The relation between rationality and power

Brad C. Anderson

As you read the above sections of rationality’s ability to enable and constrain action, you may have noticed the influence of power. Indeed, the relationship between rationality and power is strong.

This relationship catches many readers by surprise. Students of Western societies’ education systems are taught the tools of instrumental-rationality. Consequently, we see rationality as objective truth, something ‘out there,’ unchanging and separate from human experience, something beyond the ‘corrupting’ influence of power.

Though there may be objective truths ‘out there,’ we live here in the social world. Thus, it is the reality of the social world with which we must contend. Rationality gives us our understanding of a situation, which informs our behaviours. We use it to justify our actions and convince others to act how we wish. Rather than being objective, people’s interests shape rationality.

Through my actions, informed by what I think is rational,  I change the world. If I can convince you a specific activity is reasonable, I can change your behaviour. My ability to define what you consider appropriate evidence, combined with my ability to influence how you interpret that evidence gives me the ability to affect what you think is rational. By defining what you perceive as sensible, I influence your actions. Rationality is, thus, inextricably linked to power.[1]

This relation between rationality and power manifests in several ways.

  • It is through the exercise of power that rationalities can enable or constrain.
  • Individuals and groups with the capacity to define rationality have the power to influence the actions of large groups of people.
  • Finally, it is through bureaucratic rationality that people translate power into action within an organization.

Let’s explore each of these in turn.

Power Gives Rationality the Force to Enable or Constrain Actions

For rationality to enable or constrain activities, people must also exercise power.[2] For example, it was the CEO’s authority to bind the BC Health Authority to the Seniors Program by signing the Project Charter. It was his signature that gave that document force.

His authority to bind the organization to a course of action is an expression of power in organizations. Through entering into a collaboration, the CEO produced power relations through which the Seniors Program came into existence.

Bureaucratic rationality, as expressed in the Project Charter, enabled the fellowship to create the Seniors Program. Still, it was power vested in the CEO that gave bureaucratic rationality the force to create action.

Likewise, economic rationality was a constraining structure in that it led physicians to refuse to adopt the Seniors Program. What gave them the authority to refuse to perform an intervention that was of great benefit to seniors?

The healthcare system’s bureaucratic structures gave doctors the authority to choose what medical interventions they prescribed to patients.  When physicians refused to adopt the Seniors Program, the fellowship–and even the CEO of the health authority–lacked the authority to overrule them. Such bureaucratic authority is an example of coercion.

The ability of doctors to chose which interventions they prescribe is an example of power in the organization. The fellowship sought to use their power against the organization to influence physician behaviour but lacked the authority to force them to do so.

It is the distribution of power within a social system that gives rationality the ability to enable or constrain actions.

Power Gives Rationality the Capacity to Overcome Constraining Structures

The above examples showed the fellowship using rationality to overcome constraining structures. For example, you saw them use bureaucratic rationality (by developing electronic forms to automate processes) to overcome resistance caused by doctors’ financial costs of adopting the Seniors Program. For these bureaucratic rationalities to work, the fellowship had to exercise power.[3] For example:

  • They had to connect with experts capable of developing electronic documents (production of power relations).
  • They had to find doctors willing to incorporate these electronic forms into their practice (production of more power relations).
  • The fellowship also had to secure funding to finance the process of developing electronic forms (production of yet more power relations).
  • To create these relations, the fellowship used episodic and three-dimensional forms of power (by paying people for work and convincing them to cooperate).

Power Gives Rationality the Ability to Define Reality

When you use the power tactic of defining rationality, even for something as simple as convincing a friend about the merits of a movie you like, you are defining reality. The more power an individual or group has, the more they can establish what people perceive as the truth. Through this process, people influence the actions of others.[4]

Defining rationality is achieved by effectively framing the debate in people’s minds. People and groups that do this well can influence what others consider appropriate evidence. They further guide people in how they should interpret that evidence.

Some groups and individuals may possess the ability to suppress some forms of evidence while amplifying others. These actions can be done maliciously with an intent to manipulate. It can also be done productively, for it is how we construct the understanding of our world needed to create collective action.

When you write a report for your boss, client, or teacher, you choose what information to include in that report, what that information means, and what to exclude. You may perform a scientific experiment to learn an objective truth about the universe, but you choose what research question to ask, how you will answer that question, and which issues to ignore.

You define rationality, too. We all do. Defining rationality is one of the most common ways we exercise power in social settings.

It is Through Bureaucratic Rationality That Power Manifests

Okay, what does that even mean?

In the above examples, you may have noticed how bureaucratic rationality always seemed to have a role in mediating the use of power.

This textbook is going to introduce a fancy word: reify. To reify something is to turn something intangible into something a bit more concrete.

Money, for example, is an intangible concept. It is an idea, something we humans imagined. Yet, in the absence of money, your ability to obtain food or shelter is limited. You may starve and possibly die. These are very concrete effects.

Somehow we turned money, this intangible figment of our imagination, into something with a very tangible impact in the real world. Through some mechanism, we reified money.

Power is also an intangible thing. You cannot drop power on your toe or put it in a gift box as a present to someone. Yet, through power, we create civilization.

Through what mechanism do we reify power?

We reify power through bureaucratic rationality.[5][6]

Let’s look at some examples to explain.

Do you think a janitor working in the BC Health Authority could negotiate an agreement with the Nova Scotian Health Authority to create a partnership? No, of course not. But the CEO could, as he did when he signed the Senior Program’s Project Charter.

What is it that allows the CEO to sign agreements on the company’s behalf but prevents a janitor from doing the same?

The answer is bureaucratic rationality. Procedures & roles, boundaries, rules, and processes govern which positions in the organization have the authority to do what. These structures are codified in documents, such as job descriptions, terms of incorporation, company charters, and so on.[7][8]

Well, who created the bureaucratic rationalities that govern the BC Health Authority?

In Canada, provincial governments establish health authorities. When they created these authorities, they developed the bureaucratic rationality through which they operated.

Well, who gave the provinces this authority?

The bureaucratic rationality documented in the Canada Health Act adopted by the Government of Canada. And so on. Organizations (and society) structure themselves using bureaucratic rationalities identifying who can do what and how they do it.

Here is the important thing to note. When you want your organization to take a certain action, you achieve this by creating new structures of bureaucratic rationality to govern that action.

For example, when physicians refused to adopt the Seniors Program due to its lack of financial viability, the fellowship looked for ways to reduce the doctor’s costs of implementing it. They did this by creating new documents (electronic records) and processes (automating functions). They convinced the organization to redefine procedures & roles (by having personnel assigned to clinics to assist physicians).

The creation of these bureaucratic structures was mediated (yet again) by bureaucratic rationality. To successfully drive their organization to act, the fellowship possessed significant insight into the bureaucratic rationality governing the BC Health Authority. They understood how it worked and how it made decisions. The fellowship used that insight to create the new bureaucratic structures that led to the desired action.

In short, to create organizational action, you need to create structures of bureaucratic rationality that enable that action. Doing this requires that you possess insight into the current bureaucratic rationality governing the organization through which it makes and implements decisions.

Official Versus Unofficial Bureaucratic Rationalities

You will find most organizations have a formal bureaucratic structure. That is, they will have codified policies and procedures of how the organization is supposed to run. Then, they will have the unofficial system of how it actually runs.

For example, if an instructor in a university wanted to create a new course, there is a formal process through which they design the course and have the institution approve it for use. Underneath that system, however, are rationalities that may be less well documented.

The individuals working in specific departments that approve new courses may have certain interests they wish to see reflected in any new class they approve. People have to learn about these requirements on their own.

Likewise, because a course is approved is no guarantee that the school will ever offer it. Administrators schedule classes, and they must balance the needs of different programs and student demand with the school’s finite supply of classrooms and teachers. These choices are often left to administrators’ discretion. There may be no formal system of how they determine what classes to run.

To effectively create the desired action in your organization, you must learn not only the official bureaucratic rationalities governing the institution but also the unofficial ones. As the next chapter discusses, you learn this through developing your institutional and contextual (cultural) rationality about your operating environment.


Key Takeaways

  • Power gives rationality the force to enable or constrain actions.
  • Power gives rationality the capacity to overcome constraining structures.
  • Power gives rationality the ability to define reality.
  • It is through bureaucratic rationality that power is reified.
  • In organizations, bureaucratic rationality may take official and unofficial forms
  • You learn bureaucratic rationality by developing your institutional and contextual rationality

  1. Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. Chicago, United States: The University of Chicago Press.
  2. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  3. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  4. Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. Chicago, United States: The University of Chicago Press.
  5. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  6. Townley, B. (2008). Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  7. Smith, D. E. (2001). Texts and the Ontology of Organizations and Institutions. Studies in Cultures, 7(2), 159–198.
  8. Townley, B. (1993). Foucault, Power/Knowledge and Its Relevance for Human Resource Management. Academy of Management Review, 18(3), 518–545.


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The relation between rationality and 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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