Criqitue of Pfeffer's Power in Organizations (class assignment by Keith Rollag and Dave Owens)

Power in Organizations, Jeffrey Pfeffer (1981) Ballinger Publishing Company: Cambridge


By confronting a taboo within American OB circles, Power in Organizations has become the standard references for students of power and politics. Pfeffer's systematic exploration of power succeeds in deftly educating both students and practitioners about the many dimensions and manifestations of power--from assessing it to understanding its sources, from showing strategies used to wield it to measuring the effects of its use. While the value garnered from these insights is certainly large, there are still flaws in the book that detract from Pfeffer's otherwise cogent presentation. Fortunately these flaws seem limited to a single chapter. Unfortunately it is the first, and we believe that this may cause readers to misunderstand and undervalue the importance of this vintage text.

In the first chapter Pfeffer takes on several tasks. He aims to define power and politics, to distinquish between power and authority, to position his political model against other decision-making frameworks, and to explain why power is a neglected topic in American OB discourse. It quickly becomes apparent that this is more than anyone could adequately cover in a single chapter. Pfeffer does begin with a thorough definition of power and politics, and leans heavily on Weber to distinquish authority as legitimated power. But the solid foundation he starts to build becomes quite cursory as he suddenly turns to nit-picking his contemporaries' definitions of politics. Rather than bolstering his own definition, this strategy merely distracts the reader and adds needless confusion to a strong beginning.

Pfeffer sidetracks the reader again later in the chaper, where he attempts to differentiate his yet-to-be-defined political theory of organizations from the rational, the bureaucratic, and the decision process models of organization. He devotes over 10 pages to a painstaking definition of these other models, apparently abandoning the notion of power completely. After this lengthy diversion Pfeffer's explanation of his political model in the last five pages seems rushed and disjointed, falling between the cracks of the other theories instead of standing proudly beside them.

In contrast, the middle of the chapter does stand quite proud. Here Pfeffer delivers a wake-up call to American OB, leveling the charge that power has been ignored because raising the question of power raises the questioning of power. Unfortunately Pfeffer's tone here comes off as slightly paranoid, carping, and rather off-putting to virgin readers of OB literature. His presentation of this argument is ill-timed. Once elaborated, Pfeffer's political model of power can ultimately inspire a powerful, subtle, analytic argument supporting his iconoclastic view; but by the first chapter he hasn't presented enough of his theory to believably invoke it. It is clear that he feels the need to justify his "political pursuit", but we think that he should have rested with his claim that everyone recognizes power structures as ubiquitous and important in modern organizations, and cast the subversion theory in a more subtle tone in another place in the book.

In all, Pfeffer's overly ambitious and divergent aims for the first chapter and his cursory handling of theoretical foundations leaves the reader confused and potentially unconvinced that a political model of organizations is distinct from more traditional viewpoints. And if this wasn't discouraging enough, the reader may feel attacked to boot. But all is not lost. This was only the first chapter; the reader that (we hope) forges ahead will be rewarded. In later chapters Pfeffer is more graceful and focused as he explores the richness of the political paradigm. Even if one doesn't eventually agree with his points about the sociology of conflict and the reasons for ignoring power, his book ensures that the discussion leaves the realm of polemic and enters that of sophisticated discourse. And that is both the minimum standard and the highest achievement we can hope for in a scholarly book.