Power and Social Transformation: Understanding Power from Below

13 January 2015
Paper

We are blind to the transformations that protest effects, because we are wedded to theories of power that are ill-equipped to explain processes of social change. Conventional analyses of power present individuals as internalizing social structures in ways that govern their actions, and negate their agency and resistance. There needs to be a better explanation and thus enabling of social change.

Abstract

The 2011 uprisings came as a surprise to most observers and toppled seemingly impregnable regimes. As the heady optimism of the revolutions has waned, however, it seems like normal politics has resumed. What this neglects is how the protest movements of 2011 – and social movements more generally – are able to exercise power in multiple ways that extend beyond the state.

Our central contention is that we are blind to the transformations that protest effects, because we are wedded to theories of power that are ill- equipped to explain processes of social change. Conventional analyses of power present individuals as internalizing social structures in ways that govern their actions, and negate their agency and resistance. We, therefore, critique leading theorists of power and highlight their inability to explain social upheavals. We then draw on more recent understandings of power that better explain and, thus, enable, social change.

Introduction

For a few heady months in 2011 protest movements shook the world. People toppled governments, challenged taken for granted norms and suggested alternate ways of living. It was a year of massive social change and from Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park the atmosphere was ripe with the sense of possibility.

The protests were so central and significant, indeed, that the otherwise staid Time magazine dispensed with its individualistic ethos to name ‘The Protestor’ as its person of the year. The Arab Spring, the 15M occupations in Spain, the Occupy movements and countless other uprisings heralded a sustained challenge to a neo-liberal world order that put the pursuit of profit and the safeguarding of financial systems above people’s health and welfare.

After the initial euphoria, however, optimism has slowly ebbed away. Revolutions across Africa and the Middle East have seen change at the top rather than meaningful democratisation, Occupy have decamped and moved on and things have returned to business as normal. That, at any rate, is what one might think from following media reports or academic accounts. What we wish to argue instead, is that the protest movements of 2011 – and social movements more generally – are far more effective than such a superficial reading would suggest.

One of the reasons we are often blind to the transformations they effect, however, is that we are still wedded to theories of power that are ill-equipped to explain processes of social change. Conventional analyses of power – especially domination - ultimately present individuals as internalizing aspects of their contextual social environments in ways that determine their future behaviour.

We suggest that this conception is mistaken and stems from a commitment to theoretical models of power which view individuals’ actions as the result rather than a cause, of durable social structures. We offer a critical analysis of Lukes and Bourdieu as paradigmatic theorists of power and suggest that more recent understandings of power (such as Barnes and Foucault) offer better means of understanding (and enabling) social change.

We argue that social interaction is central to social phenomena meaning that collective action can alter social structures even without taking power.