Monday, 15 August 2016

What'd'ya know about Systems of Power?

Daft (2007) defines power as an intangible force within organisations, which is shown in the ability of one to influence another, in order to bring about desired outcomes. Power is the capacity to cause a change.

A system of power usually refers to how that influence plays out in larger groups, such as large organisations, or in society. Peterson said that "social hierarchies such as race, physical ability, gender, class, age, and sexual preference constitute interlocking systems of power" (1994, p. 719). The implication is dominance, oppression, and control. 

Kritzer suggests that our societies are "structured through systems of power, some of which operate almost invisibly" in her work about political theatre, where activism as shown through "exposing these systems of power by bringing them to conscious attention" and by examining "forms of power in socio-historical contexts" (2008, p. 123).

Tolbert and Hall describe organizational systems of power as "an interconnected system of order-givers and order followers" (2015, p. 68). Systems of power can be what keep minority or marginalised groups from power: can maintain the status quo

Organisations and society have a number of mechanisms which can help to ensure that oppressive systems of power continue. A few examples are: expertise (ie, I am an expert and you are not, so don't question me); patriarchy or matriarchy (I know what is best for you because you are the child and I am the responsible adult); position (when you have got to where I am, then you will see things differently).

I recently read a piece on the Guardian about contract (aka, casual or adjunct) academic staff and the line they have to walk between tenured staff and unemployment. The anonymous writer said (22 April 2016):
I play two roles [...]: teacher and casual. As teacher, I am confident, assured and authoritative. I am expert in my tiny slice of the pie. I demonstrate sound academic, interpersonal and communication skills for my students. I think on my feet, handle complaints, answer unexpected questions – I even keep the back row quiet and off Facebook. As teacher, I have power. It’s fun, I love it and I want to keep doing it. That’s just how it is.

I am also a casual member of staff. As casual, I am disempowered, silenced and compliant. I am expert in navigating the systems, on clawing my way to some work and juggling the admin to stay in that work. I cannot apply for internal positions, I don’t get to participate in the “culture of lifelong learning”. I have no job security, no fixed office space, no permanent email address, no phone number. I am invisible, with no name on a door or profile on the web.
I beg for work from semester to semester, and constantly have to watch my words, actions and body language to avoid a career-ending slip-up. I’m not allowed to get angry, question decisions, or argue back. If I want to keep being teacher, I have to keep saying yes. That’s just how it is.
Wow. That's quite an insightful illustration of someone who teaches others is shut out of a system of power.

This marginalisation of voices in tertiary education is a growing global phenomenon. I feel that our educational systems of power have somehow got out of whack. Somehow education has started becoming more elite again, to those who hold the power in it: but now the voiceless person is the one who curates the coursework. As usual, the fat cats are getting fatter. 

Something needs to change: though I must confess I am baffled as to how we do that



  • Jones, C. P. (2014). Systems of power, axes of inequity: parallels, intersections, braiding the strands. Medical care, 52, S71-S75.
  • Jones, Robert (30 May 2010). Organizations as a system of power. Retrieved 23 April 2016 from 
  • Kritzer, A. H. (2008). Chapter 4: Systems of Power. In Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain. UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK. (pp. 123-153)
  • Peterson, V. S. (1994). Social hierarchies as systems of power. PS: Political Science & Politics, 27(04), 719-720.
  • The Guardian (22 April 2016). Academics Aynonymous: Working as a casual? Zip your lip and do as you're told. Retrieved 23 April 2016 from
  • Tolbert, Pamela S. & Hall, Richard H. (2015). Organizations: Structures, processes and outcomes (Tenth Edition). UK: Routledge.

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