Understanding Power Pt 2

Last week, I explored the nature of social power and looked at three traps that await anyone thinking about power. This time, I want to look at the way different schemes explain the way power in communities works. None of them are perfect but they each provide us with a tool to reflect more deeply about the power organisers experience in practice.

ORBULOUS by Pryere CC FlickrLike a Forcefield

“People’s capacity to realise their rights, and the state’s capacity to fulfil them, are of course dependent on their relative power. Inequality in power drives the motor of social and economic inequality in the lives of poor and rich alike. Power resembles a forcefield that permeates households, communities and society at large, shaping the interactions and innermost thoughts of individuals and groups. And like a forcefield its often only detectable through its impact on events.” (Duncan Green From Poverty to Power p 28)

In this short paragraph, Duncan Green brings together many of the characteristics of power that make it such a  crucial subject for organisers. Power and inequality are fundamentally linked, driving the oppression of most of the world’s population. I particularly appreciated Green’s analogy of a forcefield; invisible but determining outcomes when you can see change happening. People thinking about specific aspects of power often overlook their own power and the fact that we constantly move through a web of power relations.

Abuse: power & control behaviours by Moggs Oceanlane CC FlickrFour fold expressions

Many people start their experience of power by encountering ‘power over’, power used to control or deliver a specific result. This is the power that above all gives power a bad name. It is often coercive and causes people to act under duress. However understood as authority, such ‘power over’ can play a key role in making shared action possible. In the work of a football coach, his/her ‘power over’ the players may be facilitative or demanding at different times and in different circumstances. The authority of an organiser in communities often draws on this aspect of power.

The complement to ‘power over’ is ‘power to’, the individual’s (or group’s) potential to achieve their ends, to decide on actions and carry them out. Some people refer to this power as self-efficacy or the ability to achieve your purpose. This is focused through the idea of individual or group potential to be all they can become.

Two further aspects of power were drawn out by Rowlands in 1998. He argued persuasively that people experience ‘power with’ when they act together for a common goal. This is the sense that the collective power of organisation, solidarity and joint action is greater than the sum of the parts. It is at the core of organising, bringing people together around the issues they share to increase their control over their own collective lives.

Finding New Meaning in the Beauty That Surrounds You by Thomas Hawk CC FlickrRowlands also spoke of “‘power from within’:

the spiritual strength and uniqueness that resides in each of us and makes us truly human. Its basis is self-acceptance and self-respect which extend in turn to respect for and acceptance of others as equals. This power can be what enables the individual to hold a position or an activity in the face of overwhelming opposition, or take a serious risk.” (Rowlands p 14)

This power provides the personal resources to be resilient, to be strong in the face of adversity and to tackle hard issues with determination. It is associated with finding meaning, direction and connection and in being personally authentic.

These four ‘species’ of power – power over other people, power to act, power with others and power within ourselves – are widely used in discussion of power in communities and are a helpful way to open up the subject. They are of course interdependent and forgetting one when focused on another can make your efforts unrewarding.

Three Levels of Power

Alongside the four species of power outlined above, many other useful distinctions are made between different styles or expressions of power. For example, power can be visible (obvious, transparent and unambiguous), hidden (shielded, opaque and secret) or invisible (cloaked, protected and imperceptible). Power is sometimes spoken of as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. There are many such approaches to power analysis but I have come to prefer one above others, as I find it to be the most informative in working in communities. Power operates in communities at three distinct levels: the personal, the cultural and the structural. I will be taking a deeper look at each of these in coming weeks.

Slippery by Alan (Kaptain Kobold) CC Flickr Making sense of power

The slippery nature of power becomes only too obvious when you try to use categories and typologies to describe it in action. Power is never a static quality; it’s seen at work when in motion, when power is exercised. So perhaps some reflective questions will help us consider how power shows itself in community organising:

  • How do you use your personal ‘power over’ to coordinate, to facilitate, to coach?
  • Who expresses ‘power to’ most clearly for you? Who has little ‘power to’ and why?
  • How can you increase the levels of ‘power with’ in your community?
  • Where do you draw your ‘power from within’ from? What gives you meaning, purpose?

Thinking about power in these abstract ways is difficult for many people but its my conviction that such thinking is vital if we are to come to terms with our shared situation. Often these conversations about power need to be fuelled with specific examples that are immediately relevant to the people concerned. Using stories, short films, pictures or even objects to illustrate situations where power is at work can give people an opportunity to reflect on power in their own communities and see how they might become more powerful themselves.

Next time: Power is experienced by individuals and groups amongst themselves and exercised by others. Some people can find better ways to handle their own power and to respond to other people’s power through sharing, acting and transforming, by becoming empowered.


Duncan Green (2008) From Poverty to Power – How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World Oxfam

Rowlands, J. (1998) “A Word of the Times but What does it Mean? Empowerment in the Discourse and Practice of Development.” in Afshar, H. Women and Empowerment: Illustrations from the Third World Palgrave MacMillan

Geoff Mulgan (2006) Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government Penguin

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

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