42 How do people and groups exercise power?

Brad C. Anderson

The previous section defined as the direct exercise of power, which includes and . Bent Flyvbjerg identified several examples of how individuals and groups exercise power.[1] The tactics he identified fall into two categories: (i) power and rationality and (ii) power relations

Power and Rationality

As later chapters will explore, many scholars see a tight connection between power and rationality. As the previous chapter discussed, we use rationality to make choices and justify our actions. Thus, if I can influence what you perceive as rational, then I can influence your actions. That gives me power.

 

Exercises

If I seek to influence your actions by shaping what you perceive as rational:

  1. Using Lukes’s three-dimensions of power, which dimension am I exercising?
  2. Using Fleming & Spicer’s faces of power, which face am I utilizing?

 

The relation between rationality and power takes several forms.

  • : Those with power seek to shape what others perceive as rational. This process can be as benign as two friends debating what movie they will watch tonight. Each may use their forms of reason and persuasion to convince the other. This process may also be much less benign. An institution might, for example, seek to sway public opinion by hiding the results of studies showing its activities cause harm.

It may have dawned on you that the creator of this textbook is engaged in the act of defining rationality. Well … you caught me.

Before you dismiss me as a power-mad author, note that much of human interaction involves defining rationality as we engage with each other and negotiate collective action. Some individuals and organizations, however, can define rationality more effectively and at a greater scale than others. For example, the owner of a news outlet may define rationality across an entire population, a teacher across their class, and a doctor with an individual patient.

Some people may conceal or misrepresent information in an attempt to mislead you. In contrast, others genuinely try to rely on reason and persuasion to convince you of the merits of their ideas.

Hopefully, you will judge that my intentions are good and allow me to continue my attempts to define rationality.

  • : This is the ability of parties to perform irrational acts without consequence. For example, an analysis might conclude the optimal spot to locate a business is in Neighborhood A. The owner of the company lives in Neighborhood B and wants to avoid commuting to work. They subsequently choose to ignore the study and locate the business in Neighborhood B.

One might argue that anyone can ignore rationality. People, for example, know smoking cigarettes is unhealthy, yet many choose to smoke regardless.

Though these people may ignore what they know is rational, they still face the consequences of their choice. Those with power, conversely, can act irrationally without consequence.

The more a party can avoid the consequences of ignoring rationality, the more power they possess.

  • : How do rationalization and rationality differ? Rationality is the process of using reason to understand the world and select actions. Rationalization is the process of finding excuses to justify the action you want to take (or already took). Using rationality means you use reason to guide your actions. Rationalization means you create a veneer of rationality to defend your actions. Power is the ability to use rationalization and have others accept it as rationality.

Power relations

The opening of this chapter stated that societies create webs of power that organize human activity. The phrase “webs of power” implies that power is a matrix in which we are embedded. The social setting will assign more power to some individuals, less to others, depending on their role. That said, everyone has some power.

Moreover, power is dynamic. That means it shifts and changes. Think of power as a fluid rather than a solid. For example, a CEO may rule her company with an iron fist, yet when she needs surgery to remove cancer, her doctor reigns supreme. In one setting, the CEO is queen; in another, she is a supplicant. Power ebbs and flows.

Remember those two points: everyone has some power, and power is dynamic.

As individuals and groups exercise their power to act in a social setting, they encounter other individuals and groups in possession of their power to act. The relative power each party possesses may be equal, but frequently, one group will have more power relative to another.

Consequently, the interactions between groups can become quite complex as each party pursues its aims. The relations between these different strands of power take several forms.

  • : One party takes purposeful action to avoid conflict with another party. For example, a human resources administrator may voluntarily choose to seek a department’s approval before implementing a new safety policy. Even though they may not need the department’s approval, they may seek it to avoid the possibility the department will resist the new policy later.
  • : One party openly defies and seeks to defeat another party. For example, a union may go on strike to protest the unsafe working conditions a company maintains.
  • : Two or more parties take action to form a working relationship with each other. For example, an individual may sign an employment contract with a company, or two departments in a company may arrange how they will work together.
  • : Two or more parties currently in a working arrangement with each other take actions to reinforce that arrangement. These actions could be as simple as choosing to abide by the conditions of the arrangement. For example, an employment contract may stipulate annual performance evaluations, and so both employee and employer partake in these annual evaluations. These actions could also include modifying existing arrangements as new situations arise. For example, two cooperating departments might revise their communications processes when they introduce a new IT infrastructure.
  • : Social settings are . Open systems affect and are affected by the outside world. There is also a time-aspect to open systems. Past events can affect the present. Historical power relations refer to actions parties take as a consequence of long-standing relations with other parties.

Dr. Flyvbjerg identified an example of the impact historical power relations had when he was studying a city’s approach to redeveloping its downtown core.

Throughout the redevelopment process, elected officials continually conferred with unelected representatives of the city’s business association. Consequently, the business association had a significant influence on the redevelopment process. There was no compelling reason to give an unelected business association this influence over how taxpayer money was spent.

The city’s government and the business association, however, had a long-standing relationship with each other dating back centuries. This shared history led to the influence the business association maintained.[2]

Key Takeaways

  • People and groups exercise power through several means.
    • Power and rationality, including defining rationality, ignoring rationality, and using rationalization as rationality
    • Power relations, including maintaining stability, conflict, production of power relations, reproduction of power relations, historical power relations

  1. Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. Chicago, United States: The University of Chicago Press.
  2. Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. Chicago, United States: The University of Chicago Press.

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How do people and groups exercise power? by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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