Rationality and Power


by Bent Flyvbjerg

Proposition 1: Power defines reality

Power concerns itself with defining reality rather than with discovering what reality “really” is. This is the single most important characteristic of the rationality of power, that is, of the strategies and tactics employed by power in relation to rationality. Defining reality by defining rationality is a principal means by which power exerts itself. This is not to imply that power seeks out rationality and knowledge because rationality and knowledge are power. Rather, power defines what counts as rationality and knowledge and thereby what counts as reality. The evidence of the Aalborg case confirms a basic Nietzschean insight: interpretation is not only commentary, as is often the view in academic settings, “interpretation is itself a means of becoming master of something” ± in this case master of the Aalborg Project ± and “all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation.”4 Power does not limit itself, however, to simply defining a given interpretation or view of reality, nor does power entail only the power to render a given reality authoritative. Rather, power defines, and creates, concrete physical, economic, ecological, and social realities.

Proposition 2: Rationality is context-dependent, the context of rationality is power, and power blurs the dividing line between rationality and rationaliza- tion

Philosophy and science often present rationality as independent of context; for example, in universal philosophical, ethical, or scientific imperatives, a current example being the “theory of communicative rationality” and “discourse ethics” of Habermas. If these imperatives are followed, the result is supposed to be rational and generally acceptable actions. Our study of politics, administration, and planning in Aalborg shows rationality to be a discourse of power. Rationality is context- dependent, the context often being power. Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading ± for politicians, administrators, and research- ers alike ± to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent. This holds true for substantive as well as communicative rationality. Communication is more typically characterized by nonrational rhetoric and maintenance of interests than by freedom from domination and consensus seeking. In rhetoric, the “validity” and effect of communication is established via the mode of communication ± for example, eloquence, hidden control, rationalization, charisma, using dependency relations between participants ± rather than through rational arguments concerning the matter at hand. Seen from this perspective, Habermas cuts himself off from understanding real communication when, in developing his theory of communica- tive rationality and discourse ethics, he distinguishes between “successful” and “distorted” utterances in human conversation; success in rhetoric that is not based on rational argument is associated precisely with distortion, a phenomenon demon- strated repeatedly in the Aalborg study.5 The assertion of Harold Garfinkel and other ethnomethodologists that the rationality of a given activity is produced “in action” by participants via that activity is supported by the Aalborg case. In add- ition, we have seen that whenever powerful participants require rationalization and not rationality, such rationalization is produced. Rationalization is a pervasive feature of the Aalborg Project and is practiced by all key actors.

Proposition 3: Rationalization presented as rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power

In the same way that political science, following Machiavelli and Ludwig von Rochau, distinguishes between formal politics and Realpolitik, evidence from the Aalborg study indicates the need for the study of politics, administration, planning, and modernity, to distinguish between formal rationality and RealrationalitaÈt, real rationality. The freedom to interpret and use “rationality” and “rationalization” for the purposes of power is a crucial element in enabling power to define reality and, hence, an essential feature of the rationality of power.


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