Todays post is the first, of what we hope will be several, from Stockholm Resilience Centre researcher Wijnand Boonstra. Wijnand's research focusses on how individual use of ecosystems aggregates to form so-called regimes of ecosystem use. Describing and explaining the complex set of social and ecological conditions and their interaction at micro and macro scales that cause these regimes to shift, is one of his key research objective. He co-hosted a very interesting seminar a few weeks ago on the subject of power and agency in resilience and sustainability science. We asked him to summarize his presentation, below:
Why bother about power?
Why should people concerned about the current and future state of our world worry about such a thing as power? There are three general reasons for why they should: a practical reason, a moral reason and an evaluative reason (Morriss 2002).
Very often concerns about our common future nurture a desire to change the ways in which our world currently develops. Changing things requires a very practical understanding not only of how far our own power reaches, but also how far power of others reaches. This is the practical reason.
We might also want to study power because we want to know which people can be hold responsible for outcomes that affect others. Which people are causing, or have caused, social and ecological problems such as labor conditions in sweatshops or overfishing. The aim here is to establish liability or blame. A person or group of persons is hold responsible if it can be shown that his or her actions are causally connected to the circumstances for which responsibility should be established (Young 2006, 116). This is the moral reason. It is important to point out here that it is necessary for a strong case of liability to have a) clear rules of evidence for demonstrating the causal connection between a given person (or persons) and harm done, but also for evaluating the motives, intentions, and consequences of the actions (Young 2006, 118). For example, can someone be held responsible if the consequences of her actions were not known to her? In many cases it is often not possible to demonstrate this causal connection, to trace which specific action of specific people cause which specific harm, especially when we are dealing with complex causal processes, such regime shifts. When this is the case another type of power analysis might be better suited, which brings me to the third reason.
What can we do when there is clearly something going awfully wrong with the world, but there is “nobody to shoot” (Steinbeck 1992, pp. 40–41 cited in Hayward and Lukes 2008: 17-18) simply because it is impossible to figure out precisely who did what, when, how, and for which reasons. Instead of holding particular people or groups responsible, one can of course criticize and judge complete social systems for wrongdoings. Studies of power can be used for example to evaluate to what extent a social, political, or economic system fails to divide the global benefits and burdens of economic growth equally.
How do you study power?
So there are some good reasons for the environmentally concerned to study the use of power, but how to do this? There exist many different analytical concepts for the study of power. Many times scholars have strived to work out the single best definition of power. Now, after intense debate, several contend that not one of these concepts can capture the essence of power. Different analytical concepts represent different aspects of power. Acknowledging that power is an essentially contested concept means that we have to settle for a plural view of power (Haugaard 2010). Deciding which concept to use for research therefore crucially depends on the reasons that you have for wanting to study power.
Studying power for practical reasons often entails a focus exclusively on the resources used to exercise power. From this analytical perspective the resources themselves constitute power. This idea features in shorthands, such as the proverb “Knowledge is power” or crisp book titles such as “Guns, Germs and Steel”. If the research objective, however, also includes assigning praise and blame it becomes necessary to also look at how it is intentionally exercised. So, how power manifests itself materially and empirically. This is one of the best known conceptualisations of power and comes from Steven Lukes who says that:
“The absolutely basic common core to, or primitive notion lying behind all talk of power is the notion that A in some way affects B” (Lukes 1974, 30). So, in other words, “A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests” (Idem, 37).
Several things from this definition stand out. First, power is only at work when it is exercised intentionally. Second, it deals only with domination or asymmetric power – the power over others – which follows from the word ‘affects’, which means to ‘alter something’. This type of power comes in different flavours. It includes open and direct confrontations through force, intimidation or influencing (Dahl 1957), but also the covert ways in which power is exercised, i.e. how people influence the terms on which they confront each other (Bachrach and Baratz 1962). It even refers not to prevailing in a direct confrontation, nor in imposing rules of the games, “but in influencing people’s desires, beliefs and judgments in ways that work against their interests” (Hayward and Lukes 2008, 6). This last type of exercise of power is sometimes called ‘structural power’ and refers to how people influence the ways in which others perceive the world, and their own self.
So far we have only considered manifestations of power related to resources and as empirical manifestation. There are also situations, however, in which people are powerless but not necessarily as a result of the wrongdoings of specific powerful individuals. These are situations of ‘structural injustice’, in which it is impossible to trace precisely how people’s actions interlink to cause structural outcomes. Many of the phenomena that we study at the Stockholm Resilience Centre resemble these types of situations: collective action problems, regime shifts, social-ecological traps.
The two concepts of power just introduced - power as event (exercise) and power as thing (resource) - fail to take into account these situations of structural injustice. This is why a different, more general concept of power is needed here. An alternative definition defines power as capacity to do things we want to do (see table 1). The main objective is now to analyse for specific contexts how this capacity is either limited or enlarged. Using a definition of power as capacity does of course not mean that these other two concepts are useless, because power resources and the exercise of power are perfect sources of evidence for power as capacity.
To conclude, ‘power as resources’ is useful for practical reasons, while ‘power over’ (power exercised intentionally) will be most useful for moral reasons. ‘Power as capacity’ seems best suited for an evaluative analysis. So deciding which concept of power to use for your analysis crucially depends on the kind of objective that you want to pursue. The study of complete social-ecological systems and their processes of change requires a concept of ‘power as capacity’ instead of ‘power as resource’ or ‘power as exercise’. Take for example a regime shift. This is often a result that no one intended or wanted. It is also often not possible to trace how each person’s actions produce regime shifts because there are too many mediating actions and events. For such circumstances ‘power as capacity’ seems to be the best concept and an evaluation of systems the best objective for study. Remember that this choice does not exclude any attention to the resources which with power is exericised.
Still, things are not as easy as it seems. Studying power in social-ecological systems of course also want to establish responsibility, otherwise nothing changes. When injustices or detrimental outcomes are blamed on the system failures there is a risk that people causing these failures do not personally feel responsible and are ‘let off the hook’.
So perhaps the challenge becomes to criticize the workings of power, without identifying specific people who are morally responsible. Some argue that for doing this a different concept of responsibility is needed: not responsibility as liability or blame (Young 2006). Instead one needs to highlight shared political responsibility for outcomes to which multiple people contribute, in ways that cannot be disaggregated and traced precisely. The principal aim then becomes enabling critique to motivate a process of change.
Bachrach, P. and M.S. Baratz (1962) ‘The Two Faces of Power’, American Political Science Review 56: 947–52.
Dahl, R.A. (1957) ‘The Concept of Power’, Behavioural Science 2.
Haugaard, M. (2010) Power: A 'family resemblance' concept. European Journal of Cultural Studies 13: 419
Hayward, C. and S. Lukes (2008): Nobody to shoot? Power, structure, and agency: A dialogue, Journal of Power 1 (1): 5-20
Lukes, S. (1974) Power: A Radical View. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Morriss, P. (2002) Power: A Philosophical Analysis (2nd edn). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Young, I.M. (2006) Responsibility and global justice: a social connection model. Philosophy and Policy 23: 102-130