was foucault the anti-weber?

At the last meeting of my social theory class, two rather punky undergraduate students started an argument. It went just like this, except for the stuff I made up:

You totally misinterpreted Foucault’s power theory in an otherwise magisterial lecture on post-structuralism. You claimed that Foucault offers an implicit critique of Weberian accounts of authority. You claimed that Weber focused on the types of authority wielded by specific people, like rational-legal authority and charisma, and thus Foucault’s account of decentralized power runs counter to this.

With all due respect, we dispute this characterization. We believe that Foucault’s analysis of discourse is highly congruent with Weber’s view that power resided in legitimacy, itself a diffuse feature of society.

Our disagreement does not diminish our belief that you are the best social theory instructor at Indiana.

Do you side with the punky undergrads? Is Foucault’s power theory really an alternative to Weber or did I commit sociological malpractice?

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Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2011 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

9 Responses

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  1. If you claimed that “Weber focused on the types of authority wielded by specific people like rational-legal authority and charisma.” Then, yes, undergrads FTW. Rational-legal authority is by definition independent of persons (literally impersonal); in that respect Weber’s rational legal authority is a lot like Foucaldian “governmentality” and quite opposed to charisma, which is dependent on persons. Maybe the issue where there might be a true Foucaldian critique of either Weber or Marx is whether such authority depends on an institutional “center” like a state endowed with coercive-legal power or whether it can be diffused via purely discursive or other “shadow” mechanisms such as the confession or the therapeutic interview. Regardless, my sense is that Foucault represents a radicalization of, or at best an idiosyncratic developer of certain themes already present in embryo in Weber. Most commentary agrees with this continuitist position, which sees a somewhat unbroken line uniting Weber, Elias and Foucault (via the mediation of such people as Raymond Aron in France in the case of the latter).



    November 30, 2011 at 1:12 am

  2. Foucault can be viewed as an alternative to Weber in the sense that he is not focusing on people’s sources of authority but on non-human technologies and apparatuses supporting the exercise of power and this focus allows him to see things that Weber can’t see – as complex situations where control and power is exercised on people but where no one seems to hold the authority. One can either see it as complementary or disruptive to Weber’s approach. The main distinction/critique Foucault makes vis a vis Weber is that to him: power is a relation – supported by discourses but not only – and not what people “have” or “get”, unlike authority. But in the end, I would rather say that the two are complementary – all the more that Foucault is dealing with heterotopia (clinics, prisons…) when Weber has a holistic approach of society.

    Interesting argument though !



    November 30, 2011 at 1:33 am

  3. I’d be inclined to agree with Omar. I’ve always seen Weber as disrupting and complicating the unicity of accounts of power, and in that there is an evolution of modes of application of power (for instance from charismatic to rational-legal) which nevertheless recognises that – qua ideal types – they are necessarily blended in practice/s, I think they’re quite close.

    My second proposition would be that Foucault’s indebtedness to earlier thought needs more emphasis.


    Mark Bahnisch

    November 30, 2011 at 1:34 am

  4. Regardless, my sense is that Foucault represents a radicalization of, or at best an idiosyncratic developer of certain themes already present in embryo in Weber.

    This would be my general sense, too. And it’s worth noting—in connection with Nathalie’s points about impersonal technologies and cases where there is power without identifiable authority—that Weber has things to say here that can be seen as presaging themes in Foucault. For instance, he dismisses what he calls the ‘naive idea’ that state domination can be done away with simply ‘by destroying the public documents’ and filing systems of official bureaucracies. This strategy of rebellion against the state fails to see that the legal-rational era also harnesses people’s personalities—it ‘overlooks [the fact] that the settled orientation of man for observing the accustomed rules and regulations will survive independently of the documents’, and this ‘conditioned orientation’ will allow ‘the disturbed mechanism to “snap into gear” again’. So people will recreate the rationalized instruments of their own domination even if others think they have succeeded in destroying its more visible manifestations.



    November 30, 2011 at 2:05 am

  5. In the narrow sense, I too agree with Omar, since Weber is careful not to talk about the power of specific persons.

    However Weber famously seeks to define power as (paraphrasing here because I’m lazy) the ability to get another person to do something they don’t want to do. Legitimacy is the best form of power, but it’s the legitimacy of the power wielded by the person, not the diffuse legitimacy embraced by Foucault. So in the broader sense I think you’re right to locate power for Weber in the capacity of people to cause others’ actions, but for Foucault in the tendency of people to do things in line with a more diffused authority.

    I’m sure the undergrads are right about who’s the best theory instructor at Indiana.



    November 30, 2011 at 3:34 am

  6. My read on Weber is that he defines authority as the ability to get people to voluntarily to do what they would not otherwise. This, and Weber is explicit, is only one form of domination: “It [domination] thus does not include every mode of exercising “power” or “influence” over other persons” (Economy and Society: 212).

    Further, Weber attaches legitimate domination primarily to roles, enforced by a staff, whether it have a traditional, rational, or charismatic basis. Certainly, charisma is the most personalistic but first and foremost these are social roles or institutional forums, not based on personhood. So in that sense, in short, yes, Omar’s got this one right.



    November 30, 2011 at 6:20 am

  7. The relationship between Foucault and Weber needs to be understood in the context of the French intellectual landscape. Weber was introduced by Raymond Aron explicitly as a counterpoint to Marx, and this colored the uses of Weber that sociologists or historians did at the time. [Before Bourdieu’s re-importation of Weber beginning in 1971, “Une interpretation de la théorie de la religion selon Max Weber,” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 12:3-21]
    Foucault was then reluctant to explicitly quote or discuss Weber, even if he read some Weber (and he explicitly said or wrote that he didn’t want his ideas to be compared to Weber’s). [see Bert, Jean-François. /Introduction à Michel Foucault/ Paris, La Découverte, 2010]
    The undergrad’s question points to something that Foucault tried to keep murky.


    Baptiste C.

    November 30, 2011 at 8:03 am

  8. My recollection is that Weber defines power as the probability of realizing one’s will, possibly in the face of resistance. Legitimate domination, then, is a structure linked to power, but so is class, status, and party. Foucault’s notion is a bit different, I think. I would have to look it up, but my recollection is that he explicitly compares his notion of power to other definitions in the History of Sexuality.

    Another comparison is the concept of discipline. I think most scholar’s of Weber are aware of his concept of discipline, but most sociologists would not encounter it unless they cracked open Economy and Society itself. Unlike Foucault’s “disciplinary society,” which is delinked and pervasive, Weber’s notion is more focused on the concrete bases of discipline. This is a key distinction, IMO. Weber focuses on the concrete; Foucault on the metaphorical. That said, I would say that Foucault’s emphasis on discourse is what makes him important.


    Tony P

    December 1, 2011 at 12:39 am

  9. […] recent discussion of the relationship between Foucault and Weber made me realize why Foucault is frustrating. No, it’s not for the reasons that you might […]


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