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Essay: Power relations in modern organizations (Foucault)

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Executive Summary

Traditionally, power was controlled through a functionalist approach, where top-down managerial approaches were employed. However, with the fall of Fordism and rise of neoliberalism as the dominant economic paradigm, managerial control has shifted from exercising power through top-down approach to a more post-modern approach characterized by the use of biopolitics. In this paper, the writer sought to critically analyze power relations in modern organizations relying on Foucault theories of power. The paper relies on Foucault theory of biopolitics to re-examine power relations in the modern organization. By considering the later works of Foucault, the paper seeks to expand understanding of how power relations have changed from the use of top down structures to the use of biocracy. Biopower is exerted over lie and focuses on controlling the life of populations rather than subjugating them. In the modern organization, managers employ three apparatus for managerial control, juridico-legal, disciplinary and security apparatuses. Juridico-legal apparatus is designed to provide rules that determine what is considered forbidden or what is considered accepted. Disciplinary apparatus complements the juridico-legal apparatus through surveillance and correction. Security apparatus employ data and cost-benefit analysis to inform the other two apparatus on the best method of yielding power. While juridico-legal and disciplinary power continue to be employed today, security apparatus has made the most impact on how power is yielded by organizations. Today, organizations employ security apparatus to improve managerial approaches through normative motivation, such as blurring the barrier between life and work.

Evolution of Managerial Control: A Foucault Perspective

Michael Foucault’s work on theories of power has been influential in managerial and organization research. It has been acknowledged as a major source of knowledge on how power works in modern organization, and how more subtler forms of post-disciplinary power have proliferated in modern organizations (Barratt, 2002). However, turning to the later work of Foucault on power relations in organizations can at least provide more input and nourish knowledge on how current forms of domination emerged and manifested in the modern organization. By considering later works of Foucault, it is possible to join both streams of theories of power to create a holistic and multi-disciplinary understanding of managerial control in modern organization (Villadsen, 2007; Fleming, 2014). Indeed, managerial control no longer manifest only through security-based and disciplinary forms of power.

Foucault, at the end of his career, focused on another different form of power pertaining power relations between governments and people (Texier, 2012). This new form of power was biopower or technology of power that organizes subjects as a population. In the application of biopower, those who yield power employ multiple techniques such as organizing, optimizing, monitoring, control, reinforcement and incitement. Such power is used to change life. Thus, it involves constituting a subject gradually, materially and progressively (Lilja & Vinthagen, 2014). The power can be exercised by different entities including public institutions, private entities, and governments. By analyzing modern managerial control from Foucault perspective on biopower, it is possible to understand how subtler means of control have proliferated in modern organizations. The paper will use the concept of biopower as a theoretical lens to enhance knowledge on how the transformation that have occurred in employment constitute form of control. These new forms of control complement traditional disciplinary and security based means of isolation to enhance managerial control.

Foucault and Bio power

Foucault (1978) refers to bio power as power exerted over life. It differs from the absolute power of life and death exerted by sovereign to subjects until the 17th century to punish those who did not follow the sovereign laws, the new power is defined positively, as less repressive and more productive. Bio power, and bio politics are concerned with controlling the life of a population (Foucault, 2008). Comprehension of bio politics, the principles behind bio power are well explained by Dean (2010, p. 199) who argues that:

“(Bio politics) is concerned with matters of life and death, with birth and propagation, with illness, both physical and mental health…and optimization of life of a population…the social, cultural, environmental, economic, geographic conditions, the family, with housing, and working conditions, with what we call lifestyle…the living standards.”

Thus, bio politics focuses on controlling those processes that inform everyday life, in which the population is assigned identifies.

According to Foucault (1994) biopower exists in the same realm as sovereign power. However, he distinguishes power that is used for repression and power that is used to promote productivity, or normalization of social relations. Biopower differs from repressive sovereign power as it seeks to regulate the broader ways of living and is employed as a reproductive power. The aim of biopower is not to contain the subject but to utilize its qualities to transcend the typical disciplinary boundaries, by using pre-existing styles of judicial, economic and governmental flows. It relies on cost-benefit analysis to promote conformity and productivity rather than employing norms to determine deviance. Foucault argued that liberalization of markets is a key tool used by major institutions to calibrate societal behavior. As Foucault (2008) argues, when discussing neoliberalism, biopower involves extending the principles of supply and demand to model social relations, and form relations between an individual and himself, and relationships between the individual and those who surround him.

Foucault (1977) argues that techniques used to control subjects in biocracy evolved in two stages. The first techniques developed towards increasing utility and docility of physical bodies emerged in the 17th century. These techniques are disciplinary in nature, and are enacted across a wide range of environments such as schools and hospitals. The second set of techniques emerged in the 18th century and are commonly known as biopolitics. Focus of the second set is to control life processes of every aspect of human life to develop and protect collective entities. From his analysis, biopower can be seen as using three key techniques to control populations, juridico-legal apparatus, disciplinary apparatus, and security apparatus.

Juridico-legal apparatus refer to legal or administrative apparatus that define what is forbidden or what is unlawful (Foucault, 1977). These apparatuses provide a binary cut-off on what is forbidden and what is accepted, and then specify the type of punishment that is permeated to those who break the rules defined the apparatus. For example, a sovereign can use juridico-legal apparatus to pass laws that govern a specific issue, such as drug abuse or failure to arrive in school in time. The apparatus emerged in the 17th century, and was used by sovereigns to ensure that their subjects conformed to the laws of the land. The power to use the apparatus arises from administrative or sovereign authority. For example, the relationship that links an employee to an employer, or a subject to the territory owned by the sovereign.

The second apparatus recognized by Foucault (2008) is the disciplinary apparatus. The apparatus complements the juridico-legal apparatus through correction and surveillance. A key aim of the second apparatus is to control forbidden deeds by introducing measures meant to prevent the subjects from deviating. Correction and surveillance techniques employed by the disciplinary apparatus manifest in the development of techniques and means to actively promote what should be done by providing a model that should followed to ensure conformity. In regard to space, the disciplinary apparatus delimits space to isolate the phenomenon. Foucault (2008) provides the example of grain scarcity to explain how both juridico-legal and disciplinary apparatus operate. Juridico-legal apparatus will pass rules meant to define scarcity as an evil that should be avoided, owing to its negative consequences to the population, and during scarcity will activate laws that prohibit those activities that may lead to grain scarcity. In contrast, the disciplinary apparatus focuses on actively promoting the appropriate behavior, through for example, increasing export tariffs or controlling prices to reduce the scarcity.

Security apparatus, according to Foucault (2008) focus on repositioning the undesired deed within a series of probable events. The security apparatus is employed when the undesired phenomenon cannot be eliminated. Thus, the sovereign or the authority will employ a cost benefit analysis to determine the benefits and demerits of the undesired outcome and determine what constitutes the right ceiling that should not be exceeded. From Foucault’s (2008) perspective, the security apparatus can be perceived as centrifugal, focusing on the reintegration of the undesired phenomenon into the broader environment. Within this environment, the security apparatus seeks to allow the interplay of both quasi-natural and natural in the neo-liberal frame. Foucault (2008) uses the grain shortage example to explain how the security apparatus works. He argues that the security apparatus focuses on normalization by allowing natural forces to cancel out the effect of the undesired phenomenon. For example, in case of grain shortage, the security apparatus will envisage the effect such as rise in production due to shortage of grain. Security apparatus employs statistical techniques to envisage the effect, thus informing the other apparatuses on the course of action.

Biopower and Capitalism

The rise of biocracy in the workplace can be attributed to the rise of neoliberal policies. Hardt and Negri (2009) argue that the failure of Fordism in the 70’s led to the emergence of neoliberal policies that led to the rise of biocracy as the primary approach of managerial control. Traditionally, life has always been viewed as resource for reproducing labor. However, with the advent of neoliberalism as the dominant economic perspective, this perspective changed. Life was no longer considered important in production, as production can only be successful if the labor has the right competence to perform processes required in the production process.

There are several reasons why subjugation of labor is no longer important today, resulting in organizations focusing on controlling live events. First, the fall of Fordism exposed the fallibility of large top-down structured organizations. The large companies with top-down hierarchical structures developed inefficiencies and were too focused on control to improve efficiency. As a result, they failed. Another potential reason is that managers could no longer be able to motivate their employees while employing top-down control structures. The feminist movements of the 70s and associated emancipatory movements led had enhanced knowledge of masses about individual rights and the rights of employees (Hardt & Negri, 2009). With such knowledge, pay alone could be used to motivate the employees.

The other potential explanation is that management began consulting their employees to assist them in increasing the efficiency of otherwise failing corporate structures. The result was the rise of self-managing teams that began to proliferate in the 1990s. Such teams had knowledge on how to self-organize, and to self-educate. Further, the managers placed too much responsibility on these teams. The neoliberal approach to the fall of Fordism was to delegate responsibility, so that workers could be engaged in every day operations of organizations. Last and importantly, deindustrialization of western economies revolutionized the concept of employment. Employment was no longer considered provision of labor for concrete tasks. Labor became human capital, with employers placing emphasis on other competencies such as emotional intelligence, ability to self-organization, communication skills and life skills. For example, Callaghan and Thompson (2002) noted that even employers who were looking for employees to work on menial jobs considered other skills such as attitude. With the fall of Fordism, organizations required a new approach to managerial control, which did not emphasize control and diktat.

Managerial Control and Power in Modern Organizations

Work, and Juridico-Legal Apparatus

In the modern workplace, the juridico-legal apparatus is employed through the rules and regulations that govern behavior in the workplace. These rules are drawn from a myriad of sources, allowing the juridico-legal apparatus to manifest in the workplace. Modern human resource practices, do not generally focus on employee control. However, every organization develops a set of rules that govern social relations, performance, how work is done and how the subordinates relate with the authority. Generally, the rules and regulations applied to employees are sourced from several sources, including governments, accrediting institutions and other non-organization sources. These rules can be broadly categorized into three, security rules, safety rules, operation rules and social relations rules. However, they differ depending the area of focus of an organization.

Every organization establishes security rules, including those that work with virtual teams. These rules manifest inform of protocols that govern access to organization resources, including information and individual areas within the organization. Example of rules that govern information access include those rules that access specific information or the rank of an individual who is allowed to access specific information from servers or files stored by the organizations. For example, senior management may be given access to financial information of the organization, but lower rank employees may not be allowed to access such information. Access rules determine who is supposed to access a given area, and those who are not supposed to access those specific areas within buildings of an organizations. For example, organization places notices on doors or provide special access codes to specific areas within a building to prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing such areas.

Safety rules stipulate what employees should do to ensure their safety or the safety of others within the organization. Such rules may cover wide range of areas, including procedures on how to access information or specific clothing that should be worn when conducting specific operations. Majority of safety rules are established by governments, for example, OSHA develops rules that govern safety in the workplace. While the juridico-legal apparatus arose during the 17th century, it continues to be used today to establish rules that govern the behavior of subordinates in the workplace. The power to establish those roles arises from the administrative power of those who project bio-power.

Disciplinary Apparatus and Work

Disciplinary power manifests into different ways when engaging a subject. It manifests in form of surveillance, either through technologies or traditional form of surveillance to allow the management to gain knowledge about the individual and therefore determine the right reward or punishment. Barratt (2002) argues that Foucault view of discipline is one which manifests in form of classification of subjects, arrangement of relations into allegiance and dependency, and ordering of individual activity in terms of time, and surveillance to encourage productive performance. However, Bergstrom, Hasselbladh and Karreman (2009) argue that this traditional view of disciplinary power, and the use of disciplinary action has been eroded by employee mobility or the ability of employees to seek employment opportunities in other companies.

However, Bergstrom and Karreman (2009) note that organization continue to use disciplinary apparatus in other forms. In their study of a Swedish company that focused on knowledge intensive processes, they found that the employers were monitored, and specific punishment and rewards outlined. First, they found that the company performed surveillance on its employees through performance appraisals and personal assessments. Foucault (1977) points out that surveillance is a key cornerstone of the disciplinary apparatus. In addition, Bergstrom and Karreman (2009) found the employees were actively monitored, evaluated, classified and differentiated depending on their projects. Thus, the techniques employed by the organization mirror those discussed by Foucault on disciplinary apparatus.

Other innovative techniques are also employed to exercise disciplinary power. Brown, Knornberger, Clegg and Carter (2010) conducted an in-depth case study of an architectural firm in the UK. They conducted 25 semi-structured interviews to collect data. First, the interviewed staff reported that there was a silent hierarchy at the organization. While the management felt that formal routines would jeopardize, they employed a silent hierarchy that determined conduct at the architectural firm. Thus, while the management allowed the creativity, there were unwritten rules that had to be followed. They also found that the management engaged in routinization of work, thus allowing the management to control the activities of the employees. These approaches to management indicates that the management employs the disciplinary apparatus in management, focusing on unwritten rules and routinization to prevent the employees from contravening the rules that dictate how they should perform. This fits within Foucault’s conclusion on the use of disciplinary and juridico-legal apparatus to exercise power in modern organizations.

Security Apparatus

As discussed above, security apparatus relies on research to inform the other apparatus. Biopolitics owing to changes in employee relations and increased freedom employ the security apparatus to inform the juridico-legal and disciplinary apparatus. The security apparatus has been essential in the development of modern managerial control approaches. How security apparatus has revolutionized the other two apparatus is well illustrated by comparing current methods of management with traditional management approaches. When compared four elements, emerge, social subjectivity, space, time, and economic valorization. Through research, organizations have been able to realize that the unique attributes of workers are essential to proper management of employees. The result is the changing of the rules that are made by the juridico-legal apparatus.

Classical studies of Weber and Marx established that control has a dehumanizing effect, and bureaucratic organizations did not consider the social attributes of employees. Thus, using this information organization made changes to rules made by the juridico-legal apparatus, thus allowing biocracy to manifest. Hanlon (2007) argues that since modern organizations can still be productive the need for top down control structures is not essential. First, the security apparatus was used to inform the juridico-legal apparatus and the disciplinary apparatus to reduce the inclusion of non-work into the production environment, thus leading to relaxation of rules on how work is conducted. Organizations began to emphasize relaxation, personal attributes, sexuality and lifestyle, as well as, work life balance as essential for productivity. Today, organizations do not promote managerial interference with the aim of promoting productive rationality.

Incorporation of non-work into work, as result of research conducted through the security apparatus manifests in various ways. In their study of call center employment, Fleming and Sturdy (2011) reported that the call center framed the office as a late night party that did not focus on productivity but allowed the organization to capture information about the personalities of the employees. The call center also claimed that working at the facility did not amount to work, as no employee would be allowed to drink or engage in sexual promiscuity while in the job. Similarly, Hochschild (1984) reported that airlines attendants are given the permission to act as if the cabin is their living room with the aim of reducing the negative emotions associated with labor. As Foucault (1977) notes, the security apparatus allows for control by allow the undesired to happen by performing a cost benefit analysis. The call center is aware that blurring the work-no-work space will reduce stress and therefore improve productivity. Thus, the call center forwent control to gain productivity and reduce the potential costs of employee turnover.

The blurring of work and non-work boundaries is cost beneficial, and therefore fits the objectives of the security apparatus. Ross (2004) conducted an ethnographic study of Razorfish, an information technology firm. The findings indicated that the organization openly acknowledges that the line between lifestyle interests and work is blurred, and the employees were more productivity when the nature of work embodied their own lifestyle interests. Thus, the company was not interested in dismantling the management style, as their previous managerial experience supported the new managerial approach. Ross (2004) further found out that the warehouse space was only partially renovated, with wiring exposed to create an artisanal amateurism that signified what the employees were doing. The organization had also embraced a hacker ethic that was anti-corporate to improve productivity.

The realization that companies can motivate or promote productivity through the security apparatus, is illustrated by another study by Land and Taylor (2010), who conducted a study of an ethical study of a United Kingdom firm. They found that managers had gone to great lengths to replicate lifestyles beyond the traditional work place. The UK firm openly encouraged the employees to engage in leisure times at the organization, creating a culture that blurred work with non-work. Land and Taylor (2010) concluded that the blurring of labor and life had positive impact on the performance of the organization. It motivated the employees to work, as they did not consider labor at the company as a form of work, but rather as part of their life. In addition, the scholars found that the managers could ask for more without agitating the employees.

In another study, Michel (2012) studied managerial approaches of managers at a large US bank. The managers at the bank had been successful in heightening productivity by transforming the workplace to resemble the living spaces of their employees. They removed all cultural demarcations that once separated life, leisure and how from work. Workplace benefits and parlance freedom was increased to allow the employees to access the workflow during their own time, including office schedule. According to Michel (2012), the bank was able to erase the cultural barriers by providing administrative costs at all times, and encouraging the employees to use leisure amenities and providing free services, including meals, car services, valets and childcare. However, the elimination of the cultural barriers had a cost towards the employees, as they could not separate their work from the life.


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