GEOG 882
Geographic Foundations of Geospatial Intelligence

2.4 Politics as Social Practice


Joe Painter uses an interpretive framework that sees politics as a social practice. Painter notes that most people like to think of themselves as free and capable human beings not subject to the whim and power of others. In the West this dominant view is based on the idea of "liberal individualism" and we are raised by our parents, in our schools, by the news, and by the speeches of our leaders to see this as common sense and the natural order of things. This dominant idea is a belief, rather than a fact, but our society makes it seem the natural way of things, despite the fact that it arose in specific social circumstances. Sometimes we can achieve what we desire and common sense works. In many cases we do not fully achieve what we want (sometimes because we are at "fault"), but often because we rely on others and do not control all the factors bearing on our goals. So even though we think of ourselves as free, our freedom is only partial and limited. We depend on other people and organizations, and therefore our power is limited.

Foucault's Ideas on Power

Michel Foucault was a 20th Century French philosopher and historian best known for his critical studies of various social institutions. Foucault's work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse, has been widely discussed and applied.

Foucault said that the ways in which power has been exercised has changed over time. In traditional societies rulers exercised power visibly in dramatic public displays of public punishments such as flogging or execution. In contrast, modern societies tend to hide the exercise of power. Foucault says that by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "disciplinary society" had emerged where social control is produced by complex sets of rules, regulations, administrative monitoring, and the management of people's lives. Modern institutions such as schools, factories, and prisons facilitate this disciplinary society. In this society we all internalize rules of behavior and conduct so that we are unconsciously disciplining ourselves, rather than being disciplined by the traditional public and visible methods. Thus power in modern societies is invisible — operating behind the scenes in every part of society. Foucault's idea of power in the modern world is sometimes called the "capillary" concept of power to indicate that power flows throughout the most mundane and routine aspects of human activity.

Formal and Informal Politics

Politics is the exercise of power, and thus power relationships are important because they determine what we can and cannot do as individuals, organizations, and even nation-states. When most of us think about politics, we tend to focus on the "formal politics" of governments, political parties, domestic and foreign policies, and sometimes even war and peace. There is an implication here that there is a separate political world involving politicians and bureaucrats, and governmental organizations that do political things. The rest of us interact with this world through the privileges and obligations it bestows and requires such as voting, getting a driver's license, serving jury duty, paying taxes, or being drafted for the military. Seen in this light politics is something that affects everyday life but is not part of everyday life.

On the other hand "informal politics" is everywhere. There are power relations at work, in the home, and in personal relationships. A good example is workplace politics. Such politics usually have little to do with the formal politics of governments and such. However, in the workplace everyone seeks influence and power to get what they need or want. To do this people form alliances to develop influence to help people do what they want. Thus people and groups are constantly advancing and protecting particular goals and interests. This happens in the workplace (aims of management and labor may clash), in the household (parents attempt to influence children and vice versa), in industry (some workers benefit from changes more than others, etc), in education (some topics get more attention and thus money and prestige), and in government agencies (some agency functions such as GEOINT are more or less valued at a particular time, thus affecting funding and stature) There is really no aspect of life where informal politics is not at work, thus "politics is everywhere."

Power and Politics

Foucault's ideas on power are somewhat controversial, but they do have interesting implications for the ideas of formal and informal power. Allow me to quote Joe Painter at length:

...It seems to me that there is an interesting parallel here with the notions of formal and informal politics. From Foucauldian perspective, the claim that "politics is about power" takes on a particular meaning. If power in modern societies saturates the social fabric in the ways Foucault implies, then studying politics should involve at least as much emphasis on informal politics as on formal politics. Moreover, the capillary notion of power implies that power, and hence politics, is part of all social life and all forms of social interaction, however, normal, mundane and routine they seem. Thus the way we feel about ourselves and others, how we write and talk, how we work and shop, how we study and play, how we drive and go on holiday—all of these are political, as are our religious, recreational, sexual, artistic and academic activities. This is somewhat unnerving, to say the least, and many people may be unhappy to think that their private lives have anything to do with politics. However, if by "private" we mean not affecting, or affected by, other people or organizations, it is remarkable how little of modern life can be counted under that heading. Almost all the areas of daily life I have mentioned are likely to involve other people to some extent, even if indirectly. When you shop for food, who grows it, under what conditions and how much are they paid? When you go on holiday, what effects do you have on the places you visit and the people who live there? When you write, what kinds of expressions do you choose to refer to other people, and what kind of representation do you build up of them? We may not feel (or may choose not to feel) responsible for the people with whom we have indirect relationships, but like it or not, we are involved with them. (Painter page 10)

The Material and the Discursive

Social practices are both material and discursive. The material part of social practices involves the organization and use of things. The discursive parts involve ideas, language, symbols, and meanings. So, for example, writing a reflection paper for this class involves material elements such as your computer and printer, and discursive elements such your ideas, the significance of literature as a cultural form, etc. The material and discursive can be separated for analytical purposes, but they cannot exist independently of each other. For material things to be used by people they must have a discursive understanding of the role and importance of the thing.

Another of Foucault's ideas was the concept of "discursive formation." Foucault said that the meaning of language is not transparent and immediately obvious. Words, statements, metaphors, symbols, mottos, and so on mean different things depending on the context of who is speaking and how they say it. It is also important how the statement fits into the wider pattern of statements, symbols, and understandings. This wider pattern is what Foucault termed "discursive formation" (often shortened to "discourse").

Consider the term teenager. All human beings who live to maturity will pass through the ages of 13 to 19 years old. We think of these as the "teenage years" and such a person is a "teenager." Historically, however, people were either children or adults at a specific age depending on the society indicating the transition. The Jewish tradition of the bar mitzvah at 13 marks the transition for males into adult society, while 21 was the age of majority in 19th Century England. It was only in the 1950s that the term and concept of the teenager became widespread. Foucault would have termed this the discourse of the teenager. The statements underpinning this discourse were evident throughout society as they appeared in films, popular music, advertising, parental discussion, political speeches, etc. As Painter says, "they all had enough in common, in their object of analysis, in their mode of language, in the terms used and their tone, to be considered part of a unified discourse." Thus the teenager in the sense we understand it is a discursive construction made real by the discourse. Although it referred to the same years as the Victorian concept of the juvenile, the discourses were very different. For Foucault material things are made meaningful and constituted as things through discourse. In other words discourse is the framework through which things are made meaningful.

This is a powerful concept. As we endeavor to think critically, the concept of discourse allows us to recognize that the material world has different meaning to different people(s) based on their discursive understanding. A good analyst is able to understand multiple discourses rather than projecting their discursive understanding onto other peoples, cultures, and places. Some people are troubled by this approach, fearing that it leads to a moral relativism where all discourses are of the same value. Some academics take this approach. The analyst can leverage the ability to understand and explain multiple discourses to policymakers so they can make informed decisions. An understanding of alternative discourses allows policy makers to modify their own discursive approach to cooperate or compete with other discourses. In some cases it empowers policymakers to work to ensure their discourse dominates conflicting discourses. This is the fundamental underpinning of the political processes (formal and informal) that constitute politics as a social practice.

Painter's Framework for Interpretation

Painter defines politics as a process with several features that are constituted through geographically and historically situated social and institutional practices which are both material and discursive. These features are both purposeful and strategic and depend on the availability of unequally distributed resources. There are six key elements of his framework.

  1. People and Their Competing Needs.
    People as individuals and in groups have needs, wants, and interests which are constructed through discourse. Politics occurs because it is impossible for everyone to have everything they want instantly and automatically.
  2. The Role of Strategic Action.
    People develop and implement strategies to achieve goals. These strategies are never complete since the knowledge on which we act is usually imperfect, and there are many factors that bear on our activities beyond our control. Our strategies often have unintended consequences. Strategic action may bring us into alliance or conflict with others pursuing similar or opposing strategies, thus generating cooperation or conflict.
  3. Resources and Power.
    Different people and societies have different resources available to pursue their strategies, thus making some more or less effective. Resources are of many kinds, including both material (money, food, oil, weapons) and discursive resources (knowledge, information, language, symbols). Differences in political power are due to unequal access to resources. Where strategies conflict, the exercise of political power generates resistance called counter-power.
  4. Institutions.
    Strategic action often results in developing institutions. There is a tendency, however, for these institutions to take on a life of their own and develop independently and formulate interests and strategies of their own, thus becoming political actors themselves. There are internal politics within institutions as individuals and groups exercise power. Institutional strategies are the product of the internal politics and may be contradictory. Institutions exist on a larger scale and on a longer time frame than individual actions. As they last longer and are stretched over larger spaces than are individuals, they may have great political power. This helps to explain how they can become associated with very different strategies from those envisioned by their creators.
  5. Authority and Sovereignty.
    Individuals and organizations often claim authority so they can secure the compliance of other individuals and organizations in support of their strategy. According to Painter, however, there are no absolute grounds on which authority can be justified. All claims to authority are assertions, rather than statements of fact. Claimants to authority usually pursue (often again through strategic action) attempts to legitimate their assertions: that is, to secure consent to their claim from both other claimants and those whose compliance to authority is sought. The process of legitimation is a discursive one involving attempts to construct frameworks of meaning through which authority is made to seem legitimate.
  6. Political Identities.
    People have different political identities depending on their particular strategy and position in relation to the claims of authority of others. These identities are partly products of our conscious intentions, but also partly the product of the discursive and material practices of others. Part of "who we are" is based on our political position. For example, as we relate to the state we may be voters, users of public services, students in public schools, members of the armed forces, asylum seekers, etc. Based on the time, place, and circumstance we take on different political identities. Sometime these are deliberate and part of a strategy. Sometimes these identities are taken on unwillingly or even unconsciously.

As we think critically about geospatial intelligence, we will look to this framework and language often to understand the material and discursive roles inherent in the exercise of power in formal and informal political processes that inform different discourses.