Chapter 1

What is power? An introduction

4 min read

Power shapes the world we live in. Those who have power therefore get to shape society to meet their vision and their own needs. 

Power is needed for social change. It is, in fact, a powerful tool for change. 

There are three ways of thinking about power:

  • Power to
  • Power over
  • Power with

Power to

The ‘power to’ act is your own sense of agency. It’s the feeling you get, and the result of, being able to do something that can affect change. 

For example, you might believe that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to have a baby. 

What do you have the power to do about your belief? 

Well, you have the power to state this belief publicly, on a protest, in print, on social media. You have the power to share your belief to influence others. 

Power to act comes from within you. It is rooted in your beliefs, values and your vision for what you want to see. Your power appears in the world when you ‘do’ something. 

Power over

Sometimes your power will be blocked. This is what happens when you are not able to act in the way you want. This happens when a person or institution has ‘power over’ you. 

The dynamic of having ‘power over’ others is explained in this formula: 

‘A exercises power over B when A effects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests’ (Steven Lukes, The Three Dimensions of Power) 

Power over others takes many forms. 

An example might be the police using force to stop a protest. When the police (A) stop protesters (B) from protesting, A is using its power over B.

Power with

Building ‘power with’ others is a way of making your own individual power to act stronger and more effective. 

When we join with others, we build our collective power and can create change. 

For example, you might speak with all your neighbours and find that together you would like to create a community garden in the park at the end of your street. You come together to make a plan and decide what needs to be done and create and maintain the garden.  

It is important to remember that different people will have different levels of power depending on where they are born, what gender they are, their ethnicity, their social class, and their access to those in society who have more power than others, such as politicians, journalists, celebrities, and those with great wealth. 

Becoming aware of who has more power and who has less can be very useful when it comes to trying to make change – not least as this is often an indicator of where power needs to be built / redistributed or shared. 

Even though power is often distributed unequally, everyone has power. And even the most powerful persons can experience ‘power over’ them. This is especially true when people build collective power or act through the checks and balances of modern democracies.

Discover more

Here are some useful links