Questions of Power


One of the things about my communications degree that has troubled me in my previous classes is the constant talk about communication and power, communication as power. It seems to rob the field of the sense of altruism that I and some of my fellow students wish and feel it should have. Well, Chapter 2 of Difference Matters is about Power.

I’m liking this book Difference Matters more as I read the second chapter. The author starts by telling a story about one of her experiences in the 1970s when she was a young black clerical worker getting her college education. She tells how she covered for a senior clerical worker on vacation, and how she didn’t get the boss’s coffee for him like her vacationing worker did. She didn’t make a scene or anything, and the boss gave in and got his own coffee.  How she describes her motivation follows:

Age also may have mattered. As a woman in my twenties, I probably didn’t view my role or my life in the same way as Betty, who was in her forties (which seemed old to me then). The job was a means to an end for me, and I knew I could get another clerical position, whereas Betty seemed settled into her position. Any or all of these aspects of my identity may have affected my response. Believe me, though, I didn’t analyze the situation at that time. In fact, my emotions played a much stronger role than my thoughts. It just
didn’t feel right. What do you think you would have done?

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 24). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

What I liked about this is that she didn’t make out that she was any kind of crusader or “social justice warrior”. She describes how it felt to her, without any great ethical justification, then invites us to think about the situation and how we would have responded.

As the chapter goes on, and she examines and explains the role of power in relationships, It becomes less of a questions of dominance, but of something that can be both positive or negative in relationships. As she says, “power is not always oppressive or prohibitive, power also can be productive.”

A neat principle she uses, actually borrows from Michel Foucault, is discipline, Most of us think of discipline as a verb, as punishment. As an adjective it can mean self-regulation. As a nouw it can be an academic field of study. But in all cases the root of the word is disciple, or follower. This leads to Foucault’s definition:  “elements of social relations that control, govern, and ‘normalize’ individual and collective behavior.” (Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 26). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.)

Allen uses the clock as an example of discipline. I read part of this section out loud to my family, the part about how a teacher doesn’t have to check the clock to know when classtime is near and end — the kids start packing their books. This led my son to comment on being a “slave to the clock.” To which I asked, who is servant and master.

In another blog I wrote about the song “Grandfather’s Clock,” and to my son above I mentioned that song — how the grandfather talked about his clock as his most faithful servant — never wasted time, never had hands idle at its side, and had only one desire — to be would each week.

Which really illustrates another point that the author brought up — about how the power flows back and forth, beneficially, for people in many power relations.

I skip a lot of other interesting concepts — knowledge, control, hegemony, resistence — to get to the concept I find comment-worthy on the blog — domination.  See the next quote:

Organizational hierarchy exemplifies the ideology of domination, a fundamental belief system in U.S. society “in a notion of superior and inferior, and its concomitant ideology—that the superior should rule over the inferior.” This ideology is so ingrained that most people believe domination is natural.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 32). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

What I find interesting here, because I disagree, is that these relationships presuppose a sense of superior and inferior. We don’t believe our politicians to be superior, though we give them power to exercise for the common good. We don’t believe police officers are superior when we give them power to protect the piece. I definitely do not believe that I follow the orders of  my manager and her managers because they are superior and I inferior. The exercise of power in hierarchy does not presuppose superiority, but division of labor for different types of tasks. They have more skill in one area, I in another. Outside work, all those rules are off.

That said, I think the first conclusion of her chapter conclusion is a good conclusion (or starting point for discussion) for this post:

Power dynamics are inevitable aspects of communicating in organizations and other contexts. The relationships among power, hegemony, and ideology reveal that organizations are “sites of struggle where different groups compete to shape the social reality of organizations in ways that serve
their own interests.” Dominant groups rely on various ideologies to maintain and reproduce relations of power, usually through consent of nondominant groups rather than coercion. However, nondominant groups and their allies from dominant groups often strive to develop more equitable realities. Moreover, although power processes can exclude and marginalize people, they also can enable and empower them.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 37). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.


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