Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The Secrets of Systemic Power

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The Secrets of Systemic Power

Article excerpt

The article begins with a theoretical discussion of systemic power in workplace conflict that moves onto a consideration of the research in this area. The issue of how systemic power should be used and examples from the organisation are then considered. This article considers power from the perspective of Foucault.


According to Foucault (1980) everyone has power, it exists in every relationship. He thought that there is nothing inherently negative about power (Foucault, 1994). It is neutral and the way it is used determines whether it has a positive or negative effect. It flows upwards, downwards and sideways and like water is constantly moving. It is everywhere and part of all social interaction as Clegg, Courpasson and Phillips (2006: 400) explain:

Relations between people are unthinkable without power because all social relations are relations of various shades of domination, seduction, manipulation, coercion, authority and so on.

If power is everywhere it means it is omnipresent. However although it is omnipresent, this has not stopped theorists differentiating power (See Clegg et al., 2006 for a comprehensive history). The problem with having differing approaches to an omnipresent subject is that it encourages people to choose between the differing approaches, a process which causes the subject to lose its omnipresence.

The approach that focusing on one aspect of a subject implies one should assume the other aspects do not exist is classic dualistic 'either or' thinking. This approach has a long history, part of which saw it enshrined in Roman law. The Latin phrase 'expressio unius est exclusio alterius' remains one of the maxims of legal statutory interpretation today and can be translated as 'to express one thing is to exclude others.' Del Collins (2005) says dualism remains a dominant frame of reference today and is found in all forms of social discourse.

The problem with dualistic 'either or' thinking is that it creates oversimplified realities (Del Collins, 2005). With an omnipresent subject like power, the dualistic thinking that because it exists in one area means that it does not exist in other areas is hopelessly inadequate. As definitions set boundaries and encourage dualistic thinking one way to help avoid dualistic thinking being applied to omnipresent subjects is to refrain from defining them. This seems to be the reason a number of social scientists are unwilling to try to define these subjects and prefer to describe them by their features. Foucault took this approach with power and it also occurred with conflict, which Foucault also claimed was omnipresent, describing all of social life as war (Pickett, 2005). A number of social scientists have avoided defining conflict and instead describe it by its features (see Lulofs & Cahn, 2000; Brandon & Robertson, 2007; Ellis & Anderson, 2005).

Unfortunately the weaknesses of dualistic thinking have not prevented it being applied to power. One example of dualistic thinking within theoretical power research is the relationship between sovereign and disciplinary power. Foucault (1994) explains that over the last century there has been a shift away from what he called 'sovereign power'. Sovereign power is the systemic power which exists in a hierarchy headed by a sovereign, who at one time, held the power of life and death over his subjects. Sovereign power became socially unacceptable in the 20th century as it contradicted the core values of equality and democracy. This resulted in a new sort of power emerging; Foucault called this 'disciplinary power'. Disciplinary power is exercised through controlling how social phenomena were named and discussed and these formed the truth of the society. Foucault called these stories discourses. This explains why the elite can be expected to use their power to control the media.

While dualistic thinking will lead one to conclude that Foucault held the view that sovereign power was replaced by disciplinary power, it is doubtful that this is the case. …

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