How visible, hidden and invisible power work together

While these three concepts are presented separately, in practice they are highly interrelated.  Victories by dominant actors in public arenas (visible power) shape the barriers which may keep people from engaging (hidden power). Over time, the lack of visible conflict or contestation contributes to an acceptance of the status quo as normal (invisible power). John Gaventa’s study on how large absentee mining companies established their control over local politics and resources over a hundred year period in Appalachia gives an example of this.  Once these companies were able to gain control over local political processes, they were able to use this power to prevent challenges related to their land and mineral interests.  Over time, in the absence of public challenge, acceptance of the inequalities of power came to be accepted in the local community. While small land owners would fight each other over land issues, the ‘company land’ was seen as out of bounds and untouchable. For more conceptual description of this process read chapter 1 (section 1.3) ‘Power and Powerlessness’ (Gaventa 1980).

If power is thus accumulative and interrelated, than strategies for change can also interrelate and strengthen one another.   For instance, a policy victory in the visible arena of power may be important, but may not be sustained, if those outside the arena are not aware that it has occurred and how it relates to their interests, or are not mobilized to make sure that other hidden forms of power do not preclude its implementation.  Too often, however, those challenging the status quo use separate strategies of advocacy, popular mobilization and awareness building, without linking them up directly or working with other organizations who do.

Forms of power are not only found in formal decision-making arenas, but also may be found in other spaces of participation, such as community meetings, public consultations, or public collective actions.  But how power is used, and who has power, may vary across these spaces. This is why it is important to link the forms of power to the study of the spaces and levels of power as well.

References for further reading

Gaventa, John (1980) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachina Valley, University of Illinois Press.

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