Micropolitics Of Schools Research Paper

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‘Micropolitics’ is a specific perspective in organization theory. It focuses on ‘those activities taken within organizations to acquire, develop, and use power and other resources to obtain one’s preferred outcomes in a situation in which there is uncertainty or dissent’ (Pfeffer 1981, p. 7) because it considers them as most important for the constitution and the workings of organizations.

This research paper will explore the uses and usefulness of this concept in educational research. It starts by outlining the micropolitical view on educational organizations. Then, it gives some examples of representative micropolitical research in order to illustrate typical topics and research strategies. Finally, it discusses criticisms of micropolitics and indicates areas for development.

1. The Concept Of Micropolitics

1.1 Main Elements

Traditional organizational theories of different origins seem to converge in describing organizations as goal oriented and rationally planned, characterized by stable objective structures, a high degree of integration, and a common purpose of its members. Conflicts between the members of an organization are considered costly and irrational ‘pathologies’ to be eradicated as soon as possible.

However, conflicts are endemic in organizational life (Ball 1987). Different stakeholders pursue their own interests which are not necessarily identical with the formulated goals. Coalitions are formed, meetings are boycotted, and formal structures are ignored. As such phenomena frequently occur in organizations, it is not helpful to exclude them from organizational theorizing: models which can cope with this ‘dark side of organizational life’ (Hoyle 1982, p. 87) are needed.

The micropolitical perspective was originally developed in the realm of profit organizations (e.g., Bacharach and Lawler 1980, Pfeffer 1981). In a 1982 seminal paper, Eric Hoyle (1982) put forward arguments for exploring the concept also for education. In 1987 Stephen Ball (1987) published the book The Micro-Politics of the School in which he used empirical material to push the development of the concept. In its wake the term ‘micropolitics’ appeared more frequently in various research papers (see Blase 1991 for a representative collection). What are the main elements of a micropolitical view of schools as presented in this early research?

(a) The micropolitical perspective is based on a specific view of organizations. They are seen as characterized by diverse goals, by interaction and relationships rather than structures, by diffuse borders and unclear areas of influence rather than clear-cut conditions of superordination and delegation, by continuous, unsystematic, reactive change rather than by longer phases of stable performance and limited projects of development. The main focus of micropolitical approaches is not the organization as it aspires to be in mission statements or organizational charts, but the organization-in-action and, in particular, the ‘space between structures’ (Hoyle 1982, p. 88) which produces enough ambiguity to allow political activities to flourish.

(b) A micropolitical approach is based on a specific image of actors. The members of organizations are seen as pursuing their own interests in their daily work. The actors may do this as individuals, they may coalesce in loosely associated interest sets, or use subdivisions of the organization (e.g., departments, professionals versus administration) as power bases. In order to protect or enhance their organizational room for maneuver, they aim to retain or obtain control of resources, such as the following (see Kelchtermans and Vandenberghe 1996, p. 7, Ball 1987, p. 16):

(i) material resources, such as time, funds, teaching materials, infrastructure, time tabling, etc.

(ii) organizational resources such as procedures, roles, and positions which enable and legitimate specific actions and decisions. They define ‘prohibited territories’ and relationships of subordination or autonomy. Thereby, they have their bearing on the actors’ chances to obtain other resources (e.g., through career, participation, etc.).

(iii) normative or ideological resources, such as values, philosophical commitments, and educational preferences. A particularly important ideological resource is the ‘definition of the organization’ which indicates what is legitimate and important in the organizational arena.

(iv) informational resources: the members of an organization are interested in obtaining organizationally relevant information and to have their expertise, knowledge, and experience acknowledged.

(v) social resources: affiliation to, support from, and reputation with influential groups within and outside the school are assets which may be mobilized for one’s organizational standing.

(vi) personal resources: also personal characteristics—such as being respected as a person, being grounded in an unchallenged identity as a teacher, etc.—are resources in organizational interactions.

(c) A micropolitical perspective pays special attention to interaction processes in organizations. These are interpreted as strategic and conflictual struggle about the shape of the organization which, in consequence, defines the members’ room for maneuver. This has the following implications:

(i) Organizational interaction is power-impregnated. It draws on the resources mentioned above for influencing the workings of an organization. However, these resources have to be mobilized in interaction in order to become ‘power.’

(ii) Power is in need of relationship. In order to satisfy his or her interests an actor needs some interaction from other actors. Power builds on dependency, which makes the relationship reciprocal, but, as a rule, asymmetric.

(iii) Power is employed from both ends of the organizational hierarchy. There are advantages of position, however, ‘micropolitical skills may be well distributed throughout the organization and position is not always an accurate indicator of influence’ (Ball 1994, p. 3824).

(iv) Actors use a multitude of strategies and tactics to interactively mobilize their resources and to prevent others from doing so, such as, for example, setting the agenda of meetings, boycotting and escalating, avoiding visibility, confronting openly or complying, care- fully orchestrating scenes behind closed doors or in public arenas, etc.

(v) Organizational interaction is seen as conflictual and competitive. ‘Confronted by competition for scarce resources and with ideologies, interests and personalities at variance, bargaining becomes crucial’ (Gronn 1986, p. 45). The relationship between control and conflict (or domination and resistance) is conceived ‘as the fundamental and contradictory base of organizational life’ (Ball 1994, p. 3822).

(vi) Organizational change is nonteleological, pervasive, and value-laden since it advances the position of certain groups at the expense of the relative status of others (see Ball 1987, p. 32). Schools are not organizations easily changed; a ‘quick-fix orientation’ in innovation will not be appropriate to their cultural complexities (see Corbett et al. 1987, p. 57).

2. Research In The Micropolitics Of Education

2.1 Methods And Strategies

If part of the micropolitical activities which are interesting for the researcher take place in privacy, if these processes are often overlain by routine activities (see Ball 1994, p. 3822), and if experienced actors regularly use strategies such as covering up actions, deceiving about real intentions etc., then researching the micropolitics of schools will have to cope with some methodological problems.

To come to grips with their object of study micropolitical studies focus on critical incidents, persons and phases that disrupt routine, for example, the appointment of a new principal, the introduction of new tasks or programs, instances of structural reorganization (e.g., a school merger), etc. They pay special attention to the processes of (re-)distribution of resources, rewards, and benefits (see Ball 1994, p. 3823) or analyze instances of organizational conflict to find out how new organizational order has been established. These strategies provide a quicker access to indicative processes, but are certainly in danger of inducing an overestimation of the proportion of conflict in organizations. Micropolitical studies try to enhance their credibility through triangulation of methods, collection of multiple perspectives, longterm engagement in the field, critical discourse in a team of researchers, and feedback from participants and external researchers.

Although there have been some attempts to tackle organizational micropolitics with quantitative means (see Blickle 1995), most studies are based on qualitative methods. There have been interview and observation studies, however, the typical strategy is a case study approach mainly based on interviews, field notes from participant or nonparticipant observation, transcripts of meetings, analyses of documents, and cross-case comparison of different sites.

A good example of such a case study is Sparkes’ (1990) three-year study of a newly appointed departmental head’s attempts at innovation: the head seeks to orientate Physical Education teaching towards a child-centered approach emphasizing mixedability grouping and individual self-paced activities which run counter to the then prevalent ‘sporting ideology.’ In the beginning the new head believes in rational change and democratic participation. The head tries to make other department members understand his own particular teaching approach before introducing changes to the curriculum. However, not all staff can be convinced through dialogue.

In his management position the departmental head can control the agenda of department meetings, time, and procedure of arriving at decisions, etc. He secures the agreement of crucial staff members before the meetings and networks with other influential persons outside his department. His proposals for innovation are nevertheless met with resistance by some staff. However, this resistance cannot prevent the structural changes being introduced. However, these structural changes cannot guarantee teachers’ conformity to the head’s educational goals within the confines of individual classrooms. Thus, he goes on to consolidate his domination of the department by careful selection of new staff and exclusion of the unwilling.

Although being successful in that his proposals for curriculum change were implemented within one year, the departmental head ended up in a situation that was characterized by conflict and uncertainty and, thus, in many respects, counteracted his own aspirations of democratic leadership. Sparkes suggests that his findings have some bearing beyond the specific case. He warns that the ‘ideology of school-centered innovation … fails to acknowledge the presence and importance of conflict and struggle both within, and between, departments … the commonly held view of teacher participation in the innovative process as ‘good’ in itself is highly questionable. The findings presented indicate that qualitative differences exist in the forms of participation available to those involved and that, to a large extent, these are intimately linked to the differential access that individuals have to a range of power resources’ (Sparkes 1990, p. 177).

2.2 Research Topics

Typical topics of micropolitical studies are the following:

Processes of change: when organizational ‘routine games’ are disrupted e.g., through educational, curricular, or organizational innovations, through the recruitment of new principals or teachers, through the introduction of quality assurance systems, then intensified processes of micropolitical relevance are to be expected. Some studies investigate how externally mandated reform is dealt with in schools: when Ball and Bowe (1991, p. 23) studied the impact of the 1988

British Educational Reform Act, they found that ‘the implementation of externally initiated changes is mediated by the established culture and history of the institution, and that such changes, ‘‘their acceptance and their implementation become sites as well as the stake of internal dispute.’’ The reform puts some possible alternative definitions about the meaning and the workings of schools on the agenda which have to be ‘processed’ in the local environments through disputes over topics such as, for example, ‘serving a community versus marketing a product’ or ‘priority to managerial or professional views of schooling.’

Leadership and the relationships in the organization: traditionally, educational ethnography had a strong classroom orientation. Micropolitics may be understood as a move to apply ethnographic methods to study the interaction of the members of the school outside the classroom. Although parents’, pupils’ and ancillary staff’s voices are included in some studies, most research focuses on the interaction of teachers. Since steering and regulation of schoolwork are at the heart of the micropolitical approach, it is no wonder that issues of leadership have been frequently investigated (see Ball 1987, p. 80). Holders of senior positions must acquire micropolitical skills for their career advancement and they ‘have much to lose if organizational control is wrested from them’ (Ball 1994, p. 3824) which makes them perfect foci for study. While many of these studies concentrated on sketching vivid images of a ‘politics of subordination,’ Blase and Anderson (1995) developed a framework for a ‘micropolitics of empowerment’ through facilitative and democratic leadership.

Socialization and professional Development of teachers: the politically impregnated organizational climate in schools is the context in which individual teachers develop their professional identity (Kelchtermans and Vandenberghe 1996). During the first years of their career teachers concentrate on acquiring knowledge and competencies with respect to academic and control aspects of classroom instruction. Later on they build up a ‘diplomatic political perspective,’ because they feel under ‘constant scrutiny’ by pupils, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators (see Blase 1991, p. 189, Kelchtermans and Vandenberghe 1996). A pervasive feeling of ‘vulnerability’ induces many teachers to develop a range of protective strategies such as low risk grading, documentation of assessment and instruction, avoidance of risky topics and extracurricular activities, etc. (see Blase 1991, p. 193). Thus, it is no wonder that some authors claim that the acquisition of political competence is fundamental to teachers’ career satisfaction (see Ball 1994, p. 3824). Since micropolitical perceptions and competencies are almost absent in beginning teachers’ interpretive frameworks, attention to the induction phase is important (Kelchtermans and Vandenberghe 1996, p. 12).

Understanding schools as organizations: since micropolitics is an approach to organization theory all these studies aim to contribute to our understanding of schools as organizations. There are many studies which prove the intensity of power-impregnated activity in schools and analyze typical causes and process forms. It has been argued that political control strategies are a characteristic part of school life ‘precisely because the professional norms of teacher autonomy limit the use of the effectiveness of more overt forms of control’ (Ball 1994, p. 3824).

In Iannaconne’s (1991) view, the unique contribution a micropolitical approach can offer lies in exploiting the metaphor of ‘society’ for schools: a typical school is organized like a ‘caste society’ since a majority of its members are ‘subject to its laws without the right to share in making them’ (Iannaconne 1991, p. 469). From the characteristics of a ‘caste society’ some hypotheses about schools may be derived, e.g.:

(a) Such societies are characterized by great tensions between the castes and a fragile balance of power.

(b) They tend to conceal the internal differences of a caste from others. Consequently, critical self-examination of castes and open debate over policy issues is difficult.

(c) They tend to avoid fundamental conflicts and to displace them into petty value conflicts.

‘In schools, as in small rural towns, the etiquette of gossip characterizes teacher talk. Faculty meetings wrangle over trivial matters, avoiding philosophic and ethical issues like the plague’ (Iannaconne 1991, p. 469).

3. Criticism And Areas For Development

The first wave of research and conceptual work in micropolitics at the beginning of the 1990s has triggered some criticism which will be discussed in order to identify possible limitations, but also areas for development.

(a) Many authors of the micropolitical approach revel in examples of illegitimate strategies: secrecy, deception, and crime add much to the thrill of micropolitical studies. Some critics argue that talking about the pervasiveness of ‘illegitimate power’ produces itself a ‘micropoliticization’ of practice and will undermine confidence in organizations. This claim implies that a second meaning of ‘micropolitics’ is introduced: it does not (only) refer to an approach in organization theory (which analyses both legitimate and illegitimate interactions and their effects for the structuration of an organization), but refers to those specific activities and attitudes in organizations which are based on power politics with illegitimate means. This conceptual move, however, produces problems: how should it be possible to draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad organizational politics’ since it were precisely situations characterized by diverse goals and contested expertise which made a concept like ‘micropolitics’ necessary?

(b) Although the proponents of micropolitics are right to criticize a presupposition of organizational consensus, it is unsatisfactory to interpret any consensus as a form of domination (see Ball 1987, p. 278, Ball 1994, p. 3822). Many early studies did not include cooperative or consensual interactions (see Blase 1991, p. 9). It will be necessary to develop conceptual devices to account for relationships of co-agency which neither dissolve any cooperation into subtle forms of domination nor gloss over the traces of power which are at the core of collaboration and support (see Altrichter and Salzgeber 2000, p. 104).

(c) In focusing on strategic aspects of action micropolitical approaches are again in danger of overemphasizing the ‘rationality’ of organizational action. To understand the workings of organizations it may be necessary to consider actions which are mainly influenced by emotions and affect, which have not been carefully planned according to some interests, as well as unintended consequences of otherwise motivated actions.

(d) Although being right to put the spotlight on the potential instability of organizational processes, early micropolitical studies had some difficulty in conceptualizing the relative stability and durability of organizations, which we can observe every day in many organizations. For this purpose, it will be necessary to bring agency and structure in a balanced conceptual relationship: micropolitics will not deal with ‘relationships rather than structures’ (Ball 1994, p. 3822) but precisely with the interplay between interaction and structure.

(e) The understanding of politics displayed in many early micropolitical studies was quite unsatisfactory, not to say unpolitical. Politics was often seen as the opposite of truth and reason; it was associated with treason, conspiracy and accumulation of influence as if fair and democratic ways of negotiation in organizations were inconceivable. More recent studies, for example, Blase and Anderson (1995), seem to overcome this bias. It was also criticized that in some micropolitical studies the external relationships of the organization were dissolved into the interactions between individual actors. However it must be said that some studies took care to account for the societal embedding of organizational interactions (see Ball and Bowe 1991). In the meantime there is general agreement that this must be a feature of sound micropolitical studies (see Blase 1991, p. 237).

Problems (c) and (e) may be overcome by reference to Giddens’ (1992) theory of structuration, to Crozier and Friedberg’s (1993) concept of organizational games, and to Ortmann et al.’s (1990) studies of power in organizational innovation. On this conceptual basis, organizational structure may be seen as an outcome of and resource for social actions which enables and restricts actions, but never fully determines them. Organizations are webs woven from concrete interactions of (self-)interested actors. They acquire some spatial-temporal extension through the actors’ use and reproduction of ‘games.’ The ‘game’ is the point of conceptual intersection in which the analytically divided elements of agency and structure, of individual and organization meet. The game works as an ‘indirect integration mechanism which relates the diverging and/or contradictory action of relatively autonomous actors’ (Crozier and Friedberg 1993, p. 4). In order to take action and to pursue their own interests members of organizations must at least partly use structural resources of the organization i.e., they are forced to play within the organizational rules, and thereby, they reproduce these rules. The functioning of an organization may be explained as ‘result of a series of games articulated among themselves, whose formal and informal rules indirectly integrate the organization members’ contradictory power strategies’ (Ortmann et al. 1990, p. 56). The interlocked character of the games and the high amount of routine elements in social practices are major reasons for the relative stability of organizations (see Altrichter and Salzgeber 2000, p. 106).


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