Learning and Power

Submitted by Ben Smith | published 23rd Jul 2011 | last updated 28th Jun 2022
Photograph of woman holding up a fist

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

In thinking about how stakeholders are engaged in processes that aim to enhance adaptive capacity and promote social learning I could not let go of the significance of power and how it can act in positive ways (empowerment) but also in negative ways for example through preventing people participating in the process or manipulating what information is shared.

Power relationships and inequality is deeply embedded in culture and society in social norms, values and perceptions. In developing these interactions with stakeholders we, as implementers, have power over what information gets reported, how it is shared and what action is taken as a result. Some power is necessary in complex systems but it is important to be aware of how it can have a negative impact in processes of stakeholder engagement. Tools, such as Venn diagrams and social mapping and stakeholder analysis, are useful in highlighting where power lies and identifying influential champions, power holders, blockers or saboteurs (people who might oppose the process) and movers (people who might support the process).

Power is explained in many different ways. Some see it as residing within organisational structures or in individuals in certain positions. Power can be classified as being: hidden (exclusion and delegitimization), visible (formal structures) or invisible (socialisation and control of information) power. Karlsberg's model explains power as being capacity which is neutral in itself but a function of the cultural context within which it occurs. It can either be adversarial (threatening) or mutualistic (empowering). People generally have different levels of power dependent on the situation they are in at the time. The chief executive of a multinational organisation may not have much power when in her own kitchen if her husband is the main cook in the family.

Mistrust or fear of power is often based more on perceptions than reality, but it can be powerful enough to result in hopelessness and despair about how much you can influence a situation. This can be enhanced by being forced to accept other people's definition of a situation or problem, perhaps a definition that seems unfamiliar or irrelevant. Fear of hierarchies and preconceived notions of others behaviour ('they are not interested in what we have to say') can reduce the possibility of good communication between stakeholders. Building trust between stakeholders through a transparent process of engagement can do a lot to reduce these perceptions and encourage contributions from all participants.

A process that many might perceive to be empowering can be seen by others to be more threatening result in discomfort or even anger in some groups. Women may withdraw if they feel that the process is compromising their status. Taking part in such processes may be dangerous for some in certain circumstances and we have to be aware of this.

Questions for reflection:

  • How is power a barrier to effective engagement with stakeholders? How well are these relationships understood?
  • How are issues of power addressed - how is power understood and analysed?
  • How can it can be used to transform learning through e.g. through empowerment and opening up spaces for exchange
  • What strategies can we use to shift control of the process to others?
  • How can we use our power (as facilitators) to empower others?
  • Can we be open enough to recognise pockets of support in groups we might formerly identified as unsupportive?
  • Can fear of hierarchies and preconceived notions of behaviour ('they are not interested in what we have to say') prevent good communication?