power <debate> <long>

Holly Swyers (nesn-info@CCE.ORG)
Tue, 12 Mar 1996 18:54:32 GMT

On Monday, March 11, John McCreery asked:

What is clear to me at this point is that in their attempts to
claim and exercise power, human beings exhibit a wide
range of variation in opportunity, in means, in motive, and
in skill: in all of these dimensions. Which leads to three
critical questions:

First, is there any important dimension that we've missed?

In an off-list conversation on this same topic, the notion of knowledge has
come up. Knowledge can be controlled, kept from people, made "secret."
Maybe this falls into the dimensions listed above. Another question whose
answer may inform this question is this: assuming that complex societies
evolve eventually from egalitarian societies, what traits/knowledge/event/etc
(?) creates the first perception of different levels of "power."
Or do different levels of influence, power, etc. exist even within
egalitarian societies, acknowledged in ways that do not have to do with
distribution of goodies (please forgive the Marxist slant on that)?

Second, are we ready yet to present or develop research
that will lead beyond discussion to theories of how these
dimensions interact?

ARGH!!! You've uncovered my ulterior motive!!!!
In seriousness, though, I am interested in covert vs. overt power,
particularly in issues of power and gender and power as it relates to
socio-economic class. I am curious to find out if the same kinds of power
(or the same definitions - I'm having trouble finding a happy way to use
language around this issue) are valued within coexisting subcultures (which
also suggests to me that I need to add Machiavelli to my reading list). For
example, is it possible that women might not be represented in certain
political ventures because they have different (and perhaps more effective)
means of achieving prestige or getting what they want? If certain overt
political structures are manifestations of a patriarchal view of the world,
is it possible that covert political structures - perhaps left unstudied or
unrecognized by our current mode of thinking about power - are manifestations
of a matriarchal view of the world? I lived for a time in Swaziland, and a
friend of mine asked a Swazi woman how she felt about the way men dominate
the political/power/etc scene in Swaziland. The response, as I understood
it, was laughter - let the men go do that stuff that makes them feel
important, it gets them out of our way to do the important things, the things
that really keep our country going. This is anecdotal and did not come from
an anthropological inquiry, it was just a curious question asked by an 18
year old female American in a foreign culture. However, the answer has stuck
with me throughout my training as an anthropologist. What are the
implications? Are we asking the right questions?

If power is perceived differently in different subcultures, is it possible
that the prestige and the public influence which indicate the holders of
power in a culture might indicate such power because it is important for the
"dominant" subculture to be perceived as "dominant"? Maybe everyone else is
humoring them? This is one train of thought that inspired my questions to
the list.

Third, returning to where I started several days ago, are we
ready to see power in anything but negative terms? Are the
powerful always villains or fools? Have saints and heroes
become unthinkable? How, then, as anthropologists, do we
understand those who imagine saints and heroes to bring
meaning into their lives?

I don't know yet. I think we can see power in positive terms, but maybe the
right questions haven't appeared yet. I'm eagerly following this debate to
see what other questions emerge.

I would also like to add some comments about casuistry (my vocabulary word of
the day). This word describes, in a sense, my job. I am working with groups
of schools throughout the US who are trying to enact school change based on
the Nine Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The
schools have networked and are confronted by the proposition of a)working
together and b)implementing practices which reflect the Principles. What we
have discovered is that the biggest obstacle to these goals is language.
People have thrown buzzwords around without really ensuring that there is a
common definition for each term. So a phrase like "student as worker" has a
different definition for each person, and until everyone agrees on one
definition, no progress is made. However, no one is willing to let go of his
or her definition (usually because by his or her definition, the work being
done fits the principle perfectly). Does this observation affect our
discussion of power? Is part of power making sure that everyone is on the
same page? Or is it about exploiting the fact that people are not on the
same page? Or is it about being several pages ahead? (How's that for
stretching a cliche?)

One more thing:
one March 7, tkavanagh wrote:

The reason I chose the word "influence" as a descriptor of power was
to suggest that sometimes its presence as observed ex post facto
(?is there such a thing as *potential* sociopolitical power; are threats
power?) is not via such overt actions as "overcoming resistence" but is in
covert, or at least in more subtle actions as pursuasion, agreement not to
publically disagree, etc.

I would really be curious to hear the input of a "Washington insider" on this

I would not have guessed that my questions would have produced such a
fruitful and interesting debate. I would be greatly indebted if those of you
who have cited various thinkers would give me a reading list - while I've
been exposed to Marx and Weber and read a play by Machiavelli, I can see now
that I've missed a lot. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for graduate
programs... ;>)

Thanks for keeping me thinking.


"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god! ... The paragon of animals!"
-William Shakespeare in _Hamlet_