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"Exploring the Foucauldian interpretation of power and subject in organizations"

by Välikangas, Anita; Seeck, Hannele (2011)


This paper assesses the recent contribution of Michel Foucault to the study of power and subject in organizations. First, we theoretically examine Foucault's thinking by dividing his works into archaeological, genealogical and aesthetic/ethical phases. We then conduct a review of 113 international journal articles from between the years 2000 and 2009. We do this in order to obtain an overview of the phases of Foucault's thinking that are prevalent in recent organization studies. We find that recent academic studies drawing on Foucault are increasingly leaning towards Foucault's writings on governmentality, as well as on his genealogical works, which have sustained their popularity. Reflecting the growing interest in governmentality and genealogy, we end by pointing out some avenues for future research.

Key Passage

According to the Foucauldian stance, it is essential to study ethics as a form of practices, i.e. what managers and workers actually do in their everyday activities (Clegg et al. 2007; Starkey & Hatchuel 2002). This viewpoint is very similar to the idea which Foucault expressed. He pointed out that in order to understand subjectivity, it was crucial to study practices: “[I]t is not enough to say that the subject is constituted in a symbolic system. […] It is constituted in real practices – historically analyzable practices” (Foucault 1997a, 277). Thus study ethics should not, according to Foucault, begin by an attempt to find some kind of ideal set of values which human beings take as a basis for their actions, but should instead emphasize that ethical subjectivity is formed only through individuals’ everyday actions and practices. However, it is not possible to examine the notion of the subject without taking into account the Foucauldian understanding of power. In his works, Foucault emphasized that he studied power mainly in order to understand and analyse various issues that it has an effect on. Most importantly, this meant that he was concerned with the formation of subjectivity: "Thus, it is not power, but the subject that is the general theme of my research", he underlined (Foucault 2000e, 327). Foucault emphasized that power is essentially relational, and that it is apparent only when it is exercised (Townley 1993). As a consequence, the main use and importance of power is shown by its effects, and especially by the way it forms and transforms individual subjects. Moreover, Foucault uses the notions of discourses, and the regimes of power/knowledge to demonstrate that power is a network which includes everyone (Feldman 1997). The Foucauldian view that power operates but cannot be owned has 14 implications for researching power in organizations. The focus shifts from questions like ‘Who uses the power?’ and ‘Through what formal channels?’ to examining the ways in which power operates in everyday organizational routines, is spoken about in everyday discourses, and is reproduced and exercised by the subjects over others and themselves. (p.13)


Foucault, Power, Subject, Organizations, Management, Organisational Studies


On Foucault, Foucault, Critical Management Studies, Organisation and Management Studies

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