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

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?

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4 Responses to “A lesson on power and the abstruse (or a love-peeve relationship Part 2)”
  1. Cathy Shutt

    I’m glad John gave this response. I had similar thoughts yesterday and was reminded of an evaluation I did for Christian Aid a few years ago that explored whether their investment in power analysis had made a difference to practice in a DFID funded governance programme. It certainly had, partly because it was introduced as an action learning tool to help explore why assumptions in country level theories of action were not working. But the reasons power analysis helped, and the particular concepts or tools that excited people varied from country to country, depending on respondents’ backgrounds, experience as well as local ontologies of power. Hidden power and power mapping using visual tools had provided many with ‘aha moments’. But I was amazed when civil society activists from Latin America that live and breathe power/political analysis found that some of the concepts IDS proposed gave them fresh perspectives that differed from their standard Marxist analysis. One respondent remarked that people did not always get the fine difference between different power concepts, but that it did not really matter. They had still found the ideas sufficiently useful to trigger action and had often adapted ideas to make them useful for their working context.

    If we really believe power, context and complexity matter, why do we still look to international evaluators/researchers and authors to fill in the so whats? Articulated at a global level they often end up being fairly banal and obvious. Surely if we are serious about doing things differently and thinking and working politically we need to adopt a much more reflexive approach and ask questions rather than always make recommendations? As I remarked in a recent EBA commissioned report that explored what has been learned from DDD and TWP thus far, I think we have a long way to go in examining the implications for knowledge generation, evidence and learning.

  2. Will Essilfie

    Whilst accepting the validity of John Gaventa’s argument, I do think that in general many academics/researchers could do a better job of presenting their ideas (this applies across all fields). Yes some readers do find a way through the ‘dense’ language that often gets used but there are also many who get turned off by it and think that the text is not for them. I say this as someone who moved from a science background to a social science one, and experienced this firsthand. Once I got to terms with the style of writing in the social sciences, I realised that many ideas that were presented in a complex format could be reduced to some rather basic concepts.

    I think that many academics/researchers could benefit from creative writing courses to develop their skills and learn how to better express themselves; so many people spend time developing expertise in their field without putting a fraction of that time in developing their writing skills. It’s such a joy to read research that is accessible whilst engaging with complex ideas. Through my own experiences in academia I understand how in attempts not to be misunderstood, convoluted writing can manifest, however I still believe it’s possible to meet academic research standards and create enjoyable reading experiences.

    Whilst agreeing with John’s sentiments, I hope researchers and academics will also invest more time in developing their creative writing skills. In my own work, I am interested in alternative approaches to presenting information, particularly related to social justice. In An Uncertain Grace, Sebastião Salgado talks about switching from being an economist to being a photographer and managing to convey information in photography that immediately communicated to readers the essence of the reports he used to write that only a handful of people read or could fully understand. I hope all researchers will think long and hard about how they communicate their ideas and where they can, borrow ideas from the creative arts.

  3. Allan

    Two exceptions hardly disprove Duncan’s point. Academics have to be clear who they are writing for – normally each other and some technocrats who want to be ‘Doctors’ as well. Very little of the content they produce is ever accessed (seen rarely, read even more rarely) and that’s the sadness of the industry – it doesn’t support people enough in community to find or adapt their own solutions.

  4. Tom

    As a part-time PHD student, researcher and consultant, I try to straddle the line between practitioner and academic. The sad truth of how I consume papers is that if a piece by an author I know and on a topic I’m interested in I will read it 2 or 3 times until I feel I get what is being said, no matter how difficult the language. But if its by a writer unfamiliar to me, I will abandon the piece early if it proves too challenging. This, I know, is a problem and I am no doubt missing a lot of good stuff.

    That said, I have also in the past had similar experiences to John after sharing my writing with research participants. On occasion they’ve looked at me and said that I’ve only written what they all say privately in complicated academic language. The thing is, if I did not say it in the complicated language whoever is paying me would not trust it. Such is the strange position researchers occupy between participants and those paying for the research (or common, local knowledge to be recorded in complicated ways).

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