Tooling up for power analysis

We’ve been on a journey together over the last two months. Looking at different aspects of power has been a rewarding experience for me, consolidating learning and experience from more than ten years of exploration. I outlined my understanding of power and empowerment in the first three posts and then I examined personal, cultural and structural power in turn. Last week, the focus turned to using power analysis and this time I want to conclude by sharing some great tools and approaches to power analysis.

DeWalt Power Tool - Drill by Digital Internet CC FlcikrUsing the right tool

When you are considering doing a power analysis with your community network, an organiser needs to think carefully about the goal you have for the analysis, the nature and stage of development of your group and how it all fits in the wider context. Choosing the right approach to analysis has never been ‘one size fits all’. Rather you need to take stock and chose carefully from a range of options. One key part of this consideration is to always work within the wisdom of your people. Don’t ask a group who are just starting out together to work through a complex and emotionally charged agenda. But similarly, don’t offer a mature and well functioning group a simplistic exercise that trivialises power analysis. It’s important to think through how you will present the power analysis too. How will you get the best from the group? How can they best see the analysis fitting into the narrative of the group’s development?

Forces and influencers

There are some great tools that can be used ‘off the shelf” so to speak for a single session or discussion. One that makes sense in some contexts is a force-field analysis, devised by Kurt Lewin. This approach involves looking at the forces holding things as they are and forces moving toward the change you want. At present, these two sets of forces are in equilibrium but you want to move the status quo closer to your goal. The way to visualise this is by drawing a straight line from top to bottom of a large sheet of paper. On one side list each of the forces at work to keep things as they are and on the other those forces driving for change. Once you’ve got your lists, give each force a strength say from one to five, reflecting the power they hold. This can be recorded with a line of the right length underlining each force. Once you have a picture of the power at work on each side, the fun begins of trying to assess how to increase the likelihood of change. That starts with reducing the forces that resist the change; the evidence shows that if you focus on creating greater pressure for change, the forces that are resisting it will merely redouble their efforts. Thinking through how to reduce the impact of the resisting forces gives your efforts for change more chance of succeeding. You can use this tool to look at any change process and plan your actions.

Another useful tool is Power Mapping from James Whelan at The Change Agency in Australia. James suggests helping the group to consider first what they want to achieve in their campaign. Being clear about your objective is really important in looking at the local power environment. Once you have the goal set, you can begin to use a simple map of power using two axises: one showing the level of influence each organisation or person has over your outcome and the other showing their level of support or opposition. Taking first your own network and then the most powerful player, you place sticky notes with the agency’s name on them onto the grid. You need to think broadly about a range of players in relation to your goal and map each onto the grid. When you’ve done this part of the process, you can turn to how you might move key influencers of your main power player closer to your cause. This tool helps to begin to develop a strategy for action.

100 Rubic cubes by Sam Greenhalgh CC FlickrPower cube

Among the most reflective and useful approaches to power analysis is the Power Cube. Developed by John Gaventa and his team at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Brighton, the Cube is a distillation of power studies in the context of popular participation in international development. The framework suggests that power can be analysed in three dimensions, taking the analogue of a Rubik’s cube. Each face can be viewed in three ways, allowing the analysis to focus on how things are at present and what the strategy should be to move power to a more ‘pro-poor’ position.

Starting with the issue of scale, the first dimension of the Cube sets out three levels of power: the local, national and global. In terms of participation in international development, these three clearly make more sense than for organisers working at local level. However, this face of the Cube can remind us that the power wielded in communities may be located well beyond the local or indeed national context. The second dimension of the Cube looks at spaces for power. Building on his colleague Andrea Cornwall’s work, Gaventa suggests that the space for participation can have three forms: closed, invited or claimed / created. This dimension focuses on access to spaces for the exercise of power. Some spaces are defined and controlled by the powerful and hence are closed to other participants. Other spaces are open to those invited to participate but often still defined by those with authority and influence. The third type of space is designed for the less powerful and deliver real and tangible control for the many. The third dimension of the Cube speaks to the form of power exercised in those spaces. Some power is visible in observable decision-making. Other power is hidden in the setting of the political agenda, what can be discussed and what is not debated. Invisible power shapes the meaning of the debate itself and what is acceptable attitudes, values and behaviour. To use this approach effectively, do read the paper referenced below and visit the IDS website to find many relevant resources making the application to different contexts much easier.

Paulo Freire by novohorizonte de Economia Solidaria CC FlcikrDevising codes

Most people experience their lives as constrained by factors outside their immediate environment. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator (pictured right) who led a national literacy campaign for peasants and slum dwellers in the 1950s and 1960s. His methods have been very influential on both community work and education ever since. When looking to explore power with community members, Freire’s approach can be very productive and insightful. If you are thinking of using this style of analysis, it’s well worth taking a look at Freire’s thinking more generally to understand where he was coming from and how his wider values informed his educational process.

In summary, this approach has three parts: to see, to analyse and to act; it starts with agreeing on the issues the community faces. This will normally be a long list and may take some time to summarise and agree. The organiser is a full part of the research drawing out the different expert insights from across the community and helping people engage with each other’s perspectives. Encouraged to look more deeply at causes rather than merely recording consequences, the group seeks a short list of say three issues. They become ‘generative themes’ for the analysis stage. This process allows the community to ‘see’ the issues clearly and to understand how they effect different groups and parts of their neighbourhood.

much.ado: the watch by Emily Hummel CC FlcikrThe second stage starts in small groups, each creating a ‘code’ which might be video, a photo, drawing, audio or perhaps for children a puppet show. The ‘code’ is a way for the group to express their understanding of the power at work in their issue in a distilled and cogent way. The code should make the link between the issue and the situation faced by the community itself explicit and help to open up the power at work. They should be encouraged to think through how best to explore the issue which allows more than words to express the meaning. Once the codes are ready, the group meets together to hear from each of the small groups. This brings together the wisdom of the whole group to analyse what is happening, why it happens and what are its causes and consequences. Here the three levels of power – personal, cultural and structural – all come into play and immediate causes are separated from root causes. It’s often best in this discussion to summarise it as a problem tree. This presents the agreement as a picture of a tree with the consequences as leaves, the trunk as the issue itself and roots as the fundamental causes.

Moving from seeing to analysis to action is critical to this process. It gives participants opportunity to grow more aware of their power situation and how the decisions and actions of others impact on members of the community. They begin to see how the issues are socially constructed and neither natural or inevitable. By the third stage, the group is ready to decide not only on a long-term strategy to move some of the key power players but also on short-term next steps to create momentum for change.

Magnetic field - 15 by Windell Oskay CC FlickrPower analysis does not create change alone. It is however a key part in awakening the potential of a community to tackle power realistically, recognising their own power and how the power of others – in the network and beyond – enables or constrains their lives. To become truly liberated citizens, communities need to organise, to act collectively for the common good and to be conscious of their place in the matrix or forcefield of power. Only when the acts of fully-awake groups of citizens are integrated with each other across our cities, towns and villages will we see the start of a new form of deeper democracy taking hold.


The Change Agency (TCA) – a website crammed with great campaign resources and some deep wisdom too – highly recommended

Find here worksheets on forcefield analysis, power mapping and problem tree analysis

Training for Change (TfC) – another brilliant resource site for trainers and activists engaged for social justice. Plenty of great resources to delve into here too.

Andrew Boyd (ed) (2012) Beautiful Trouble – a Toolbox for Revolution OR Books Available to buy or download at

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.

John Gaventa (2006) ‘Finding the Spaces for Change – A Power Analysis‘ in The IDS Bulletin Vol 37 No 6 Available as a pdf

Oxfam (2009) A Quick Guide to Power Analysis Available as a pdf

Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2011) Power – a practical guide for facilitating social change Carnegie UK Trust

Dawn Martinez Therapy for Liberation – the Paulo Freire Methodology Simmons College School of Social Work Available as a pdf

Tools for Influencing Power and Policy” in Participatory Learning and Action No 53 Dec 2005 International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) Available as a pdf

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One Response to Tooling up for power analysis

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Thanks for a really useful blog – as always challenging and thought-provoking!

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