In the first week of class for my MA in Media, Campaigning and Social Change, one of my tutors said in passing, laughing but also serious, “you’ll realise soon that everything is about power!” At that point, I had no idea what she meant, and figured I had a lot to learn. Now, half way through the taught part of the course, I can hardly believe that I didn’t realise how true that statement was.
Gaventa (2006, p. 23) tells us that everyone is affected by, and possesses, power – the contentious part is trying to understand what exactly this means. As the first semester draws to a close, I’ve asked myself: what power do I possess? We each possess power, but as campaigners we must continually ask ourselves this question, and be ready to revise the answer frequently.
It can be difficult to figure out what power we, as individuals, have. A good starting point also comes from Gaventa (Ibid., p. 24) who writes that, “Power is often used with other descriptive words. Power ‘over’[…] The power ‘to’ […] Power ‘within’ […] Power ‘with’ […].” A good starting point when assess the scope of our own power, therefore, can be to ask ourselves:
- Who do I have power over? Whose actions and thoughts do I, can I, or should I, affect?
- What do I have power to do? What rights can I exercise? Where are the opportunities to be an agent of change?
- Do I have power within? Can I develop my sense of self-confidence, identity and awareness that is necessary for action?
- Who do I have power with? Which relationships, partnerships or collaborations produce synergy?
The answers to these questions will require some reflection, but it is worth
taking the time to consider them carefully. By doing so, we are already exercising power by recognising, acknowledging and identifying it. Lukes (1974, p. 27-28) points out that a major form of power is rendering a population unaware either of the existence of their power, or of their desire to use it. Therefore, being conscious of our power is a vital way to resist the power of others – which, in turn, is an exercise of power!
Of course, power is not evenly distributed and not always easily identified. There is obvious, visible power, such as government and other authorities; less-obvious, hidden power, such as individuals or organisations who influence decision-making; and invisible power, by which “significant problems and issues [are kept] from the minds and consciousness of the different players involved, even those directly affected by the problem” (Gaventa, 2006, p. 29). Our own power will fluctuate throughout our lives, at different ages and stages, depending on our networks and other personal circumstances. And of course, questions of power “inevitably involve endless disputes about [its] proper [use] on the part of [its] users” (Gallie, 1955-6, p. 169).
As my tutor said, everything is about power. Questions of power surround us – it is our job to ask the questions. It’s messy, complicated and often infuriating, but gaining awareness of power issues and the places we might find power – visible, hidden or invisible – is the first step towards realising that you’ve got the power.
Gaventa, J., 2006. Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS Bulletin 37 (6): 23-33.
Lukes, S., 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan.