'Invisible' power relations in an educational leadership context: reasons for their 'invisibility' and what lies beneath

Denise Mifsud

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The major policy-driven reform (‘For All Children To Succeed’, 2005) happening in Maltese state schools in which all primary and secondary schools were amalgamated into ten networks, labelled ‘colleges’
(Education Act, 2006) according to their geographical location, necessitated the introduction of new roles of responsibility, among which was the deployment of the College Principal, designated to be the educational leader of the ‘college’. It is in this unfolding educational leadership scenario, suffused with entrenched power, with added layers of leadership and more subtle levels of accountability that I use Foucault’s theories of power as “scaffoldings” in order to explore the underlying power relations among the top educational leaders, namely the College Principals and Heads of School.

Foucault’s insistence on power “... [being] employed through a net-like organization ... [where] individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (1980: 98), emphasizing power as a network of relations and individuals as the locus where power and resistance to it are exerted (Mills, 2003: 35) helps me uncover the ‘masks’ being utilized in the micro-functioning of ‘veiled’ power relations and the
complexities of professional identity constructions. Foucault’s concept of “subjectification” helps me explore ways in which educational leaders are “subjectified” in a ‘college’ – how their socially constructed, multiple and shifting selves can be expressed within and through the asymmetrical power relations.

Goffman’s theories, especially those offered in ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), provide me with a complementary layer of analysis from which to explore power relations in the narratives of the educational leaders. Goffman’s (1959) notion of ‘dramatic realization’ states that an actor has to choose from among several ‘fronts’ to offer an idealized impression, seeming to pave the way for Foucault’s notion of discourse. When applied to my research, this concept gives me an insight into the ‘front’ that educational leaders at different levels present to each other, as well as the discourse that renders them both subject and object, and their move into a new leadership role.

Can these layers of hierarchical leadership translate into layers of ‘visibility’? Who is allocated the greatest ‘visibility’ in the new ‘college’ system – the College Principal or the Head of School – according
to role designation and policy rhetoric? Who decides ‘roles’ in a ‘college’? Are they prescribed? What type of ‘in/visible’ power and authority do educational leaders exercise? Has there been a ‘transfer of visibility’ from the Head of School to the College Principal – in that the former had to adapt to the latter’s infringement on his/her territory? Are the underlying tensions ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’? How much space for individual agency exists? To what extent do the ‘main actors’ acknowledge the efforts of those ‘behind the scenes’ – the other forms of ‘latent leadership’? Does the current policy discourse favouring distributed leadership enhance or lessen ‘visibility’? Does it lead to ‘dispersed power’? Foucault redefines the universe as a ‘realm of discourse’ (Megill, 1987: 239) – in the Maltese educational arena, which is the ‘hegemonic’ discourse and which discourses have been ousted? Would I be able to detect a battle ‘among discourses and through discourses’, or better still, a ‘battle within discourse’?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes
Event8th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning 2013: The Visible and Invisible in Work and Learning - University of Stirling, Stirling, United Kingdom
Duration: 19 Jun 201321 Jun 2013
https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxyd2w4cHJvY2VlZGluZ3N8Z3g6MmRmMjI2YmQ1ODFmMzEyMg (Conference programme book)


Conference8th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning 2013
Abbreviated titleRWL8
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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