6 Power as a dynamic social process
An alternative view of power was proposed by Foucault (1977), who argued that power in society is played out in day-to-day relationships through discourse and knowledge. The distinctiveness of Foucault’s ideas lay in his rejection of traditional, hierarchical views of power (as reflected, to an extent, in the ideas of Weber), where power is perceived as being ‘possessed’ by certain individuals or groups who then use it to impose their will on the subordinate ‘powerless’. Foucault suggested that this reified notion of power (power as a kind of object) is mistaken, arguing instead that power is best understood as being fluid and dynamic. He argued that power emerges through the interactions and relationships of groups and individuals within particular social or organisational contexts and structures.
Foucault saw power as an abstract phenomenon, which can be positive or negative, repressive or productive. Power is constantly recreated and operates through an individual ‘discipline of the self’. Individuals see themselves as unique and self-directing, and make choices, but, Foucault argues, these choices are made only within the discourses and knowledge that are available to them. The ideas that prevail in particular social contexts become the dominant discourse and the common social assumptions. Power and authority reside in those who have the knowledge and the authority to make changes to the dominant ways of thinking.
One logical development of Foucault’s ideas is that those with no formal authority can also exercise power in society. This is sometimes described as having social influence. Influence fits closely with Foucault’s ideas of power being played out through immediate social relationships, as individuals and groups coalesce around ideas and values presented by individuals. Rational argument, persuasion and the attractiveness of ideas are all aspects of influence. Personal charisma is also closely associated with the ways in which influence is generated between individuals. Leadership emerges as followers are attracted to the particular ideas of individuals and groups, and move to support them through agreeing with and disseminating their views. Leaders exist because the group gives them the power and legitimacy to do so.