Institute of Development Studies

Where is the Power? Creative Power Analysis and the Arts

This is Part 4 of a series on Art and Power

Where is the power? That’s the question at the core of a power analysis, one of the most useful tools that community and movement organizing have today. While it can look different across organizations, a power analysis basically charts out the power relationships relevant to a campaign, an issue, or a movement.

A controversial pic of Obama teaching about Power Analysis, much attacked by the right.

A youth organizing group taking on discipline policies in schools, for example, might gather together and map out who really holds power over discipline policies. Can the principal change them on her own? Is it mandated by the district? Is it a state government matter? What outside forces are supporting the current policies? Who funds them? These questions help the organization to choose allies and targets. On the flip side, power analysis can be done on ourselves. What kinds of power do we have? Where does our power come from? How is it best used?

Cultural organizers and arts activists may struggle to answer these kinds of concrete questions, as we work in the realm of culture and are often taking on invisible forms of power. But there are a few methods that I’ve run across that could be helpful in this regard.

One of the most comprehensive frameworks to help groups do power analysis is that developed by John Gaventa at the Institute of Development Studies, building on the work of many organizers and academics. It is called the Power Cube, and it breaks down power across three axis: levels of power (global, national, local, household), spaces where power is exercised (closed, invited, and claimed) and forms (visible, hidden, and invisible). The power cube helps us to look not only at formal decision making, but at the cultural and psychological aspects of power — key to the work of cultural organizing. This tool has been used by groups around the world, and you can find an interactive explanation and many examples at the power cube site.

Another fabulous process is narrative power analysis, developed by SmartMeme and outlined in their book Re:Imagining Change. This analysis can help groups who want to shift the cultural discourses around their issues as a key part of addressing injustice. First groups analyze the current narratives that are helping to maintain the status quo by making injustice seem normal, inevitable, or justified (for example, the narrative of meritocracy and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” helps to justify poverty). Next, groups figure out where these narratives are weakest — for example where they contain unstable contradictions. Finally, groups build new, truer stories meant to challenge, subvert, or replace these dominant stories. This is part of SmartMeme’s “story-based strategy.” While such a strategy doesn’t need to involve art per se, it is inherently cultural in nature, and quite in line with the goals and principles of cultural organizing.

Finally, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). I was trained in these techniques in college, and was fortunate to attend a workshop with Boal before he passed away. Boal saw the possibility that theatre could be, if not the revolution, then “rehearsal for the revolution.” As a method of power analysis, TO is particularly good at addressing very personal and internal forms of power. TO brings people together to explore how oppression functions in their lives, and how they might confront it, by quite literally performing different possibilities. It starts not with big ideas — racism, homophobia — but with their everyday manifestations. Through image theatre, forum theatre, and the largely internal rainbow of desire, we can come to better understand — cognitively, emotionally, kinetically — what forces shape our lives, and what power we have to create real change.