Monday, September 3, 2012

Power and Agency

Among interacting agents, a disparity of discursive skills, or a disparity in knowledge about rules of formal discourse, can easily lead to a structuration of domination during those occasions and in those settings in which discourses are expected.  In most day-to-day contexts of interaction, a disparity of skills and resources among the agents exists, and thus more often than not, domination structures are reproduced.

For Anthony Giddens, what is more significant is the logical conjunction of the notion of human agency and that of power.  He writes:

“Action intrinsically involves the application of ‘means’ to achieve outcomes, brought about through the direct intervention of an actor in a course of events, ‘intended action’ being a sub-class of the actor’s doing or refraining from doing; power represents the capacity of the agent to mobilize resources to constitute those ‘means.’  In this most general sense, ‘power’ refers to the transformative capacity of human action.” (New Rules)

For Giddens, the understanding of power as domination is narrower than his general conception of power as transformative capacity.  Furthermore, in his view, “the relation between power and conflict is a contingent one.” He continues:

“If power and conflict frequently go together, it is not because the one logically implies the other, but because power is linked to the pursuance of interests, and people’s interests may fail to coincide…Power is a feature of every form of human interaction, division of interest is not.” (New Rules).

For Giddens, the reproduction of a domination structure during interaction does not necessarily imply that there exists a conflict of interests among the interacting agents.  There are contexts when the interests of a dominant person (or group) and a dependent person (or group) do coincide, and although such contexts are perhaps less common than not, they can be significant enough not only for sociological analysis but also for anticipating social changes.

For Giddens, “power relations are relations of autonomy and dependence, but even the most autonomous agent is in some degree dependent, and the most dependent actor or party in a relationship retains some autonomy” (Central Problems).  All forms of dependence make some resources available to subordinates for influencing the activities of their superiors.  Giddens calls this notion the dialectic of control in systems of interaction.

Giddens’ conception of the dialectic of control recognizes that power relations are not constant-sum games.  Social power is not a fixed quantity that gets divided between the interacting parties so much so that when one party becomes more powerful the other party becomes weaker correspondingly.

The dialectic of control is open to a wide range of possible effects: (1) both interacting parties become more powerful, though usually to different degrees; (2) one party becomes more powerful while the other becomes weaker; or (3) both parties becomes weaker.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Human Consciousness

According to Anthony Giddens, practical consciousness is “tacit knowledge that is skilfully applied in the enactment of courses of conduct, but which the actor is not able to formulate discursively” (Central Problems).  It is not the unconscious.

Giddens analytically distinguishes practical consciousness from discursive consciousness, but affirms that both converge in many moments of social interaction.  In the realm of discursive consciousness, “discursive capabilities do not just take the form of propositional statements: ‘discourse’ has to include modes of expression which are often treated as uninteresting in sociological research – such as humour, sarcasm and irony” (Constitution of Society).

A living language is primarily practical consciousness not only because it is both a medium and a product of social interaction.  It is practical consciousness because, in every living language, most ordinary speakers or most native speakers know and use the linguistic rules, and the exceptions to these rules, without being able to state or explain them adequately.

Practical consciousness of a rule involves genuine knowledge or skill that is learned and taught in the doing, and somebody who has mastery of a rule rarely has to “interpret” or “think” (or “talk to some inner self” about) that rule while enacting that rule (New Rules).

Rules and skills for an interaction are not only linguistic.  They include the continuous monitoring of one’s body, of the other bodies present, of the resources the bodies carry, and the setting of the interaction.  Thus, an understanding of rules is inadequate when it is not closely connected to the use or the availability of resources.  Practical consciousness is tacit knowledge of how to proceed, how to go on, especially in the day-to-day contexts of social existence.

In a routine context of interaction, practical consciousness is expressed in a procession of gestures, facial expressions, and conventional remarks, each one of which is, in that context, regular or rational enough so much so that neither the agents nor participant observers see the need for an explanation of each act right after each act is done.  Practical consciousness, however, is not mechanical, no matter how routine is the context.

Practical consciousness entails a continuous monitoring of both one’s own and the other’s behaviour, for the regularity or rationality of even a small gesture does not depend on the gesture itself but on its timeliness and position within the continuous process of an interaction in a specific setting.

For example, a simple smile, which had passed unremarked in one moment, could provoke a demand for an explanation if inserted in another moment or in a different setting.  Any agent could be queried also about one’s untimely silence or pause in a conversation.

To routinely know both the convenient and the inconvenient continuities and discontinuities of interaction in a particular context entails skills that mostly have been learned after a long period of time or after repeated immersions in such or similar contexts.