Twenty techniques of total institutional power

Many of the techniques that were evident in total institutions can be used to make everyday acts of extreme power easier to think and to do. What these extreme cases do is throw everyday power practices into sharp relief. Any one of the techniques in Table 6.1, abstracted from the cases reviewed here, is a significant and subtle power practice; combined they are a formidable weapon against ethical rectitude in everyday life.

Table 6.1 Twenty ways of constructing total institutional power relations

Although total institutions make it easier to practice rigid adherence to a legal instrumental rationality which makes it possible for actors to do things which they wouldn’t do if they were not bracketing their value rationality, it is still the case that, in everyday life, such bracketing can all too easily occur. Think of the tax offi- cial who bankrupts someone; the insurance official who figures out how not to pay an insurance claim to a loyal customer based upon some technicality; the official who insists that an old lady puts down her pet because its a ‘health hazard’ and against regulations; the health inspector who closes down small family run restau- rants; and the safety official who closes down a playground. But when rigid adher- ence to a legal instrumental rationality is fused with a total organizational apparatus we have a fearsome instrument.

In total institutions, whether we like it or not, we see the techniques of everyday organizational power in sharp relief and focus. For their techniques are assuredly organizational techniques, not techniques of caprice, will or individual volun- tarism. Moreover, their techniques are deliberate acts of domination. By this we refer not to the violence but to the ordering, the social organization of ethical horror, in such a way that it is domesticated, tamed, made normal. If such horrors and monstrosities can be tamed, how much easier is it to enact the many lesser calumnies and sins of everyday power in ordinary organizational life?

Total institutions are a significant type of organizational rationality for elimi- nating equivocality, with practical lessons in variation, selection and retention. What is surprising, as we remarked at the outset of this discussion, is that so little attention has been paid by organization science to total institutions in general (Burrell’s 1997 ‘retro-organization theory’ is an exception, as is the discussion in Burrell 1994. For a contrary view, one should see Weiss 2000; also see Adams and Balfour 2001; Hinings and Mauws 2004). Why do organization theorists give so little attention to the realities discussed in this chapter? Is it because their knowl- edge is an instrument of power? Are these scholars parts of a movement that designs and operates its systems and maintains its silences in return for some perks, such as tenure in well-salaried positions in business schools? The position of such scholars is always ambiguous; of necessity they exist somewhere between power and the ‘subjects’ of that power, the authors of this volume being no exception to the general rule. Still, it is a matter of choice as to whether one focuses one’s gaze on those operating the machinery of power, on the machinery itself, or on those it damages. Overwhelmingly, the organization theorists’ gaze has seemed more fasci- nated by designing a better machine in the interests of those it serves rather than those it damages.

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

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