Barry Barnes’ Theory of Power in the Context of Tim Jordan’s ‘Cyberpower’

Barnes               TimJordan

It is said that the communications revolution signals “the death of distance[1] as it has allowed activists to gain more influence as new communications and information technologies are beginning to enable advances in e-government, e-democracy and e-participation. On the other hand, they also empower NGOs, social movements and activists, among others.[2]

Michael Ayers and Martha McCaughey document and critique in their edited Cyberactivism the growing importance of activism taking place through the Internet by showing that it can be used for protest as well as in supporting real-life protests.[3] It is shown in a similar volume that given its transnational, many-to-many communication facility, the internet offers revolutionary potential for social movements to speak directly to the citizens of the world. Moreover, electronic mail, mailing lists, websites, electronic forums and other online applications provide powerful tools for coordinating activity.[4]

In dealing with “cyberpower” – defined as the power that structures culture, politics and economics of cyberspace and the Internet – Tim Jordan discusses in length three theories of power as the theoretical toolbox of his book. First, he touches on power as a possession and its three elements that are accordingly ought to be identified. First, according to him, power is intentional as someone wills something to be done and it is done. Second, power understood as a possession needs resistance to manifest itself and unless power manifests itself there is no idea that it exists. Third, if power, says Jordan, concerns the ability to overcome resistance then stable patterns of power can be equated with forms of domination, or simply put, systems of domination occur when there are patterned relations of power. He identifies this theory of power with Max Weber, quoting him to have said: “In general, we understand by ‘power’ the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.”

Having discussed this “common sense conception of power”, Jordan points out some questions that in his view are remained unanswered: What is it that enforces obedience to the powerful will? What is it that ensures compliance? What overcomes resistance? In attempting to address these questions, Jordan also looks in turn with other understandings of power that begin from just such a criticism of power understood as a possession: power understood as strategies that situate subjects as dominated or dominator and power understood as the result of interactions between knowledgeable individuals.[5]

Jordan associates Michel Foucault with the conception of power as domination whose principles are that power is a force that generates structures of inequality between people; that a form of power both intends to produce certain effects but is not driven by any one’s will, implying that different elements move in a way that fulfills an overall purpose and which is served by a number of tactics common to different micro-parts of the army; that domination implies both dominated and dominator and power as a relation implies both powerful and powerless; that power is manifested in great strategies of inequality; and that attempting to define power in the abstract is not necessary; instead, a methodology for studying power is needed and only then can specific forms of power that exist in particular times and places be analyzed.[6]

While elucidating his theory of power as social order, the British sociologist, Barry Barnes, explicates:

In a stable normative order knowledge that an action is normal and routinely done encourages the performance of the actions, so that the general dissemination of the knowledge suffices to validate it in practice… Any specific distribution of knowledge confers a generalized capacity for action upon those individuals who carry and constitute it, and that capacity for action is their social power, the power of the society they constitute by bearing and sharing the knowledge in question.[7]

In order to make his argument clearer, Barnes cites the classic example of traffic light. Why do cars stop at red light? Why the pedestrians do not cross the street at red light? For both the drivers and the pedestrians, two off-putting things can be pointed out. First, in the case of the drivers, they are afraid that fatal car accident involving them might occur as the drivers of cars in the adjacent street are most likely to go by following the green light which means, “Go!” As for the pedestrians, they are afraid to be hit most likely by the running cars as it is green light for them. Second, the drivers know that even if by chance no car mishap happened as there are no nearby cars in the adjacent street, they might not escape the wrath of the traffic policemen who will definitely penalize them for violation of traffic rules.

Similarly, the pedestrians know that even though the running cars are still far away from the pedestrian lane, their crossing the street at red light is tantamount to being legally charged with jay-walking. In other words, both the drivers and the pedestrians are taking into account two kinds of sanction for their action: physical (accident) and legal (penalty). This established social norm for the drivers and pedestrians will be more embedded within them if they regularly observe more people, i.e. more drivers and pedestrians following the same social norm – drivers stopping at red light and pedestrians not crossing the street at red light. There will be the same effect if they see more people penalized by either or both the physical and legal sanctions – cars bumping on other cars from the adjacent street or drivers whose license are confiscated by the traffic officers for violation, and pedestrians hit by running cars or penalized for jay-walking.[8]

On the contrary, should the people start to witness that more cars are not stopping at red light and are neither having accident nor incurring penalty for doing so, and similarly, more pedestrians are crossing the streets at red light and yet they are not hit by running cars or incurring penalty for jay-walking, they will also tend to gradually remove in their minds the two restraining physical and legal sanctions. The social norm of the red light will die out. The red light’s ‘power’ of stopping cars and preventing the pedestrians from crossing the street will cease to exist as the people believe it so.[9]

In a recent work, Barnes states:

Suppose we think of so many responsible agents, acting and interacting together as members on the basis of their shared knowledge. Now concentrate on that part of their shared knowledge which is knowledge of their own social and institutional order, made of statuses and the associate rights, powers, responsibilities, and so forth. This is knowledge of things that are what they are because they are counted as being what they are, that is, because they are known to be what they are.[10]

In this context, he cites how banks work as social institutions. Banks are external to us, he says, because we all know them to be so and the important knowledge we have is the knowledge of what we all do in relation to banks. That some deposit money in the bank which lends it out to others and making itself formally bankrupt at all times is overcome by the shared knowledge of individual depositor that others are not about to withdraw their money. In short, a bank’s objectivity hinges on the knowledge all its depositors on the likely actions of other depositors. This will be exposed when there is a run on a bank and the shared knowledge of depositors changes into “Most other depositors are going to withdraw their money and I have to do the same”. Accordingly, the outcome of such a shift in collective knowledge is the eventual bankruptcy and collapse of even a competently run bank.[11]

In the above explanation there are two crucial elements that constitute a social order: routine and knowledge. Along this line, Tim Jordan argues that social objects and structures exist on the basis of persisting routines of behavior of individuals and these persisting routines are based on common, collective knowledge of those routines. Societies and communities are nothing more or less than the knowledge that members of those communities hold about their societies, he states.[12] He explains:

In short, while social structures appear external and objective to the individuals who constitute them, such structures are wholly internal to the collective or group. Social structures can change but only through concerted collective action. The structures that constitute a society can now be understood as the result of the knowledge individuals have of those structures and of the consequences actions will probably have. This knowledge is self-referring; it is knowledge about what others do, and it is self-validating – the more knowledge is used the more valid it becomes.[13]

Put in a diagram for clarity sake, we have the following:


            Therefore, the proposition here is that the persistent routines of a certain behavior create a common, collective knowledge of those routines. At the same time, the commonly and collectively held knowledge of those routines by the people reinforces their continuous observance of the same routines of behavior. The constant interaction between the routine and knowledge establishes social order. Once the routine-knowledge interaction is not sustained, the resultant social order will consequently fade away.



[1] Frances Cairncross, The Death of Distance 2.0: How Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives (London and New York: Texere, 2001), p. viii.

[2] Jonathan D. Aronson, “Causes and Consequences of the Communications and Internet Revolution,” in The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 3rd edition, ed. John Baylis and Steve Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 630-633.

[3] Michael D. Ayers and Martha McCaughery, “Introduction,” in Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice, ed. Michael D. Ayers and Martha McCaughery (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 5-14.

[4] Wim van de Donk et al., “Introduction: Social Movements and ICTs,” in Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements, ed. Wim van De Donk et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1-9.

[5] Tim Jordan, Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 9-10.

[6] Ibid., pp. 15-19.

[7] Barnes, The Nature of Power, pp. 56-57. Quoted in Jordan, p. 14.

[8] Ibid., p. 56.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Barry Barnes, Understanding Agency: Social Theory and Responsible Action (London: Sage, 2000), p. 149.

[11] Tim Jordan, “Social Movement and Social Change,” Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) Working Paper Series No. 7, September 2005, p. 7.

[12] Jordan, p. 12.

[13] Ibid., pp. 12-13.

(Images courtesy of and

Cyberpower(Excerpt from Mansoor Limba, THE POWER OF INTERNATIONAL QUDS DAY IN THE CYBERSPACE (Manila: Cultural Section of IRI Embassy, 2012), pp. 39-44.)

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