Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University
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Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor, Research Director, Dr. Techn., Dr. Scient., and Ph.D.

Notice: On April 1, 2009, Bent Flyvbjerg moved to University of Oxford. Flyvbjerg's Aalborg website is up to date until the time of his move. After this date, please see his site at Oxford:



What is Rationality? What is Power?

Rationality and power are two central forces that shape urban as well as other types of policy and planning. The word "rational" derives from the Latin word "ratio," which means "reason" or "computation," and to be rational means having or exercising the ability to reason. "Rationality" is defined as the quality or state of being rational. Rationality is closely linked to the concept of truth and both concepts are centrally placed in the constitutions and laws of liberal democracies. The ultimate public decision-making body in a democracy is the elected parliament. In most democracies, by law, it is illegal for ministers to misinform parliaments and for civil servants to misinform ministers. The idea is that the decisions made by parliament and other elected bodies, national or local, should be based on truth and rationality. Important thinkers of rationality are Plato, Kant, Max Weber, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas.

The word "power" derives from the old French word "poeir," which means "to be able to act." Power is defined as the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively, including the situation where not to act is most effective. In democracies, power is typically divided against itself, for instance in the classic tripartite division of power in legislative, executive, and judicial power. But in contemporary, pluralistic democracies the divisions of power go much further and power is not limited to the realm of formal politics. Issues of power pertain to markets, technologies, science, discourses, designs, fashions, self-improvement, etc. The result is that "power is everywhere;" relations of power are omnipresent, multiple, and dynamic; they are not limited to "centers of power," like government institutions, parliaments, or political parties. Important thinkers of power are Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Steven Lukes, and Robert Dahl.

In policy and planning, rationality and power relate in interesting ways and it is not always clear where one ends and the other begins. Power has rationality and rationality has power. Rationality may become rationalization under the influence of power. Actors may be rational but have no power or have power but not be rational. Francis Bacon's famous dictum that "knowledge is power" is true but is also an oversimplification; the opposite is often more true, that power is knowledge, in the sense that power decides which knowledge is produced and gets to count in policy and planning. Research on rationality and power starts with a focus on rationality-power relations in specific instances of policy and planning. The main question for such research is not only the Weberian: "Who governs?" posed by Robert Dahl and most other students of power. It is also the Nietzschean question: What "governmental rationalities" are at work when those who govern govern? Combining the best of a Nietzschean/Foucauldian understanding of power with the best of a Weberian/Dahlian one, the analysis of power and rationality is guided by six features:

(1) Power is seen as productive and positive, and not only as restrictive and negative.

(2) Power is viewed as a dense net of omnipresent relations, and not only as being localized in "centers," organizations, and institutions or as an entity one can "possess."

(3) The concept of power is seen as ultra-dynamic; power is not merely something one appropriates, it is also something one reappropriates and exercises in a constant back-and-forth movement within the relationships of strength, tactics, and strategies inside of which one exists.

(4) Knowledge and power, truth and power, rationality and power are analytically inseparable from each other; power produces rationality and rationality produces power. Realpolitik comes hand in hand with Realrationalität (Real Rationality).

(5) The central question is how power is exercised, and not merely who has power and why they have it; the focus is on process in addition to structure.

(6) Power is studied with a point of departure in small questions, "flat and empirical," not only, nor even primarily, with a point of departure in "big questions." In power research small questions often lead to big answers. Careful analysis of the power dynamics of specific practices is a core concern.

The purpose of rationality-power research is to answer, for specific instances of policy and planning, questions such as: "Who gains, and who loses?" "Through what kinds of rationality-power relations?" "What possibilities are available to change existing rationality-power relations?" "Is such change desirable?" "What are the rationality-power relations among those who ask these questions?"

Back to Main Page on Rationality and Power in Urban Policy and Planning


Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Fibigerstraede 11 - 13, DK-9220 Aalborg East, Denmark, Phone: (+45) 96 35 80 80