What is power?
Power is more than just the ability to control our fate, or to influence the behaviour of another.
Power is the most valuable commodity in world politics. It allows us to shape the world in which we live, and exists in many different sites – in and between people, places and institutions.
Power is even found in the images we use to tell stories about the world around us.
Here we demonstrate four key areas of power – the power to change, the power of women, the power of home and the power of images.
At the end of this experience you can see how you, too, can have the power to change.
The power to change
The power to change
Tim Dunne examines what underpins the power to change.
Power and change are intimately connected, but before we can understand how this works we need to know some of the different kinds of power that exist.
Here we outline three types of power:
The first dimension restricts power to decisions taken by a class of political actors such as politicians, civil servants and lobbyists.
The second dimension focuses on less overt applications of power, such as practices, values and beliefs.
The third dimension relates to the human capability to act together.
Presenter Biography: Professor Tim Dunne
Tim Dunne is Executive Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland. Prior to taking up this post, he was Director of UQ’s Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). He is internationally recognised for his work on human rights protection and foreign policy-making in a changing world order.
Case: The responsibility to protect
Here we introduce the case study on the Responsibility to Protect to show how people can influence positive change to help prevent mass atrocities.
The global consensus that mass atrocities are immoral, and that states and institutions have a duty to prevent them from occurring – or respond in a decisive manner when they escalate – indicates the functioning of different dimensions of power.
The belief that there is a responsibility to protect peoples who are at risk of genocide and other forms of unjustifiable harms, known as atrocities, is one of the most compelling stories of global change in our time.
It is also an Australian story.
And a story in which researchers and students at The University of Queensland have played a part.
Case Study Biography: Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University
Gareth Evans has been Chancellor of the Australian National University since January 2010. He was a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983-96, in the posts of Attorney General, Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communications and Foreign Minister from 1988-96. During his 21 years in Australian politics he served in a number of capacities both domestically and internationally. In 2010 he was awarded the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Four Freedoms Award for Freedom from Fear, for his pioneering work on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept and his contributions to conflict prevention and resolution, arms control and disarmament.
Gareth Evans is a Patron of the UQ Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
The power of women
The power of women
Nicole George shows us how people can exercise power collectively to mobilise for political, economic and social change.
Here we look at collective forms of power: the power that resides with groups of people who promote new ideas or give old ideas new meaning.
To build momentum for change, women activists often work together, or with each other, rather than alone.
Power is understood as collective or mutual empowerment - there is more power to promote new ideas when working together than trying to work alone.
Presenter Biography: Dr Nicole George
Nicole George is a senior lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies. For the last 15 years she has researched the gendered experiences of conflict, interpersonal violence and peacebuilding, and women’s economic and political participation in the Pacific Islands.
Case: Building peace and security for women in the Pacific
Here we explore the case study on building peace and security for women in the Pacific, to show how collective power is central to promoting new ideas about women's equality and representation in their communities.
We look at how gendered insecurity has become one of the most pressing problems facing women in the Pacific today.
In the Pacific region, personal safety is often hard for women to find. Rates of violence against women are recorded at extreme levels in some countries.
So how did Pacific women have the power to influence positive changes in policy on gender and security?
Women’s organisations have worked hard to build peace through collective action in their communities.
Sometimes this can involve things like women’s peace vigils and these types of activities can also lead to new and innovative strategies to make women’s voices heard.
Case Study Biography: Sharon Bhagwan Rolls
Sharon Bhagwan Rolls is a Fijian political activist of Indian descent. She is the coordinator of FemLINKPACIFIC, a women's media organisation, which she founded in September 2000 in response to the 2000 Fijian coup d'état. Since November 2000, FemLINKPACIFIC and Bhagwan Rolls have been campaigning for the implementation and integration of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, titled Women, Peace and Security, in order to ensure women's full participation in the peace and security sector toward ensuring sustainable peace and democracy in Fiji.
The power of home
The power of home
Cameron Parsell demonstrates the power of home through the disempowerment faced by those who are homeless.
Here we can see that homelessness means more than limited power to live of our own volition.
Homelessness means losing the power to assert an identity different from just being ‘another homeless person’. It involves being defined by what one is lacking.
The Institute of Social Science Research is conducting research into the efforts of individuals, collectives, organisations and governments to bring about change so that excluded people achieve housing security – achieve the aspiration of home.
Our research involves talking to people who are disrupting power inequities so that disadvantaged groups can change the conditions of their lives.
We are interested in the power of people to access and realise home and how best to achieve this.
Presenter Biography: Dr Cameron Parsell
Cameron Parsell is a Senior Researcher in Sociology in the Institute for Social Science Research at The University of Queensland. His research is directed toward generating an evidence base about how people use social services, what forms social services assume, and what impact social services have on people who are materially and socially excluded. He came to research after working as a social worker in the areas of homeless accommodation, social housing and child protection.
Case: The Village Model
Here we have the case study of the Village Model, a community initiative to better develop the power of people to realise home as a safe and secure space.
Dominant approaches to community engagement focus more on institutional mediation, where power often remains with government agencies.
Individuals and communities can be inadvertently disempowered by these approaches.
The Village Model challenges the dominant response by creating an environment for families and the communities they are embedded within to exercise the power required to address the root causes of destabilizing social issues.
Case Study Biography: Charles Passi
Charles Passi is a UQ Adjunct Associate Professor and a visionary Indigenous community leader. He is the former Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation. Charles draws his interpretations of how to respond to current challenges from his deep cultural connections.
Charles has committed himself to the redevelopment of current practices in providing real and sustainable positive solutions to the issues plaguing our communities.
The power of images
The power of images
Constance Duncombe examines the idea of power where we might least expect it, through the role of images in politics.
Images – especially iconic images – have immense power. They can shape the way we understand people and politics in very distinct ways.
We can think about images in different ways – as true reflections of reality telling us exactly how things are; or, as representations of reality that reflect an interpretation of the world around us.
As visual representations of reality, images are powerful because they work to convince us to see and interpret events, politics and people in a certain light.
Whether they are photographs for news articles, art or from social media, images have power because they can evoke strong emotional reactions in us.
Images, and the feelings connected to them, are part of our everyday lives. We are all influenced by images in one way or another.
Presenter Biography: Dr Constance Duncombe
Constance Duncombe is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at The University of Queensland. Her current research examines how representations trigger emotions that drive the struggle for recognition, with a particular focus on the Iran-US relationship.
Case: Images and our response to humanitarian crises
Roland Bleiker shows how power is where you least expect it to be, using the example of images of humanitarian crises as a key site for political change.
Case Study Biography: Professor Roland Bleiker
Roland Bleiker is a Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland and has been educated in Europe, Canada and Australia. His current research examines how images, and the emotions they engender, shape responses to humanitarian crises.
Your power to change
Your power to change
What is your power to change? At first sight, you may be doubtful that you have any capacity to affect the social world.
If you are inclined to take this view then you are not alone. Many bold and creative academics at leading universities are skeptical about their power to change.
Those who obviously wield power are the political leaders of strong states. President Putin has considerable coercive power and he is not afraid to use it against political opponents inside Russia – neither does he respect the sovereignty of neighbouring states. President Assad has resisted the efforts of many western governments to bring about regime change in Syria.
Leaders of large corporations wield considerable economic power. To get their way, corporations can use what is called ‘side payments’ to enhance the likelihood that government decisions will align with the interests of their company.
It is no secret that politicians crave big and powerful friends in industry in general and in the media in particular. Corporate allies matter: they are the source of job creation, favourable newspaper stories, and free tickets to sought-after sporting events or musical performances.
These sources of social power are easily identified. What is less obvious is the kind of power that individuals can and do mobilise to affect change.
The Czechoslovak writer and dramatist Václav Havel identified this kind of power in an essay he wrote in 1978 called ‘The Power of the Powerless’. The title says it all. It had a profound impact in countries across Eastern Europe. Individuals became connected through patterns of dissent and resistance, and as a consequence, communist rule began to fragment until it was finally swept away by the revolutions of 1989.
Havel showed the power of thought. He showed the power of resistance. He showed the power of determination. He showed the power of words.
One lesson to draw from the power of the powerlessness is that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
Indeed, the power of belief is far more enduring than the power of hierarchy/coercion or the power of negotiation/bribery.
Havel’s story shows us that we all have agency. Large-scale social change can occur from enough people taking the same small steps with unity and a strong sense of a shared moral purpose.
Nelson Mandela, who led the anti-Apartheid campaign in South Africa, is another heroic figure from contemporary political history. He argued that ‘education is the most powerful weapon which you can use in the world’.
Many past and current students at The University of Queensland would agree.
Biography: Julie McKay
Julie McKay is the Chair of Women's College and the former Executive Director of United Nations Women Australia, working to promote women’s rights, economic security and political participation. With experience in both corporate and non-government organisation sectors, Julie works to support positive partnerships between the community, private sector and government to tackle the complex issues surrounding gender inequality.
Biography: Kate Rougvie
Originally from Scotland, Kate Rouge spent the past several years working as a Specialist in Gender-based Violence (GBV) in Humanitarian Emergencies, in conflict-affected countries such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Liberia. Kate works to promote women's rights and to improve access to health, legal, police, and psychosocial services for survivors of sexual violence and other kinds of GBV. She recently completed the Master of International Studies (Peace and Conflict Resolution) at UQ, as a Rotary International Peace Fellow
So, what have we learnt?
Lessons on the power to change
It was commonplace for classical writers on politics to offer advice to their political leaders about how to remain in power and uphold the standards of high public office.
Let’s give it a go.
1. Power and knowledge. To make an impact on your social environment requires an understanding of what power is and how it works. Power has different dimensions: A can get B to do what A wants through command, negotiation, or persuasion. While there are plenty of ‘guides’ to power that can be found on-line, there is no substitute for reading and thinking about it; a handful of very useful and diverse sources can be found in the ‘What Next?’ section that follows these lessons.
2. Power and context. Understanding how power works does not tell a decision-maker what to do or how to act. Skilful ‘players’ are the ones who know the rules of the game such that they can build coalitions and anticipate manoeuvres by those likely to block an outcome. Michael Corleone understood this all too well when, in The Godfather II, he said ‘keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer’.
3. Asymmetric power. Václav Havel’s essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless,’ shows that power is both relational and asymmetric; the Soviet ‘empire’ in Eastern Europe required fear and subordination on the part of millions of ordinary citizens. Power and subordination were intimately connected such that their relationship was inverted over time. Through resistance and dissent, the powerless became the powerful.
4. Power and experience. This is no manual for retaining power, enhancing it, or for letting it ebb away. But there are things you can do to improve your capability as a social agent, in addition to the hard work of reading and thinking! Volunteering to do committee work can give you a window onto power. The other avenue to explore is through enrolling in educational programs that give you a better understanding of the power to change. Some examples of UQ programs that do this are listed in the ‘What Next?’ section below.
5. Power and understanding. It is an imperative for those who have social power to use it to build shared understandings of threats and challenges. When former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara looked back on the Vietnam War, he admitted that successive US administrations had wrongly believed that the Viet Cong were fighting for communist ideals. They were not. They were fighting and dying for the nation. The lesson McNamara drew was the need for decision-makers to ‘enlarge the circle of understanding’. A similar argument for re-thinking homelessness was provided in the Masterclass lecture by Cameron Parsell.
6. Power and collective action. In her teaching video on the power of women, Nicole George quotes a leading feminist theorist who argues that positive power (or empowerment) is about being able to do together what no individual can do alone. Through acting together, women have become adept practitioners at using power to support their demands.
7. Power and legitimacy. Social orders need legitimacy if they are to endure. Other forms of power can provide short-run gains but coercion and bargaining are, respectively, prone to resistance and reversal. Building legitimacy into social and political institutions is challenging and requires serious commitment on the part of institution-builders, such as Charles Passi, who draws on traditional Indigenous knowledge to build safer and more responsible communities.
8. Reflexive power. So you think you’ve mastered power? Think again. As Constance Duncombe showed, power can often be found where we least expect it. Universities are not thought of, in general, as being institutions that wield power. Yet listening to former UQ BA graduate Julie McKay, now Executive Director of UN Women Australia, it is clear that she has acquired the power to change. When bright and talented students are guided and challenged by excellent teachers, the power to change not only becomes a possibility – it becomes our shared responsibility.
Resources and courses
Interested in learning more about the power to change? We have selected a few readings and some UQ courses to set you on your way.
- Machiavelli, The Prince (1515)
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War (6C BC)
- Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View, 2nd expanded edition. London: Macmillan, 2005
- Amy Alen, ‘Rethinking Power’, Hypatia Vol. 13, No. 1 (1998), pp. 21-40
- Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’. In Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H.Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983 pp. 208-226
- Walter Russell Mead, ‘The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers’. Foreign Affairs (May/June 2014).
- Bachelor of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (from 2017)
- Bachelor of Advanced Humanities (from 2017)
- Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice (from 2017)
- Bachelor of International Studies
- Bachelor of Social Science
- Bachelor of Communication
- Bachelor of Journalism
- Bachelor of Arts, specialising in:
- Gender Studies
- Classical Languages
- International Studies and International Relations
- ... and many more
- Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hons)
- Bachelor of Arts/Education (Secondary)
- ... and more
- Graduate Centre in Governance and International Affairs, offering:
- Governance and Public Policy (Graduate Diploma; Masters)
- International Relations (Graduate Certificate; Masters)
- Peace and Conflict Studies (Graduate Certificate; Masters)
- Mediation and Conflict Resolution (Graduate Certificate)
- Mass Atrocity Prevention (Graduate Certificate) (from 2017)
- Master International Relations/International Law (from 2017)
- Development Practice (Graduate Certificate; Graduate Diploma), featuring:
- Community Development
- Development Planning
- Politics of Global Development
- Social and Cultural Dynamics of Development
- Global Leadership and Development (Masters)(from 2017)
- ...and more
- Think101x: The Science of Everyday Thinking
- Write101x: English Grammar and Style
- World101x: Anthropology of Current World Issues
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