J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

From Power to Authority in Communications Research

Posted by chanders on February 2, 2007

This is a very early excerpt of a larger theoretical paper I’m working on. Its in an extremely preliminary state. Nevertheless, I’m happier with the ideas here– how they integrate the sociological and theoretical concerns of my project; how they relate to larger issues I’ve thought about as an activist, how they bring anti-authoritarian concepts to the fore– than I’ve been with much I’ve done for a long time. For various reasons, including a work in progress presentation I’ll be giving in two weeks, I thought this was an appropriate time to share them with the larger web community that occasionally drops in and pays attention to my incoherent ramblings.

As always, comments are welcome and sought after. Please remember, this is all very nebulous at this point, so there’s lots to be done.

Despite fairly profound conceptual difficulties, arguments about power,
authority, and the relationship between the two– from the “three faces
of power debate” that dominated much of political science in from the
1950’s to the 1960’s; to the provocative writings and interviews of
Michel Foucault; to Bourdieu’s more empirically grounded work on
symbolic power– have been some few areas of current research in which
both social scientists and social theorists have felt compelled to
produce voluminous and contradictory materials in equal measure. All,
that is, but in the realm of communications and media research. For
while questions of media power (and related questions of media effects
and media influence) have dominated the field since its inception, the
theoretical relationship between these questions and questions of
authority and legitimacy have been rarely addressed, especially on a
non-normative level. The few scholarly investigations tackling issues
of (usually specifically “journalistic”) authority have been a
theoretical and definitional muddle, often doing more to obscure the
concept than illuminate it. All the while, of course, media-marketers
and political communications researchers carry on merrily with their
“media effects” experiments, (still, it seems) convinced that the proof
of media power is in the purchasing.

In the pages that follow I try to tease out the conceptual distinction
between power and authority in the field of media research and argue
that non-normative questions of institutional media authority deserve
more attention than they have thus far received from scholars in the
communications field. I posit that, although my primary concern is with
questions of media authority, such a problematic cannot be properly
understood without first coming to grips with the genealogy of media
power; in other words, investigating with the manner in which the
notion idea media power has been articulated by communications
theorists and researchers.  As media power has remained at the center–
either by its presence or its absence– of most scholarship in the
field of media studies, such a genealogy inevitably forces the
researcher to take a position within the currently fevered debates over
the history of communications research.  The argument is made in the
pages which follow that, for most of the history of the field, media
research has concerned itself with the overt exercise of media power
rather than the capacity for such an exercise; furthermore, that most
structuralist exceptions to this obsession with exercised power have
remained beholden to a vulgar Marxist conception of power; and finally,
that recent movements in the field towards more complex notion of
symbolic power and its relationship with various other forms of power
mark a welcome conceptual advance. Nevertheless, even these theoretical
moves neglect issues of authority in media institutions.

If Part One explores issues of power in media studies, then, Part Two
focuses instead on media and authority. I probe the conceptual
distinctions between power and authority, noting that while authority
necessarily involves questions of legitimacy and right, scholarship in
this vein need not be necessarily and irreducibly normative. I examine
the well-known attempt by Barbie Zelizer to move issues of
“journalistic authority” towards the center of communications
research– an attempt whose serious theoretical shortcomings trumped  a
deeply original insight into the differences between power and
institutional authority.  I conclude by advancing my own understanding
of the relationship between power and authority in media studies,
highlighting some ways in which this understanding can be not only be
applied to current questions in communications research, but also might
serve to  draw the fields of media studies and the sociology of news
into a closer, more  productive conversation.


If debates over media power have, historically, dominated the field of communications research, than what advantages might be gained by shifting our focus to questions of authority? Answering this question, of course, entails entering the minefield that is the “power vs. authority” debate in modern social theory. Rather than recapitulate the history of this debate—which extends at least as far back as the writings of Max Weber and continues up to the present day — let me briefly clarify my own understanding of the distinction between these two muddled concepts.

One of the clearest (and now largely forgotten) discussions of the relationship between authority and power can be found in Wolff (1970), from which it will be useful to quote at length. Authority, Wolff argues, “is the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed. [emphasis added]” It must be distinguished from power, he continues, which is “the ability to compel compliance, either through the threat or the use of force.” Wolff provides the illuminating example of the stolen wallet: no one would argue that a thief has the authority to steal my wallet, even though he may have the power at his command to compel me to do so. On the other hand, few would argue that the state, under the existing structures of modern government, has the authority to compel me to pay taxes– at least in a non-normative sense. Even if the authority of the state, in the case of taxes, ultimately relies on its monopoly of the use or force (which is itself debatable), it would be facile to claim that this authority can be reduced entirely to power in a manner similar to that of a petty thief brandishing a gun.

The remark above about “non-normative argumentation” represents a further conceptual puzzle succinctly dispensed with by Wolff. To argue that authority represents a right to command and a right to be obeyed implies either a normative or an empirical claim:

To claim authority is to claim the right to be obeyed. To have authority is then—what? It may mean to have that right, or it may mean to have one’s claim acknowledged and accepted by those at whom it is directed. The term ‘authority’ is ambiguous, having both a descriptive and a normative sense. Even the descriptive sense refers to norms and obligations, of course, but it does so by describing what men believe they ought to do rather than by asserting they ought to do it. (21)

In general, Wolff concludes, the distinction between political science and political philosophy can be boiled down to this difference in emphasis. Political scientists have described the actually existing mechanics of authority, while political philosophers have argued, in normative terms, about the legitimate bases upon which that authority should rest. A similar distinction can be made in the sphere of communications research: amongst the few media scholars who have bothered to consider authority, their arguments are most often drawn at the normative level.  Indeed, to discuss media authority at all usually implies that one will make an argument about what an authoritative media source should be like, rather than a description of how this source maintains its authority.

Why, then, has communication research focused so resolutely on questions of power, ignoring or over-normativizing questions of authority? Part of the answer, I argue, lies in the neo-Marxist origins of “critical” media scholarship, which, along with so-called “administrative” research, has largely dominated the field since the 1970’s. Marxism, of course, has long been concerned with issues of power. By recognizing at a basic level that the possession of capital represented, and indeed masked, the possession of power, Marx inaugurated a challenge to the liberal social paradigm that today finds its heirs in the “political economy” wing of communications studies. The shadow of Gramsci, who expanded Marx’s understanding of power to include varieties of ideological control that would address economically inexplicable patterns of social consensus, lies behind much of the most interesting sociological work on seemingly banal concepts like media framing, agenda-setting, and priming. And Foucault, who simultaneously inverted and exploded the Marxist notion of power (but who also always framed his work in dialog with Marx), can be seen as the somewhat eccentric spiritual father of two generations of media / cultural studies.

If varieties of Marxism and neo-Marxism have lent themselves well to radical thinking about media power, are there alternate critical theoretical currents that might be better situated to sharply interrogate, on both a normative and empirical level, issues of media authority? One possibility might be found in the recent emergence of what can loosely be defined as “anarchist social thought.” As Yale anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber writes:

“So far anarchist ideas have received almost no attention in the academy. There are still thousands of academic Marxists, but almost no academic anarchists. This lag is somewhat difficult to interpret. In part, no doubt, it’s because Marxism has always had a certain affinity with the academy which anarchism obviously lacked: Marxism was, after all, the only great social movement that was invented by a Ph.D … Anarchism, in the standard accounts, usually comes out as Marxism’s poorer cousin, theoretically a bit flat-footed but making up for brains, perhaps, with passion and sincerity”

It is not a coincidence that the anarchists of the International Workingman’s Association (IWA) were called “anti-authoritarians” by their Marxist opponents, or that anti-authoritarian remains the preferred nomenclature for many of the less sectarian anarchists working in today’s social movements. Contrary to the common stereotypes, much recent anarchist political thought is as engaged in trying to formulate the basis of legitimate authority—the right by which command is exercised in society—as it is with the permanent critique of that command. While received wisdom holds that anarchism is against power tout court (anarchy means, of course, “against rulers”), it is more accurate to say that anarchism admits the inevitability of power in some form while simultaneously seeing to render that power as local, democratic, and rational as possible—in short, to ground authority in human freedom. Political theorist Peter Manicas argues that the cluster of ideas commonly referred to as “anarchy” would better be described as anocracy; that is, the absence of illegitimate domination rather than the absence of all authority or government. Although Manaicas occasionally describes the anarchist ideal as a “human association in which authoritative and legal coercive power is altogether eliminated” he elsewhere admits that authority would exist in this society; it would nevertheless remain an authority consented to freely and locally rather than imposed from above (Manicas 1982, 146).

More recently, David Graeber has noted that anarchism is “a constant questioning, an effort to identify every compulsory or hierarchical relation in human life, and challenge them to justify themselves, and if they cannot– which usually turns out to be the case– an effort to limit their power and thus widen the scope of human liberty.” While Graeber uses the term power here, I would argue that it would be more accurate for him to speak of authority– note his emphasis on “compulsion” and his challenge to power to “justify itself.” More practically, Graber has also written that the anarchist wing of what came to be known as the “anti-globalization movement” is “not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization … is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.”

It should go without saying that I am not arguing that all scholars and pundits concerned with questions of media authority are closet anarchists, nor am I arguing that future research on authority should substitute the catechism of Bakunin for the Gospel of Marx.  I am arguing, however, that future media scholarship should be sensitive to the resonances anarchist paradigm, especially insofar as this paradigm brings questions of legitimate media authority to the fore. Such an orientation would be as relevant to current technological developments as it would be intellectually sound. The current crisis in media authority, it can safely be assumed, owes much of its origin to the impact of the internet, and the internet– as legal scholar Eben Moglen reminds us—remains, in its depths, an anti-authoritarian machine.

2 Responses to “From Power to Authority in Communications Research”

  1. onto said

    Nice discussion, chris. Another important piece on the distinctions between power, authority, violence, strength and force can be found in Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”, which is collected in a book of essays called “Crises of the Republic.” Its a critical discussion of the student and civil rights movements in the 60’s in the US and France, which is neither grounded in Marxism, liberalism, or anarchism, but rather Arendt’;s own singular, unique political position. I think her views on power and authority are completely different than Wolff’s. She also has an essay called “What is Authority?” in her book, “Between Past and Future.”

    Now, the thing about an anarchist reading of power and authority, is that you somewhat have to trailblaze your own path. For although all anarchist(ic) writers, organizations, and movements discuss power, authority and hierarchy, there is no consensus on what they mean, how they are organized, their origins, how to resist them, and more. Reading Chomsky on authority, Voltereine de Clyre on power, Stirner on the state, Geert Lovink on media, or James C. Scott on resistance all entail different epistemological and ontological committments on the nature of society, mankind, ethics, and knowledge. The point is to tease out the insights in a way that builds on each others, rather than negates them.

    Also, a novel way of looking at command and control in a post-decentralized society, or in a distributed network society, was worked out in Alexander Gallaway’s “Protocol: How control exists after decentralization.” Its about the nature of radical freedom and total control inherent the structure of the internet and, hence, our society as well. He’s trained in Marx and Deleuze, so its a crypto-anarcho-marxist reading. Very intriguing stuff.

    ok. thats it for now. Im exicted to read this, and hope to see some more of it soon!

  2. What a really incredible piece!!!

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