power and social change

peace doveIn any human group, relationships of power are a determining factor in behaviour and constrain or permit social actors. In local communities sources of power and influence include elected government officials, but often those with economic or social advantage, such as landowners, employers or the ‘upper’ classes can have great influence without holding political power.  It is important to understand the different types of power that individuals or groups can have in a community to understand how it can be used or subverted to facilitate change.

What is power?  Power is the capacity of a person to affect their surroundings.  In human societies power is often accorded to political leaders, police and the military, but also those who own property, businesses or employ others.

Weber calls power the ability of “men” to “realize their own will in a communal actions even against the resistance of others” (in Haralambos et al 1996, p 97).  Weber’s “typology of power” identifies power types as coercion (force), charisma (persuasion and loyalty), authority (socially sanctioned power) and legal (using rational argument and authority). In considering power in democratic communities like Australia, coercion is rarely used except by those sanctioned to such as the police.  Authority granted by the use of charisma, socially sanctioned power or legally sanctioned power are the usual ways that communities influence change. Power exists between people from the highest complexity of governments to interpersonal within the family. In communities people come together to exert power to try to affect the changes they want,

However often unrecognised sources of influence are at play in decision-making.  Flora (1992) recounts the anecdote of “Hank”, the influential feed store owner, without whose support no change in local government decisions was possible. The decision-making concept of power was challenged by Lukes (1974) who identified non-decision making power (such as that possessed by Hank) that allows individuals or groups to constrain the decision-makers choices (such as the influence businesses had on stopping a mining tax in Australia), shape their desires (such as advertising and the mass media as the principal sources of a communities information).  Significantly, Lukes conception of power led to theorists seeing power as something one person holds over another.  Feminist philosopher Starhawk expanded on these analyses of power by adding the power of communities as “power-from-within”, the kind of power that doesn’t rely on depriving or oppressing someone else, but comes from cooperation.  It is this latter kind of power that unites many social justice, peace and environmental activism.

Flora (1992) finds that traditional views of power are inadequate to explain how things become important to, or are ignored, by communities.  Pluralism holds that no one group can be identified as a dominant source of power and that all people exercise equal influence.  Although each person may have the ability to vote in a pluralist society, and thus choose representatives they think most serves their interests, power does not always reside in the politicians they elect.  Flora cites Domhoff’s (1983) critique of pluralism that found economic actors exerted power over decision makers, and also controlled the extent to which issues were publicly discussed.  Likewise Hunter (1953) and Mills (1956) noted that an elite “coalition of government officials, business executives and military leaders” (Flora 1992, p 255) formed the upper echelons of a hierarchical power structure whereby wealth and positions of authority acted in concert to exclude non-members and control and protect resources for their own ends.  It is clear in this system that benefits the interests of the elites forming an upper class may not benefit the interests of the lower classes.  The working class, dependant on the elites for employment, are thus constrained in their actions if those actions could be seen to be in conflict with that of the ruling class.  Hunter (1953 in Flora 1992) developed a tool for determining who the powerholders in a community are called the “reputation technique” which indicates the value of reputation to the maintenance of power. Molotch (1976) elaborated on the class-power dynamic by including the ideology of economic growth, the “growth machine”, which guides the choices of the ruling classes and the property owners alike, who are generally interested in not only continuing to control the resource they have, but in manipulating the system to increase their share of those resources.  The increasing divide between rich and poor globally may indicate the success the growth machine has had in determining decisions made by power holders.

The problem of power entrenched in the rich elite with a growth machine mentality has confronted many a community group seeking change for social justice, environmental or health reasons. Gray & Williams (2002) identify the barriers to community leadership that include the individualist nature of neo-liberalism, structural circumstances including poverty and social relations (p113).   Gray & Williams emphasise the extent to which “esteem” is granted to community leaders, and both esteem and individualism are weak points that many community groups have been successful at exploiting to enact change.  Theorists including Bill Moyer and trainers working at the Midwest Academy (MWA) have developed strategies to help communities win change against the will of the powerful.  MWA trains community organisers to influence change, feel effective and “alter the relations of power” (Whelan 2002, p3).  MWA encourages community organisers to see decision-makers as “targets”

A primary target has the power to make the decision. A  secondary target has influence over the primary target and might, therefore, become important if organizers are not successful in achieving the desired result  with the primary target. (Whelan 2002, p3).

The focus of Midwest training is to provide organisers with skills to recognise the best strategies to utilise the power of decision-makers to achieve their ends. These strategies might include direct action, the importance of storytelling, recruiting members, forming coalitions with other groups and dealing with the media.  Storytelling is an important one because it allows community to reframe the agenda and undermine the dominant discourse that tends to favour elitist, classist or capitalist interests over community ones.  Hudson (2004) refers to the Foucaultian notion that “power and knowledge articulate each other”, hiding patterns of domination (in Hudson 2004, p 251). Hudson notes that community groups seeking change have an ideology that includes equity, shared power and improvement in their collective lives, quite divergent from the interests of decision-makers who may seek to maximise profit or status for themselves. Whelan’s own organisation The Change Agency, seeks to perform a similar role MWA to Australian community organisers. Both organisations loosely utilise the principles established in Saul Alinsky‘s Rules for Radicals (1971).

There are ways that groups in communities can subvert traditional power structures to achieve goals, and there are ways they can harness those power structures to their own ends. Community groups seeking change will lobby decision-makers, advertise or protest to get the attention of media and influence agenda setting.  However politicians are not always the best people to be lobbying where their decision making power is dictated by elites, so many community groups gain advantage by appealing to elite members, business leaders, land owners, employers and celebrities or socialites from the upper classes.  Reputation is often very important to elites, and the media often report with enthusiasm the moral transgressions of this group, which goes unnoticed in the working classes.  Threats to reputation can allow a powerless group to gain advantage over elites who value reputation.

While some hold that individual actions are powerless to change systemic injustice,  some notable exceptions give hope.  Many governments and policy makers focus on the actions of citizens in  effecting environmental protection.  While this capitalises on community desire to act on issues such as pollution, water waste and climate change, it also deflects from the responsibility of producers who create the majority of waste and emissions, and continue to produce disposable products, not providing consumers with a choice.  Barr (2003), however, points out that sustainability requires both policy and individual actions. While governments are providing information and education to citizens on actions they can take in their daily lives, lobby environment groups are holding them to the same standards that they are expecting of citizens by exposing their own wasteful practices, leading to internal purchasing changes.  When large government bodies and corporations decide to install water-saving toilets, buy hybrid cars for their fleets or change to recycled paper it can have large flow on effects to producers, who are keen to capture this considerable market.  Thus more efficient and clean technologies can become cheaper to everyone.  For instance, environmental lobby group Greenpeace are currently running a campaign to educate the public about the unsustainable packaging used by toymaker Mattel, which ultimately aims to change Mattel’s buying practices through consumer pressure and public shaming.  Likewise the buying habits of consumers can sometimes lead to policy changes against the desires of producers and governments alike.  For many years Minsters and industry refused to reconsider the animal welfare issues in caged egg production, but consumers made the decision to buy more free range eggs, while at the same time animal welfare groups lobbied for the changes thus forcing the industry to change.  Similarly, consumer outrage and lobbying work of GetUp has seen the Australian government recently cease live export to Indonesia after animal activists orchestrated the airing in the media of of cruel conditions in Indonesian abattoirs.  Meat exporters and government alike knew these conditions existed before exposure, but the threat to their reputations and widespread public condemnation resulted in an immediate moratorium on trade.

There are many issues that communities may seek to change that are not amenable to individual actions, or where individual actions alone are not enough.  The examples above required both individual actions and the articulation of alternatives by community groups with credibility and thus  authority and influence over the public.  People who live in rural areas where no recycling facility exists will be considerably constrained in their ability to recycle their waste.  In this case they need tools to influence decision-makers.  In this case, local communities would need to lobby local government to provide such a service.  Halligan & Paris (1984) indicate the political and economic coalition that often dictates local government decision-making.  Reform that challenges the status quo is unlikely to be enacted, however the tension between local and state governments can be exploited by astute organisers.  Halligan & Paris (1984) note that in Australia the relative autonomy of local governments means they are loathe to give up jurisdiction over services, which infer power, to state governments.  Witness the outcry by state governments when Prime Minster Kevin Rudd attempted to take the administration of hospitals away from state governments, or the example of Martyn (1997) reporting on the state governments attempt to control local governments by virtue of their control of economic resourcing, in a ploy described as “abolish(ing) community democracy” by the journalist. This territoriality can “determine the selection of new facilities or services according to whether they can be visibly associated with councillors” (Halligan & Paris 1984, P 61) conferring reputation to them.  A recycling facility falls squarely within the “ratepayer ideology”, and as such might prove easier to enact where the majority of ratepayers stand to benefit from it, say by increasing property values.  Astute organisers might also be able to secure promises from the opposition that could influence the sitting members likelihood of capitulation to their demands.

Likewise, government and policy makers attempting to influence community change are not always successful.  Barr (2003) cites the low rate of recycling in Exeter, despite the provision of recycling bins to residents. Researchers attributed people’s attitudes to recycling as a factor of their sense of power or self-efficacy.  Similarly, the Howard governments attempts to introduce workplace bargaining (at an advantage to employers) was seen by workers as a threat because many felt that they would not be effective in negotiating for themselves where a significant power imbalance between the worker and the employer exists. Hardina (2005) notes that marginalised groups (women, the poor, people of colour, the disabled) need empowerment in order to be effective in advocating for social change, and that empowerment ultimately “reduce the economic and

political oppression of marginalized groups “ (Hardin 2005, p24).  The 1960’s US “War on Poverty” programs sought to radicalise and empower the poor, with some success, although an inherent limitation in government implementation of such programs is that real empowerment would lead to “social protest and civil unrest” opposite to entrenched power systems (Hardina 2005, p25).

Even within their own ranks, local government internal conflicts between factions can stymie change.  Flyvberg (1998) describes an abysmal failure of democratic governance in Aalborg where capitalist interests, technical considerations and social democratic ideals of rulers were at odds as to who their ‘community’ was, what they wanted and how urban renewal should be carried out. The essentially political and dialectic nature of real-world decision making in social change, as played out in the media, in ever changing allegiances and in the eventual abandonment of the project as a result of lack of cohesion in or shared values of the decision makers.  While each department involved in this decision had power, they failed to make rational arguments to convince the others that their decisions were good ones.  After eleven versions of the plan were presented to council, it was abandoned.  In this case, Flyvberg concludes, a excess of power and self-interest stopped rational discourse, and that “the less the power, the more an actor has to depend on rationality” (Flyvberg 1998, p 173).  In this light, the protestations of relatively powerless lobbyists and community campaigners can often be well researched and rational.

Looking further afield to recent upheavals in the middle eastern nations, it is clear that communities with common interests can profoundly threaten governments, capitalists and elites.  Such revolutions show the power of grass roots communities when they unite, but also the horrible retributive force of repressive governments when they choose to use violence to silence dissent as we are currently witnessing in Libya.  While Egypt is still in reformation, ultimately the challenge posed by popular opposition to Mubarak’s excesses led to social and political shaming that forced his retreat from politics.  Similar tactics of shaming and personalising are advocated by Alinsky and make strong last resorts when reformist measure within governance fail.  Social change advocates are not powerless and can create change, good strategies and tactics are necessary skills to this end.


Alinsky, S. (1971) Rules for Radicals, New York: Vintage Books.

Barr, S. (2003) Strategies for sustainability: citizens and  responsible environmental behaviour. Area, 35.3, p227–240.

Gray, I. & Williams, R. (2002) Obstacles to community leadership in theory and practice, Paper presented to the Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia Conference, Queanbeyan, NSW, November, p1-13.

Halligan, J. & Paris, C. (1984) The politics of local government. Australian urban politics: critical perspectives, Longman, Melbourne, p58-72.

Harambolos, van Krieken, Smith & Holborn (1996) Power, Politics and the State. Chapter 3, Sociology, Longman, Sydney, p97-154.

Hardina, D. (2005) Ten Characteristics of Empowerment-Oriented Social Service Organizations. Administration in Social Work, 29(3), p23-42.

Hudson, K. (2004) Behind the Rhetoric of Community Development: how is it percieved and practised? Aust. Journal of Social Issues, 39 (3), p249-265.

Lukes, S. (1974) Power: A Radical View

Starhawk (2002) Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. New Society Publishers

Whelan, J (2001) Midwest Academy Community Organising Training as a Possible Model for the Australian Environment movement. Online at The Change Agency http://www.thechangeagency.org/_dbase_upl/MWA_article_AEEC.pdf


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