IV. Clegg's Circuits of Power

Clegg's circuits of power is based in specific ways in Foucault's theories of power, knowledge, and resistance (Foucault, 1979, 1980, 1986, and 1988). For Foucault, power has human agency in power relationships that arise when one's actions affect the actions of others (Patton, 1998: 66). And all social relations, including work relations, are for Foucault, inevitably power relationships.

To understand Clegg's model as more than abstractions requires we look at how Foucault differentiates power, power over, and domination. Power means that human A's action affects the field of possible actions of B's field of action, and vice versa (e.g. advice, moral support, skill or knowledge training). Power over (a concept we will revisit below in Follett's work) occurs when A modifies the field of B (and it may or may not be in B's best interests). Domination does not allow A or B to alter their power strategy. Rather, A and B are complicit in a mechanism of domination. An example is Bentham's Panopticon, a tower of control with asymmetric visibility built into the structure. Another example is the fixed positions of traditional family structures or even corporate structures where no reversal of the situation of power relations is possible. (See Patton, 1998: 66-69 for an excellent review.)

Clegg's circuits of power constitute a "discursive field of force" socially constructed by human agency by virtue of organizing (1989: 17). Power moves in three dimensions, through three distinct and interacting circuits. Clegg seeks to open up the everyday machinery of power for our inspection. Such inspection reveals that the process of organizing involves techniques of discipline and production, which act as sources of both empowerment and disempowerment at the macro level of the model (see Figure1). The model contains three levels, two of them macro and one micro. Next we will discuss each of these levels, beginning with the micro level.

Figure 1 Diagram of Clegg's Circuits of Power


1. EPISODIC - Episodes of day to day interaction, work, and outcomes whether positive or negative. 


2. DISPOSITIONAL- Socially constructed rules, membership categories (us/them),and mental maps or blueprints. 

1. FACILITATIVE - Systems of rewards and punishment (disciplinary mechanisms) and the the materiality of technology, job design, and networks.

The Episodic Circuit The episodic circuit is the most micro level of day-to-day interaction, work, and outcomes (which can be positive or negative). Interpersonal episodes, including how people handle conflict, communication, and feelings, constitute this circuit. This level is characterized by the day-to-day rhythm of routine work, which can foster a disengaged and rote way of responding. At this level we see the "intermittent exercise of power" (Clegg, 1989: 187). Since "power always involves power over another and thus at least two agencies, episodic power will usually call forth resistance because of the power/knowledge nature of agency" (p. 208).

The Dispositional Circuit The middle level of the model (also a macro level), is the dispositional circuit, where rules socially construct meanings and membership relations. This circuit contains us/them dynamics, and mental maps or blueprints. Rules are fixed and re-fixed, and meanings are stabilized, through social integration (Clegg, 1989:233). Authority is legitimated at this level. "Rules of practice are at the center of any stabilization or change of the circuitry. Through them, all traffic must pass" (p. 215).

The Facilitative Circuit Also at the macro level, the facilitative circuit is comprised of systems of reward and punishment (disciplinary mechanisms). Through the materiality of technology, job design, environmental contingencies, and networks, the facilitative circuit is "a major conduit of variation in the circuits of power" (Clegg, 1989:233). Innovations in technology, and changes in disciplinary mechanisms in this facilitative circuit, will empower or disempower the capacity for agency in the episodic circuit. An example of this is the de-skilling of work, which disempowers certain workers while potentially empowering others.

Obligatory Passage Points Obligatory passage points are at the junctures where the three levels (or circuits) of power interact. The circuits are interdependent, and the obligatory passage points are the channels for empowerment and disempowerment. The complexity of obligatory passage points, and the ways they can result in both empowerment and disempowerment, is reflected in Clegg's (1989) example of medical doctors and shop assistants. "Control of extant obligatory passage points, as by doctors in hospitals, will serve to reproduce institutionally system-transforming change in empowering rather than disempowering ways. For shop assistants, however, who are merely traffic through conduits controlled elsewhere, the impact of 'new technology' is by no means so empowering" (p. 233).

To give a sense of how the model operates, we first offer the following example. Crozier's (1964) study of the tobacco industry demonstrated that even in a bureaucratic system with its rigid rules and disciplinary practices, there were mechanisms of resistance for maintenance workers. These workers modified the plant's equipment so that they held exclusive knowledge (i.e. not in the manuals) of the machinery. "Their resistance was premised upon the obligatory nature of their knowledge to the realization of everyone else's disciplined power within the system" (Clegg, 1989:236). In other words, the maintenance workers had knowledge control over a circuit of power, an obligatory passage point (non-written maintenance knowledge of the equipment) upon which the enterprise managers depended. These workers influenced Clegg's macro level (the facilitative circuit's) technology of production. This change increased relative empowerment within the organization, reaching from the facilitative circuit to both of the other two circuits. They altered the dispositional circuit by changing the meaning of what it was to be a maintenance worker. These changes affected the workers' power in the episodic circuit, in their day-to-day interaction and control over work resources and outcomes. These actions allowed the workers to negotiate more freedoms and wage concessions. If workers control obligatory passageways, such as in this case of the maintenance workers in Crozier's tobacco plants, then empowerment can result. But, changes in technology can also disempower, when skills are no longer requisite to system performance and survival.If we take the case of whistle-blowers in organizations, we see that the whistle-blower has some access to power through their own job role, reflecting the facilitative circuit. This knowledge is subject to fixed relationships (authority relationships) in the dispositional circuits, which act to discipline and constrain action. The act of whistle-blowing may be seen as an attempt to resist the episodic circuits of power. In a similar vein, Clegg uses the example of inmates in a prisoner of war or extermination camp, demonstrating why attempts to resist the episodic circuits are usually doomed to failure, due to limitations in certain kinds of knowledge and also limitations in opportunities to organize concerted action. Thus it is almost impossible for the individual to effectively oppose the concerted organizational action which is the essence of episodic power (Clegg, 1989:220-223). This reminds us again of the significance of worker organizations and democratization efforts.


Press Left Arrow to go Back or Right Arrow to see Section V.

This paper proceeds From Title/Abstract  through 7 steps: (1) briefly reviewing the current empowerment-disempowerment debate; (2) contextualizing Mary Parker Follett's work with a review of the democratic workplace movements of Marxist socialism, trade unionism, guilds, cooperatives, and non-union workers' councils; (3) discussing Follett's theory of co-active power circularity, with its roots in Hegel's and Dewey's philosophy; (4) summarizing Clegg's circuits of power theory; (5) combining Follett's power-as-capacity concept with Clegg's circuits of power in an assimilative reading we term "co-power," which can move us beyond today's empowerment-disempowerment duality; (6) drawing implications for organizational development and change practices regarding co-power as a way of linking micro and macro issues; and (7) offering conclusions regarding co-power as a way of increasing the effectiveness of organizational change efforts. (And References).