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Many social theorists address relationships of power, including Karl-Marx, Max Weber , Audre Lorde, and Michel Foucault,  


Karl-Marx address power as it pertains to class relationships, rather than individual relationships or institutions.  He simplifies (some would argue over-simplifies) class relationships into essentially two categories -those who have capital, and those who don't.  More specifically, class domination occurs when one group of individuals has access to private property and to the means of production.  This dominant class not only has material power through control of the means of production, but it also has power through the production of ideology, or how and what we think.


Foucault, in his piece Power as Knowledge, defines power as a multiplicity of force relations that is diffused throughout all of society.  Foucault argues that power is an infinite series of relationships that can never be put into a fixed category, which is very different from the tradition view of power as institutional, or as top-down. In his vision, power relationships are not static. They are "continual variations" or "matrices of transformation". Therefore, in a Foucauldian perspective, power cannot be simplified into those who have it and those who do not. Power is everywhere. Even knowledge and truth itself are permeated by power relationships. Nothing escapes power or is outside of some sort of power.


Foucault also argues that "where there is power, there will be resistance" (Lemmert, 467).  Foucault posits that resistance exists within power, not simply as an exterior reaction to it. Resistance is not a singular movement or objection, but a multiplicity of loci within the power relationship.


Although Foucault conceptualizes power as ubiquitous, it is not merely incidental, but calculated.  He writes that power relations are intentional, nonsubjective, and exercised with a series of aims and objectives.  However, these objectives cannot be easily traced back to individuals or institutions. Rather these objectives are generated by comprehensive systems of power (Le


Foucault presents four rules that guide power relations:

  • Rule of Immanence- power moves within every relationship, system, institution and society
  • Rule of Continual Variations- power is constantly transforming itself
  • Rule of Double Conditioning- systems of power do not merely reflect, but SUPPORT one another (intersectionality)
  • Rule of the Tactical Polyvalence of Discourses- various discourses construct power and resistance. Each discourse may serve more than one purpose, even achieve contradictory aims.


A large part of Foucault's epistemology is examining discourses in society in order to understand how power is produced. Foucault also critiques the universalistic epistemologies of The Enlightenment in his essay "What is Enlightenment?" Foucault's preferred methodology is a more genealogical approach that examines specific discourses in specific contexts rather than making broad claims about humanity itself.


Audre Lorde and Foucault are in the same thread of thought that sees power as reproduced through discourse, ideology, and knowledge, but Lorde is generally more focused on the oppressive aspects of power, herself speaking from the position of a black lesbian woman.  Her crititques of white middle class feminism get at the heart of her theories about power - who has it, who doesn't, and how it works.  She criticizies traditional white feminist scholarship for using the same hierarchical systems of thought that are utilized by the patriarchy, systems of thought which ignore difference and essentialize experience.  She argues that by ignoring the vastly different experiences of women, the voices of marginalized women are rendered silent, and their domination and oppression is allowed to continue.  Absence and silence are products of power.


Comments (1)

Nina said

at 3:52 pm on Dec 10, 2008

Power is ubiquitous. It lives in the ways that we speak, gesture, and how we live. It comes from below and not from above. It comes from relationships and in discourse. It is changing and changeable and transforming.

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