Power and powerlessness

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain power. One such theory is Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness.1 This theory describes three dimensions (or faces) of power. In the one-dimensional approach to power the oppressor has power over the repressed to the extent that they can get the repressed to do something that they would not otherwise do. There are a number of assumptions made with this approach - that people would act upon injustice, that there are no impediments to them acting on injustice and that they would act either themselves or through leaders. If inactivity occurs then it is assumed that this inactivity is not a political problem. Inactivity is framed as a deficit of the powerless through discourse that blames the victim.

An alternative approach is the two-dimensional approach in which not only is power exercised upon participants, but also towards excluding certain participants and issues altogether. Power dynamics can therefore be altered by setting the agenda of struggle and inactivity is subsequently seen as a function of powerlessness in decision making. Oppressors become aware of threats and determine the decision making agenda thereby limiting the ability of the repressed to raise issues. While this approach goes someway towards offering an alternative to the criticisms of a one-dimensional approach to power there are some issues, namely that if oppressors are aware of threats and can mount a response why can not the repressed also become aware of injustice and take action? In other words what limits consciousness raising? Consciousness raising is seen as critical in Friere’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.2 Freire argues that consciousness raising, through dialogue, leads to emancipation. Emancipation, through consciousness raising is also seen by Kiro3 as a critical element of Kaupapa Māori theory and suggests points of similarity with Kaupapa Māori theory and Gaventa’s power and powerlessness theory.

The three dimensional approach, described by Gaventa, conceptualises power further by taking the following premise – that oppressors exercises power over the repressed by acting in a manner contrary to their interests. There are a number of ways in which this is achieved.

  1. Oppressors influence the conception of issues of the repressed.
  2. Shaping wants or issues may occur in the absence of observable conflict (although latent conflict may be present).
  3. Issues are kept out of politics through a range of mechanisms such as social forces and institutional behaviours.

The mechanism by which power is wielded involves a variety of processes. In the first dimension power involves manipulating political resources such as influence or contracts. A ‘mobilisation of bias’ occurs in the second dimension. Mobilisation of bias is also referred to as the ‘rule of the game’ in which institutional rules, values or rituals benefit one group at the expense of others. This bias may involve not only decisions but also non-decisions such as the threat of sanctions or consequences, force, barriers, or manipulation of the legal or political system. The mechanism of power in the third dimension involves thought control through social mechanisms or discourse.

Gaventa’s theory of power and powerlessness offers a conceptual framework for addressing powerlessness due to colonisation and may, through a decolonisation process led by consciousness raising, lead to a mobilisation of action and resistence against oppressive practices.

  1. Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and powerlessness: Rebellion and quiescence in an Appalachian valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 198, 1–230. 

  2. Friere, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. 

  3. Kiro, C. (2000). Māori Research and the Social Services: Te Puawaitanga o Te Tohu, Te Komako- Social Work Review, XII (4), 26-32. 

Written on March 7, 2017