Shifting Definitions of Power Discussion Paper


The Shifting Definitions of Power from Modern to Postmodern Thought

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There are certain things that we all know, but cannot describe: Love is one of these things, as is Power. Power, like Love, exercises a mysterious control over all human relationships, over all human endeavors. Every individual occupies a specific place relative to all other individuals. One is either equal to another, above another, or below another. These relations change with time. An interpersonal condition might be long-standing, or it might shift with every moment. We go up, and we go down. Power is ever in flux, and yet, the rules that govern its application appear so strangely inexorable. It is as if we are all subject to the same mysterious force, one that guides us, and prods, but which exists outside us all – a motive and emotive entity that cries out to make itself known. Many of the greatest minds in our human drama have attempted to lay hold of this ineffable energy, and to categorize it, and describe it. They have tried to know its rules, and to understand its function and operation. The triumph of science that began with the Modern Age appeared to promise the reduction of all things to sound and provable principals. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and others, suggested that power was quantifiable. All one needed to do was to uncover its secrets, and like a treasure hunter following a map, one would eventual reach the ultimate goal. The great sociologist, Max Weber, continued along these same lines of inquiry. His researches implied that human society was as scientific as any other aspect of the natural world – the Modern liked to think that human beings had, within their grasp, the totality of all knowledge. Having broken free from the old religious constraints, we could at last aspire to omniscience.

But as with all ages, the Modern one would prove to have, not only a beginning… But also an end. Michel Foucault would lead us back almost to where we began, setting men and women once again at the foot of the unreachable Tree of Knowledge. Eden, like all other Earthly paradises is always known, but never reached. What one age knows for certain, the next age certainly doubts. Does the definition of Power belong to the Modernists, or to the Postmodernists? And can we ever know?

Any attempt at classifying the definition of Power as Modern, or Postmodern, must necessarily begin with a definition of the two terms. Certainly, if there is a true definition of “Power” then there must also be clear statements of what it means to be Modern or Postmodern. You cannot compare anything without some way of making the comparison. There must be a standard. If Johnny is tall, then someone else must be short. If Bobby is shorter than Johnny does that mean he is short, or just not as tall Johnny? Of course, the whole thing would be a lot easier if we just had a definition for the word “tall.” Max Weber realized that Power too, was based upon assumptions of relativity. According to Weber, one’s relative power was directly related to one’s relative prestige:

The appropriate definition of occupational prestige is analytically parallel to Weber’s definition of power. In this view, the relative prestige of two occupations may be defined as the expectation that a member of one will give (or receive) deference from a member of the other. (Grusky 1994, 227)

If you receive deference, you are more powerful than the individual who gives you that deference. It all sounds so simple and straightforward. Max Weber’s definition of power as a matter of relative prestige is the Modernist Definition of Power… right? Yes, “right” if the author of this composition is solely responsible for defining a Modernist definition of anything vs. A Postmodernist definition of the same thing. Obviously, the problem is not to so clear cut, nor so easily resolved. The terms “Modern” and “Postmodern” are as much relative distinctions as those found to exist between the words “short” and “tall.” At bare minimum, a working definition of the terms “modern,” and “Postmodern” would probably hinge on the most common, generally, and widely accepted meanings of the two terms – but not necessarily.

However, much as Rene Descartes proclaimed, “I think therefore I am,” we too shall attempt a specific definition of our two terms of comparison. For the purposes of this essay, Modern and Postmodern shall refer to two distinct periods of time, and the most usual definition of Power that existed during each of these periods. Modern will be defined as the period of Max Weber, and Postmodern as the period of Foucault… Or something like that. For these two terms can be further refined into taking Modern to mean any idea of power that is like Weber’s, and any Postmodern as any idea that more closely resembles Michel Foucault’s. Refined by Nietzsche, Power is not mere prestige, rather it is domination.

Foucault expanded on Nietzsche’s idea, and determined that, “ideas themselves as the primary means by which such relationships are constituted.”

1990, 6) in a broader sense, the modern Era can be taken to mean the collection of ideas, and systems of thought current during the “old” industrial age. Specifically, this was the period during which heavy industry was concentrated in what is now the “First World” or technologically advanced countries of Australia, Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. Whereas the Postmodern Age can be said to correspond to the post-industrial, or Information Age economies and lifestyles of those same places today… that is, in the period following the Modern Era. The Postmodern Era began in the Late Twentieth Century, and continues at the present day. As we begin an analysis of the two ideas – Modern and Postmodern – it is interesting to note, as well, that a reluctance to fix the definition of either period is, in and of itself, a Postmodern tendency. The Postmodern emphasis on idea over content renders any hard and fast definition problematic.

For Weber, modernity was a particular set of ideas, and modes of thought that could, like any other collection of facts, possess a history; an evolution. Armed with such views in regard to modernity, Weber could trace the concept’s origins back even into Biblical Times. Weber’s studies of Old Testament Prophecy permitted him to formulate a kind of “prehistory” of the modern world. (Turner 1993, 34) Though not of themselves modern, the concepts embraced by the Judeo-Christian Bible clearly prefigured Weber’s own world. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and its refrain of the Survival of the Fittest, appeared to many Nineteenth, and early Twentieth, Century scholars to indicate that those ideas which were current today were current because they were – under the circumstances – the best possible ideas. And being the best possible ideas, they had naturally won out over their less successful competitors. In his earlier work, Max Weber associated nations with specific physical characteristics. These “national traits” informed the “national character” of the people. (Norkus 2004) in Darwinian terms, the physical characteristics of today evolved from pre-existing physical characteristics. And if a people’s character were closely linked to that people’s physical appearance – as Weber believed early on – then it made sense to conclude that national character was, as well, subject to the natural processes of evolution. That which was selected for success in the modern industrial world of the nation-state, was nevertheless, selected from among previously existing ideas and qualities – and as the world of the Bible was directly ancestral to his own Nineteenth Century World – the systems and patterns of today had clearly evolved from their Biblical antecedents.

The Modern World was a world of triumphant rationalism. Weber’s very discipline placed supreme faith in the notion that all existence could be reduced to theory and experiment. This was not to say that the sublime or Divine did not exist – rather it was an affirmation that even the apparently superhuman and supernatural operated according to the same general principles as the more easily knowable natural world. “Weber’s typology of rationality subsumes five important aspects of rationality which include (1) inductive inference, (2) causal attribution, (3) symbolic abstraction, (4) systematization of belief, and (5) rules of conduct.” (Tilman 2004) Vary the information that is put into any of these steps, and one will produce another variant of cultural and social development. It is all very much like the machines that had become so common in Weber’s Modern Age. Each part of the machine performs a very specific function, but it is possible to re-combine these parts in different ways to produce other machines that perform quite different functions – though not all of them may perform as satisfactorily. Such views depend on a belief in the un-changeability of the individual components. A piston, for example, possesses a description and list of specifications that is peculiar to itself. One might attempt to use that piston to perform some other work, and its performance may or may not be successful, but the actual thing – the “piston” – remains what it was before. Weber made appoint of recognizing that, even something so seemingly objective and abstract as the law, was, in reality, a substantive tool in the hands of judges and politicians. Judges are not “automata of paragraphs’ (Weber) because they are of necessity implicated in the values they are compelled to adjudicate. Substantive judgments and discretionary, extra-juristic evaluations are smuggled in under the camouflage of formal legal rationality.” (Baehr 2002) the law, as it was printed on the page, was objective – it always said the same thing. However, it was the various judges, each of whom brought to the bench a unique collection of experiences, who necessarily interpreted those words in different ways. All of this was thus, a completely natural and “scientific” process. Each part of the machine performed as it was supposed to – it just depended on how you assembled the machine.

One sign that is frequently taken as a hallmark of the Postmodern World is that world’s lack of self-assuredness; that world’s lack of confidence in an unalterable, and ever-existent, truth. Before multiculturalism, before the “Global Village,” and the Information Age, humankind was sure of its place in the universe. Max Weber’s fellow citizens were certain that a way could be found, a truth could be discovered, that would eventually form the underpinnings of a more perfect, and more efficient world. Yet, Michel Foucault was among those who made a shocking discovery: we do not all look at things in the same way. Yes, Weber had believed that the experiences of the individual colored his or her interpretation of the facts… still… those facts were real. What Foucault proposed – and what is now excepted by most Postmodern thinkers – is that everything is relative. There is no such thing as an absolute definition of anything! Foucault’s ideas apply particularly to his definition of power as “the possession of dominion over others”:

The thesis that there are no facts independent of interpretation, or real-world structures independent of discursive mediation the claim that different periods of Western thought have been ruled by radically different epistemes, the claim that all knowledge is essentially “powerknowledge” and is tied to non-discursive social structures, and claims relating to the explicitly local and regional nature of Foucault’s analysis which pertain also to the issue of the universality of knowledge.

(Olssen 1999, 75)

Power, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Foucault’s dominant individual exercises the quality of dominance not because his or characteristics automatically equate to a position of dominance given all of the other characteristics of his or her world, but because he or she assumes an appearance of power.

In the Postmodern World, money is frequently considers to be a source of power – the more money an individual or group has, the greater the power of that individual or group relative to others. While this idea would be generally agreed upon by most residents of postmodern, Information Age states, it would not necessarily be understood by residents of what postmodernists like to call “the Developing World,” nor would this idea have been readily comprehended by our own ancestors in pre-modern, pre-industrial Europe. Money equals power because money gives us the means to exert power and influence. “In addition to serving the role of capital, money is a store of value or, phrased alternatively, store of command. It allows people to enter an exchange without having instantaneously to obtain the commodity they wish to consume.” (Wennerlind 2001, 557) Money stands in for the naked physical force that in other situations would be necessary for the coercion of other people and groups. “Money, of course, is of paramount importance here, because it is the symbolic means by which this Hegelian master/slave experience is conveyed.” (Wennerlind 2001, 557) Postmodern Australians – those who reside in Australia’s cities and towns in the year 2005 – allow money (or the moneyed) to exercise dominion because money has come to represent the ability to command resources. Inherently money has no power at all – it is so many pieces of paper – but in the Postmodern World, those who command the most money, command the most of everything else. All in all, this would have seemed very strange to, say, an English peasant of the Twelfth Century. He did not often see or use money, and his subservient position – that of serf – was not based on the fact that his lord – the dominator – possessed greater reserves of money than himself. Instead, the serf’s lord exercised dominion i.e. The lord commanded power, because he literally possessed the physical force to protect the serf. It was by means of his warlike capabilities that the lord won his right to command others. and, if one were to look at that century’s approximation of our money, one would have to look to the land that was owned by the lord, for inevitably, a lord needed land to support men-at-arms. It was exactly his insufficiency of land that prevented the peasant from commanding men-at-arms, and which thereby, placed him at risk of attack by other peasants and lords. The medieval serf surrendered his freedom in order that he might live.

The medieval concept of power as a lord/serf dichotomy causes us to look more deeply that the meaning of the concept of power in the Postmodern World.

Michel Foucault suggests that to understand the meaning and operation of power in modern society, we must look beyond the model of power as “sovereignty,” a relation between ruler and subject, and instead analyze the exercise of power as the effect of often liberal and “humane” practices of education, medicine, bureaucratic administration, production and distribution of consumer goods, and so on.

(Young 1995, 67)

In other words, for Foucault – the quintessential Postmodernist – the definition of power is to be found in the sum of all those people, ideas, and things that go into the Postmodern World. The very fact that Postmodern Australians value money as one of the keys of domination is because everything in their society guides them toward that logical conclusion. At heart, it is a very different notion from that espoused by Max Weber. Weber would have us believe (and the Australians too) that money inevitably occupies the position it occupies because no other result would be possible given the relationship of all the “facts of life” in the Postmodern World. Things could have been different, but they are not. However, Michel Foucault would argue that the importance of money is a kind of chimera that has taken hold of most Postmodern Australians. It is a thing of absolutely no inherent value except that everyone and everything lives – school, economy, government, family – has insisted not only that it possess a very real value, but that it must possess the value it currently possesses. It is a little like our friend Descartes one day deciding to say, “I think therefore I am not” – would M. Descartes then cease to exist? Would the world around him cease to exist? One is tempted immediately to answer, “No, of course not.” but, is it not possible that all the cosmos is held together merely because we believe it to be held together, and in such-and-such a form? Can anyone get inside another individual’s head to know how she or he genuinely sees the world? No. Not one among us, according to Foucault, possesses the ability to see reality through the eyes of another. For all any of us knows, what Individual #1 sees as blue, Individual #2 sees as what Individual #1 calls brown. A disturbing thought certainly, but one that is essential to understanding the Postmodern conception of truth. Power is what each of us believes it to be – and nothing more… Or less. After all, a young child – even a Postmodern Australian child – does not recognize the “inherent” power of money. For a five-year-old girl, “power” might consist of controlling access to the best video game on the block. If another little girl were to gain possession of that game, would she not be “the most powerful on the block”?

Rarely do most of us stop to consider how much of our world consists of individual impressions and perceptions. The Postmodern World – that which we agreed would consist of post-industrial, information age nations that had formerly been industrial nations – is a world that has grown smaller than any that has ever existed (at least so far as we know). Technology has brought each one of us into closer contact with people from all over the globe. Communications that once took months now occur in an instant. The “other world” of China, India, or America, is now visible to us at the press of a button. We can travel there, and they can travel here, in the space of twenty-four hours or less. People with very different lifestyles, societies, and cultures regularly interact. Their histories – both personal and national – are often very different from our own. They bring a range of experiences to their individual worldviews; experiences that might cause them to see things in a markedly different way from our own way of looking at things. All those ideas of which we were so certain are now just matters of opinion – at least that is how I would describe the difference between power in the Modern World, and power in the Postmodern World.

Works Cited

Baehr, Peter. 2002. In the Grip of Freedom: Law and Modernity in Max Weber. Canadian Journal of Sociology 27, no. 4: 587+. Database online. Available from Questia, Accessed 4 June 2005.

1990. The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Grusky, David B., ed. 1994. Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Norkus, Zenonas. 2004. Max Weber on Nations and Nationalism: Political Economy before Political Sociology. Canadian Journal of Sociology 29, no. 3: 389+. Database online. Available from Questia, Accessed 4 June 2005.

Olssen, Mark. 1999. Michel Foucault: Materialism and Education. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Tilman, Rick. 2004. Karl Mannheim, Max Weber and the Problem of Social Rationality in Thorstein Veblen. Journal of Economic Issues 38, no. 1: 155+. Database online. Available from Questia, Accessed 4 June 2005.

Turner, Bryan S. 1993. Max Weber: From History to Modernity. London: Routledge.

Wennerlind, Carl. 2001. Money Talks, but What Is it Saying? Semiotics of Money and Social Control. Journal of Economic Issues 35, no. 3: 557. Database online. Available from Questia, Accessed 4 June 2005.

Young, Iris M.arion. 1995. “5Five Faces of Oppression.” In Multiculturalism from the Margins: Non-Dominant Voices on Difference and Diversity, ed. Harris, Dean a.:65-86. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.


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