Sociological Analysis of Contemporary Society from the Perspective of Power - Sri Lanka Guardian


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Friday, January 24, 2014

Sociological Analysis of Contemporary Society from the Perspective of Power

| by Dr. Siri Gamage

( January 24, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Looking at the contributions made by Sociologists to the study and examination of contemporary society, its various forms and key issues, one has to wonder as to whether these contributions –apart from a very few- add much by way of critical enquiry and most importantly in explaining current trends, themes and issues in a more enlightened manner? One has to ask whether there has been any significant study that grasp the contemporary realities in the areas of polity, economy, culture, community, family and the diaspora and articulate satisfactory explanations in terms of relevant theoretical and conceptual frameworks? Critical examination of societal issues –encompassing political, economic, cultural and community (including diasporic) – and explanations derived from empirical study combined with selected conceptual and theoretical frameworks is a prime task of sociological analysis. This article is an attempt to briefly discuss this topic with a view to trigger the imagination of particularly young sociologists who may have acquired the tools of such analysis and explanations already.

A prime focus of many sociological studies centres on the theme of social and economic inequality. Studies of poverty, gender inequality, underdevelopment and development, social mobility, class difference, ethnic difference, domestic work in the Middle East, etc. correspond to this theme. To my knowledge, only a very few serious studies link this theme of inequality with the theme of ‘power and powerlessness’ in the Sri Lankan context. Yet it is important to do so because the exercise of power in various contexts can advantage some individuals and disadvantage others leading to the social constructions of inequality.

When talking about power, it is fundamental to examine the different ways that individuals and groups secure power, exercise it, and the outcomes on different segments of society whether they be gender groups, ethnic groups, class groups and their sub-fractions, regional groups, or political groups such as parties. Max Weber’s categorisation of leadership into charismatic, traditional, rational-legal can be helpful as a starting point in such delineations but it needs to be further expanded to incorporate emerging leadership patterns in contemporary societies. For example, whether emerging trends in dictatorships in some societies can be encapsulated in these terms remains to be seen?

Concept of inequality itself assumes new meanings in contemporary societies due to the expanding influence of global corporations, outmigration of men and women for work in less than satisfactory conditions, appropriation of power (political, bureaucratic, military) by distinctive groups to the exclusion of others, high inflation, high levels of corruption, the empowerment and enrichment of the ‘political class’ in comparison to the standing of middle and lower classes. Extraction and exploitation of labour as well as their fundamental rights (standard citizenship rights) by the upper and upper middle classes and more importantly their core –the ‘political class’ could lead to a situation of mere existence for the labouring classes-including the middle class- devoid of a corresponding and transformative consciousness. Even though elements of class-consciousness may exist among members of such classes, there are competing ideologies that influence them to think in terms of other articulations of ideologies, e.g. convoluted nationalism.

How do sociologists go about identifying and explaining many forces that contribute to furthering inequalities in contemporary society including the role of ‘political class’? Many decades ago, Janice Jiggins explained how Sri Lanka’s politicians are related to each other via close kinship links. I do not recall any such in-depth studies undertaken by sociologists or even political scientists afterwards. However, there have been some studies that attempt to explain poverty, the conditions of women who migrate for work, the status of women working in free trade zones, youth issues etc. What is wrong in posing questions about citizenship rights by sociologists from a liberal democratic point of view even –irrespective of the status of the person? What is wrong in posing questions about the appropriation of a country’s wealth and everybody’s due by a chosen few, if this is the case? What is wrong in posing questions about the means of community disempowerment apparent in contemporary societies and proposing ways of empowering? Before any sociological analysis and explanation, questions of this nature have to be raised so that tools of such analysis can be utilised to collect necessary information, analyse them and come up with relevant explanations in a systematic manner. Explanations have to be presented in a holistic manner rather than in a fragmented way. Some sociological studies do not go beyond very narrow explanations that are applicable to a micro area of study. Even if the study is narrowly focused, sociologists need to make an attempt to link them with broader issues and trends in societies so that their studies gain relevance. Classical sociologists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Karl Marx and many subsequent writers attempted to analyse societal structures and processes from historical and contemporary perspectives so that their writings provide conceptual frameworks that may or may not apply in a given context.

Sociological theories offer much food for thought from a macro perspective as well as micro perspectives. I am not discarding the importance of micro studies on selected topics but what I am saying is that unless such studies, taken together, provide new light on existing ‘structures, processes and dynamics’ that lead to socio-economic, cultural and political inequalities, disempowerments, and exploitations, they can offer very little by way of sociological insights and directions for the young sociologists and even the laymen and women who are sociologically minded.

If power is an important factor that constructs ‘social inequality’ – including economic, educational, material, relational and cultural – it needs to be examined in its different dimensions. When used appropriately, power can be a desirable weapon. However, when it is used inappropriately, it can be a destructive force. Power is not accessed and exercised in a vacuum. It needs to be defined, justified, and used in a just manner by those who hold it to the rest of the population in a society. Otherwise, competition for power can occur in less than desirable ways. Given below are some sub-topics that contemporary Sociologists can focus on when examining power and power relations:

Ideologies of power: What sets of ideas contribute to the acquisition and maintenance of power? Students of sociology can examine these in various historical and contemporary contexts. Whether it is nationalism based on a given country and nation, an ethnic community, indigenous community or liberal democracy based on the supremacy of the individual and his/her rights, or self-determination based on group rights, or even authority derived from traditional ideologies of religion, it is important to critically examine how various ideologies contribute to the acquisition and maintenance of power. Ideologies are based on a given rational or logic derived from corresponding needs and aspirations of a given national or sub-national community. There is room for manipulation of ideologies by vested interest groups and this aspect can also be examined. How and why certain segments in society embrace and advocate one ideology over another at a given point in time can in fact be a topic for interesting study. Ideologies absorb local characteristics when they are imported from elsewhere. This is also an important topic to examine. Ideologies arise from specific social, economic, political and cultural circumstances. Voluntarism is an example of an ideology prevailing in most countries. Welfare ideology is another. Ideologies pertaining to community development, inter-ethnic tolerance or intolerance can be others for closer scrutiny.

Organisation of Power: How power is organised into different arenas and by which means can be the focus here? Once secured, power has to be exercised in the best interest of the target community. For this purpose, there are formal protocols available in societies. These protocols derive legitimacy from the constitution, related instruments and periodic elections. The exercise of power by an individual or a group cannot be accomplished without the support of a bureaucracy, resources, forums for deliberations and decision-making, and most importantly checks and balances. Even though the political parties and to some extent other groupings including powerful families and companies are active players in the campaigns for securing power, once secured, power needs to be exercised in an organised, systematic manner. The way power is organised in a given society makes a fascinating topic for study because very often underneath the formal processes and structures, there are informal influences made by lobbyists, pressure groups, close family members, party activists and so on. It is the sum total of these informal and formal deliberations that result in the particular organisation of power and exercise of it. In some circumstances and decisions, one or more factors can be more influential than others. It is the meticulous, in-depth study of these factors in specific circumstances that make a study more relevant and valuable.

Structure of power: No one individual or group can hold on to power without a structure to support and organise activities of the individual or group entrusted with power. Sociologists can ask what are the building blocks of power? Are they organised according to various hierarchies or sub-groups? Does power come to individuals and groups in the form of heritage or franchise? Are there different layers in the structure of power? If so, what is the core layer and what are the peripheral layers? Is the power gained in accepted means or illegitimate ways? As societies and governments need stability and clarity in the medium to long term, they both have structures to give meaning to power. If we speak of the civil-military divide, in both arenas we can see such structures. Bureaucratic structures are an important part of government. These can be seen in judicial, legislative and executive branches. While there is some degree of separation of powers into these three areas, often we can observe considerable overlaps in different circumstances. Alternatively, one of these arenas can assume dominance over others in some circumstances creating a degree of imbalance. Whether such imbalances and dominations are in the best interest of a society is something that emerging sociologists can critically examine in relation to relevant literature and practical examples. Religious organisations also carry some degree of power. Their structures vary depending on the type of religion. Christian organisations have a strong emphasis on social welfare whereas Buddhist organisations focus on alms giving. Power structures are often associated with given ideologies of power providing the rationale. Structures of power have in-built mechanisms to include some and exclude others through their internal selection processes. Humanistically oriented and open structures have better processes to include a cross section of the population whereas exclusivist structures utilise highly selective and often secretive, less public processes for selecting members. When the exclusions become too pervasive, social agitations take place demanding better processes.

Dynamics of power: How power changes and what factors contribute to such change?
While structures are meant to provide stability in the long run for societies and governments, there are social, political, economic and cultural dynamics that can be the generator of change in the nature of power, exercise of power, meaning of power, and outcomes of power. Social upheavals can lead to the emergence of movements that function as torchbearers of change in certain circumstances. Political alliances and conflicts can also do the same. In some situations, international factors rather than national factors can be the initiators of change. Conventional wisdom says class struggles are also important factors. In some countries, indigenous movements have brought change to their societies. In the contemporary context, globalisation and expanding global economy function as change agents. Charismatic leaders also can bring change to their countries, e.g. Nelson Mandela. Study of such dynamics in specific country contexts or even micro-local contexts can be a rewarding exercise. While power itself can contribute to societal change or stability, societal changes can in turn transform power in specific circumstances. Mass protests in some countries in the recent past have led to changes in who hold power, e.g. Arab Spring. Continuity and change are common themes one can focus in the study of power.

Power relations and Access: Irrespective of the structures of power and how they are organised, it is individuals and groups who provide the necessary manpower to them. Once individuals and groups are located within these structures, there develops human relations cutting across various layers. These relations are characterised by ‘power relations’ when they establish relations in the exercise of power. Taken together these power relations, how and why they are exercised, how individuals bring in personalities to the exercise of power or try to circumvent beaureacratic structures become a fascinating topic for study. What is the nature of such power relations? Are they limited to official capacities and spheres or do they overflow into civilian life? In some Western traditions, there is a strict boundary between personal and official spheres. However, in Asian societies the distinction is not that apparent most of the times. Why this is so, and what impact it has on the rights of civilians is a topic that requires careful examination. Whether both gender categories or for that matter class and caste categories are represented in such power relations and structures is another topic. If not, what ought to happen to create a level-playing field? As much as on the incumbents of power, the focus can be on the subjects of power in sociological studies. During the colonial periods, the incumbents of power had almost total control of their subjects by virtue of the colonial subjugation of indigenous peoples. There was a particular and well-defined relationship between the colonial masters in the government and administration vs. the local chieftains. The relations between local chieftains and the ‘subjects’ were defined in actual fact by a range of factors such as caste, gender, economic status, locality, family, education and more. Access that the subjects had to the colonial masters were limited but there were various means of doing so, e.g. petitions. Relations between incumbents of power today (e.g.. politicians, beaureacrats, military and police officers, judicial officers) and the general public are much more multi-faceted compared to the colonial period. However, a range of factors limits access to those occupying power positions also. How and why some individuals and groups gain more access to power holders and why others, in fact the majority, do not get such access can be a useful topic to examine in contemporary times.

Beneficiaries of power: Ideally in a democratic society, the beneficiaries of power should be the general population and more importantly specific segments of the population that are the targets of various policies and programs, e.g. the poor, small entrepreneurs, professional and Para professional groups, working class. Elected representatives are supposed to be working on behalf of the electors to represent their issues and grievances to the government and seek redress. Thus in the case of the poor, there are special housing programs or aid programs such as Samurdhi. For their services to the public, the elected representatives are paid a salary and other benefits. In order to implement policies, the central government and provincial governments have bureaucracies or administrative staff. In addition, the politicians appoint secretaries, media personnel etc. also to facilitate the relations between elected and electors. If this happens as described here there is no problem. However, in the real world, there are instances when the beneficiaries of power are not necessarily those who are the electors but the elected themselves! By using the ‘elected office’ parliamentarians often gain access to those who make certain important decisions within the ranks of government and its agencies and receive undue privilege and benefits. One such area is the provision of employment. Another is the granting of government tenders for various projects involving large sums of money. Such practices, if not checked, can lead to corruption. How this happens, where, when and for what purpose could be a rich arena for sociological investigation. Likewise, who is disadvantaged by such actions can also be a very good area to focus.

Effects of Power: e.g. on the construction of socio-economic inequalities

The exercise of power, more accurately the way power is exercised by those who get elected to high office can lead to the reduction or aggravation of inequalities in a society. If we take the example of Nelson Mandela, we could say he initiated various programs to ameliorate inequalities in South Africa. Another example is the health insurance policy initiated by Barak Obama that benefitted millions of people who did not have such insurance before. Many development programs are also intended to reduce socio-economic inequalities. However, the experience in developing countries show that the intended benefits does not necessarily flow to those who they are intended for. This is largely because of the intermediaries who benefit from the policy implementation process. They generally belong to the upper and/or middle class.

Power can be used in a positive or negative way. Educated leaders who are conscious about their mission and duty to the people tend to give priority to the service of people rather than their personal benefits. Often with high cost to their personal lives and careers, such leaders make sacrifices to serve the people.

Power itself can be a source that corrupts power. Therefore, it needs to be handled with care and in proportion. Ways and means of such corruption needs to be disclosed and highlighted. When there are leaders who venture into the task of acquiring or appropriating total power, the subjects of power become disproportionately disempowered i.e. under totalitarianism. In such situations, instead of a fair distribution of power among various strata of society, one finds the concentration of power among a privileged few. This is not a healthy development.