Immanent Authority and the making of community: Research Review

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Geography Politics and Sociology


Drawing upon the resources, energy and research of an inter-disciplinary group of early career researchers, the Authority Research Network, this project uses literature on 'authority', to theorise community production, empowerment and participation.

Community creation, vitality and empowerment can be conceptualised in terms of the presence and performance of authority. Authority is a specific type of power that functions through consent and structures of knowledge. Vibrant and empowered community requires a plurality of forms of authority, which means pluralism about what constitutes objective knowledge as well as conflicting views on what constitutes community life.

Modern societies have seen a change in the salient forms of authority; today the reference point of authority is often a source of growth, creativity and innovation rather than a point of origin, eternal-law or foundation. Spaces and practices of experimentation, as well as technologies that capture and perform common experience, are vital for the generation of participatory, empowered and vibrant community.

Future research on community empowerment should focus upon the conditions of production of authority and include studies of community performance, narration, history, imagination and community-led design. Participatory research should be directed towards fostering and recognising capacities of communities to produce knowledge through shared experimentation.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/J500034/1 01/02/2011 30/06/2011 £32,424
AH/J500034/2 Transfer AH/J500034/1 30/06/2011 29/09/2011 £14,102
Description Immanent Authority and the Making of Community
"It is easy to deny the idea of community, and some may feel unhappy with it. But call it community values, family values or spiritual values, what they all have in common is something bigger than 'me'." (Speech delivered February 1993 by Tony Blair)

Amidst current debates around 'The Big Society', the nature of this 'something bigger' is again at stake. There is a widespread desire to reinvigorate 'community' as a source of creativity, conviviality and 'bottom-up' agency. More is being asked of communities, from establishing locally-run 'free schools' to directly electing police commissioners. As such a thorough interrogation of what community 'is' has become increasingly urgent. Yet the strong focus upon community in New Labour rhetoric, and the role community in particular 'top-down' techniques of governance, has led to a distrust about community-oriented discourse. That distrust focuses, in particular, upon the relationship between power and community. People are concerned not only about the power of the state vis-à-vis community, but also about hierarchies and violence within communities. Conversations regarding community empowerment frequently come to an impasse when the question is posed 'but who exactly will be empowered?' Whilst communitarian perspectives see State power as arbitrary in contrast to an 'organic' authority of community (and thus seek to move power from the State to communities) liberal critics see in 'community' a totalitarian or at least exclusionary programme of empowering collective-identities and norms to the cost of diversity, openness and individuality.
This review seeks to move these debates forward by focusing upon the positive role of power in the making of community as a creative, enabling, transformative site of civil life. We draw upon classic and post-structuralist political theory to develop a more nuanced analysis of the relationship between community and power. We argue for a conceptualisation of community creation, vitality and empowerment in terms of the presence and performance of authority. In this, we also make the case for the enormous significance of the arts, humanities and social sciences in fostering community participation, vitality and empowerment.
Authority can be understood as a specific type of power that functions through consent and structures of knowledge. Classic literatures point to the co-constitution of authority and community. Authority can only exist in the context of community and the exercise of authority enhances people's sense of the reality of community and connectedness. Where authority is lacking, community groups are fragile, insecure and incapacitated. Whilst 'authority' has often been associated with 'top down', 'traditionalist' or 'bureaucratic' productions of community, we draw attention to immanent, 'bottom-up', forms of authority. In this we aim to enhance understanding of the role of power in the creation, rather than the manipulation, of community. This is not to suggest that authority, or even 'bottom up authority', equals 'good power'. Like all forms of power authority can be immensely problematic, directed towards unjust ends, or experienced as oppression. But it is to suggest that researchers, community practitioners and policy makers can move beyond the current debates and dichotomies surrounding community empowerment, by focusing attention on the specific practises and techniques of generating, performing and experiencing authority. Our project has highlighted experimentation and vulnerability as sources of authority, as well as techniques of capturing, sharing and performing the results of experimentation.
Activities and Outputs
The project was carried out by the principle investigator and two researchers, but drew upon the resources, energy and existing research of the Authority Research Network (ARN) - an inter-disciplinary group of early career researchers that have been working together on post-structuralist political theory since 2008. The project ran from March to September 2011 and included the researching of three literature reviews; a major symposium establishing the state of the art on theorising immanent authority and the making of community; an intensive theory retreat with the members of ARN; and the production of a special edition of The Journal of Political Power including contributions from ARN members and symposium participants (this material is now submitted and in review). A further journal article is in preparation for Theory Culture & Society, which elaborates upon the conclusions presented in this report. All of the resources from the project are available on our website.
The literature reviews covered the following three themes:
• Immanent Authority: accounts of the character of authority and its relationship to community in the contemporary climate of rapid transformation and diversity, in classic and post-structuralist political theory
• Authority and Experience: arguments concerning the importance of 'experience based knowledge' in the traditions of qualitative and participatory research
• Authority, Aesthetics and the Performance of Community: accounts of the importance and character of performance in the generation of community authority, particularly in public spectacle, urban design, street performance, community arts, community organising and protest.
The symposium involved papers addressing the question of what authority is and how it is produced, followed by a workshop on using the idea of authority in research on communities. The day concluded with emergent responses to the project led by six eminent academics, representing the cutting-edge in thinking about authority in a range disciplines. Conclusions from the day fed into the intensive theory retreat, during which ARN members worked towards the conclusions presented in this report and the completion of individual journal articles, which take the broad themes of the project into a range of specific empirical sites and theoretical questions, including: the making of authority figures; biological life and objectivity as conditions of authority; contemporary biotechnologies; aesthetics and authority in nineteenth-century Paris; the politics of lost authority; experiential authority in the politics of irregular migration; and the 'expert-by-experience' and service user involvement in mental health.
Defining Authority
Authority is a specific type of power that is bound up with the production of community or collective organisation. The etymological roots of the term suggest that it is tied to the work of creation, beginning and growth. As a specific type of power authority can be contrasted with violence and force. It is exercised in the form of strong advice; it is 'council that cannot safely be ignored'. Authoritative relationships refer to inequalities in knowledge, with authority figures claiming an enhanced access to knowledge. Authority can only exist when there is recognition of something, some source of objectivity (true knowledge), that lies beyond the perspective and scope of individuals or interest groups. The difference between authority and the mere imposition of one person's will over another (force) is that authority refers to something beyond, outside of, particular interpretations, events and wills. We can think of authority as something that pulls community together, enabling us to feel the presence and reality of community, or common-ground. When we exercise authority we act as a part or representative of community; when we are subject to the authority of others we feel the weight of community guiding our actions, interpretations or judgments. Authority (or the external source of objectivity or true knowledge that authority makes manifest) is an intermediary between those subject to its power and a foundation upon which that power rests.
Authority as a form of power has been often been associated with the structures of tradition; with practices and values that celebrate the wisdom of experience, the sanctity of foundations and existent hierarchies. Drawing upon these associations some have argued that authority has been lost in contemporary digitalized societies wherein time is experienced as very rapid transformation and creativity and innovation are valued over wisdom, durability or eternal forms. It is noteworthy that such concerns have been expressed in Britain since at least the eighteenth century, and seem to be implicit in industrial urban cosmopolitan life.
Rather than accepting the 'loss of authority' thesis, it is more accurate and constructive to talk about a change in the salient forms of authority. In contemporary societies the reference point of authority is often a source of growth, creativity and innovation (rather than a point of origin, eternal law or foundation). For example, creative geniuses and artists are seen to be authoritative, as are entrepreneurs and markets, scientists and innovators, and biological forces. Arguably the nostalgic discourse concerning the loss of authority or community is itself a part of the authority and community production process in societies that idealize innovation, creativity and growth. The context of rapid transformation and technology places enormous significance upon aesthetic practices of performing, capturing and sharing creativity; as well as upon processes, techniques and spaces of experimentation. Community performance (or staging) and experimental knowledge production are vital sites of authority production for the generation of participatory, empowered and vibrant community.
A plethora of practices, technologies and spaces fit the above characterization and contribute to the production of the conditions of authority in contemporary societies. Our review focused upon two key areas - public performance of community (public spectacle, urban design, street performance, community arts, community organising and protest) and participatory research practices orientated towards the valuing of research participants' knowledge vis a vis that of scientists or academic experts. Both lines of investigation have led to the conclusion that practices of experimentation, in which community makes itself genuinely vulnerable and open to transformation, are crucial to contemporary techniques of authority production.
Authority and Community Empowerment
Theories of authority can assist in developing a more nuanced approach to community empowerment. Authority is not necessarily 'good power', but it is a good place to start thinking about power as something that is complex, diverse and determined by specific material practices. In particular the literature on authority points us away from questions about 'who' has power, towards questions concerning what opportunities there are for authoritative relationships, statements and performance to emerge, focusing attention upon the conditions of production of authority.
The conditions of production of authority include what we might term 'technologies of objectification': practices that generate a shared sense of reality and just arbitration beyond particularities of perspective, interest or 'exceptional' events. This includes practices and techniques that refer to an originary, objective or outside point such as the law, God, life, nature, science, founding fathers, market forces and so on). Technologies of objectification include techniques of experimentation, observation or interpretation; remembering, ritualising or monumentalising; public performances of community and its creation, growth or design.
Normative questions about community empowerment should not be framed in terms of an opposition between power, on the one hand, and emancipation and equality, on the other; nor between power that is imposed upon a community from the outside (be that from the State, academia, God, or markets) and 'organic' power that comes from within. Indeed authority, which refers to something (some source of objectivity) beyond the present community, is frequently a condition of meaningful equality, emancipation and community empowerment. We should instead frame normative questions about community empowerment in terms of the relative plurality and openness of the conditions of authority. The thing that we should seek to avoid is not the existence of power in communities (either internal or external power), but rather the monopolisation of authority in the community. The monopolisation of authority in community takes place when only one way of thinking about what community, value and objectivity are is prioritised to the exclusion of all others, or is treated as beyond question. Such monopolisation of the terms of engagement in community life is profoundly alienating, undermining 'bottom-up', participatory and inclusive forms of authority and empowerment.
Fostering vibrant and empowered communities means creating and maintaining plurality and openness about what the community, or the common, actually is. For community to be vibrant and empowered it must be possible, not only to change a given community, but to challenge and contest what the community was in the first place. This includes maintaining a pluralism about objectivity (which defines and represents the common ground) and about what it is that produces and enhances community. If community is to be a source of dispersed agency, authority and vibrancy, then we need to foster a genuine diversity of respected authoritative knowledges about the nature and value of community life.
Exploitation Route Recommendations for Future Research

Participatory Research Methods
Our review has explored existing literatures on participatory research methods aimed at capturing and valuing the experiential knowledge of research participants vis-à-vis academic or scientific expertise. These include phenomenology, feminist methodologies, mutual aid and experts-by-experience. We have considered these approaches in light of theoretical thinking on authority, as well as our own research experience in service user involvement, irregular migration politics and impacts of biological science in society.
Earlier traditions of participatory research, such as feminist research methodologies and the expert by experience approach, have mounted a powerful challenge to the monopolisation of authority and expertise by scientists and ivory tower academics. This challenge has been immensely important. However the current distributions of
knowledge and authority demand new approaches. The expert-by experience idea draws upon a false dichotomy between science and experience. One problem with this is that the knowledge of the expert-by experience can be undermined as attention is diverted from processes of objective-knowledge-production that take place in participatory and informal contexts.
Instead of focusing upon capturing different 'perspectives' and 'experiences' we suggest that participatory research methods should be focused upon recognising, celebrating and fostering processes of experimentation and testing in sites of mutual-aid and participatory research. This means approaching communities and research participants as co-producers of objective, valid, knowledge - not treating communities as repositories of 'authentic experience' to be 'harvested' by researchers. Participatory research should be understood in terms of an opening up of capacities of communities and community members, especially the capacities of participants to work on and through their own experiences and experiments in being together.
Substantive Areas
Experimentation, creativity, testing and contesting are necessary components in the production of authority and empowered community. They are, however, not sufficient conditions. Authority requires a secure anchor, a limit upon the pure play of contingency. For authority to be generated, creativity and experimentation have to take place within some kind of framework, through which the results of experimentation, testing and creativity are captured, recorded, shared. We have characterised such frameworks as 'technologies of objectification', practices and techniques which make individual or fleeting experiences into objects that can be shared across time and space, and which foster a shared sense of reality and objectivity.
Further research on community empowerment and vibrancy that is informed by a theoretical understanding of authority, will use participatory research methods to explore technologies of objectification that capture and perform shared processes of experimentation, creativity and making vulnerable. This might include: the performative practices of public art, exhibitions, theatre, protest, parades, festivals, testimony, public meetings, debates and assemblies; processes through which narratives of community are constructed, such as monuments and architecture, practices and techniques of testimony or witness, oral, historical, literary and new-media based narratives, paper and digital pamphlets and documents of community. Finally, we propose the development of research exploring and promoting community led-design, including projects directed at radically improving access to tools of urban planning, street design, architecture, public art, history and narration.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The network has been hugely successful in bringing together academics from the UK and Latin America together around a shared concern with questions of authority and power in a variety of community settings. This has resulted in burgeoning academic and community partnerships, a prospective visiting fellowship at the University of Brighton, 3 new PhD students who are specifically engaging with the work of the ARN, as well as broadening and deepening the many relationships with community partners that members of the network are developing. The funding has not only enabled the members of the network to bring expertise and practice produced during the network's intensive theoretical retreats and symposia to bear on the work of partner organisations, but it has enabled an iterative approach of feeding back into the theoretical and academic spaces of the retreat by community partners working for social change in British, US and Latin American contexts. This to and fro of knowledge exchange has allowed deep partnerships to develop and opened up pathways for more extensive cross-fertilisation of expertise. Collaborations with Raza Youth Collective and the Democracy Center have involved engagement with work produced by the network, in a series of intensive reflexive encounters which have encouraged both partners to adopt some of the creative and collaborative methods undertaken by the ARN. The Democracy Center has found that this has led to a greater understanding of the role played by the individual members of the team in the work that they do, and to a more open and supportive working culture . The Raza Youth Collective found that their participation and engagement with ARN's texts helped them to reconsider the methods for participation adopted by the organisation and think about how members of all ages can be active participants in activities and decision making processes. Ongoing partnerships with community organisations including the Dublin Tenants' Association and The Bristol Hospitality Network have enabled the creative practices of participation, collaboration and slow thinking to enter new spaces outside of academia, and have also fed into the way in which the ARN works to develop impactful, theory-led partnerships and develop practices of knowledge production that empower, challenge and provoke critical engagement. More recently, Dawney's collaboration with the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, and with photographers Laurie Griffiths and Jonty Tacon have drawn directly on the new ARN work on hope, and is developing a large scale research project exploring the creative and community approaches to nuclear decommissioning. The ARN has continued to post proceedings of discussions, conference panels and meetings on its website and this has led to a significant increase in requests for partnership and collaboration, particularly from Latin America. Millner has recently formed a partnership and secondment to the the Mesoamerica Community Forestry Project, working with the NGO Bioversity International on developing impact pathways. This include making a film about the cultures surrounding community forestry and the challenges being faced in terms of land politics, and collecting oral histories around sustainable conservation practice before those concepts existed. In Mexico Millner worked women's groups working using the diverse economies framework, for example some running a 'Cambalache' free shop setup where goods are exchanged and skills shared without the exchange of money. The pamphlet "problems of participation" continues to be downloaded from the website. A new pamphlet, Problems of Hope, is currently in production and will be available to be downloaded from the website in the coming months.
Description AHRC Connected Communities Development Grant
Amount £99,773 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2014 
End 04/2015
Description AHRC Connected Communities Summit Follow On Funding
Amount £46,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ah/L013282/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2014 
End 02/2015
Description AHRC Networking Award
Amount £40,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/K006045/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2014 
End 06/2016
Description Cabot Institute: University of Bristol
Amount £4,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Bristol 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2013 
End 09/2015
Description Connected Communities
Amount £55,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/L013282/1/2 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2014 
End 06/2015
Description IAS Warwick Networking Award
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Warwick 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2013 
End 07/2016
Description Social Change Through Creativity and Culture (Brazil) (JB)
Amount £280,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/N008855/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2015 
End 05/2016
Description Warwick Brazil Partnership
Amount £2,500 (GBP)
Organisation University of Warwick 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 07/2016
Description Warwick University Research Development Fund Strategic Award
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Warwick 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 09/2013
Description Authority Research Network Brazil Partnership 
Organisation Federal University of Bahia
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have hosted a symposium and workshop in the UK and will travel to Brazil for the same in return. Through this we are writing a joint academic publication to be published in English and Portuguese, and we will also be collaborating to produce local specific pamphlets for use with school teachers, activists and wider publics.
Collaborator Contribution We have hosted a symposium and workshop in the UK and will travel to Brazil for the same in return. Through this we are writing a joint academic publication to be published in English and Portuguese, and we will also be collaborating to produce local specific pamphlets for use with school teachers, activists and wider publics. They will be hosting us for the duration of a month stay in Brazil.
Impact in process
Start Year 2014
Description Julian Brigstocke - partnership with Federal University of Rio de Janeiro 
Organisation Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Research partnership on biosensors and mobility in Brazil
Collaborator Contribution Quantitative data analysis
Impact Research project, art installation and engagement activities planned for May 2016.
Start Year 2015
Description Doctoral Training Workshop on research collectives for the Anthropology department of the New School for Social Research, New York City, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The workshop inspired doctoral students to start their own research collectives. It equipped them with skills to develop research collaborations.
It introduced them to the Authority Research Network's research methods, ethos and some of its findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Open Democracy Editorial Partnership 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Articles widely read with comments received in online forum.

Stimulating debates on the nature of participatory democracy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Problems of Participation: Public Science Project New York 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk sparked discussion including planning towards future partnership between ARN and Public Science Project in New York.

Increase in uptake of book Problems of Participation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Soil Seeds and Social Change 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshops run in Bristol and in El Salvador exploring principles of Perma-Culture and their relationship to community empowerment, authority and aesthetics.

Participants discussed changing their own training practices to adopt insights from the research. Participants collaborated in production of a film which will be used to raise awareness and educate broader publics and other praticitioners of agriculture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014