Introduction to other forms

Art work by Raul Leon The ‘forms of power’ used within the powercube came out of heated debates among social and political theorists about what power is, how it operates, and how it changes. Many of the differences of opinion will never be resolved by some unifying theory, as power is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (Lukes 1974, 2005: 137). But it is worth knowing about some of these debates and tensions, as well as other theories of power which complement or challenge those in the powercube. In this section we briefly review some (but by no means all) other approaches to understanding power among influential thinkers concerned with social inequality and exclusion.

We focus on concepts of power that can be usefully applied to experience and practice. But to avoid being simplistic or using ideas out of context, we need to appreciate some of the concepts and theories behind them. There are always challenges in making use of theory. Some practitioners worry that power analysis may become too abstract and hard to apply, while academics are concerned that some ‘power tools’ are overly simplistic. Others say ‘there is nothing as practical as a good theory’ (Eyben, Harris et al. 2006), and that all theory comes originally from experience and observation.

We hope the gap can be bridged by linking theory and practice, but without trying to arrive at a singular view about power. Different methods of power analysis can serve different purposes, in different moments and contexts. For example, some may need to analyse power among particular political actors, while others may need to understand how power is disbursed in the social order (Eyben, Harris et al. 2006: 2). As a starting point, it is worth asking why we want to understand or address power.

Many theories of power are more like a ‘theory of society’ than a method of analysing political outcomes, and for some this is important. Without a theory of society we risk treating power simply as a ‘factor’, ‘a discreet and one-sided component of social reality, unconnected to existing structures, social action, and the multiple facets of social arrangements’ (Navarro 2006: 12).  It is useful for those working to bring about equitable social change to have a ‘theory of change’ to guide their decisions and actions. Building on the idea that theory is practical, we offer this section as a way to expand and diversify the theoretical resources useful for power analysis.

At the same time, in such limited space we can’t possibly do justice to the social theories of Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc. The best we can do is point to their main ideas and contributions to understandings of power, identify key similarities or differences in relation to the concepts used in the powercube, and assess the implications of these ideas for applied analysis, strategy and practice.

As these theories and debates about power can be complex at times, we have tried to use accessible language and terms. But we are also aware of the need to respect the authors’ original language and terms, and of the risks of using or combining concepts in over-simplistic ways (having learned from the ways in which terms like ‘participation’ and ‘democracy’ have been misused and de-politicized). We hope that readers will treat this section as a kind of glossary or guide to further inquiry, providing sign-posts to ideas and resources that you can follow up on. We begin with a look at concepts that have obvious common ground with the powercube, and progress to others that are either complementary or contradictory in their approaches.

References for further reading

Eyben, Rosalind., Harris, Colette., and Petitt, Jethro (2006), Exploring Power – an introduction’, IDS Bulletin 37(5): 1-10.

Lukes, Stephen (2005) Power: A Radical View, London, Macmillan, (first edition published in 1974).

Navarro, Zander (2006) ‘In Search of  Cultural Intepretation of Power’, IDS Bulletin 37(6): 11-22.

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