Assembled selves: the complexities of power at work.

Harman, Kerry (2005) Assembled selves: the complexities of power at work. In: Critical Management Studies 2005, 4-6 July 2005, Cambridge, UK. . [Conference or Workshop Item]


In this paper I discuss the ways I’m using identity as a lens for exploring the complexities of power in workplaces. I draw on the work of theorists such as Deetz (1992; 1994), du Gay (1996a; 1996b) and Miller and Rose (1993; 1995) who all use Foucauldian concepts to explore identity and power. I describe how I have been using Rose’s notion of ‘assembled selves’ (1996) to explore worker identities in a large public sector organisation in Australia. This analysis draws attention to the historical and cultural contingency of ‘the subject’ and the politics of identity.

In the first section of the paper I theorise identity using concepts from Foucault. Foucault draws attention to the complexities of the relationships between power, knowledge and ‘the subject’ (Dean, 1994; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982; Foucault, 1981, 1982, 1988; Ransom, 1997). Disrupting taken for granted understandings of ‘the individual’ as a fixed, cohesive, essential self, Foucault explores the ways subjects are produced (Foucault, 1981, 1982, 1988). Drawing on the work of Foucault, Rose points out: ‘capacities for action emerge out of the specific regimes and technologies that machinate humans in diverse ways’ (1996, p. 186). This view contrasts with much of the neo-human relations literature and critical management literature which both tend to understand human beings as possessing core or essential characteristics.
Modern power operates through the construction of new capacities and Foucault says that we need to pay attention to the ways capacities are produced in order to gain a better understanding of the complexities of power (1982). This begins to draw attention to the politics of identity.

Taking up the notion that our capacity to act is an effect rather than a cause, I explore the identities being produced in a contemporary Australian workplace. In this next section of the paper I draw on my involvement in a three year, Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project which examined everyday learning at work. I have been working with Rose’s notion of assembled selves (1996) as a way of theorising learning at work. My interest is in the ‘who’ we learn ‘to be’ at work. Rose suggests that through being assembled with particular devices, techniques, people, and objects that ‘selves’ are produced (1996; 2000). In this part of the paper I explore the assemblages that contribute to producing a ‘senior manager’ in this workplace.

This analysis emphasises the everyday practices of the workplace and the capacities produced by these practices. It draws attention to the myriad of everyday activities and experiences where people are ‘addressed, represented, and acted upon as if they were selves of a particular type’ (Rose, 1996, p. 169). I suggest that the senior managers are both regulators and regulated. There are multiple networks of power in operation and the managers are not outside of these networks. While there are many examples of top-down power in this workplace, I contend that by focusing on this view we ignore the complexities of power at work. This analysis draws attention to the operation of other forms of power including disciplinary power and pastoral power in the workplace.

I conclude the paper by discussing the potential that the lens of identity provides for analysing the complexities of power at work. Identity provides a lens for disrupting the prevailing view of power found in much of the organisational literature. In both the mainstream managerial literature and more critical approaches power is understood as coercive and repressive, as an illegitimate control, as ‘power over’. This approach is anchored in a tradition based on a sovereign understanding of power (Foucault, 1981). However, a focus on identity enables a conceptualisation of power that recognises the multiplicities of power. Here power is understood as both constraining and enabling (Ransom, 1997).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Areas: A. > Work and Learning Research Centre
Item ID: 7754
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Dr Kerry Harman
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2011 13:51
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2016 14:22

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