How will you view power?

Brad C. Anderson

The above sections present several ways that power manifests in social systems. This knowledge may help us to recognize when someone is trying to exert power over us. It may help us exercise our power more thoughtfully.

Because of the impact power has, though, it takes on a moral quality. Consequently, we need to decide how we choose to perceive power. Is power dangerous, something we must strive to contain? Or, is it a force of creation, something we must nurture and shape? Maybe a little of both?

You will have to decide this for yourself. This textbook, however, is written with a specific view of power. Since this book is an exercise of power–it is attempting to define rationality–it is essential to explicitly state this textbook’s perspective. You can then judge whether you will adopt this perspective yourself.

This Textbook’s View of Power

It is common for people to view power negatively. We see power asymmetries leading to oppression, which leads us to fear the power that others have over us. Consequently, people strive to protect themselves by either gaining power of their own or dismantling others’ power.

Though asymmetries in power can lead to oppression, it is through the exercise of power we right these injustices. This textbook, thus, argues power is a creative force through which we build societies. To that end, it has adopted a conceptualization of power developed by Dr. Flyvbjerg, described below.

Dr. Flyvbjerg formulated a means to conceptualize power consistent with the development of phronesis. Some of these points may seem abstract right now. Later chapters will dive deeper into how power operates in organizations. In those chapters, you will see practical examples of how these following principles apply.

Dr. Flyvbjerg summarized his conceptualization of power as follows.[1][2]

  • Power is a positive and creative force: Through the exercise of power, civilizations create themselves.
  • Power exists as a dense web of social relations: Power is the organizing force of civilization. Social systems consist of countless roles people fill. Societies define behaviours and authorities for each function, which integrates with the many other duties people fill. Power, thus, is a web of actions and authorities that serves as the scaffolding for society.
  • Power is dynamic: Societies are vibrant. So, too, is the web of power that constitutes those societies. People fill multiple roles throughout the day, and their power changes with each function they fill (e.g. from VP at a bank to a patient in a doctor’s office). Moreover, people continuously negotiate and renegotiate the relations between different roles in society (e.g., workers may discuss with their boss changes to their schedule). Consequently, the web of power governing a social system is ever-evolving.
  • Power produces knowledge, and knowledge produces power: People create rationalities that justifies their actions and get them what they want (i.e., power produces knowledge). Likewise, the rationality a social system creates will lead people to conclude that certain parties must do certain things. This knowledge empowers those parties to do those things (i.e., knowledge produces power).
  • How power is exercised is more important than identifying who has power: Creating action in an organization requires knowledge of how power works in that specific social setting. How are decisions approved? How are changes made? Through what mechanisms does the system control people’s actions? Part of this process will require you to learn who is responsible for making which decision, but knowing who has power is insufficient to drive action. You must understand how people in the social system exercise that power.
  • Start your study of power with small questions: Recall from the earlier discussion of power’s fourth dimension that power was active in “micro-practices” or the daily activities of life. You will understand how power is exercised by looking at these micro-practices (that is, by asking small questions). For example, how do you get your topic on a meeting agenda? What types of criticism might your plan face from individuals within the organization? How does a manager determine what tasks their employees will perform? How do you set up a meeting with crucial decision-makers? To understand how people in the social setting exercise power requires that you know these nuances of life in the organization.


Key Takeaways

  • Though there are many ways people view power, this textbook adopts an approach used when seeking to develop phronesis. The principles of this conceptualization include:
    • Power is a positive and creative force.
    • Power exists as a dense web of social relations.
    • Power is dynamic
    • Power produces knowledge, and knowledge produces power.
    • How power is exercised is more important than identifying who has power.
    • Start your study of power with small questions.

  1. Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Clegg, S. R., & Pitsis, T. S. (2012). Phronesis, Projects and Power Research. In B. Flyvbjerg, T. Landman, & S. Schram (Eds.), Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis (pp. 66–91). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


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How will you view power? Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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