Agency or structure – or beyond?

Art work by Raul Leon Many theories of power seek to explain, in different ways, the operation of less visible or internalised forms of power in society. What makes the  four expressions of power compatible with the three ‘forms of power’ – but also a source of tension with other theories – is that they focus foremost on the differential power of actors, situated in unequal relationships of dominance, submission or resistance. Power is relational and is expressed as a contest of human agency, rather than as the underlying social structures or broader historical, social and cultural forces that shape these actors and their ways of relating or acting.

One purpose of this section on other forms of power is to explore other conceptions of power which start from the perspective of structure, or which explore the interplay of agency and structure, or which seek to transcend this divide altogether.  For some, the ‘three faces’ serve as a bridge: invisible power is clearly a reflection of structures (e.g. socially embedded norms about gender, race, class, sexuality, age, etc.). For others however, the way invisible power is defined leans too strongly toward intentional uses of these norms by powerful actors to consciously manipulate the thoughts and wants of others – for example through the media or education. This view of the ‘third face’ does not sufficiently take into account the ways in which everyone participates, whether consciously or unconsciously, in socially conditioned norms, beliefs and behaviour.

For some, the ‘expressions of power’ also help to bridge agency and structure: social norms are internalised and have negative effects on one’s ‘power within’ (self-worth and esteem), leading to unconscious compliance with prevailing structures, or ‘false consciousness’ in Marxian terms. But for others the focus on agency remains too strong and obscures the resilient power of norms, culture and discourses, and hence also distracts from potential strategies that might affect more enduring kinds of change. And for yet others, the agency/structure distinction is itself a problem, as both are seen as indelibly shaped by societal forces largely beyond our comprehension or control.

These tensions are one of the main reasons we think it worth exploring other approaches to understanding power, and to see what they can contribute to analysis and action – whether as part of applying the powercube, in addition to it, or instead of it. Some of these approaches are complementary and help to extend the ‘spectrum’ from agency to structures and beyond, with ‘invisible power’ and ‘power within’ as useful bridging points for broader analysis.  However, we recognise that for some the powercube may be too centred on actors, or restrictive in other ways, and that other concepts of power may be required as starting points. Much will also depend on the purpose and context in which one is working. As power is ‘essentially contested’ we certainly don’t expect to resolve these healthy debates.

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