Understanding diversity primer: 4. Power

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Concluding notes

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:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)

This blog post:
4. Power (May 12, 2022)

Still to come:
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

14 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 4. Power”

  1. Thanks so much for this blog post. The concept of hidden power is pervasive in many implementation efforts where “ground rules” exist but most implementation actors, and often those with the biggest stake in implementation, are unaware of these ground roles. I think this deconstruction of power is applicable for all roles in implementation science, beyond those individuals conducting research. This blog aligns with a recent article on the Typology of Power by the stages of implementation – open source here https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/26334895211064250. Thanks so much for this!!

    • Thanks Alison for that additional helpful framework. Very valuable.
      For those interested, my quick summary:
      (1) discursive power through problem-framing
      (2) epistemic power through whose knowledge is valued
      (3) material power through resource distribution.

  2. Thanks for the very useful application of the powercube framework to the research process. It is very important to disentangle these relationships. For those who are interested in the frame, you can also visit the (ungated) web site: powercube.net, though this is a bit dated.
    Also, you might be interested in my earlier work with Andrea Cornwall on power and knowledge, which may also be found open access here: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/20.500.12413/8345/IDSB_37_6_10.1111-j.1759-5436.2006.tb00329.x.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

  3. Gabriele, thanks for providing the full spectrum of perception of power.
    This information is important, first of all, for undergraduate and graduate students of universities, who spend a lot of time studying and collecting information about all aspects of power as an object of study.
    However, the question: “How can understanding the diversity of power improve research into complex social and environmental problems?” allowed me to philosophize a little on one of the aspects of understanding power – an overview of the different ways of expressing power.
    I turned my attention to the disturbing combination of the definition of the term “power” and the proposed ways of expressing power.

    Power is the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want.
    Gaventa provides an overview of the various ways in which power is expressed:
    • power over t. e. limiting and controlling opportunities for others
    • power i.e. creating opportunities for others
    • power with t. e., cooperation and learning together with others.

    In this combination, the absence of a context in which the expediency of power and ways of expressing it is manifested is disturbing. I have compiled several definitions of power that will show a certain context, for example:
    • Power is the ability to force other people to do what they do not want, in order to achieve the common good.
    • Power is the ability to force other people to do what they do not want in order to achieve the good of the ruling elite.
    • Power is the ability to force other people to do what they do not want in order to achieve sustainable development.
    • Power is the ability to force other people to do what they don’t want in order to subjugate the majority to the opinion of the minority. Etc.

    I propose to add an element of context to the existing spectrum of perceptions of power. A certain context will stop the ongoing process of research into complex social and environmental problems. A certain context will allow us to move on to finding the most effective ways to address appropriate and contextual complex social and environmental challenges. Turning problems into tasks allows for four levels at which power is exercised:
    • global , i.e. e. on a larger scale than the nation state
    • national ,i.e. e. at the country level, and with the participation of authorities associated with nation states, for example, through governments or political parties
    • local , i.e. e. at the city, state or other sub-national level, such as through local councils, local businesses and non-governmental associations
    • household , i.e. e. at the micro level; it may be outside the public sphere, but it can help shape what happens in it.
    In this case, the general context of power will determine the content of the level contexts of power, as well as the level structures of its organization.

    Philosophical conclusions:
    It can be stated that today there is a violation of the contextual connection between the levels of power. Perhaps it is this disruption of contextual connection that creates problems of power, as well as social and environmental problems. I am confident that focusing the attention of policymakers, politicians, members of the public, as well as scientists and practitioners, on the contextual coherence of power at all levels will lead to positive consequences in solving complex social and environmental problems.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. There is a problem with defining power only as “the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want.” Power to and power with are important issues that should not be seen in this light. For example, I use my power in creating a blog to give you power to express your views – there is no force involved. Similarly, people who invite others to collaborate to do something together are not forcing anyone. Have I misunderstood you?

      • Thanks for the question! I will explain my position. In my previous post, I asked permission to philosophize on just one aspect of the understanding of power and an overview of the different ways in which power is expressed on a global level. To do this, I used the most common definition of power and how it is expressed in solving political, social and environmental problems. Fortunately, there are many aspects to understanding power, the ways in which it is expressed, and the levels at which power is exercised. Among these aspects, there are many aspects, the combination of which does not cause me anxiety. For example, you just spoke about one of these aspects of understanding power and ways of expressing it. But, it seems to me that the theme of the “context” of power is also manifested in your example. At your (individual) level, you don’t just use your power. In a blog, your power and how you express it have a well-defined context – to provide constructive research resources for understanding and solving complex real-world problems. It is this context that weeds out views that are not constructive research resources. As a consequence, the blog is in your power. But we do not feel your power, but we experience the favorable context and creative consequences of this power. As a result, the invitation to cooperation is also not a power, but a manifestation of the favorable context and creative consequences of this power.

        • Thanks – I thought I might have missed the point. But I am sorry to say I still don’t get the point you are trying to make! Of course, context adds further complexity to how power is expressed and experienced.

          If we go back to the basic aim of the blog post which is to give those starting research on complex societal and environmental problems a tool for better understanding power, how can your observations help them?

          • I think that the misunderstood problem is created by the machine (computer) translation of our messages. It is difficult for a computer to understand the subtleties of the original conceptual interpretations. I will try to answer your question with brief theses. Perhaps in this case the computer will be able to translate my thoughts correctly. I apologize in advance for the inevitable categoricality of the theses.

            I got the impression that the term “study of complex social and environmental problems” is beginning to be used as a “simulator” for all novice researchers. This led me to the idea of the need to answer the question – what are complex social and environmental problems?
            – is this an inevitable phenomenon that accompanies the development of nature and society?
            – or is it a distortion of the image of reality near the border of the scientific worldview?

            If this is an “inevitable phenomenon”, then while we investigate existing problems, nature and society will create new problems. It’s a vicious circle. In this circle, any actions of the authorities and actions with the authorities will be ineffective.

            But if this is a “distortion of the image of reality near the border of the scientific worldview,” then the situation becomes transparent. In this case, novice researchers should understand that power is not a special substance. The government is a group of people who have a certain level of scientific worldview. In this case, it is important to understand what level it is. It is obvious that the effectiveness of the government itself and interaction with the authorities will depend on the correspondence of the level of the scientific worldview of the authorities with the level at which power is manifested (global, national, etc.). The level of scientific worldview is formed in an educational institution (college and university). The level of scientific worldview is determined by the familiarity of a representative of the government with interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, with systems thinking and systems approaches. Each level of scientific worldview forms a special picture of the world in the mind of a representative of the authorities. This picture sets the context for the perception of problems and the results of their research.

            – if researchers investigate and solve complex social and environmental problems within the framework of the picture of the world that the authorities have, then the support of the authorities is guaranteed. Researchers and government officials will see the same image of the problem and speak the same language. In this case, complex social and environmental problems can be effectively investigated and solved with the help of the authorities.
            – if researchers use more generalized pictures of the world that representatives of the authorities do not possess, then obstacles from the authorities are guaranteed. Researchers and government officials will see different images of the problem, as well as speak different languages. In this case, the study of complex social and environmental problems will have theoretical significance, but will not have practical value.

            Conclusion: Researchers will correctly understand the power and the ways of its manifestation if they start starting from the level of worldview that representatives of the authorities possess. In this case, researchers should consciously lower or increase the level of perception of the problem. I think that, at this stage, this is the only way out that can involve the authorities. However, there is another way out. It is necessary to complete the reform of universities, within the framework of which there will be an opportunity for special training of students – future representatives of the authorities. These future government representatives will initially have the necessary levels of scientific outlook capable of supporting research and solutions to complex social and environmental problems.

            • Thanks for continuing to try. Certainly language is a barrier to communication here, but I suspect different mental models are too. I think you have also moved a step ahead of where this blog post was aiming to go – which is simply providing a tool to better understanding diversity in power. You have moved a step ahead to suggest how researchers “should” position themselves vis-a-vis power. That discussion not one I really want to enter into here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I appreciate that it’s a lot of work.

  4. The blog is very interesting and allows us to advance in a relevant but little explored topic. We need to achieve a better understanding of the interrelationship between knowledge, politics, power, equity, justice and sustainable development. We need a better understanding of how power and knowledge are mobilized in action, and how the different points of view and values ​​of the actors in play interact and how a common understanding is possible.
    In recent research on water governance we analyze power relations based on Foucault’s studies of governmentality. For this, we used a qualitative methodology based on the controversy mapping method (Venturini 2012) that allowed us to detect, analyze and visualize the main differences and controversies between the actors. It also allowed us to understand what assumptions are based on; how the agreements have been constructed and what alternatives can make it possible to overcome the persistent key divergences.

  5. Very interesting topic area about “Role and Dynamics of Power Struggle in Shaping and Presentation of Problems and Providing Meaningful Pragmatic Solutions”. The diversity of thought is critically important in describing the pressing need about any societal or scientific environmental, financial or health related problems. The stakeholders have to be at the table from the beginning/onset of developing framework in defining the various aspects and perspectives of actual problem from various lenses. It is better to have a problem defined from actual all angles and persuasions taking note of misconceptions, misinformation, propaganda and false narratives to create public sympathy or outcry about any local, regional national or global problem. The constructive feedback, inclusivity and high integrity in providing candid opinions is the key in getting meaningful return on any investment that would have profound impact in the health and well-being of global populations spread of several continents on this Blue Diamond Planet Earth spinning on its axis 24/7 and circling around the Sun in our Galaxy and beyond!

      • Thanks Dr. Bammer, The 10 part primer on stakeholder engagement is a treasure trove of collective time-tested wisdom on this topic area. Genuine good will, candor and respect are key ingredients in making any effort authentic and truly valuable for any stakeholder. The diversity of thought, personal experiences while growing up in diverse cultural heritages, bring unique thinking of addressing, analyzing and providing “out of the box” solutions that may not have crossed the conventional mindset, norms and traditional acceptable fail safe risk averse strategy. We may have our biased and narrow perspective about systems, rare disease manifestations that may have hidden unique underlying gifted perspectives that need to be nurtured, further cultivated and acknowledged for the greater good of humanity and well-being on this Planet!


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