A lesson on power and the abstruse (or a love-peeve relationship Part 2)

December 7, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Duly provoked by yesterday’s assault on IDS’ use of language, John Gaventa responds with a really nice story/rebuttal

As ever, we are delighted to see Duncan Green’s interesting and incisive blog on the new IDS Bulletin on Power, Poverty and Inequality.

In talking about what he calls his ‘love – peeve’ relationship with IDS, Duncan raises important questions of language in how we discuss power, and challenges us over what he calls “abstruse language and reluctance to commit to the ever-elusive ‘so whats?’’

Let me respond with a story – one that taught me never to underestimate the ability of people to decipher language, no matter how abstract, and to use analytical frames to figure out and take action for themselves.

Years ago my Oxford DPhil thesis, later to become the book Power and Powerlessness, focused on the power of the mining industry in a poor, remote part of the Appalachian Region in Kentucky and Tennessee. The first chapter of the book was pretty heavy going – as PhD theses often are.  It included a complex scheme of the ‘Power of A over B’, across three dimensions of power. Looking back it was about as ‘abstruse’ as it gets, and in retrospect even I sometimes have a hard time understanding what I was trying to say!

gaventa-fig-1But a few years after the book was published, I had a call from a group of miners, farmers, housewives and others in one of the towns featured in the book, who asked if I could come and discuss the book with them. I was a bit surprised as this was an area with extremely low levels of education and literacy, not known for its liberal book clubs. But not only had they bought copies of the book, they had sussed out the complex diagram.

Figuring out the ‘so-what’s’

They had used the framework to plot a strategy to form an alternative local political party, the ‘Time for a Change Party’, which went on to depose the corrupt mayor and bring in a reform candidate.  That introductory chapter of what Duncan would call ‘abstruse language’ had as much impact as any other more popular piece I have written, and more to the point, the people who read it had the capacity, skill and will to decide the ‘so what’ for themselves. They didn’t need me to figure it out for them.

As a young researcher, this experience brought a home life-long lesson: never assume what language is useful to whom, nor think that people don’t have the capacity to figure out how analysis can inform action for themselves. In fact, they may be better at it than we are.

And Duncan, if a group of miners and farmers in Appalachia can plough ids-coverthrough my dense DPhil thesis, then don’t be so hard on a far more user-friendly, open access IDS Bulletin!  There are lots of gems in there still to be uncovered about how to analyse and challenge power, which we are confident people will mine for themselves.

Postscript from me: Judging from this, and the comments from Rosie McGee and Jethro Pettit, I’ve done it again. Every time I allow myself to descend into something approaching snark, I end up regretting it. Upsetting people who I admire and respect is not a great feeling. But something else interesting has emerged from the to and fro (I suspect that sometimes the adrenaline around snark can trigger deeper thinking). That is about audiences. John and Rosie say that the communities whose change processes they write about ‘get’ the nuanced and difficult language – after all, this is their lives that are being written about. Maybe the audience that doesn’t is different – time short, attention deficit ‘knowledge intermediaries’ like me faced with 60 article headlines in their RSS feed and wondering which ones to click on. Does it matter if we are put off and rapidly move on to something from ODI, CGD or some other slightly more linguistically plain vanilla source? I think it does. Thoughts?

December 7, 2016
Duncan Green