Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Cautionary Tale about "The Dimension of Domination"

One of the reasons why I continue to try to draw upon social theory as more than a collection of academic abstractions is that I continue to find diagnostic value in the three "dimensions" of Anthony Giddens' structuration theory when I try to address real-world workplace situations that run the gamut from problematic to downright pathological. By way of a refresher, these are sort of the underlying "channels," which regulate the processes of social interaction, including the "content of messages exchanged" through communication. They are:

  1. Signification, which is concerned with the question of "what things mean" and, at a deeper level, just what those "things" are in the world in which we engage in social interaction.
  2. Legitimation, which is concerned with identifying and honoring normative patterns of interaction.
  3. Domination, which is basically concerned with who gets to exercise authority over whom.

Those who like to wax poetic over such matters as innovation (particularly in the interests of economic growth) tend to play up what happens along the dimension of signification, often avoiding (through either naive ignorance or deliberate choice) the other two dimensions. This is a "tragic flaw;" and, as David Mamet demonstrated by writing a tragic play (The Water Engine) about an inventor who comes up with a machine that runs on water and is then brutally destroyed (along with all apparent evidence of his invention) by agents of "Big Oil," I use the adjective "tragic" in more than a metaphorical sense.

I write this all to introduce a long article by Wellford Wilms, which just appeared on Truthdig and provides an equally tragic account of the triumph of domination over signification in the public sector, specifically the domain of public education. The setting is the Baldwin Park High School in the Los Angeles County School District. The basic "plot line" is laid out in Wilms' first three paragraphs:

Eighteen teachers, Baldwin Park High School’s “leadership team,” sit in a semicircle with their arms folded across their chests looking at the floor. The year is 2003 and the new principal, Julie Infante, an exuberant 44-year-old woman, explains how they are going to lead this high school out of its academic doldrums together. The teachers are clearly skeptical, either distrusting what Infante is saying or disbelieving that they can do it. The Los Angeles County school has hit bottom. The campus is littered with trash, fights are common, students cut classes without penalty, test scores are so low that the school’s accreditation is in jeopardy, and the faculty is demoralized. The stakes are high because failure is an invitation for the state to take over.

Remarkably, in three years, between 2003 and 2006, with coaching from UCLA’s School Management Program, the teachers and the principal accomplished a stunning success. By every important academic measure, the school made impressive gains. The campus was cleaned up, the number of disciplinary cases fell, student absenteeism declined, and test scores improved dramatically. Not surprisingly, the teachers felt more positive about the administrators and less isolated from one another, and their job satisfaction increased. But, in 2006, in an equally astonishing turn of events, the board of education and the superintendent removed Infante, replacing her with a new principal who began to reverse the bold steps that had produced the turnaround.

What happened? Why would the board and superintendent undo the actions that had produced such remarkable results? It was because they failed to understand what Infante and the UCLA coaches had accomplished. They were blinded by their own ambitions and by their conviction that administrative top-down control is the only way to run the schools. What they could not see was that Infante had turned the leadership of the school upside down, leading from behind the scenes and encouraging teachers to take control. As the teachers expanded their responsibility, a new professional authority began to emerge among them that translated into new norms for the school. Instead of blaming everyone but themselves for the students’ failure, the teachers took on collective responsibility for the students’ success.

Wilms then provides an extensive analysis of the events and the motives behind those events. His bibliography draws upon much of my favorite reading matter, including books I have specifically cited on this blog, such as Raymond Callahan's Education and the Cult of Efficiency and Robert Blauner's Alienation and Freedom). Nevertheless, the language of his third paragraph indicates that, like so many others, Wilms is determined to keep his argument confined to the dimension of signification ("they failed to understand" and "they could not see"). He does not explicitly frame his narrative in terms of the question of what happens when signification goes head-to-head with domination. Like the Galileo that Bertolt Brecht conceived for his "biographical" play, he cannot imagine an authority that would not be swayed by the power of raw evidence and irrefutable logical reasoning based on that evidence. He thus ignores the theme that pervades so many of Brecht's plays (not to mention The Water Engine), which is that, in any confrontation with signification, domination will prevail because of its very nature to dominate.

One lesson that may be drawn from this tragedy is that any innovative action should be preceded by asking, "Who's in charge?" (or "Who's really in charge?" to stress that this question is rarely answered by an objective chain-of-command analysis of an organization chart). If those who dominate do not "buy into" that action when it is first being considered, then it is unlikely to survive a subsequent confrontation, no matter how successful it has been. Furthermore, even more important than "getting off the ground" is the problem of "staying in flight." The field of domination is a highly volatile one. Having authority on Monday never guarantees having the same authority on Tuesday, and this is equally true in both public and private sectors. Managing an innovative undertaking thus becomes a matter of "eternal vigilance." Much as we would like to believe otherwise, there is always someone with the power to cut off an initiative, no matter how strong the support for that initiative may be. Whoever is responsible for the initiative is therefore obliged to know who that someone is and how to keep the initiative on that person's radar in a positive light. "Positive," of course, may have little to do with who benefits from the initiative and everything to do with how that someone can maintain a position of power or acquire a stronger one.

I write all this with a reputation for trying to call out endorsements of innovation that turn out to be little more than reckless talk. The ultimate lesson from Wilms' account is that, while innovation may be absolutely essential for getting out of a crisis situation, if recklessly managed it runs the risk of doing more harm than good. That recklessness comes from choosing to wear blinders while planning and executing one's actions, blinders to the larger context in which those actions are embedded. Taking the blinders off means that you have to deal with all sorts of issues that have no real bearing on the problem you are trying to solve; but, if those issues are neglected, they could well destroy the ultimate solution, however valuable and appealing it may be.


Anonymous said...

Oh, you are so right. As a new principal with "innovative" ideas and a faculty ready to follow (most of them anyway), I learned this lesson the hard way. Sadly, being new to the school system, I didn't understand the dynamics of that system. I was hired for change, but in a system that was predominated by fear and an established "good old boy" network, that really wasn't possible. I'm wiser for the experience today, but the bumps and bruises have taken a long time to heal.

Stephen Smoliar said...

has just appeared on Truthdig, which is a valuable supplement to this post and the article by Wellford Wilms that it cites. The implication of the comments is that, rather than documenting that "triumph of domination over signification" at a Los Angeles High School, he may have been demonstrating it through his own exercise of "the authority of the author," as Michel Foucault has put it. A previous
had suggested that Wilms work was flawed, but the author of that comment never substantiated the claim. That substance has now been provided by this more recent comment.