Understanding power

‘Power’ is at the heart of empowerment, so we have to understand ideas of power before we can tackle empowerment. We have suggested that differences in power are often the source of inequalities in participation, whether at the level of a group discussion, a community project or national politics. But the word ‘power’ has more than one meaning. At least four different ideas are combined in the way we use the word:

  • power over: control over people, resources and decision-making, sometimes based on violence and intimidation
  • power to: knowledge, skill or ability to solve a problem, learn or accomplish new things
  • power within: spiritual or inner strength based on self-acceptance, self-respect and self-confidence (may be called ‘charismatic power’)
  • power with: group or collective strength, the sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when people work together with common goals.

The first in the list – ‘power over’ – is probably the most common usage. It is the only interpretation where power is a limiting concept: if one person gets more, then someone else must have less – like dividing a limited plot of land.

Someone with power over others is in a position to make other people follow their will or direction. Their authority may come from weapons, physical strength, economic resources or some kind of social authority.

‘Power over’ is often not welcomed by the individuals who are controlled by it. Their responses can range from passive acceptance to very active resistance. The level of resistance depends in part on the other sources of power that the disadvantaged people feel they possess or can generate together.

In every society there are powerful groups who wield this controlling kind of power, but other people also have varying amounts of the other sorts of power. In the case of ‘power to’, ‘power within’ or ‘power with’, if one person gets more, no one else need have any less. In fact, the growth of these sorts of power in one person should enhance the power of others.

A good example of this comes from education. It is often said that ‘knowledge is power’, but it is a kind of power where everyone can get more without the supply ever running out. And when one person improves their knowledge, other people close to them should also benefit from their learning.