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The Paradox of Empowerment: Suspended Power and the Possibility of Resistance - Book Review

Ronald F. Wendt. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001. 192 pp. $58.00.

If we pause for a moment and consider the recent proliferation of material that takes empowerment as its subject matter, we are confronted with a bewildering choice of approaches. From starry-eyed proselytizers to hard-nosed critics, from devoted disciples to cynical nay-sayers, it seems that everyone has to take a position on empowerment now. Indeed, empowerment is bandied about so promiscuously these days that it is in danger of suffering from what the historian Edward Peters (1996) called "semantic atrophy"--i.e., a word gets used so often and in so many inappropriate situations that it tends to lose its usefulness, even when it could be most helpful. Because empowerment is such a prime candidate for this kind of rhetorical debasement, one might think that the world is crying out for a book that cuts through the mire to come up with a parsimonious definition so that we can all systematically work through its analytical implications. Wendt has taken up this challenge with alacrity, but, in doing so, he has turned it on its head by showing that developing one stable and universal definition of empowerment is probably impossible and certainly undesirable. In fact, there are any number of possible definitions of empowerment that are, to a greater or lesser extent, founded on some kind of paradox, hence the title of his book.

Wendt has come at his subject matter with one important presupposition: regardless of its specific context or usage, the term "empowerment" is frequently deployed ironically to legitimate management practices that are palpably unempowering to those on the receiving end. In this sense, Wendt is primarily dealing with matters related to the "discourses" of business and management. This interest in the semantics of empowerment is hardly surprising. Wendt is a professor of communications who describes himself on page 2 as a "critical/postmodern ethnographer." For many people, such a term would be sufficient to make them roll their eyes and sigh, "Not another postmodernist." It would be a shame, however, if the reader never got beyond this early confession, for parts of Wendt's book have considerable merit. To be sure, all of it is written in a style that, at times, appears to be willfully dense and obscurantist, but at other times Wendt captures significant points in such a graphic and compelling way that things suddenly click into place and, for a moment, you almost forgive him even his more lurid prose. Unfortunately, most of these "Uh huh" moments are unevenly distributed throughout the book. This really is a book of two distinct halves, for although it is divided into four parts, parts 1 and 2 contain most of the material likely to resonate with an audience that also reads the Administrative Science Quarterly. To be frank, some passages from parts 3 and 4 are likely to try the patience of even the most sympathetic readers, regardless of their disciplinary background. So, be warned: to get something out of this book, be prepared to do some hard work!

The book starts with an introduction that provides the rationale for the main text. The line of argumentation runs as follows: (1) things like "empowerment" and "participation" are making today's organizations better places to work, or so we are told; (2) using postmodern social theory (especially the work of Michel Foucault), we can disabuse ourselves of this myth; and (3) we need to develop innovative strategies--the so-called "possibilities of resistance"--that counter the organizational arrangements associated with this spurious notion of empowerment. In the first half of the book, points (1) and (2) are well made, but Wendt's consideration of point (3) in the second half of the book is less effective.

In part 1, Wendt maps out what he means by an organizational paradox: "... a self-referential and contradictory statement--usually an injunction or imperative--that causes confusion, frustration, silence, and/or a sense of incompetence in the listener, and usually leads to a no-win or double binding situation" (p. 15). His concept of the organizational double bind is particularly important because it goes to the very heart of his critique of empowerment. It is that genuine resistance entails going beyond the feelings of inevitability and powerlessness associated with the paradoxical demands placed on us in today's organizations, stepping outside of existing power relations in some way to bring forth new ones that (one hopes) will be more edifying for the participants. Wendt then goes on to demonstrate how specific organizational practices that invoke empowerment are paradoxical and lead to double binds, in the process taking in such things as participative management, kaizen, total quality management, and teamwork. These chapters should be disconcerting to those who believe that such practices do not have a darker side, though Wendt's use of Zen proverbs or "koans" to introduce each paradox may strike some readers as an unnecessary stylistic conceit.

Part 2 represents a contrast to part 1 in that it contains two self-contained chapters that are based on ethnographic case studies of women service workers and the experiences of a male tenure-track professor, respectively. This latter "Story of Joe" (actually what Wendt calls a "composite" of the experiences of several unspecified young white male professors) represents something of a watershed in the book, as the emphasis shifts away from the trials and tribulations of the corporate workplace to the corridors of North American universities. In a sense, this shift is a logical one, for Wendt is reiterating the point that people like David Noble (2001) have been making for some time: not only are American universities beholden to corporate interests, they are themselves becoming increasingly corporatized, a site for managerial experimentation, including the practices of empowerment. As a corollary of this point, in part 3 Wendt explores the paradoxes faced by the faculty and students of today's universities. Much of this will strike a chord with readers who are, like Wendt, employees of venerable American universities, but when we get to part 4, this shift in focus proves to be the source of the book's main structural weakness. Up to this point, our expectations have been raised; we are expecting some innovative thinking apropos of the possibilities of resistance in today's workplaces. But what do we get? A prescription for a "radical pedagogy" that utilizes storytelling as its principal mode of resistance. (Boje, 1991, made a similar point previously, although Wendt is rather uncharitable about his contribution.) Now, I for one am not opposed to such an approach per se. Universities, like any other workplace, are beset with their own problems of power and domination and, as such, practices of resistance will be present. It must be said, however, that it is not obvious how radical pedagogy can help employees of the manufacturing and service organizations mentioned in parts 1 and 2 to cope with their own paradoxes and double binds of empowerment. This is a failing insofar as we might reasonably expect some more detailed reflection on this at some stage. Finally, Wendt's epilogue (a piece of futurology reminiscent of Raymond Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) reminds us how difficult it is to include fiction effectively in a book of this kind.

Overall, the main problem of the book, as I see it, is that although it contains many interesting observations, reflections, and speculations, none of them is sufficient, either alone or in combination, to sustain a text of this length. Moreover, the narrowing of the focus from organizations in general to the university in particular that occurs midway through the book does not help it to address the wider issues of organizational restructuring and workplace resistance coherently. This is a shame because, digested as individual essays, many of the book's chapters provide a useful corrective to the more exaggerated claims made these days concerning the emancipatory effects of empowerment.


Boje, D. M.

1991 "The storytelling organization: Storytelling performance in an office supply firm." Administrative Science Quarterly, 36: 106-126.

Noble, D.

2001 Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, E.

1996 Torture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Graham Sewell

Department of Management

University of Melbourne

Parkville 3010 Australia

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

Bibliography for: "The Paradox of Empowerment: Suspended Power and the Possibility of Resistance - Book Review"

Graham Sewell "The Paradox of Empowerment: Suspended Power and the Possibility of Resistance - Book Review". Administrative Science Quarterly. FindArticles.com. 26 Jun, 2011. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4035/is_4_47/ai_107762254/

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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