Expressions of power

Power is often defined only in negative terms, and as a form of domination, but it can also be a positive force for individual and collective capacity to act for change. Lisa VeneKlasen and Valeries Miller in A New Weave of Power (2002, page 55) describe four ‘expressions of power’ as follows:

Power Over

power over cartoonThe most commonly recognized form of power, ‘power over’, has many negative associations for people, such as repression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Power is seen as a win-lose kind of relationship. Having power involves taking it from someone else, and then, using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it. In politics, those who control resources and decision making have power over those without. When people are denied access to important resources like land, healthcare, and jobs ‘power over’ perpetuates inequality, injustice and poverty. In the absence of alternative models and relationships, people repeat the ‘power over’ pattern in their personal relationships, communities and institutions. This is also true of people who come from a marginalized or ‘powerless’ group. When they gain power in leadership positions, they sometimes ‘imitate the oppressor.’ For this reason, advocates cannot expect that the experience of being excluded prepares people to become democratic leaders. New forms of leadership and decision-making must be explicitly defined, taught, and rewarded in order to promote more democratic forms of power. Practitioners and academics have searched for more collaborative ways of exercising and using power. Three alternatives – ‘power with’, ‘power to’ and ‘power within’ – offer positive ways of expressing power that create the possibility of forming more equitable relationships. By affirming people’s capacity to act creatively, they provide some basic principles for constructing empowering strategies.

Power With

power with cartoon‘Power with’ has to do with finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength. Based on mutual support, solidarity and collaboration, power with multiplies individual talents and knowledge. ‘Power with’ can help build bridges across different interests to transform or reduce social conflict and promote equitable relations. Advocacy groups seek allies and build coalitions drawing on the notion of ‘power with’.

Power To

power to cartoon‘Power to’ refers to the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. When based on mutual support, it opens up the possibilities of joint action, or ‘power with’. Citizen education and leadership development for advocacy are based on the belief that each individual has the power to make a difference.

Power Within

power within cartoon‘Power within’ has to do with a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others. ‘Power within’ is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfilment. Many grassroots efforts use individual story telling and reflection to help people affirm personal worth and recognize their ‘power to’ and ‘power with’. Both these forms of power are referred to as agency – the ability to act and change the world – by scholars writing about development and social change.

See also Jo Rowlands’ book Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras (1997, page 13) published by Oxfam which also covers these forms of power.

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