The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Discussion: Structural Power and the Study of Business

February 5, 2016

This is a guest post by Randall Germain, Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, as part of the Duck of Minerva’s Symposium on Structural Power and the Study of Business. Links to other posts in the symposium can be found here.

A scholar knows he has been around for a while when the problem of structural power re-emerges as a legitimate and worthy subject of research. My graduate education in IR and IPE was pre-occupied with debates over hegemonic stability theory and neo-realism, which were, in their own ways, very particular demands to take structure and the power of structures seriously in our research. But along the way this interest in structure became transmuted into a quest to make whatever data we had about existing institutions reveal how they functioned in a world of exogenous developments. Research shifted from a focus on what Benjamin Cohen has called ‘big picture’ thinking about the global economic and political order, to a much narrower set of concerns connected to how specific institutions operate and the parameters within which they move. In many ways the concerns that dominated scholarly debates in my academic ‘youth’ have gone south, replaced by concerns which, while not of course unimportant in a scholarly sense, are perhaps somewhat less driven by the ‘big picture’ problems of change and transformation that animated research in that earlier period.

What I am excited about in terms of this special issue is its re-engagement with some of these bigger, grander themes. The problem of structural power is first and foremost a question that arises when existing social, economic and political arrangements no longer operate according to established historical patterns. Maybe they have failed to respond to serious deficiency (like a crisis), or maybe they have reproduced themselves despite a trajectory of world events that would normally be expected to alter them (as in the puzzle of how global finance remains primarily centered on American banks, capital markets and regulatory authority). Whatever the case, the problem of how power is organized and framed should become a pressing scholarly research agenda. The question is how to pursue this agenda in a way that engages with modern research techniques but also older debates and issues which really have never lost their relevance.

Clarifying the parameters of the debate is of course critical, and Culpepper and Marsh and his colleagues do a solid job of steering us in useful directions. Equally important are innovative efforts to adapt and employ new research techniques to the measurement of power in structural terms, such as provided by Young and Winecoff. And extending the conceptualization of structural power into domains not previously considered, which is what Emmeneger, Abdelal, Fairfield and Farrell and Newman undertake, seems a necessary path to bringing considerations of structural power to the current generation of IR and IPE scholars. All of this is terrific stuff and warms the heart of this old and grizzled academic.

I would however suggest that there are two dimensions missing from the treatment of structural power in this special issue that deserve a tiny bit more attention. One dimension is present in many of the articles, but could be improved, and this is how the role of ideas is treated as anchoring or cementing structural power. Marsh and his colleagues explicitly raise the role of ideas, but I think it would be more fruitful to return to Susan Strange’s initial framing of ideas as knowledge. This to my mind is superior because it avoids the problem of commodifying the idea of ideas, if I can put it this way, where we consider ideas essentially as variables and then track how they are used by other agents in the exercise of power, which has become the favourite research strategy of constructivist theorists of IPE. To be considered an element of structural power, I think there is more utility in asking how knowledge is formed as part of the over-arching structure of power under examination, where knowledge can be described along the lines suggested some time ago by Robert Cox as an inter-subjective meaning. Ideas qua knowledge as inter-subjective meanings renders ideas into social artefacts, which can then be traced in material terms through the perspectives and understandings that individual (ie people) or collective (ie institutions) agents have about the activities they undertake (or attempt to perform, whether successful or not). There is an inter-subjective core to every instantiation of structural power, and Susan Strange recognized this in her conception of a knowledge structure, despite the fact that this sat very awkwardly with her overall theoretical conception of structural power, which critics such as Ronen Palan and Christopher May have identified. But she at least avoided the problem of turning ideas (or, for Fairfield, perceptions) into a form of variable, which is what I think will ultimately bedevil the efforts of Marsh et al and Fairfield as they attempt to clarify the role of ideas as specific data-points of structural power.

The second missing element in these otherwise exemplary articles is a sense of how time might affect structural power. If there is an inter-subjective core to the organization of structural power, this inter-subjectivity both changes over time and, more controversially, might well operate at different speeds depending upon the frame of reference we are using to measure its operation. When applied to firms, for example, the inter-subjective core of structural power might evolve quite rapidly such that one can specify change over relatively short temporal intervals, as firms adjust their own time horizons and goals to evolving circumstances. When applied to states, on the other hand, this temporal period might be extended because of the ‘stickiness’ of bureaucratic practices, while if we consider the organization of structural power in systemic terms we could perhaps specify much longer time horizons due to the relative impermeability of mental frameworks of thought such as cultural or ideologically-imbued conceptions of broader social arrangements. Fernand Braudel’s articulation of histoire événementielle, the conjuncture and the longue durée is here very helpful, as it suggests that different time spans affect our conception of causality precisely because agents (whether individual, institutional or some other collective formulation) conceive and act in time differentially. Or we might look to EH Carr, who offers a conception of history and historical time as fundamentally constitutive of causality because of the way time transforms our social perceptions. However we do it, the point remains that our consideration of structural power will be strengthened by building into our conceptual formulation a conception of time.

So, there is much to praise in this special issue because it offers a return to a valuable and useful concept in the social science that can shed considerable scholarly light on the big picture understanding of the global political economy. It might even, pace Young and Winecoff, be able to more precisely isolate causal relationships of power, complete with cool charts and snazzy illustrations. Bonus! I guess it’s time for us older scholars to quit whinging about the old days, roll up our sleeves and join our younger colleagues to help chart the next useful theoretical turn in IR and IPE. Now that will be a debate worth sticking around for.

website | + posts

I am Associate Professor of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington, and co-direct the Political Economy channel at the Duck. My research and teaching is primarily in International Political Economy, especially the politics of business and finance, and frequently use complex network methodologies. I am a former Chair of the Online Media Caucus of ISA, and blogged previously at IPE@UNC and The Fair Jilt.