Sharpening the focus on power in organization theory

1. Fixing a focus

Power is something that only came into sharp focus for much organization theory in the post Second World War era, when a hypothesis, that control over uncer- tainty bestowed power in otherwise rationalized systems, was widely elaborated. Organization science developed this way of addressing power in the 1950s; organi- zation power seemed barely to exist in theory prior to this address. The new theo- retical representation of power as related to uncertainty relied on a whole machinery of truth production. The machinery in question was the integration of the formal organization and the informal organization in the model of the open system. Until the system model had been produced, power, as it was to be repre- sented, seemed invisible to most commentators. Hence, as we shall see, certain his- toric silences were evident; lacking the machinery to produce the truth of power, the discourse on power remained mute. Thus, organization theory as it is ordinar- ily understood appears to be ignorant of how its prehistory is characterized in terms of power.

We see power at work in the production of both organization theories and prac-tices, even when the topic under address by these theories is not explicitly that of power. For instance, while F. W. Taylor was a designer of managerial practices that accomplished the outcomes of power, he was not a theorist of power. This may sound paradoxical but it is not. Taylor did not explicitly develop an analytical theory of power but, nonetheless, the practice that he helped to shape began to reform the way power works in organizations, and continues to do so. He produced a whole positivity of power at work through the new truths of work study, truths which made each worker individually much more visible and potentially normal- izable in terms of their efficiency than had previously been the case. One of the major techniques of power, according to Foucault (1979), is the creation of ‘docile bodies’. Taylor’s zeal for changing the relation between men and machines focused on the body of the worker and its drilling in what he believed, scientifically, was the one best way of working. Taylor and his colleagues produced exacting procedures that workers had to follow and did so in the name of efficiency. It was this that became installed as rationality. Thus, the machinery of organization theory creates rationality.

Even beautiful scientific machines do best that which they were designed for. After the Second World War, the dominant machine of the system was designed to aid the extension of conceptualizations of organizations as rational open systems (Scott 1987a). Our task is to bring some small fraction of those practices outside the remit and gaze of the rational system into view, both historically and more or less contemporaneously.

Before rational theory developed, a practice of power could, nonetheless, be observed in modern organizations, in the creation of a new type of human subject as an object of knowledge. The subject in question is one constituted by a political economy of the body. Inscribed in this subject we find early traces of power. Through a process of individualization and subjectification a program for a new type of person is created. The program is oriented first towards the efficient worker and second to the docile employee. Any individual can be laid bare for analysis in terms of their normalcy and potential for normalization. That we can speak of normal and normalization suggests a range of conduct, not all of which will fit the categories being constructed. These latter cases, the exceptions, are important, because they justify further attempts at normalization, and become the ground for the refinement of power practices. The spectrum of categories stipulates ways of measuring human worth in their contribution to the dreams and visions of the organizational elites.

Elites have always defined the terms on which the others are measured. In pre- industrial society the problems of deviance were dealt with in summary and severe ways, largely related to problems of security of life and property. No life or prop- erty was more valuable than that of the elites and no one was more elite than the monarch. Thus, in Foucault’s (1977) Discipline and punish, the gruesome process of drawing, quartering, and burning in execution of Damiens on March 2, 1757 for the crime of attempted regicide on the French monarch is contrasted with the rules of a model prison written a mere 80 years later. Here, there is deadening bureau- cracy, rules for everything, an existence as calibrated as that of any novitiate in a religious institution (Keiser 2002).

Despite the fact that these regimes of power had long been known in religious orders, Foucault argues that they constitute a new secular regime of knowledge and truth. The point of application of power shifted from marking and punishing the body to ‘a whole new system of truth and a mass of roles hitherto unknown … A corpus of knowledges, techniques, “scientific” discourse is formed and becomes entangled with the practice of … power’ (1977: 22–3). Foucault traces these changes in criminal justice from a marking of the body to a reform of the soul. According to Foucault (1977: 136), the turn to discipline was widespread and gen- eral in nineteenth-century schools, armies, prisons and factories. In terms of any individual biography, regular habits of work practice were first encountered in the school, then demanded in the army, imposed in the prison, and trained in the fac- tory. All were based on systematic discipline, the uniform application of obligatory regulation. Discipline creates an order into which the individual is inscribed, an order that is artificial, explicit, codified, programmatic, and regulated by inspection (1977: 179; Haugaard 1997: 80). As Haugaard (1997: 80) remarks, ‘Order and dis- cipline go together’ by making their subjects both visible and examinable. ‘By assessing acts with precision, discipline judges individuals’ says Foucault (1977: 181), adding that it does so ‘in truth’. By this he means that each discipline imposes its own rules and norms on the hierarchy of competent subjects that its practices arrange through judgment.

When we apply these ideas to organization theory their import is clear. The truth of scientific management’s discipline was to make each individual worker visible and responsible for his or her own efficiency, a truth conditioned by the power of piece-rate wage systems. Maximize one’s own efficiency as a worker and one max- imizes one’s happiness through maximizing the means for its achievement – wage payments. Each solitary individual employee had to come to know this truth, and to know that it was to be accomplished by the ‘transformation’ of individual irreg- ularity by self-correction (Foucault 1979: 239–40).

The mechanisms for the achievement of mutually compatible utilitarian ends were simple, using examination and individualization. Examination is mediated by making individuals visible as individual subjects; individualization is achieved by making the individual a case that can be traced through various documents and statistical records, and classified as a specific case through precise performance measurement (Foucault 1977: 187–92). Scientific management fits the model effortlessly. Scientific management promised to make any body a machine that could move exactly and precisely – a body fixed in time and space by organization, anywhere, as something essentially biddable, plastic and routine.13

In the remainder of the book we will trace the history of the development of the knowledge of organizational power from these humble beginnings addressed to the body as a machine for productive efficiency. We will trace the shifting regimes of knowledge and truth that produce different and incommensurable ideas of power and organization. Next, we will explain the overall logic of our particular transla- tion of the history of power and organizations and provide a brief overview of each chapter.

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 *