29 December 2005

Information, Knowledge, Power and Trust

Jo-Jo, one of my commenters, asked, “Is information really power? I think people and corporations try to control information flows because they believe they gain leverage by knowing stuff other people don't know, but this argument doesn't scan for me. My own opinion is that one has more power when one is transparent and honest.

In 1959, Bertram Raven and John French proposed six bases of power, a model that Raven has updated and further differentiated. (French & Raven, 1959; Raven, 1992) In traditional, hierarchical organizations, power is typically aligned with status, so that one’s superior has the power of reward and coercion by virtue of his or her position – legitimate power. Particularly in organizations in which technical knowledge is valued, expertise is a basis of power, as is the control of information, as noted by Alberts and Hayes (2003). Conventionally, reward, coercion, and legitimate power are delegated by the organization. Expert and information power are generally assumed by an individual of their own accord. However, referent power differs from other forms, as it must be granted by subordinates to the person so empowered. It is therefore the most elusive of the six forms, both to initially acquire and to retain. It is born of respect, admiration, and role modeling (Raven, 1992), and perhaps most important, trust.

There is, of course, the old adage that “knowledge is power.” Some take this to mean that possessing knowledge is a path to power, and making a case for staying in school. Others interpret this cliché as meaning that knowledge is a scarce resource; he who has the knowledge has power over s/he who has not. In his landmark work, Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault makes the case that power is not something that one possesses, but is instead something that flows between one who exercises control and another who resists that control. Indeed, power and knowledge are intimately related in Foucault's construction of human relations. He considers power to be a flow that is created when control meets resistance in the “subjectification” of humankind. As Foucault relates history from the seventeenth century to contemporary times, the techniques of control have changed, from “discipline-blockade” to “discipline-mechanism” (1979) to “biopower” (1980). In each instance, the objective is the same: to change the human actor in such a way so as to ensure compliance and conformity with normative structures of behaviour in the context of geographically- and temporally-located social relations. Munro (2000) maintains that, at each age, new forms of power can be detected through the emergence of new forms of resistance. But what happens to power if the nature of resistance itself is turned on its head, a consequence of contemporary societal reversals effected by a communication revolution?

Both control and resistance presume the existence of a system or organization structure within which control/resistance operates and knowledge of the domain of control is revealed. With the “rise of the network society,” and the emergence of “network enterprises” (Castells, 1996), I argue that the traditional bounded domain of control/resistance ultimately breaks down. I suggest that the result of this morphological shift is potentially the emergence of a post-Foucauldian environment in which control dissipates and power paradoxically exists everywhere and nowhere.

Most of the above was from a recent, as-yet unpublished working paper called, “You’re Not the Boss of Me! Control, trust and the knowledge worker.” (If you’d like a copy, please email me.) I maintain that referent power is the only form of power that is appropriate for, and actually effective in, a UCaPP* world. Further (again from the working paper) power deciphered in a true network of relations founded on mutual trust is no longer in tension. Rather, it permeates the entire environment, paradoxically existing everywhere among all nodes, and nowhere as there is no domination differential among the nodes, and hence no Foucauldian power flow. In the absence of trust, there must be mechanisms of control within an organization or social system. With control, there is resistance, be it explicit or tacit. The tension between the two represents the flow of power, through which humans become subjects, and knowledge about the nature and conditions of that subjectification in the social context emerges. In the context of a network enterprise founded on a culture of trust, control dissipates, leaving power to become pervasively embodied in each “node” or individual. This, too, represents new knowledge about the nature and conditions of a new social context.
*UCaPP = Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate

ALBERTS, D.S. & HAYES, R.E. (2003). Power to the Edge: Command... control... in the information age. Command and Control Research Program, U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved from http://www.dodccrp.org/publications/pdf/Alberts_Power.pdf.
CASTELLS, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
FOUCAULT, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
FOUCAULT, M. (1980). The history of sexuality (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
FRENCH, J.R.P., Jr. & RAVEN, B.H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power, (pp. 150-167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.
MUNRO, I. (2000). Non-disciplinary power and the network society. Organization, 7(4), 679-695.
RAVEN, B.H. (1992). A power/interaction model of interpersonal influence: French and Raven thirty years later. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7(2), 217-244.
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1 comment:

jo_jo said...

Wow! Thanks, Mark! You're really good at answering questions. Brace yourself for more inane ranting from me in 2006.