Knowledge is Power

Dilbert’s take on the knowledge/power correlation.

During the course of his discussion of the importance of knowledge facilitation in librarianship, David Lankes makes an interesting statement: “to be ‘literate in’ means to be able to use something to gain power.” This statement, boldly declared, implicitly rests on two assumptions:

1. That “literate” is taken in the broader sense to mean “competent or knowledgeable in a certain subject area” as opposed to “acquainted with letters and literature” (OED).

2. That we believe scientia potentia est or that “knowledge is power.”

The first assumption Lankes freely admits. However, the second requires a bit more thought. The phrase, “knowledge is power,” strikes me as an oft quoted aphorism that now sounds trite and cliched because of its overuse, yet this isn’t completely true. In fact, the link between knowledge and power finds interesting and robust treatment in theories of Michael Foucault.* Surprisingly Lankes never mentions Foucault—at least I don’t think he does. I can’t be completely sure because the Atlas doesn’t have an index—despite what I see as a strong connection between Foucault’s emphasis on discourse (an approach similar to social constructivism) and what Lankes refers to as “Conversation Theory.”

In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault agrees that “power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (27). This falls in line with our second assumption, however it does not necessarily justify the original claim about literacy. Yet the most troubling application of this theory is that Foucault speaks of knowledge and power in terms of controlling system; the larger context of his discussion is how modern societies exert control on people. Therefore, there is no correlation between Foucauldian knowledge/power and Lankes’ ultimate belief that powerful librarians need to empower patrons thereby making the world a better place. In fact, there is no place for moral or ethical objectivity in Foucaults’ estimation. This is because relative theories cannot support moral absolutes; truth, morality, knowledge and power are all socially constructed and created through discourse.

This seems to leave us in an uncomfortable place that leads back into a critique of constructionism. (See Lane Wilkinson’s blog.) Does The Atlas of New Librarianship attempt to navigate a middle that ultimately presents conflicting theoretical views, or am I misunderstanding Lankes’ use of the theory? And does this conflict stem from the tension between the practical/professional aspect of the degree and the intellectualism of graduate level study?

*I am by no means an expert on Foucault, but his theories seemed interesting to consider in conjunction with this topic. I apologize for any errors or oversimplifications in my representation of his ideas.


Foucault, M. (Reprint 1995, Translation 1977). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, Second Vintage Books. Via Google Books.

Lankes, R.D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.