Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Power 2015 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Tracing Power (Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power)



By Jessica Broe-Vayda

How do we begin an analysis of power in the university? Over the course of the last three months, our research collective has attempted to disentangle a variety of practices, techniques, relations, modes of action, discourses, and administrative initiatives in order to trace how the university and the organizations that work within it exercise power. Drawing on the theoretical work of Foucault, Rose, Allen, Cruikshank, and Li, we see power as a relationship rather than an effect, a mode of action, and an act upon action (or those that may arise). As Allen (2003) argues, power is “an immanent force which constitutes its own organization, not one imposed from above or from the outside, power is seen as coextensive with its field of operation. Power is practiced before it is possessed: It is this that gives rise to the roundaboutness of power, not some facile notion that it is a shadowy force lurking in the murky recesses” (9). Countering theories of power that suggest it somehow flows through networks of social actors, Allen instead contends that if power is not a thing that can be possessed, neither can it “flow”; rather, it is relational, mediated, and the effect of social interaction always already constituted in space and time.

Orienting our questions towards practices – “the how”– therefore allowed us to demystify social processes and relations, and identify the techniques and practices that act upon or govern action. Theorizing power in this manner also enabled us to trace the means through which power incites, induces, seduces, makes choices and actions easier or more difficult, and–in the extreme–constrains or forbids (Foucault 1982). More specifically, our individual ethnographic projects allowed us to explore theories of pastoral power, governmentality, assemblages, technologies of the self, network theory, asylums, bureaucratic power, dissent, and collective effervescence. The following sections provide more detail on each of these theoretical perspectives.

Understanding what Power can Do

By Laura Beach

John Allen, Barbara Cruikshank and Nikolas Rose all explore the conceptualization and manifestation of power. Ultimately locating power in the particular, they work against the commonplace notion that “power is everywhere.” These authors situate power temporally, spatially, geographically and interpersonally, mapping out the characteristics of what is typically conceptualized as “faceless” and ubiquitous (Cruickshank, 1999). Power is produced and plays out not only “at the level of the molecular, the little and the mundane,” as Nikolas Rose notes (and Cruikshank artfully illustrates through her anecdote on the Minnesota Dumpster Lockup), but also through the “rhythms and relationships of particular places”; power is not a “thing,” but rather a “relational effect of social interaction” (Rose, 1999: 11; Allen, 1999: 2). It is not a unidirectional force of domination, emanating from some hidden epicentre – power is neither inherently “good” nor “evil”, neither all-enslaving nor all-empowering. Allen distinguishes two types of relational ties through which power is established: instrumental ties, through which power is exerted over people, and associational ties, which enable people with the power to act and hold the possibility of empowerment for all.

Allen’s concept of the instrumental relational tie resonates with Rose’s discussion of Foucaultian governance as the “conduct of conduct”; both authors describe the exercise of power over individuals, emphasizing the heterogenous nature of this relationship. Though commonly thought of as a mode of domination, power has multiple, qualitatively different manifestations – including authority, coercion, seduction, and volunteerism. Cruikshank, for example, describes the individual-as-citizen within the paradigm of the “will to empower” as simultaneously gently coerced and voluntarily self-governing. She contends that democratic citizens are “both the effects and the instruments” of political power” (Cruikshank, 1999: 4). The key piece in each of these texts, however, is not what power does, but what power can do – the possibilities that are opened up, for action and for change, once we begin to map out the minutia. As Allen argues, “it matters that we understand how power exercises us. For it is through this varied understanding, where we are able to recognize the powerful and not so powerful forces that face us, that the possibility for empowerment lies” (1999:12).


Allen, John. 2011. Lost geographies of power. Vol. 79. John Wiley & Sons.

Cruikshank, Barbara. 1999. The will to empower: Democratic citizens and other subjects. Cornell University Press.

Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge university press.

Technologies of the Self

By Jessica Broe-Vayda

Goffman (1961) argues that, “to engage in a particular activity in the prescribed spirit is to accept being a particular kind of person who dwells in a particular kind of world” (186). To paraphrase, Goffman argues that subjectification occurs through a combination of action and acceptance; subjects are interpellated through their adherence to or denial of prescribed actions. Power not only offers specific subject positions within which individuals can fit themselves, but as Cruikshank (1999) suggests, in contemporary liberal democracies, productive citizens are made with the capacity to act in specific ways, and only after that point are they regulated through the will to self-govern. In short, power helps make subjects and shapes their conduct.

In her introduction to The Will to Empower, Cruikshank details a semi-ethnographic project aimed at uncovering the person, policy, or governing body responsible for the systematic enclosure of previously open and accessible space: a set of neighbourhood dumpsters that were locked up, almost as a group. She began by searching for a sovereign power – someone with the ability to command widespread behavioural change under threat of punishment – but quickly discovered that her neighbourhood had changed not because of a directive, but because of a number of micro-actions initiated by individuals. Cruikshank’s discovery – that individual people took responsibility for small changes aimed at improving their neighbourhood – is but one example of self-government.

An analysis of self-government offers an interesting point of entry into an investigation of institutional power. Cruikshank argues that, in liberal democracies, individual subjects are transformed into self-motivated citizens capable of directing their own governments through specific technologies of citizenship. In a similar fashion, Rose argues that human subjects are “made technical, embodied in a whole series of interventions aimed at producing the human being as a moral creature” (1999:42). These techniques of the self are embodied in language, knowledge, technique, the fabrication of spaces, and established modes of conduct expected within them.


Associational Power

By Shannon McKechnie

The first thought I had when I left our first class was, what if power in the University isn’t always negative? There are so many facets to the University experience, and yes, students are too often encountering barriers and limitations on their activities, studies, and opportunities at the University. But I wondered if some part of the University existed to counter that negative experience. Many of my most positive, enabling experiences at the University had been events or programs delivered by “Student Life.” I decided to investigate this division with these questions in mind.

I was able to identify that the staff that make up this division of the University are instilled with a deep, earnest sense of care for students. Their goal is to translate this care into an empowering service for students to access that assists in their overall development as students and as people. Allen (2003) calls this type of power “associational,” in that it connects people to achieve a common goal: a type of power with others, rather than over others. In class, we identified this power as having a pastoral quality, drawing on Foucault’s analysis of pastoral power.

Tracing power in the University was the core structure of our conversations, field sites, and analyses. It was important to me that I reflect on my own experiences in the University and investigate the power that exists to empower.

Forging Alignments

By Henry Lee Heinonen

One of the ongoing themes in this class has been the dispersal of power – how power is almost never a simple top-down equation. The wellness programs at the University of Toronto are no exception – they include myriad parties and methodologies in their treatment of students. Using the assemblage as a theoretical base, Jessica B-V and I discussed the mapping of the school’s wellness parties as the are. Here, I focus on one of Li’s six practices of assemble: forging alignments. Li (2007) describes the practices of assemblage, beginning with enrollment. In our assemblage the two of us identified “parties to the assemblage,” (Li 2007:267), many of which were drawn from my discussion with an informant at the Health and Wellness Centre. I found that by clustering parties by function, we might be able to get at how the alignments between them are forged.

Here is an example of my mapping (made in the middle of the term and modified since, but still incomplete):

Organizers – These parties are the top level enrolment apparatus

Mental Health Framework (document). I would follow Latour and the Actor Network Theorists here in arguing that this object does act. The way two of my interviewees discussed this document, it seemed to affect their efforts in programming and outreach – guiding and informing their conduct. It was referred to as “the framework.”

Provostial committee – the closest thing to a central organizer or leader in the effort to promote wellness on campus through , though they don’t have the authority to actually pick which programs are offered by implementers.

Working committees – I discovered in an interview that the mental health framework was designed by several working committees made up of administrators in various sectors of the university. Members of these groups continue to meet semi-regularly.

Implementers and Disseminators (of care). All these parties attempt to enrol the subjects of care (students) – and create unwell subjects to care for!

Hart House – via Weekly Wellness. According to HH admin, WW is designed in accordance with The Framework.

KPE (Kinesiology and Physical Education) – through MoveU. Research conducted out of the Athletic Centre and other buildings informs implementers and helps modify programming at the ground level.

Health and Wellness Centre – through medical care (mental and physical) and through drop-in classes. According to admin, staff of HWC and HH meet regularly to ensure there isn’t overlap of programming (i.e. two yoga classes).

Individual faculty members – While The Framework is the main centre of enrolment – the mission statement and the vision – individual faculty members on campus modify treatment using their unique skillsets and backgrounds.

Financial Support

Trillium Foundation – 3 years ago gave a donation to the Faculty of Kinesiology. Out of this donation, MoveU was born.

Students – fund implementers through fees.

The Subjects of Care

Students – who are to be enrolled into practices of care by everyone on campus, according to one informant. The Healthy Campus is one in which every single person working on campus is supposed to identify students who are “languishing” (language used in The Framework and amongst admin) and then direct them into the assemblage.

Power through Networks

By Alexandre

Week after week in my fieldwork, I kept noticing a pattern in how relationships and people interacted around me during events surrounding student governance. I then stumbled upon “Networks, counter-networks and political socialisation – paths and barriers to high-cost/risk activism in the 2010/11 student protests against fees and cuts” by Alexander Hensby. His article focuses on why students did or did not get involved in the 2010-2011 tuition fee protests in the UK by using theories of networks and counter-networks.

Theoretically, those who got involved in student activism were often involved in other political groups prior to coming to university or had political socialization through their family (p.94 – 95). Their involvement in political networks had motivated them to get involved. On the other hand, they emphasize that people who lack political social networks or did not have previous political socialization in their families often did not get involved (p.95 – 96). However, if these people suddenly decided to get involved, often counter-networks could pressure them against political action. They could either have no opportunities to get involved through their network, or have pressure from their networks to not get involved (p.95).

As I was thinking about the general lack of participation of the average student in student governance and how everyone seemed to know each other in the circles of student governance, I thought this theory could give me a first clue as to how the importance of relationships might lead me to understanding how power works.

In the context of U of T, students involved in governance mostly entered it through the motivations of making friends. Student governments seem to represent the new networks through which students make friends and are further politicized and encouraged to get more involved in school. A member of the UTSU board who I interviewed expressed a desire to make new friends by joining her college union. She was then politically socialized to gain certain anti-oppressive values and a way of seeing student activism. Today, she considers herself an activist.

The spaces that I have analyzed since the beginning of my project did not showcase a patron-client relationship between the UTSU as a body which helps students. People who went to these events were mostly already part of a network of friends that motivated their interests in being there. I would imagine that either their main friend network was in student politics, or that they themselves were not part of any student unions, but were already friends through other networks with some of the governing members.

Collective Power

By Anna Shortly

In my fieldwork on student governance, I noticed ritualistic behaviour at one of the student union’s major events, the Annual General meeting. Believing this was significant, I utilized Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence from The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in order to make sense of things. In brief, collective effervescence describes how individuals come to behave and feel in magnified ways within a group setting; there are forces located outside an individual which drive them to unite with their group setting in a coherent way, resulting in the overall mimicking of patterns, behaviours, and emotions found amongst the participants during the event in question (Durkheim 1912). In these instances, “it is then no longer a mere individual who speaks but a group incarnated and personified” (Durkheim 1912: 212). This social cohesion is powerful—it is public opinion that consecrates people or things as sacred, untouchable, and perhaps even God-like, and outliers who do not share the collective’s opinions will be rejected (Durkheim 1912).

I found that the event I was researching was structured along these lines. Every item on the agenda and every motion by a student had to be put to a vote, and what the minority wanted did not matter in the face of a majority (what ‘majority’ meant depended on the situation). I concluded that if one is not part of the group’s collective conscious and desires, one lacks power.

But collective effervescence does not only exist in the current governing structures themselves, but also in movements to oppose, resist, or change a structure. This aspect of Durkheim’s theory, too, was important to my theoretical orientation. I wondered if there had not been a large number of meeting attendees participating in dissenting behaviour—drinking, passing around pizza, chatting with their neighbours, disrupting the meeting with their band, playing bingo, and so on—would the dynamics of the space be drastically different? I hypothesized that these subtle and not-so-subtle forms of resistance or mockery of the student union perhaps gained prominence because they, too, held power in the form of sheer numbers—of collective effervescence.

This theory became the bedrock of how I traced power within my site. I began to emphasize the importance of the informal power of the collective, manifesting in either compliance or dissent. But I was still clueing into the formal, bureaucratic power—the power of those in charge. In my site, both these forms of power were occurring simultaneously, though they were not always mutually exclusive. As I had written in my class notes: “different techniques either employ or intersect with institutional modes of power or socially accepted modes of power.” We had begun the class aware of different modes of power—pastoral, disciplinary, self-governing, spatial, etc.—and I had found in my site that they could also converge, merge, and serve each other. Tracing power depended not only on an appreciation of the many distinct forms of power, but also insight into where and when these distinctions collapse and create an entangled web of modes of power.


Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Translated by Karen E. Fields. Free Press, 1995.

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