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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Unmasking Power and Knowledge: Towards a Foucauldian Method for Understanding Board Governance - Tori

Much of the literature on nonprofit board governance explores various environmental, organizational, and other forces that influence board decision making. Scholars draw heavily on empirical research to illuminate causal connections between theory and practice. In their June 2009 article, Moving Governance Research Forward: A Contingency-Based Framework and Data Application, Ostrower and Stone suggest that a framework is needed that will reintegrate elements of the external environment back into research on nonprofit governance.[1] Miller-Millesen contends that future opportunities for research into board governance should combine multiple theoretical perspectives including the agency theory framework as well as the “social, political, end environmental considerations that the resource dependence and institutional theorist deem important.”[2] Both Ostrower/Stone and Miller-Millesen are quick to caution that much more empirical research is needed to understand board governance. Ostrower and Stone further argue that research should proceed inductively from research findings to theory. While more empirical research will certainly strengthen the burgeoning literature on board governance, scholars should also strive to articulate their underlying assumptions about human agency and how decisions are mediated by social forces.

Western social science and epistemology are rich with theories explaining how political, economic, social, environmental, and historic forces impact human behavior and thought. Prominent French social theorist, Michael Foucault, spent much of his academic career wrestling with how various modern institutions grounded in Enlightenment rationalism the limits “of what we are saying, thinking, and doing.”[3] Foucault applied his methodology, a combination of what he labels archaeology (analysis of discourse) and genealogy (power relations that support and legitimate discourse), to specific historical experiences (medicine, crime, madness, etc) with the goal of understanding how certain courses of action are limited, conditioned, and/or institutionalized by the nexus of truth and power. Foucault writes “In a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize, and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated, nor implemented without the productions, accumulation, circulation, and functioning of a discourse. . . We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.”[4] Implicit in his writings is a rather bleak conception of human agency, one that is the product of the mechanisms of truth/power regimes. His normative goal is to illuminate how social practices have been developed and structured by an array of historical, cultural, economic, and political forces.

Many of the questions Foucault wrestles with can also be used to more fully examine the forces that influence nonprofit board governance. For example, in her article New and Improved? A Case Study of Nonprofit Policy Governance, Ann Williams explores the decision by a nonprofit board to adopt a business-oriented governance model known as the Carver Method. After outlining the conflict between the values of the board’s traditional governance model and the Carver method, Williams advises nonprofit boards to use caution in adopting “unproven management models, which are often seductively categorized as ‘best practices.’”[5] She states that the board was unable to reconcile its beliefs in personal relationships and helping behavior with the Carver Method’s market based values. A Foucauldian inquiry would further investigate the various power and knowledge regimes that allow certain techniques of governance to achieve “best practices” status. This exploration into how truth and power intersect to shape decisions made by nonprofit boards would provide an opportunity for scholars to more fully elucidate their assumptions about human agency and causality.

[1] Francie Ostrower and Michael M. Stone, “Moving Governance Research Forward: A Contingency-Based Framework and Data Application,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, June 2009, p. 920.

[2] Judith L. Miller-Millesen, “Understanding the Behavior of Nonprofit Boards of Directors: A Theory Based Approach,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 2003, p. 542.

[3] Michael Foucault, “What is Enlightenment,” in Paul Rabinow ed., The Foucault Reader, (New York: Pantheon, 1985), p. 34.

[4] Michael Foucault, “Two Lectures,” in Michael Kelly, ed. Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate (Cambridge: MIT Press 1998), p. 31.

[5] Ann C. Williams, “New and Improved? A Case Study of Nonprofit Policy Governance,” Human Organization, Volume 69, No. 3, 2010, p. 303.

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