Understanding Power Pt 1

When I first put the word power into Flickr, up came loads of pictures of the power grid and turbines, jet engines and pylons. When I tried other related terms in Google, I got loads of pages about the power of words, music or landscapes. These are not the uses of power I want to explore over the next few weeks. My subject is a critical quality of human interactions which embraces everything from a mother’s caress of her new-born to the decisions of the UN Security Council, from the life of a reading group to building regulation. I want in the next few posts to explore how power impacts on the work of organisers often working in neighbourhoods, towns and villages. I want to critically reflect with my readers on the ways we can use a better understanding of power to shape our practice and to become more adept at tackling power imbalances in community life, ‘shifting power intelligently’.

Uffizi statue: Niccolo Machiavelli by Elan Ruskin CC FlickrSocial Power

This post is about the meaning of social power and how we might use that understanding to challenge our own and other people’s thinking about power and empowerment. Whilst the word today is used lightly, the subject of power has remained enduringly fascinating to writers over the centuries from Aristotle and Machiavelli, to George Orwell and Pierre Bourdieu. Power has been studied in many cultures and disciplines leading to an extraordinary range of approaches embedding differences in values, ideologies and language. And the reality of power is also highly complex, working at different levels and exposing different features and styles. (In the next post I will look at some models and frameworks to help with this complexity.)

The reality is also that power is ubiquitous and pervasive. We encounter power in our inner life, in our households and neighbourhoods. We see power at work in our institutions, organisations and businesses. We recognise power play in the media, in politics, in our nation and on international and global stages. Our relationship to others is often part of an automatic and unconscious power dynamic that informs what we can and can’t do and what seems right and proper behaviour. Power shifts and morphs as people , groups, cultures and nations change and develop, giving it a slippery quality and making discussion of power always only partial and contextual.

Accelerate Collaborating for Sustainability Conference 2013 (Guelph, ON) by The Natural Step Canada CC FlickrPower and Love

Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.‘ In his book Power and Love – A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane – who has been instrumental in tackling some of the toughest, most complex and vital challenges in the world – suggests that power can be both generative and degenerative. He argues that power is the desire to achieve your purpose and that the difference between the two sides of power is the presence or absence of love. He says love in this context is the urge to unite with others and that success in tackling challenges in life lies in finding a balance between power and love, neither relying on force and determination nor depending on negotiation and compromise.

Avoiding the Traps

In discussing power, there are three pitfalls to avoid. First, power in itself is neutral, neither good or bad. Despite its reputation, power is not necessarily repressive, prohibitive, negative or exclusionary (although it can be all of these things): it is also positive:

Michel Foucault, painted portrait DDC_7449 by thierry ehrmann CC FlickrWe must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. (Foucault: Discipline and Punish p. 194)

Power – understood as ‘the will to achieve’ – is ours to use for good or ill.

Secondly, power is not merely owned by some and denied others; it’s more complex than that! Power is contextual and dynamic. It’s different characteristics can mean that the same person can be both powerless as an employee yet powerful as a father. Individuals from particular groups in society do not necessarily show the signs of their group’s power position; they may be much more or much less powerful than the norm.

Thirdly, power is not a zero sum game. In other words, one side does not have to lose power for the other to gain power. Whilst it is often the reality that privileged interests see themselves threatened by claims for increased power, power shifts can draw from different sources of power. For example,  a family in which the two partners are living with an imbalance of power between them may be able (with some help perhaps) to rebalance the relationship and become a stronger unit as a result.

Murky Water by Lisa Brewster CC FlickrMaking Use of Power

Getting a handle on power is not easy. Often as soon as you make a start, the ideas slip from your grasp and all becomes murky again. I hope that feeling your way toward clarity about power for yourself will give you a useful set of questions to ask of yourself and others. Here are a few that strike me as valuable:

  • Where do I encounter power play most obviously in my life? At home? In my work?
  • Who appear to be the main players? Who is using power to their advantage?
  • What is the result of the power play at the moment? How might the result be different?
  • Where do I get my assumptions about power from? Parents? Reading? Friends?
  • When do I fall into the traps above? How can I avoid them in future?

Working in neighbourhoods calls on organisers to be very aware of the power at work in their area. It is easy to become part of the problem – recruited by powerful interests and unconsciously fighting their battles for them – rather than contributing to the solution. Making headway in such situations means becoming more aware of how you use your personal power, what power others draw on and where community members can become more powerful themselves.


Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm

BOOK REVIEW – Power and Love: A Theory and practice of social change, by Adam KahaneAdam Kahane (2010) Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change Berrett Keohler

Jennifer Chapman and Antonella Mancini (2005) Critical Webs of Power and Change:Resource Pack for Planning, Reflection and Learning in People-Centred Advocacy ActionAid This spiral bound volume comes with a CD resource pack considering how to develop an approach to collective action that is both people-centred and that takes power seriously. It is packed with great reflections on experience and practical ideas.

The Power Cube http://www.powercube.net/from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

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2 Responses to Understanding Power Pt 1

  1. Naomi says:

    Fantastic post Mark – thank you! I shall be reading the others in this series with interest. Would you recommend the Power and Love book? Also, are you familiar with Oshry’s work on relational dynamics in hierarchical systems? It provides a useful insight into behaviours that often emerge when we stand in a different relational space e.g. employee and father as you outline above.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks for the positive feedback Naomi. Power and Love is an interesting book with many levels to it. Set on the international scene, it manages to delve quite deep into the human condition and touch on human dilemmas with a profound touch. I am not aware of the work of Oshry but now you have pointed me in that direction, I will take a look and reflect on how his thinking might relate to my forthcoming post on structural power. Good to know there are people out there reading my blog! Please let me know again what you think of the other posts.

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