Power: An institutional framework of analysis

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Dugger, W. M. (1980). Power: An institutional framework of analysis. Journal of Economic Issues, 14(4), 897-907.

Through a critical analysis of prominent types of United States institutions, Dugger identifies corporate, not individual, power as a hegemonic force that unduly influences both individual thought and the nation’s collective social fabric. Five key types of institutions (education, military, familial, government, and religious) are revealed to serve corporate interests, the sixth and dominant institution. Each of these institutions is presented as supporting corporate control through four methods: subreption (the concealment of corporate motives), contamination (the advocation and adoption of corporate methods), emulation (the power of corporate individuals that extends their influence to non-corporate sectors), and mystification (the idealization and perpetuation of tangible and abstract tokens of corporate power). Dugger presents corporate hegemony and positioning as the basis of individual power, countering the prevailing democratic myth of individualism.

I find this framework of analysis absolutely fascinating. I’ve analyzed power through multiple lenses at various points in my life depending on the context of the situation at hand; socio-cultural, positional, economic, political, intra-organizational, to name but a few. This level of analysis, which involves a decentering of the self, is too complex and abstract to respond to. In analyzing power on an individual or even a structural level, the individual still retains some power. There still exists the potential to influence the sources and outcomes of the application of unjust power, as power is rooted in the individual or the individuals operating within a particular system or structure. Granted, it may, and often must, require collective action to disrupt oppressive power structures, but the potential to disrupt is still there.

This institutional focus counters the community organizing power analysis framework¹ I learned about and applied last semester. Actions to realize campaign demands (and any well-crafted demand will ideally disrupt oppressive power structures) must be targeted at influencing individuals (preferably one, never more than a few) within an institution who have the power to acquiesce to those demands. Institutions cannot comply to demands; only those who have the power to affect change from within can compel their institution to meet those demands. To shift the base of power to an institutional level, with all institutional power disproportionately influenced by corporate power, frames the root of power at such a level that confrontation is futile, so immense is this power base. Dugger’s theory may be valid, but what does one do with this theory? It is one thing to be conscious of the root of power, it is another to apply it in equitable ways and respond to its unjust application appropriately and effectively.

Dugger (1980) ends his article with a call to action: “If we are to change that [institutional power] structure… we must first change the institutions and social processes that create and support it” (p. 906). All well and good, but if the individual does not have power, how can individuals collectively exercise power to dismantle corporate power structures? This question, one that is critically important, is left unanswered, reflecting critical theory’s fatal flaw. How does one apply this knowledge to their actions, the way they move about the world? As Chambers’² (as cited in Schroeder & Hollister, 2014, p. 4) notes, critical theory provides a framework for discovering what our current state is and what it should be, but struggles to provide a clear path to move from the current to the ideal. If anything, Dugger presents a curiously initial critical analysis to identify the root problem of corporate hegemony. To develop strategies to counter corporate domination, one would need to slice this problem into specific, targeted issues that are manageable and addressable before developing demands and an appropriate action plan. Otherwise, all that’s left is an insurmountable problem with no possible recourse.


Question for future exploration:

  • While an institutional power analysis may resonate with those who already feel powerless, this level of analysis seems like a potentially precarious lens to use when confronting those who believe that they have power through their status or position. How could one encourage an institutional power analysis in practice and manage the reactions of those who would feel insecure and threatened through the negation of their individual power? How can this analytical framework be used to empower instead of disempower?


1. Ward, C., & Thompson, A. (2007 Nov). Power analysis – Trainer training. Northeast Action.
2. Schroeder, R., & Hollister, C. V. (2014). Librarian’s views on critical theories and critical practices. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 1–29.