Hayward: ‘De-facing Power’

Art work by Raul LeonFor some thinkers about power the ‘three faces’ are unhelpful, either because power is ultimately assumed to be held by actors, or because the agency/structure divide is itself seen as misleading in trying to understand power. Clarissa Hayward (1998), writing about power in the public education system in the United States, offers a critique of Lukes in which she argues for ‘de-facing power’ – questioning the idea that power in an instrument used by the powerful to limit the freedom of the powerless. This view diverts attention, she argues, from the ways in which we are all socialised into our identities, choices and actions, determining the limits we experience to our freedom. Drawing on Foucault’s ideas, for Hayward

‘Power’s mechanisms are best conceived, not as instruments powerful agents use to prevent the powerless from acting freely, but rather as social boundaries that, together, define fields of action for all actors. Power defines fields of possibility. It facilitates and constrains social action. Its mechanisms consist in laws, rules, norms, customs, social identities, and standards that constrain and enable inter- and intra-subjective action… Freedom enables actors to participate effectively in shaping the boundaries that define for them the field of what is possible’ (1998: 12)

Rather than worrying about who has or does not have power, Hayward proposes that we focus on ‘whether the social boundaries defining key practices and institutions produce entrenched differences in the field of what is possible’ (1998: 20). She argues for critical examination not of actors and their actions, but of the unquestioned social norms which underpin possibilities for action. But she does not dismiss agency: to challenge power involves taking action to shift the boundaries of what is considered possible.

In her most specific challenge of the ‘three faces’, Hayward questions the idea that power is necessarily ‘exercised’ in an exchange between two actors or groups (1998: 16). In contrast, she finds that ‘the field of what is socially possible can be shaped at a distance’ by events and historical trends that are not explicitly intended to affect a given group (1998: 18). She gives the example of urban African-Americans workers marginalised ‘at a distance’ by an earlier generation of industrial decision-makers and an historical legacy of discrimination. The absence of a connection or interaction is also a form of power’s exercise; so ‘analysing and criticizing power relations requires looking beyond the distribution of political resources and their intended use in interaction’ (1998: 18).

One reason many of us tend to accept the idea of the deliberate exercise of power ‘with a face’, according to Hayward, is that it allows us to assume that the powerful are acting on the basis of their free and conscious choice to dominate others, giving us a kind of ‘moral closure’ and someone to ‘point a finger at’ (1998: 14). But this also prevents us from noticing how powerful people’s actions are just as socially conditioned as those of the powerless. Drawing on Foucault, she is hesitant to draw a line between agency and structure, because ultimately all actions and structures are in some way conditioned by socialized norms, identities and knowledge.

At the same time, Hayward is clear that she maintains ‘a belief in both the possibility of human agency and the value of relative autonomy’, and does not disagree normatively with Lukes or other proponents of power as agency. However, she believes that a more strategic understanding of power is needed in order to focus on shifting the underlying social constraints to freedom, and on identifying people’s differential abilities to affect these constraints (1998: 20). Action on power relations is directed at capacities to affect the boundaries, rather than at the behaviour of actors:

‘Freedom… is the capacity to participate effectively in shaping the social limits that define what is possible… Critical questions about how power shapes freedom are not, then reducible to questions about distribution and individual choice. Rather, they are questions about the differential impact of social limits to human action on people’s capacities to participate in directing their lives and in shaping the conditions of their collective existence’ (1998: 22).

The practical and political implications of this critique are for a shift in focus along a possible ‘spectrum’ of power, moving away from overt forms of domination and toward the relative capacity for action on the norms and boundaries that make this possible. In relation to the powercube, the implications are (a) to downplay the first two ‘forms of power’; (b) to analyse those instances of invisible power that are more unconscious and internalized by social norms (rather than intentional); and (c) to pursue strategies that enable people to better recognise and challenge these boundaries.

There is an interesting synergy here with the Power Spectrum, a framework we adapted from the powercube to highlight and question the tendency of some NGO initiatives to over-emphasise action on intentional forms of ‘power over’ and domination, and to miss important opportunities to strengthen people’s capacities to question and challenge internalised and socialised norms.

Hayward’s critique draws heavily on the concepts of power put forward by Foucault, who saw domination as ‘only one form of power relation’ – defined mainly by the limited room for manoeuvre to change that power relation (Hayward 1998:21) – and this kind of domination can only occur against a broader reality in which power is pervasive or ‘ubiquitous’.

References for further reading

Hayward, Clarissa Rile (1998) De-Facing Power, Polity 31(1).

Hayward, Clarissa Rile (2000) De-facing Power, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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