Three forms of discursive power: performative, imaginary and symbolic power

Foucaults theory of power (Foucault, 2008) made important contributions to understanding what is going on in the formation of social and discursive relations based on structural constraints. Whereas Max Webers sociology' introduced the category of meaningful social action in order to analyse individuals’ intentions and goals as forms of authority and legitimacy in contrast to Marxian and other structural approaches, Foucaults theory is still part of the structural camp in the social sciences. But in contrast to classical structuralism, Foucault’s theory of power highlighted two important aspects of structural power dynamics: first, the fissures and fractures within structures that open up structured terrains for discursive conflicts over meaning; and second, the productive character of power which informs our view of social reality vis-a-vis oppressive as well as formative rules. Especially, the notion of governmentality has shown that exercising power is a decentralised phenomenon that cannot be reduced to one single mind (Weber’s intention) and singular actors (Bourdieu’s ruling classes). Rather, the discursive aspect of power always points to diverse modalities in the formation of power relations. It highlights the productive character of power and the biopolitical dimension of it, by showing how power strategies make things possible.

Flow can we grasp this often abstract and opaque poststructuralist theory with clear analytical units? I propose three different analytical categories that can help to understand how economic expert discourses influence societies as power devices: performative power, imaginary power and symbolic power.

Performative power can be defined as the possibility of economic expert discourses to create institutional infrastructures. Institutions will be understood, in a very broad sense, as often legally codified, but always socially fixed, fields of social action. These fields are hierarchically organised, as Bourdieu would claim, but they are at the same time open to other fields and in constant exchange with them. Networks and institutions usually fix these fields of economic expert action (Piihringer & Hirte, 2015; Rossier & Biihlmann, 2018). There is no single field logic, but each empirical field can be fixed in different ways. Despite this heterogeneity', fields are always the sedimented background for every discourse production, and they are themselves, simultaneously, a result of historical discourse formation. As Callon and others have shown for social studies of economics, and Bourdieu and his fellows have fully elaborated, fields are the manifestation and materialisation of language forms resulting from social struggles. Here, power is the possibility' of discourses to produce

Performative, imaginary and symbolic power 23 Table 2.1 Performative, imaginary and symbolic power


Performative power

Imaginary power

Symbolic power


The possibility of discourses to produce sedimented categories that are present in the background to future social action on the imaginary and symbolic levels

The ability of every discourse to create images of the speaker, the interlocutor and many other social roles

The ability of discourses to attribute respect, prestige, authority, fear and excitement to (an image of) a person, an institution or an object


Institutional infrastructures such as contracts, money, offices, organisations, hierarchies

Images such as “expert”, “racist”, “Brexiteer”, “Londoner”, “neoclassic”, “Keynesian”

Status positions such as “scientific elite”, “Nobel Prize Award winner”, “excellence”

sedimented categories that are present in the background to future social action on the imaginary and symbolic levels.

Imaginary power is the ability' of every discourse to create images of the speaker, the interlocutor and many other social roles. Actors never exist only' for themselves. Rather, they' always speak and act in the name of a certain image (the image of the mother and father in family discourse; the image of socialism, environmental sustainability, conservativism etc. in political discourse; and so forth). These images are important because they' define how speakers present themselves and how they see others according to the knowledge attached to the images. Lacanian discourse theory calls this aspect of discourse the “imaginary level”, because it defines the fundamental categories for the formation of subjectivities (Lacan, 1991). What we are to other people and how we see others depends on our active and passive position within this imaginary register. Whereas Foucault presented the idea of discursive subject positions, Lacan fully elaborated this dimension of discourse (Zizek, 1989). Power, in the imaginary register, is the possibility' to define others and to be defined in a certain way.

Symbolic power is the ability of discourses to attribute respect, prestige, authority', fear and excitement to (an image of) a person, an institution or an object. In economic expert discourses, the prestige of certain institutions is often used to equip certain speakers with powerful discourse positions. Syanbolic capital is an important category in Bourdieu’s sociology because it introduces a form of hierarchisation in the field that is not based on typical forms of exclusion, such as economic, cultural and social capital. It is important because this form of power is always misrecognised by actors involved in the production of symbolic capital (Rossier & Biihlmann, 2018). The “Nobel Prize Award” is a classic example (Lebaron, 2006). But the production and distribution of symbolic power cannot be detached from certain morphologies of social fields. In economic expert discourse, fields are always trans-epistemic and poly'cen- tric (Maesse, 2017b; Schmidt-Wellenburg, 2017b) because different fields and field logics interact and transgress each other. For this reason, prestige can be produced in one field and must be transmitted to another one, where it can be attached to certain imaginary speaker positions (Fitzgerald & O’Rourke, 2015). Symbolic power is, therefore, the possibility' of economic expert discourse to introduce hierarchies of perception in one field by' importing “mythical capital” from another (Maesse, 2016).

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