By Gabriele Bammer
How can an understanding of diversity in power improve research on complex societal and environmental problems? What are the different ways in which diversity in power plays out?
Simply put, there are currently two common ways in which power is taken into account in research on complex societal and environmental problems:
- those working with marginalised stakeholders, or otherwise committed to giving everyone involved in the research an equal voice, often seek to eliminate differences in power
- those who seek to use their research to change policy or practice generally attempt to find ways to influence those with the power to make those changes.
In these considerations of power, diversity is largely seen as a matter of degree, in other words some people have more power than others. But that only scratches the surface.
A useful way to begin to systematise thinking about diversity in power is to draw on the powercube developed by John Gaventa and others, which considers:
- three different forms of power
- three different spaces where decisions are made
- four different levels where power is exercised.
These are interacting relationships rather than static entities.
The three different forms of power are:
- visible, ie., the ability to participate and prevail in observable decision making
- hidden, ie., the ability to set the “rules of the game,” including how issues are framed, whose perspectives are considered legitimate, which processes are considered appropriate
- invisible, ie., the ability to create or maintain conditions where people with little power internalise norms that lead to their “acceptance of an unjust status quo” (Gaventa 2021, p. 117).
The three different spaces where decisions are made are:
- closed, ie., where an in-group makes decisions, with no attempt to include others who may be affected or otherwise have something to offer
- invited, ie., where participation is invited, generally within set parameters
- claimed or created, ie., where less powerful actors get together to shape and act on their own agendas.
The four different levels where power is exercised are:
- global, ie., at a larger scale than the nation state
- national, ie., at the country level, and involving authority linked to nation-states, such as through governments or political parties
- local, ie., at a city, regional or other sub-national level, such as through local councils, local businesses and non-governmental associations
- household, ie., at a micro-level; it may be outside the public sphere but may help shape what occurs within it.
Gaventa (2021) also provides a review of different ways of expressing power, the most useful of which in a research context are:
- power over ie., constraining and controlling opportunities for others
- power to ie., creating opportunities for others
- power with ie., cooperating and learning together with others.
Power differences and how problems are framed, understood and responded to
How power differences influence the ways in which problems are framed, understood and responded to depends on how power is exercised by the disciplinary specialists and stakeholder groups involved. Examples of how differences in power can manifest include:
- a stakeholder who is a decision maker with visible power, using consultative processes and operating at the national level by exercising power over
- a stakeholder representing a marginalised group (with visible power in that group) who largely accepts the status quo, but looks for invited spaces to contribute their group’s perspective and ability to act at a local level
- a disciplinary specialist who sees the problem as their ‘bread-and-butter’ with no need to consult outsiders, instead relying on a global literature written by their peers.
In addition, some may seek to open spaces allowing their peers to contribute, while others may hold power to themselves and exclude their peers from any involvement.
Power differences and how well those contributing to the research work together
A useful starting point in considering how power differences affect the conduct of research is the orientations to power expressed in how the research project is established and run. For example, is it managed by:
- a small group who decide who to invite to participate and the parameters of that participation?
- a small group who open opportunities for participation in a range of different ways?
- all the participants in an open and exploratory way?
How the research project is established sets expectations for how power differences among the participants will be managed. Even so, participants will also come with their own expectations and ways of expressing power. For example, in a project where the organisers exert control, some participants will chafe at limitations put on them. And in a project that is open and exploratory, some participants will want to see a leadership group established that exerts control and perhaps even seize control themselves. Such open projects are also open to manipulation by participants exercising hidden power.
The focus here is on understanding differences in power among those involved in researching a problem. Power is, of course, also more broadly important in analysing a problem (through political science or sociology) – for example assessing who has power and how they use it – to provide insights into why a complex problem manifests as it does and why some avenues for changing the problem seem more feasible than others. Such an assessment of power can also be helpful in planning a research project and in deciding who to involve.
Anything to add?
Do you have additional perspectives to share about understanding different types and expressions of power in those involved in research?
Do you have lessons from experience to share? Particularly welcome are examples of how power differences affected how the problem was approached and the ability of those involved to work together.
If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding power differences that would be useful?
Sources and references:
The powercube is adapted from its original use as a tool for those seeking to study power and to bring about social change. The key reference used is Gaventa (2021), which also cites the work of others.
Gaventa, J. (2021). Linking the prepositions: Using power analysis to inform strategies for social action. Journal of Political Power, 14, 1: 109-130. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1080/2158379X.2021.1878409
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:
This blog post:
4. Power (May 12, 2022)