How Deep Is Incumbency? Introducing a ‘Configuring Fields’ Approach to the Distribution and Orientation of Power in Socio-Material Change

Working Paper
  • Published 26/11/18

This paper examines a variety of theories bearing on ‘socio-material incumbency’ and explores methodological implications. The aim is to develop a systematic general approach, which builds on strengths and mitigates weaknesses in prevailing analytical frameworks. Defining power as ‘asymmetrically structuring agency’, incumbency is visible in a diversity of power gradients constituted by multiple economic, political and social processes. But existing representations of these incumbency-reinforcing dynamics often neglect their own exposures to effects of incumbency. The result can be a self-acknowledged tendency to “reify” focal categories and assumptions. Under an ostensibly detached ‘eagle-eye view’ (as if from a lofty governance ‘cock-pit’), ‘fallacies of misplaced concreteness’ emphasise unduly simplified notions like ‘the regime’. These can serve to exaggerate the confined, congruent, discrete and singular properties of incumbency in any setting. This picture may in turn overstate the tractability of incumbency to conventional policy instruments. Resulting actions that aim to challenge incumbency, but neglect its wider and deeper forms, may inadvertently help reinforce it.

An alternative is argued to lie in addressing incumbency as a ‘multiplexity’ of overlapping ‘configuring fields’. Pervading an entire ‘milieu’ of imaginably viable socio-material configurations, these gradients in structuring agency display both ‘scalar intensity’ (in concentrating power) and ‘vector intensity’ (in orienting particular associated pathways for change). For purposes of interrogating empirical evidence, this allows a heuristic distinction between different ‘topologies of incumbency’. With a conventional ‘eagle-eye view’ of a ‘closed topology’ forming one ideal-type, the paper systematically contrasts an alternative ‘worm-eye view’ of an ‘open topology’ of incumbency. This recognises that patterns in configuring fields that constitute incumbency are often more pervasive, polycongruent, entangled and plural (so less tractable) than envisaged in an ‘eagleeye’ view. This more nuanced, less instrumentalised, picture suggests other kinds of methodological responses in which some potentially empirically testable questions are explored. Possible practical implications extend beyond narrow policy interventions, to embrace broader and deeper kinds of political collective action, culture change and democratic struggle. The findings will be tested in a second empirical paper in this two-part series.