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2011/1 (Vol. 14)

  • Pages : 88
  • DOI : 10.3917/mana.141.0002
  • Éditeur : AIMS


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Power is one of the central concepts of both the social sciences in general and organizational and management theory in particular. It is to be found at the heart of all social relationships, and forms a leitmotiv for social action (Russell, 1938 ; Foucault, 1977 ; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985 ; Clegg, 1989 ; Machiavelli, 1981). In other words, it is an integral part of social living involving groups or individuals within organizations. Although its role is a pivotal one, the “scientific” treatment to which this concept is subjected gives rise to a paradox in that substantial organizational research overtly dedicated to the topic are still few and far between. This is in spite of the numerous empirical projects which have been carried out and the excellent synoptic works which now exist. All things considered, one could assume either that power is merely subordinate to other organization-based social phenomena or that, by dint of its very significance, power merits only the courtesy of a “passing” glance, and constitutes so obvious a topic of discussion that we need barely tarry to pay it any particular attention.


The secondary role to which power has been relegated by organizational research leads to a shortcoming in the way in which it is conceptualized in organizational and management studies on ’politics’. Indeed, only seldom do scholars see organizations and institutions as political groupings when conceptualizing power. They tend, rather, to make for a theoretical standpoint, and to draw on tried and tested concepts from social theory which do not allow sufficient light to be shed on the specificity (or non-specificity) of political goings-on within organizations. This is in spite of the fact that political issues are increasingly to be found at the heart of the dynamics at work in organizations : the principles of “new organizations” are intimately linked with a move to redefine the rules by which authority is shared out and, as they tentatively develop, modern organizations are reassessing every aspect of the relationship between the center and the periphery of their make-up (Shils, 1961). Moreover, the eminent question which Dahl raised several decades ago, namely “Who governs ?”, comes back expressed in new terms and in combinations which are more volatile and less easily manipulated, where those in positions of authority struggle to consolidate a legitimacy which is increasingly, and sometimes justifiably, contested. What, then, should become of power in this “shakier”, or at least less easily defined, political context ?


It is not easy to find a single, clear response to that question. That is why we decided to accept Emmanuel Josserand’s kind invitation to dedicate an “Unplugged” feature of M@n@gement to the ongoing question of power, approaching the topic on the basis of a number of “variations”. The feature’s centrepiece is David Courpasson’s essay, which posits that modern work on the notion of power means (perhaps paradoxically) looking at the dynamics of resistance which emerge within organizations. In other words, not only is work on resistance clearly linked to the study of power—we have known this much for quite some time—but, what is more, power in organizations could be deployed and defined today principally on the basis of acts of resistance. The second section in this feature comprises interviews with four eminent sociologists specialized in the political analysis of organizations. These exchanges lay bare not only the various ways of approaching our chosen topic, but also several perspectives on the principles which underpin a researcher’s interest in power. We find here, then, something of an attempt to chart the course which research in the field has taken.


David Courpasson’s article demonstrates how individuals who are particularly central to modern management systems, the managerial staff themselves, can suddenly tip over into acts of resistance and thereby reveal the extreme flimsiness of such systems. Indeed, acts of resistance on the part of managers call into question the legitimacy of all aspects of contemporary management and in that sense constitute invisible acts of collective power which until now have been only loosely organized. This type of resistance is expert rather than ideological in nature, and its current development shows the astonishing level of similarity which often exists between the ways in which management projects and “resistance projects” are executed. Resistance projects allow new skills and personalities to emerge and lines of solidarity to be adjusted in unlikely ways, while modern organizations dissolve social links and drive people apart. As a background to all of this, the matter of power as a mode (or modes) of resistance and a driver for change is raised again ; however, many organizational theories continue to suggest that resistance is doomed to failure if it strives for anything other than the pursuit of local ploys and the creation of wise alternatives to the predominant discourse favoured by management, not to mention the recurring idea according to which resistance is a problem or malfunction which must be avoided... We have here a plea to trace the study of resistance back to its source, to a time when it was seen as a “liberating” force and a source of crucial debate (since cut short by modern management) about how to work (and how to work well).


The interview with Steven Vallas sheds light on a current “affliction” in the sociology of organizations whereby power is only rarely tackled head-on, even by the most prominent of today’s sociologists ; when it is addressed explicitly, meanwhile, it is emptied of some of its analytical potential and placed out of context through the elimination of such crucial variables as actors’ subjectivity or identity, which are forged by their perceptions of themselves in the working environment. Indeed, according to Vallas, the struggle between various types of workers for control over the content and procedures involved in their work is at the heart of power-related issues, and this has an effect on the symbolic output of this struggle and the official and unofficial circuits of power and resistance (itself a type of power in Vallas’s eyes) which are at work.


The second interview, with Neil Fligstein, highlights an ambiguous conception of Max Weber’s inherited power, to borrow the author’s own words. At the heart of this conception is the coexistence of two prospects, “power over” and “power to”, as well as the empirical complexity of power, which is both good and bad. This continual and widely recognized ambivalence surrounding the nature and consequences of power can, according to Fligstein, be appreciated by analyzing capitalist systems, which, surprisingly and ambiguously, reflect improvements in the population’s standards of living but also the exacerbation of inequalities, particularly where income distribution is concerned. Fligstein suggests that there is a common element running through various types of power which materialize above all in institutions and the practices to which they give rise. It is these various practices which lead to different countries’ particular capitalist models. The hurdle to be overcome when studying power, then, is that of gaining acknowledgement for the fact that alternative models (such as European ones) and the powers (such as the State) which they put forward as a means of countering the effect of market forces are desirable if an increasingly one-dimensional and non-egalitarian American model is to be challenged.


The next interview, with Stewart Clegg, can be related to recent discussions surrounding power theories, with a focus on the ways in which power circulates. Clegg stresses the multi-faceted nature of power, as well as its various modes of practical deployment through multi-level circuits and the various points at which they intersect. Clegg begins with so-called “episodic” power, the main expression of the type of power which can be seen at the local level, and strives to establish a link between this and social power, which relates to meaning and dispositions. He thereby explains the strength and/or fragility of domination systems. Clegg clearly demonstrates the extent to which modern management’s innovative approach to disciplinary and production techniques allows power to be imposed “from above”, but also reveals that there is a relationship running counter to this, or from the bottom up, particularly in that episodic power relationships can transform the rules of meaning and therefore, in turn, constrain attempts to seek domination from the “center” of power circuits.


Finally, our last interview, with Jean-Claude Thoenig, posits that power is not, in principle, a dominant factor in social and organizational relationships, and power theories form above all a set of tools which make it possible to analyze various aspects of organizational management, the central focus of Thoenig’s work. This, then, is as much a matter of How are things governed ? as Dahl’s Who governs ?. In this analysis of the practical ways in which power is deployed, the focus is the complex relationships which bind various actors seeking to control resources and achieve personal aims. Such relationships are made up of dynamics of interdependence and exchange which can be pinpointed in activities themselves. These elements of interdependence and exchange can be bottom-up or top-down, and therefore lead to hegemony or resistance to hegemony in a relationship of recurrent conflict which can ultimately lead to change. Thoenig confirms the role of power as a positive force, and also helps to remove the sting from certain analyses which portray power as a source of trouble rather than a dynamic social driving force which can assist groups in undergoing change and improvement when the upper levels of the hierarchy agree to use it well.


These contributions, then, look at power from points of view which are at once contrasting and complementary. They emphasize that power cannot be straitjacketed into a single, simple definition, and that a great deal of humility is required of those who wish to study it. It is also a subject which requires us to place a certain amount of trust in the actors involved ; only then can we understand how political phenomena are marked not only by patent structural and organizational constraints, but also—and to no lesser degree—by the meanings which actors attach to their actions and relationships of power and resistance. This feature suggests that organizational change inevitably involves often painful conflicts and that any attempt to engage in an apolitical brand of naïve optimism (or ignorance) in organizational analysis is dangerous. Without a doubt, then, organizational research stands to benefit greatly from a clear conceptual understanding of the political notions at work in the field, as well as a confident but unassuming empirical approach to these issues engaging with a range of relevant actors. If all this is borne in mind, the field of organizational studies will still have a great deal with which to fill its authors’ manuscripts.


This article has been developed from research financed by ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche, Grant number ANR-07-ENTR-010). Numerous discussions with my colleagues Françoise Dany, Frank Azimont and Philippe Riot nurtured the reflexions developed in this article.


  • Clegg, S.R. (1989). Frameworks of Power. London : Sage.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish : the Birth of the Prison. London : Allen & Lane.
  • Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Ideology and Socialist Strategy. London : Verso.
  • Machiavelli, N. (1981.) The Prince. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books.
  • Russell, B. (1938.) Power. London : George Allen & Unwin.
  • Shils, E. (1961). Centre and Periphery. In The Logic of Personal Knowledge : Essays presented to Michael Polanyi (pp. 117-130). London : Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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