In a situation of longstanding and complex violent conflict in Buenaventura, Colombia, we used action research to explore with social activists what power, violence, citizenship and agency mean to them and how they experience and exercise citizen agency in relation to the violence.
This Working Paper presents our conceptual and theoretical starting points, action research process and findings. Direct violence was at a peak in urban Buenaventura when the action research was conducted, manifest in some particularly macabre forms. Yet in exploring the interconnections between power, violence and active citizenship, what emerged most strongly were structural and symbolic violence. These are experienced by Buenaventura citizens in ways that correspond to certain power theorists’ interpretations of ‘invisible power’. Most citizens have yielded to the encroachment of violent norms, language and imaginaries, allowing these to infuse their social roles and interactions and the socialisation of children and youth.
The action research participants, however, represented a minority of active citizens who respond differently to direct, structural and symbolic violence. They navigate it using a range of responses: innovative organisational practices; mould-breaking models of social leadership; the de-legitimation of violent actors, actions and attitudes; and other visible and invisible expressions of individual and collective resistance to the violent re-shaping of norms, beliefs and values. The case study highlights the interconnected nature of direct, structural and symbolic forms of violence; contributes to theorising invisible power from this grounded and richly contextual perspective; illustrates the shortcomings of simplistic assumptions about citizen engagement in fragile and violent contexts and the importance of ‘seeing like a citizen’; and sheds light on debates about citizen agency and structuration in processes of social change.