How to think about Power – aka Learning from my Students

My LSE Masters module on Advocacy, Campaigning and Grassroots Activism kicked off recently with a great discussion on the nature of power. Tom Kirk, who teaches the course with me, asked each of the seminar groups to buzz on ‘how has your disciplinary background shaped your understanding of power’. Some fascinating patterns emerged.

If you come from somewhere ‘interesting’ (e.g. Georgia, China or Syria), lived experience may do a lot more than what you study in shaping your understanding of power. I guess one reason why my views are so influenced by physics, and Tom’s (Mr Foucault) by philosophy is that we weren’t confronting power on a daily basis when we are growing up, at least not in such a stark form.

Zero sum v Positive sum: Students with a background in International Relations or History tend to arrive with a ‘winner takes all’ zero sum view of power – in order to gain power you have to take it away from someone else. And that often is accompanied by a negative view of power – something generally used to oppress and exploit. Others (gender studies, English lit) are more likely to have a positive sum view – one person’s ‘empowerment’ need not come at the expense of others; in fact all can benefit.

‘There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, which each individual will end up interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer.’ Foucault

We need to think more about the psychology and emotions of power. It’s all very well discussing ‘structure v agency’, and highlighting the importance of ‘power within’ – a sense of personal rights and entitlements – as an essential aspect of many change processes. But it’s no good stopping there. We all know from our own experience that some people are just more powerful than others; psychological determinants of ‘personal power’ include charisma and leadership, determination, empathy, ability to build and nourish relationships, ‘leading from behind’, the role of introverts in change processes etc etc. And then there’s the darker side of psychology – of the personal ability to coerce and control others, or the fear and trauma that make it impossible for people to exhibit ‘agency’. Missing out on these aspects risks impoverishing any discussion of power.

Is resistance a form of power? James C Scott’s wonderful book Weapons of the Weak discussed ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance’ that focus not on observable acts of rebellion but on forms of cultural resistance and non-cooperation. Tom was worried this might be a bit of academic self-indulgence – dressing up servitude as something more positive, but I think there’s some real substance to the idea. I remember reading about several memorable cases in Latin America – Bolivian indigenous women who wore their traditional skirts under the Western dress mandated by their landowners; a famous story in Mexico where a statue of the virgin toppled over in Church to reveal a pre-hispanic deity that had been worshipped all along, in the guise of Christian prayer and song. More discussion here.

Students come to the course in search of practical skills (a lot of LSE content is very theoretical). For that, Jo Rowlands’ ‘four powers’ framework works best. Based on our experiences teaching over the first 3 years of the course, we upgraded it in this year’s lecture, saying that while other power frameworks (eg Foucault, or the Power Cube) are good for exploring and understanding how power operates in a given context, Rowlands is the best place to start in designing a specific strategy to change things, a launch pad for designing strategies to build ‘power within’, ‘power with’ and ‘power to’. Within each of those types of power, there are different frameworks that help you think through and design campaign strategies and tactics (check out the slides for more).

Best academic in-joke from a student who has been force-fed Foucault since undergrad ‘Foucault has been following me everywhere’ (Panopticon – geddit?)

Anyway, this all bodes well for the rest of term, even though we are 100% online, so I may only actually meet the students when they graduate at the end of the year ☹.

Next up, systems thinking – I’ll keep you posted.

And for those of you who still fear Foucault, here’s a v cool video intro to the man himself


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