What is Power ?

Submitted by admin on Thu, 09/01/2016 - 21:51

If we really knew what power was, we could measure it, collect it, and perhaps even sell it. However, it is an idea we use, and some people, some systems, organisations and countries seem to have more of it than others.

CDA is very interested in power, and this interest motivates many of the leading academics (who tend to take the side of the underprivileged against the dominant). As UK agriculture seems to be a domain where power, influence and dominance exist, and I want to develop CDA techniques to examine this, so I have looked at some ideas about power in discourse.

In one passage, Jaeger looks at the power of the acting individual (Jaeger, 2001, p. 38), and I have adapted this to make the following points:-

  • Each person faces the initial problem of having to prevail, i.e. to get his/her own way, to find their place in society (this is part of the human condition)
  • Each interpersonal situation can be seen as a power relationship, which manifests in many ways and on many levels - knowledge, experience, turn-taking, non-verbal elements, etc. This can take the form of status, position, self-interest, dominance, etc.
  • Each person thinks, plans, constructs, interacts and fabricates, in their own interest.
  • However, the acting individual follow their own interests
    • in the frame of a rampant growth of the network of discursive relations and arguments
    • in the context of ‘living discourses’ insofar as
      • the person brings the discourses into life
      • lives ‘knitted into’ them
      • and contributes to their change
  • To state the obvious, in the circumstance of the surrounding ‘living discourses’, the discourse may be more powerful that the individual person. The person may be able to personalise the habits, traditions, systems and discourses of society, but it may be impossible to break out of tradition
  • There are several ways of achieving power:-
    • By making people do what they otherwise would not do
    • By ‘operating the system’ so that one rises to a position where ones administrative decisions have wide influence (but it is then likely that ones power is limited to a very small area)
    • By being involved in political processes
    • By establishing a position of economic power, through ownership or shareholdings of businesses
    • By becoming part of an ‘establishment’ on the basis of the above routes
    • By influencing any or all of the above via the public media.
    • By becoming self-sufficient, or otherwise leaving the system

In general, any of the positions within the system only have power by virtue of their place within the system, and the system will

  • tend to dominate the individuals
  • tend to be created and developed by discursive factors

In this way we can see the power of discourse

  • However, this may not always apply.
    • In the case of Monsanto and the development of GM seeds, it seems that a small group have used every effort available to try to gain acceptance of their new product, and have succeeded in changing the system. They have perhaps used power to do this, but is this a permanent power ? Perhaps they have forced the system to change, but have they gained positions of power within it ? While they used discourses of nutrition, economics and genetics to justify the acceptance of the GM products, to some extent it seems that they also ‘went outside’ discourse, by deciding on their intention, then trying to achieve it.
    • This may apply to the USA invasion of Iraq. They had an intention ‘outside’ of the normal discourses and then made every effort to achieve it, and succeeded (I am still working out my ideas on ‘what is outside discourse’)

Fairclough has looked in an interesting way at the power of the new capitalism (Fairclough, 2001, pp 128-9). This is a distinctive network of practices, and part of their distinctiveness is the way language figures within them, and he detects three interconnected analytical concerns

1. Dominance – we need to identify which genres, discourses and styles are the dominant ones. For example

  1. the genres which regulate action and interaction in organisations (e.g. the language of teamwork, consultation, partnerships and appraisals now dominates)
  2. the dominant genres from the neo-liberal discourse at the IMF and WTO which are internationally disseminated (imposed ?)
  3. the styles of key figures in ‘the new order’ – entrepreneurs, managers, politicians, (and even comedians … ?)These are disseminated internationally (re-scaled) and across areas of social life (re-structured) – as an example ‘negotiation’ as a concept was once a Trade Union term, but then it ‘flowed’ between politics and business, but later ‘flowed’ to the family, the military, etc.

2. Difference. We need to look at the range of difference and diversity, in genres, discourse and styles, and the social structuring and re-structuring of those differences.
There are several issues here

  1. access – who does and does not have access to dominant forms ?
  2. relationships between dominant and non-dominant forms
  3. how other genres are affected by imposition of the new dominant ones (e.g. what has happened to radical and socialist discourses since the ‘victory’ of the neo-liberal ?)
    1. have they been marginalized ?
    2. how do they still sustain themselves ?

           It is an error to think that the dominant forms are the only ones that exist !

3. Resistance. As an example, managerial genres are colonising government and public sector domains such as education, and also moving between scales ….
Colonisation is never a simple process –

  1. The new forms are assimilated and combined with the old
  2. There is a process of appropriation, which can lead to different outcomes:-
    • Quiescent assimilation
    • Tacit or open resistance (subversives ‘talking the talk’)
    • Search for coherent alternatives

The changes in the global economy shapes many other levels, perhaps including New Labour’s ‘third way’, and this may then influence the development of the new economics.

Extending Fairclough’s ideas, we can question that if ‘the new capitalism’ has achieved power, is this as a 'whole system', or is there a central point of power in this system, or a constellation of points of power ? How does this power system work ??

This section began with the question ‘what is power ?’, and this has raised further questions, and some interesting perspectives that can potentially be incorporated into a toolbox.