Monthly Archives: December 2013

The notion of power relations and why it is a central component of critical evaluation

The notion of power relations and why it is a central component of critical evaluation.

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The notion of power relations and why it is a central component of critical evaluation


The epistemological ground of social research developed, in part, as a legitimated form of knowledge about the universality of the western individual – produced by, and for those in power (Foucault, 1980). As a result, social research itself is a relation of power that produces – and is produced by – individual theoretical perspectives (Foucault, 1977) Thusly, Critical social psychology acknowledges and focuses on the datum that all knowledge is socially constructed, and historically situated (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Furthermore, social psychologists understand that different perspectives and methodologies produce social formations that restrict culturally specific forms of knowledge (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Therefore, exploring some of the substantive topics that social psychology concerns itself with can highlight interrogative themes – such as situated knowledge and power relations (Holloway, 2005). Thusly, this allows one to step back from the information and begin to understand how these power relations came to be, and how they are linked to the wider forces that create and sustain the production of power (Motzkau, J., 2012). This essay aims to look at different power relations, why they are so important and how they are constantly changing by critically evaluating topics of research within social psychology (Motzkau, J., 2012).

The contemporary methodologies and perspectives used in recent times were borne out of the social psychology crisis in circa 1967, in part, due to the American social psychologist Kenneth Ring (1967) who published an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled; ‘Experimental social psychology: some sober questions about some frivolous values’. Thusly, Kenneth Ring (1967) pointed out the shortcomings in social psychology and – in particular – experimental psychology and how it fostered a dehumanising vision of participants and ignored real world settings. Subsequently, what followed was criticism based on the scientific method, which was – for a long time during, and after the behaviourist period – considered the only valid means of obtaining objective neutral knowledge, unaffected by ideology and cultural embeddedness (Simpson & Dovidio, 2013). Conversely, experimental psychologists view was that scientific research made it possible to get at the facts; facts that were considered as accurate, irrespective of politics, values, ideology or cultural embeddedness (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). As a result, the scientific basis of experimental social psychology was considered to be impervious to, and unaffected by, ideology (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005).

Subsequently, due to the foucauldian notion of reciprocity in the relationship between social psychological research and the social world it investigates; there is affirmation that research questions could be influenced by social, political and historical contexts, as much as they are being influenced by the findings from said research (Lemke, 2002). Thusly, this is due to the ontological nature that an individual socially constructs their being in relation to the constant dynamicity of ever changing knowledge (Hollway, 2005). Therefore, due to the circuitous nature of the production of knowledge, epistemologically – social psychology can be shaped by – but also directly contribute to – continuously re-shaping the lived realities of those it investigates (Hollway, 2005). Thusly, the relationship between social psychology and its subject area can be referred to as a powerful ‘two way dynamic’ (Hollway, 2005). Contextually, this can facilitate the extraction of power relations that can be present where knowledge is constructed, generated and dissipated (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Furthermore, power relations, and reciprocal dynamics, are considered to be ubiquitous, and thusly, unavoidable and constantly changing (Langdridge, 2005). It is in this sense that power itself is considered to be neither good ‘nor’ bad; but merely producing effects, which can be positive in the production of extracting value judgements (Motzkau, J., 2012). Therefore, one can critically evaluate the effects that power produces in relation to specific contexts providing value judgements (Motzkau, J., 2012). This in turn, can serve as a function on whether these effects may be good or bad – and for whom (Hollway, 2005).

Incidentally, looking at the topic of embodiment and the self can start to draw out issues of power relations (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). For example, Foucault’s examination of the effects that power relations had on individual’s bodies, resulted in his theory of the ‘docile body’ (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Consequently, the docile subject has no capacity for resistance, and is subject to the power of the state (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Moreover, Foucault saw subjectification as a dual process that operated both; externally, and internally, as a process through which individuals make themselves subjects of state regulation (Foucault, 1973). Thusly, the construction of subjectivity is constantly in flux, and it is not something that the individual formulates or conceives, but stems from ‘taken-for-granted’ normalizations, which create patterns, found within culture, society and social settings (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005).

As a result of the docile body, Foucault (1990) developed the idea of the ‘reflexive subject’ through which power is exercised, rather than possessed – and its functions are multiple and verbose. Thusly, it can be viewed as productive, as well as repressive, and where power exists, resistance is inevitable (Foucault, 1982). Contrastingly, following this formulation – instead of operating as an oppressive force exercised over individuals – power operates in relations between individuals and groups (Otto, 1999). Furthermore, relational power circulates in discursive networks like chains through the whole social structure (Otto, 1999). Also, Foucault explained the intimate operations of power within the individual in what he termed ‘care of the self’.

Accordingly, discourses construct particular versions of how people should be, how they should act, how they should look, and creates a demarcated line of normality for which to gauge anything that deviates from that standardized normalization (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Essentially, this can have certain effects, both advantageous, and disadvantageous (Westmarland, 2001). Applied to the body, discourses defining a ‘normal body’ get taken up as ‘truths’, which then invalidate other accounts that deviate from what is constituted as normal (Foucault, 1980). A discourse on able-bodied people being ‘normal’, for instance, has the effect of constituting disabled bodies as somehow abnormal, unattractive and to be pitied or avoided (Foucault, 1977). Furthermore, by presenting heterosexuality as natural and normative, it automatically delineates homosexuality as some sort of deviance (Foucault, 1980). Some of these binaries, such as homosexuality and transgenderism have brought about the theoretical development known as queer theory (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005).

Foucault establishes standards of ‘normality’ as discourses people soak up unsuspectingly and this is why medical recognition and diagnostic testing are so important to people who suffer from controversial conditions (as cited in Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). If the experience of illness is not legitimated and labelled through a medical diagnosis, it is difficult to explain to others and have the illness socially and medically accepted (Horton-Salway, 1998). For example, individual’s suffering from illness are often keen to pursue a proper diagnostic test that will prove without doubt the existence of the illness (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). The ongoing pursuit of a positive test is linked to a need to fit the gold standard of proof as defined by dominant discourses of empirical science; a need to be prototypically categorized (Foucault, 1980). Furthermore, disciplinary regimes such as medicine and psychiatry generate languages of description and explanation where one learns to classify themselves and view their bodies as normal or abnormal, healthy or unhealthy, sane or mad, fat or thin, and so on (Foucault, 1980). Thusly, classification of oneself creates the construction of ‘binaries’ and the potential for ‘othering’ and marginalization, which gave birth to queer theory as mentioned in the above paragraph (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Subsequently, individuals are inclined to think that practitioners and doctors know what is best for them, thusly, they are passively handing over their bodies to the control of medical experts (Langdridge, 2005).

Conversely, phenomenology offers a framework for the study of experience from the perspective of the individual. Thusly, epistemologically the discipline is concerned with discovering and understanding the meaning of an individual’s lived experience, and is driven by a desire to understanding subjective experience, gaining insights into people’s motivations and actions, and cutting through the clutter of taken’for’granted assumptions and conventional wisdom (Lester, 1999). Phenomenological theories of embodiment have been concerned in distinguishing between the various essentialist physiological and biological causalities that structure bodily existence, and the meaning that embodied experience assumes in the context of lived experience (Butler, 1986). Drawing on the phenomenology of French philosopher, Merleau-Ponty (1945), Butler (1986) explained that, rather than viewing bodily experience from an essentialist perspective, Merleau-Ponty (1945) claimed that the body is a ‘historical idea’ rather than a ‘natural species’ (Butler, 1986). From this perspective, the body can be understood as being in an active process of embodying certain historical and cultural possibilities, and that this complicated process is one, which any phenomenological theory of embodiment needs to describe (Dyson, 2007).

Thusly, phenomenologists support the use of qualitative evidence, but fundamentally take issue with what they see as the relegation of actual bodily experience (Finley & Landridge, 2005). For them, meaning originates not in discourses but in lived experience and only through this is it possible to understand what it means to have and be a body, to be sick, in pain, and oppressed (Finley & Landridge, 2005). Furthermore, phenonemologists took note that Foucault spent a great deal of time writing about the body, as opposed to studying the individual’s actual bodily experiences when it came to issues such as sexuality, oppression and illness (Finley & Landridge, 2005). In particular, phenomenologists disagree with Foucault’s assertion that there is nothing meaningful outside discourse and that what passes for truth about the body is only the knowledge that has been accepted in society (Finley & Landridge, 2005). For example, Foucauldian discourse deals exclusively with production of language and classifications that marginalise the individual and there is no particular acknowledgement of the individual’s lived world; their subjective and objective issues emotionally and physically whilst dealing with certain health issues (Finley & Landridge, 2005).

Incidentally, an existential-phenomenological method was used with the aim of describing the lifeworld of an individual with multiple sclerosis (MS) (Giorgi, 1985; Valle and Halling, 1989). Importantly, the individual’s illness is confronted in the context and of family connections and other relationships. In other words, the individual will describe what limitations they are faced with – intersubjectively within the social realms of their life (Finley & Landridge, 2005). Furthermore, the individual’s experience of having/being a body with MS cannot be separated from their world. Thusly, the multiple sclerosis is in the individual; it has become embodied; intersubjective with relations with others (Finlay, 2003). As Merleau-Ponty has famously explained: ‘There is no inner man [sic] … Man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself’ (as cited in Finley & Landridge, 2005).

By conducting a between – analysis of phenomenological and the discursive psychological perspectives they co-exist to a certain extent in the sense that the methodologies are qualitative and essentially about the agentic individual being able to make their own decisions (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). As Harre (1990) noted, both approaches take people to be active agents, who attempt to realise, together with others, plans, projects and intentions according to the rules and norms of the local society. However, contrast arises due to the phenomenologist approach focusing more on the ontological assumption that information is gained through the individual’s lifeworld (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Whereas, the discursive perspective is more about how social norms are produced from language and how these social norms come to be valued as normative assumptions (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005). Ultimately, the two perspectives mentioned can somewhat co-exist to offer a more enlightening picture of theoretical questions being asked and the different methodologies used that each provide different sources of knowledge (Finlay & Langdridge, 2005).

In conclusion, the construct of power is difficult to define, measure, and test (Finley & Landridge, 2005). However, it is far too important to ignore or relegate to mere theoretical speculations (Foucault, 1990). So, it must be studied and looked at contextually; especially as power relations and situated knowledges are dynamically established relationships (Hollway, 2005). Thusly, the question of who has the power to interpret people’s experience applies to all social psychological research (Hollway, 2005). Moreover, it is a political and ethical question, as it involves the process of giving meaning to events and accounts, it is researchers who evaluate them (Hollway, 2005). Consequently, since it is impossible to avoid this process of researcher evaluation, there is a need to be careful when basing interpretations on evidence (Finley & Landridge, 2005). Also, the research process must interrogate how specific evidence and the meanings from that evidence came to be produced and within what assumptions and power relations (Hollway, 2005). It is of paramount importance to hold in mind the many levels at which power relations operate when topics are situated historically and critically (Hollway, 2005).


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