Structures for Power

This series of posts started by exploring the nature of power and its different forms. Take a look at the first two posts here and here. I have then written about empowerment itself and how as organisers we are charged with transforming dis-empowerment into self-confident citizens who empower each other to change the world. In the last two posts – here and here – I have looked at two levels of power, the personal and the cultural. In this post I am looking at the structural level. The scope of the analysis of power goes ever wider and this time, I’m looking at the macro-level and its impact on our communities in practice.

Rathmines Library by Dublin Public Libraries CC FlickrStructures of society

Many of us regard society as run by institutions. companies and agencies. We know only too well that access to ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ is often gained by being in relationship with the main organisations that structure our environment. These entities even have a “corporate identity” which allow them to act as though they were a single individual rather than a system of decisions, relationships and processes. Structural power flows through the organisations of the state, of commerce, of the law and indeed through unions and charities. We know it’s ability to both thwart human endeavour and to make possible the most amazing achievements. By working together, by acting collectively, by creating structure and corporate identities, power is concentrated and focused.

Institutional life offers real advantages to some parts of our community and disadvantages others. As organisational life becomes ever more all-embracing, so some are winners and others losers. Structure is a part of all our lives at many levels but the privilege it offers – in status, networks and financial rewards – means that those who are marginal to institutional life are left out. The list of those who are systematically discriminated against is long and painful, bringing out the way our society’s structures are unjust and inhuman to so many. The experience of many is that their class, race or ethnicity causes them to be overlooked. Women and people who are differently-abled are routinely demeaned and undermined. Young people and older people are often ignored and forgotten whilst those with alternative sexual identities have to hide their reality for fear of retribution.

And so it goes on. So many are on the receiving end of power misused and mishandled. The numbers across our world who live lives crushed by tyranny and oppression remains a slur on the human race. Homelessness, poverty, disease and hunger are endemic and are the result of power’s evil excesses. Structural power does not derive its potency from individual wrongs (or abilities) or from the way people think. It is the structures themselves that allow great works and huge tragedies. The oppression meeted out to the least in our world derives from the way we have organised ourselves, how we are linked together and integrated ourselves into a global system.

Solar_tower_flipped_reduced by Greens MPs CC FlickrPower concentrations

Power focuses on those who already have the means to attract more. If you receive with your birth a lifestyle, expectations and an income that is exceptionally privileged, then you can be pretty sure of drawing on significant power to decide your own future. If on the other hand, your parents are poor and powerless, your hopes of wielding social power over organisations or institutions are poor themselves. So power flows down deep canyons of inheritance and privilege. But this points beyond economic power to what it buys: social and political power. Everyone is aware that powerful people are part of an elite which offers them a network of connections. The powerful often go to the same places, work at similar jobs, enjoy the same passtimes and attend the same schools. This web of influence is immensely potent in acting to defend and support its members, whether through being able to draw on personal contacts, knowing people in the know or calling in favours. This power elite is at the core of our national and world political system and indeed the global economy.

In communities – villages, neighbourhoods and districts – structural power is often pretty well-known and acknowledged. We know that the person who lives in the big house will have more sway over local affairs than the normal villager. We can predict that the man or woman who can donate a significant sum to a party or cause will be part of an influential network in the area. We also understand that groups with few resources and who are badly organised will not get much of a hearing. The specific shape of local structures vary widely with inheritance, property and profit delivering a mixture of power sources but the same social and political power will be at work in their results.

Mistakes can be made however when we assume that those who are without wealth are virtuous and those with it are evil. Indeed, the same goes for organisational and institutional life; assuming because the entity is large or influential that is will act in an abusive or coercive way is to misunderstand power. If you have worked in communities for any time, you will know that the opposite is certainly not true; small groups are just as capable of being oppressive and tyrannical as the big boys. Their scale may differ but just because power is concentrated in the hands of a few does not mean that they will do good or evil with it. “Power,” they say, “tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet the wealthy and those in authority can also use their power to create great benefit to humanity.

World population and ownership of global assets by Christian Guthier CC Flickr

Imperialism and neo-colonialism

For the European nations and America, structural power has another dimension that is global. The history of global expansion from the fourteenth century to today has led to power being concentrated in wealthy nations, those who like to see themselves as ‘developed’. The way in which the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans spread their influence around the globe meant that the resources of people, land, raw materials and talent were drawn to the imperial powers leaving the colonies depleted and destroyed. This history led to the slave trade, to wars and to many atrocities that leave their mark today on international relations. And of course it continues with the imperial influence of America today. The power of the few over the many can have few starker examples than comparing the global richest 1% with the global poorest 50% (see graphic above).

National identities have been forged in the era of colonialism. Today the global corporations who hold so much power over nation states and global governance structures are often a result too of that same colonial mindset. Neo-colonialism plays a critical role in our national and community life, despite it seeming a world away from local issues. In fact attitudes of deference and superiority – especially between ethnic and cultural groups – can often be traced back to the ways in which our history has shaped our views of other nations and traditions. The most obvious example is the hatred meted out to Muslims in the West and the reception of Polish immigrants to the UK stands testament to the negative stereotypes that have dogged the Cold War.

But we must also recognise that to deliver effective remedy to the past destruction of much of the globe – and indeed the very present destruction of our climate, natural resources, bio-diversity and future – the power of states and corporations is needed. To tackle poverty, argues Duncan Green in From Poverty to Power, we must have both empowered citizens and effective states. The power to deliver the scientific and cultural transformation that is required to create a just and peaceful world lies in the hands of those with structural power as much as in those with cultural and personal power. Creating the world we all desire is not to do away with power but rather to harness its potential to creative and enriching goals. ‘Power over’ needs ‘power with’ and ‘power within’.

Next time: We’ve ranged across a huge territory in this series, looking at the nature and scale of power from the personal to the global. But as organisers, we need to make sense of this at community level. There are ways to understand power and its impact on community life. How can you do an effective power analysis for your neighbourhood or town? How does it link to action and inform your approach?


Duncan Green (2012) From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World (Second Edition) Oxfam

Ruth Mayne and Jim Coe (2009) Power and Social Change NCVO Available to download from NCVO and several other sites

Daniel Dorling (2010) Injustice: Why social injustice persists Policy Press

Frantz Fanon (1961) The Wretched of the Earth 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

Rosalind Eyben (2004) Linking Power and Poverty Reduction World Bank Available online as a pdf

The Power Cube 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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