may spill over into other places, they can be recognized, mocked, disdained, subverted or copied. In short, we seek to stabilize our causal powers; the fact that others will also be doing this, and doing so on life- paths and projects opposed to those we pursue, is a sufficient reason to always keep a certain indeterminacy, a certain contingency, even randomness, in play. Hence the possibilities of transformation can never be eliminated, because of all the inten- tional agents who intermingle, act at a distance and often produce only unintended effects as well as those non-intentional agents, such as viruses, natural disasters, and technologies that lay waste to life-paths and projects (Clegg 1989: Chapter 9).

2. Causal powers

Depending on the different life-paths structured for one organizationally, or which one achieves, these capacities constitute what Harré and Madden (1975) term ‘causal powers’: abilities inherent to the relations of power prescribed in the life- path, dependent on the structure of relations between people and with things that this path entails.

The notion of ‘causal powers’ emerges first from natural science premised on a realist ontology, in which causality is regarded as being inherent to the structure of relations between phenomena. Under certain standing conditions (stable structur- ing of relations and environment), circumstances which enable causal powers to be realized will prevail – for as long as the enabling standing conditions are main- tained. In other circumstances, standing conditions may restrict the causal powers of some people and things. Hence, the tendencies of any given phenomenon within specific relations to exert its implicit causal powers will be contingent upon the standing conditions prevailing. In this respect all power agents are analogous to practical experimentalists. They seek to ensure the reproduction of those stable conditions that enable them to create causal regularities. But if we are all doing this – if we are all practical experimentalists – then it becomes evident that we have a sit- uation of radical and unstable contingency. We seek to do power unto others as they seek to do power unto us; and organizations, similarly to families, with their close physical intimacy and proximity, provide the perfect theater with appropriate cues, settings and props for such causal powers to be rehearsed, practiced, reproduced, and transformed.

We are all practical experimentalists. Think of some everyday examples: we seek to seduce the other with sweet talk, cool flowers and intimate candlelit dinners because we know that these props often produce the desired results. Perhaps, after desire has been sated, and it is some years later, the other may be contractually locked into an exploitative and loveless relationship in which domination occurs through the exercise of powers that have narrowed down choice to the strict binary of ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Often, the fear of the unknown is greater than the desire to escape domination. In yet other circumstances, we continue to turn up at the classroom each day because we accept the legitimacy of the instruction that we know we will receive there; accepting its authority, we admit our self-interest in learning and being taught just as much as the teacher does in having students who want to learn. Of course, this is not always the case: sometimes the student is there because the law, in the case of a young person, says that they must be there, or maybe they are forced to attend to receive a mandatory attendance grade necessary for earning a course credit. Without the coercion of either the truancy laws and inspectorial system or the grade point system we would not choose to attend: we are coerced by these to accept the choice on offer. Of course, staying with the student example, we may also be manipulated into attending: the teacher has let it be known that the examination will closely parallel the lessons and that to miss a lesson is to risk failing the exam because we will not acquire the necessary know-how.

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

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