Monday, November 12, 2007

27. Authority as Interpretation of Power

27. Let’s begin with a definition of authority by Wayne Meeks from the introduction to Shutzs’ book Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority

The central point, which is the motif of this book, is that authority is best understood as the interpretation of power. That is, the authoritative person, in this case the apostle, calls upon the willing acceptance of his power by the followers by providing for them an interpretive framework, in the form of a master narrative or a pregnant constellation of metaphors, that makes sense of power that they themselves may experience or have experienced. In a sense, then, the interpretive process makes that power available to them. The interpretation of power is thus also an application of power. p. xxi.

An illustration of this definition of authority can be seen in the field of business consulting. When a company faces certain challenges and obstacles on their way to success, they tend to hire a business consultant to come in and help them through key phases of their development. The consultant will survey the business, conduct marketing analysis, study the business as an organizational entity, etc. When the consultant meets with the top dogs of the company, she will offer a successful model, plan or set of business principles for the company to implement.

In essence, what the consultant is doing is an act of interpretation. She is taking the wisdom and expertise she has gained from books, life experiences, collected data etc., and is interpreting this data in light of the companies unique circumstances. If the top dogs understand and ascribe to her proposals, she becomes an authority to their company. It should be noted however that, from the company’s perspective, this authority does not yet exist until they understand and decide to accept her proposals. This means that authority is a relational dynamic which is dependent upon the willingness of others to confer it.

This relational dynamic of authority gives it a sort of fragile quality. This is primarily due to it being dependent upon people’s willingness to accept another’s interpretation. Because authority is conferred upon an individual by another, it is within the ‘others’ ability to disrobe the individual of their authority. This divesting of authority would take place as a refusal to ascribe to the persons interpretations. A rejection of an interpretation, then, is invariably a rejection of authority. This rejection of authority brings with it a severing of connection to the source of power which the interpreter is trying to mediate.

Using Shultz’s definition of authority, power, in this consulting illustration would be represented as success for the company. What success would look like and how to get there is an act of interpretation by the consultant. Once the company subscribes to her interpretation, she becomes an authority to them. What this would look like initially can be seen in this diagram.

In this initial phase of the relationship, the consultant stands as a link between the company and success. From where the company sits, she is an exclusive channel to the access of power. This qualifies the relationship between the company and the consultant as that of giver and receiver. The company is in the position of receiving from the consultant by virtue of the consultants’ relationship to power. This places the consultant in a critical role. She must be able to both accurately interpret and fully communicate this power if the company is to 1. Ascribe to her interpretation and 2. Be empowered for success.

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