Hidden power

hidden power cartoonHidden forms of power are used by vested interests to maintain their power and privilege by creating barriers to participation, by excluding key issues from the public arena, or by controlling politics ‘backstage’.  They may occur not only within political processes, but in organizational and other group contexts as well,  such as workplaces, NGOs or community-based organizations.

Through hidden forms of power, alternative choices are limited, less powerful people and their concerns are excluded, and the rules of the game are set to be biased against certain people and issues.  Academics have described this form of power as the ‘mobilization of bias’, where ‘some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out’ (Schattschneider 1960: 71). This is done by dominant rules and procedures, the framing of issues in a way that devalues them, the uses or threat of sanctions, and the discrediting of the legitimacy of actors who are challenging the status quo.

Strategies which address this form of power focus on strengthening people’s voices and capacities to speak out, mobilizing and organizing to overcome the barriers to participation, using research and media to challenge how issues are framed. Often when we talk about hidden power, we talk about how people affected negatively by power may challenge it, to make their voices more visible.  For instance, just changing the rules about who is allowed to speak in a public meeting can bring new voices or issues to the table. To read more about action go the the strategize and act pages or view the Power Matrix handout by Just Associates (see related resources on this page).

References for further reading

Schattschneider, Elmer, E. (1960) The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

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