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Opinion

Power and empowerment: time for a fresh look at theory and practice

Published on 15 November 2019

Power may be an ‘essentially contested concept’ for academics, as Steven Lukes put it, but it is also endlessly contested in practice. Today’s news is bursting with examples of power being abused, challenged, claimed or created in myriad ways by diverse actors in every corner of the earth.

Our new book, Power, Empowerment and Social Change, reconsiders the nature of power and empowerment in social change processes, aiming to shed light on the changing nature of power, how it can be transformed, and how power theory and practitioners’ efforts to shift power can work together better.

A young Dalit woman teaches karate to other low-caste girls at a women's education centre in Bihar, India. Ami Vitale, Panos Pictures.
A young Dalit woman teaches karate to other low-caste girls at a women’s education centre in Bihar, India. Ami Vitale, Panos Pictures.

These are dangerous times for social change practitioners. In the face of extreme inequalities and catastrophic climate change, struggles for justice, rights, and the environment have become inseparable from one another – and from the very survival of humanity. Yet rather than uniting around common interests, societies seem more divided than ever by powerful political, economic and religious forces and by conflicts fuelled by ideology, fear and insecurity.

Speaking truth to power has become more dangerous than ever. Political mobilisation is suppressed, while space for civil society is being shut down by politicised regulation, funding strictures, mass surveillance and the criminalisation of protest. Whether defending the environment or human rights, whether a pro-democracy or a pro-LGBTQ rights activist, whether focusing on women’s rights, black lives or indigenous people’s autonomy, advocates of change are facing ever greater risks from backlash.

Why this book, why now?

Up against these challenges, it is easy to feel powerless and paralysed. One response is to deepen our understanding of power – what it is, how it works, how to resist its abuse, and how to build countervailing power. The study of power has been around for a long time, and much can be learned from the scholarship. But this is a critical time, when we need to revisit established concepts, break out of disciplinary silos and debates, integrate ‘contested’ theories, and focus on the practical implications of power analysis for action.

What this book aims to do

This book project was inspired in part by the need for a fresh take on power, and by a sense that power theory has been insufficiently connected with social and political activism. While practitioners around the world are working to shift and re-signify power in the face of acute injustice and crises, the literature often neglects their experiences, insights and theories, and falls short of addressing the implications of power theory. Even when practitioners build theory in action, their experience isn’t well recognised.

We conceived the book as a resource that might help make sense of power and empowerment and put this understanding to use in present-day efforts to support social change. We and our co-authors explore the multiple dimensions of power and empowerment at play in practices related to organising, movement-building, citizen voice and state accountability, women’s empowerment, human rights, indigenous peoples’ autonomy, conflict transformation, digital activism, organisational learning and popular education, among others.

Interpreting these experiences with ideas from the power literature, and also bringing these experiences to bear on those ideas, we have sought to bridge theory and practice with a critical and reflexive analysis of the practical uses of conceptual frameworks. Through micro-level, ethnographic, inductive and reflective accounts of experience, we explore what people think and do about power and empowerment, not only what is written about it. Focusing on multiple and intersecting power dynamics generally less explored in mainstream power literature, we seek fresh insights into approaches for shifting power relations in favour of relatively less powerful people.

Power is often seen as a kind of agency, particularly in liberal, pluralist and political economy framings where citizens are conceived as free agents who can make choices. People will inform themselves of their options, form alliances, and engage with political parties and leaders to secure rights, entitlements and accountability.

We have found this view to be rather limited. While useful for identifying the power of agents, their interests and alliances in more pluralist contexts, this lens can obscure the way power is embedded in socialised norms, beliefs and behaviour, and how it can shape the very boundaries of what it is considered politically possible. On the other hand, taking a purely discursive and structural view of power as reproduced through hegemonic norms and narratives affords little scope for individual and collective agency.

We treat power as iterative, intersectional and multidimensional in this book, moving away from “agency vs structure” debates, and avoiding the determinism of these perspectives. While considering actors and their motives, as well as the structures that uphold inequalities, we draw attention to the ways in which socialised norms, constraints and opportunities for agency are actually experienced, and how moments of power can be resisted or transformed through social action and leadership.

The book’s chapters explore creative and positive pathways to understanding and action and show that power and empowerment are best understood as they intersect with real issues and struggles. Power analysis is not the exclusive concern of any discipline, but a set of perspectives and approaches that are applicable to many issues and sectors. As authors, we bring decades of experience and research to our writing, and come from diverse perspectives – including critical, feminist, race, sexuality and intersectional standpoints which are often marginalised in conventional power analysis. We understand power as both personal and political and suggest that to separate these or objectify power as something “out there”, removed from the subjectivity and positionality of the analyst, is dangerous.

We also see risks in outsourcing power analysis to “experts” by leaders and managers who think they are too busy or unqualified. Power analysis is integral to good practice and strategising, and is best undertaken as a reflective and reflexive process by practitioners, teams, groups and communities, through dialogue and facilitation – not as a one-off exercise, but as a continuous and evolving practice.

As power becomes ever more complex – and standing up to it becomes more dangerous – our hope is that this book will embolden people and groups to embrace their political responsibility and realise their capacity to resist and to create power. Given the range of threats to the peaceful coexistence of people on the planet, it has never been more important to not only understand power in its multiple dimensions, but to transform it through conscious and strategic action.

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