Micro-politics: an underestimated field of qualitative research in political science.

VerfasserWillner, Roland

1 Introduction (1)

Empirical studies in political science focus mainly on institutions, regimes, or the individual decisions of rational actors (Wilshusen 2009: 138). The objective of such studies is to provide simplified assumptions which can explain and predict political decisions on a meso or macro level. The problem, however, is that structure-centered approaches often ignore ambiguities, ambivalences, and contradictions which are inherent in every structure; moreover, the rational-choice perspective concentrates on decisions without any reference to the decision-context, such as structure or power relations. In order to study complex decision-making processes involving different actors and diverse contextual factors it is necessary to work with a micro-analytical perspective.

Micro-analyses of political decision-making processes are rare. One reason for this is the lack of a long-lasting research tradition and consequently accompanying concepts and definitions. Furthermore, the examination of decision-making processes presents challenges in questions of methodology, for the reason that the concrete procedure of micro-analysis requires time, access to participants, and skills in methods of qualitative research. Nevertheless, micro-analyses do have a great potential for political science research.

In this paper I highlight micro-politics as a concept developed in organization research. The vast majority of political decision-making processes take place in political organizations such as parliaments, political parties, or ministerial bureaucracies. In political science debates there is, indeed, no common understanding of micro-politics (Nullmeier et al. 2003). Therefore, there is a need for clarification of the basic ideas of micro-politics as a concept in organization research and its significant potential for micro-analyses. The objective of this paper is, however, to stress a common heuristic framework for micro-analyses in political science on the basis of micro-political concepts and to propose analytical instruments for empirical studies. Accordingly, the next part of the paper discusses the roots of micro-politics and different understandings of the concept (2). Through this process it is possible to highlight the commonalities in specific micro-political approaches, reducing these to two key terms: knowledge and practice (3). After that I carve out the methodological implications and the explorative character of micro-political studies (4). Indeed, qualitative methods are the only plausible way to examine knowledge and practice within organizations. At the end, sample applications are presented to highlight the different research areas which are suitable for micro-political studies in political science (5).

2 Micro-analysis and micro-politics

Political science and especially policy studies focus on political processes, among other things, in order to understand specific policies or institutional pathways of decision-making (Blum and Schubert 2011). The majority of empirical studies concentrate on macro- as well as meso-phenomena. A micro-analytical perspective does not challenge this focus but tries to answer macro- and meso-questions using discoveries on the micro-level. The prefix "micro" implies a focus on the smallest unit of action between specific actors. Hence, the objects of research are primarily actors and their behavior, but not from a psychological perspective which tries to explain behavior with individual skills or personality traits. Micro-analyses instead examine daily routines, self-evident behavior patterns, and informal processes (Schone 2010: 15). As Patzelt emphasizes, micro-analysis explores the construction, reproduction, modification, and transformation of political policies, processes and structures in concrete situations (Patzelt 2000). Micro-analyses facilitate understanding the inner workings of politics and the decision-making process which leads to specific policies (Nullmeier et al. 2003).

In relation to this perspective arises the idea of micro-politics as a specific research concept (2). The research interest is on organizations which are confronted with different actors and their interests, strategies, and power struggles. The underlying definition of organization is based upon March and Simon (1958, 1976). They see organizations as systems of coordinated acts between individuals and groups which have different preferences, information, interests, and knowledge. Organizations from this perspective transform conflict into cooperation. This perspective stresses the role of actors and analyzes structure through the interactions within an organization (Miebach 2007: 11f). Micro-political concepts share the basic premise of this actor- and process-centered perspective. Organizing is an interactive social process in which actors shape organizations. Hence, organizations are "socially constructed artifacts" (Letiche 2007: 188).

For the discussion of micro-political studies in political science, it is necessary to direct the focus onto political organizations. Political, in this case, means the alignment to generally binding decisions. In fact, the vast majority of political decisions are made in political organizations such as parties, parliaments, or ministerial bureaucracies. As a consequence, it is impossible to understand politics without examining the organizational context in which decisions are made (Bogumil and Schmid 2001: 21f; Miebach 2007: 11). With this in mind, it is remarkable that political science has neglected the concrete focus on organizations for so long. As early as 1950 Merriam had written that it is confusing to draw a "sharp and exclusive line between political and other forms of organizations" (Merriam 1950: 9). With micro-politics as a heuristic framework it is possible to highlight the similarities in the way of thinking about micro-processes and the fruitful transfer of analytical instruments.

Because micro-politics did not evolve out of a systematic research tradition, the development of a common understanding has so far been difficult (Nullmeier et al. 2003: 14). The origins of micro-politics can be found in economic organization theory. The term micro-politics was first mentioned by Burns in his 1961 article on "Mechanism of Institutional Change," which emphasizes the role of actors and their interactions. For Burns the main feature of micro-politics is the use of individual power resources to create and change formal structure. Other early papers, such as those by Mechanic (1962) and Strauss (1963), also deal with individual political behaviour. In German-language research Bosetzky (1972; 1992) observed in his own working environment that formal hierarchy cannot completely determine actions. He follows Burns in using the term micro-politics for individual actions which undermine formal rules. In contrast to other authors, especially in economics, Bosetzky stresses that micro-politics can be seen as an elementary process which assures adjustment to the environment, the achievement of aims, and the integration of actors (Bosetzky 1992: 37).

These early articles "have not been followed with much vigor" (Farrell and Petersen 1982). Nevertheless, research has continued. At the top of the list are papers in economics which focus on the steering problems of companies as well as on their formal structures (see Kieser and Walgenbach 2010). Several studies in educational research have used micro-politics as a theoretical framework for empirical research into processes within schools (see Salo 2008). Furthermore, in industrial and organizational psychology micro-politics is regarded as a specific aspect of acting (see Neuberger 1995; 2006). In organizational sociology Crozier and Friedberg developed their approach of strategic actors (see Crozier and Friedberg 1979, 1993, 1995). In political science there have been a few studies which are described in part five.

While these existing works show extreme heterogeneity in application, it is nevertheless possible to subsume them under the umbrella of micro-politics. The common premise of micro-politics is that formal rules, such as hierarchies and organizational aims, cannot determine actors' behaviors completely. As a consequence, there are always 'scopes of action' of one type or another. Various reasons for such 'scopes of action' have been stressed in the literature. Here are the five most important ones:

  1. Organizations have more than one aim. As a consequence of this plurality, the potential for conflict and ambiguity arises. Therefore, conflicting aims make it impossible to determine actions within an organization (Reiners 2008).

  2. The common aims and rules within an organization are never shared one to one. Hence, there is a distorted view of these goals (Crozier and Friedberg 1993: 57).

  3. Rules are formulated generally and, hence, there is no direct relation to concrete situations. As a consequence, rules need interpretations which lead to scopes of action (Rub 2009).

  4. Structures are neither neutral nor unchallenged (Crozier and Friedberg 1993: 65f). They are not neutral because some actors are more privileged than others. They are not unchallenged because actors always try to widen their scope of action and change the balance of power to their advantage.

  5. Scopes of action are often consciously implemented. Because controls and regulations mean an increase of costs, it is consequently not rewarding to regulate strictly in any situation. Furthermore, there is a consensus by the human relations approach that scopes of action which allow informal coordination are more efficient (Reiners 2008).

    However, within these scopes of action organizations are confronted with deviating behavior. All authors of the micro- political perspective agree that processes in organizations are anything but stable and consensual. As Ortmann stresses: "Life is lively" in organizations (Ortmann 1992: 17...

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