Where have we got to in Understanding Power as the basis for Activism? Great new review.

March 31, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

John Gaventa has been thinking, writing and theorising about power for at least four decades. His new essay ‘Linking the prepositions: using power analysis to inform strategies for social action’ should be on the reading lists of anyone at the wonkier end of the activist spectrum. It summarizes and reflects on some of the main frameworks for understanding power that have emerged over the last 50 years, including Stephen Lukes, Jo Rowlands and John’s own work on the Power Cube. There is a fascinating account of the practical applications of the power cube to everything from grassroots social movements in India to Fair Trade Towns in the UK.

It’s scholarly, not an easy read, and impossible to summarize in my standard blog journalese, so I’ll settle for some edited highlights to give you a flavour.

On the questioning of the word ‘empowerment’:

‘Despite a common etymology, over the years, the vast literatures on ‘power’ and ‘empowerment’ seem increasingly to have diverged. Some, such as Srilatha Batliwala, have argued that we have seen a systematic process of ‘taking the power out of empowerment’. For many concerned with challenging and confronting power, especially its more structural forms, empowerment has come to be a word to be avoided, as it often now focuses on individual fulfilment, disconnected from the underlying causes of powerlessness.

Yet the separation of the idea of empowerment from ideas of power as domination has not always been the case. In the early feminist thinking in the field of international development, Batliwala and others  ‘stressed that empowerment was a socio-political process, that the critical operating concept within empowerment was power, and that empowerment was about shifts in political, social, and economic power between and across both individuals and social groups’

Despite these more radical roots, over time, the word empowerment gradually lost its association with the transformation of power, often driven by mainstream donor and institutional co-optation of the term.’

On the value of ‘prepositional power’ – power with, within, to, over and for:

‘Taken together, these concepts give us a basis for an approach to social action that begins to transcend the often separate streams of thinking and practice on power and empowerment, and which focuses not just on power as domination, but also power as challenge to that domination. In this more unified approach, these forms of power can be seen as interrelated, such that empowerment becomes a process through which relatively powerless groups develop a sense of power within, and the capacity for power with others, in order to challenge the power over their lives, and gain the power to determine their own futures, guided by their vision of a different world, as in power for.

Though we can describe this process in a linear way, activists also know that these processes are often more iterative and messy, with setbacks along the way. Sometimes it is through challenging the power over in the first instance, that people, through that action, develop a sense of their power within and with others. Or the vision found in power for often emerges through the processes of gaining power within and being able to articulate a new worldview collectively. As people gain the power to act with others, they may face backlash, reprisals and repression, which can weaken the power within, or alternatively strengthen its resolve. But wherever one enters the cycle, this more holistic understanding of linking the multiple forms of power shows more promise for understanding how change happens than the focus on any one form of power on its own.’

And a typically subtle extract from the conclusion:

‘While much of the work on power, including my own work, focuses on the repressive effects of power over, we have found that even in cases of extreme inequalities of power, dominated groups have found ways to exert their agency, pushing back and constantly challenging such power. In so doing, they use multiple strategies – resistance from the outside through claiming their own spaces, engagement within invited spaces, challenging dominant discourses and articulating new prefigurative possibilities for change, and more, each of which may be re-enforcing the other.

These strategies and practices of social action work across and beyond the ‘prepositions’ of power which have been so visible in power debates in recent years. In various combinations, engagement strategies involve and support the development of the power within, through which disenfranchised groups recognise their own agency, the power for, through which they develop their own visions and imagination of how circumstances could be different, and the power with others through alliances and solidarities – all as part of using their power to challenge the power over their lives and circumstances. Transformative change involves working with all of these strategies, and with all of these forms of power.’

Definitely going on my LSE reading list

March 31, 2021
Duncan Green