Powercube: understanding power for social change

Purpose: To provide a way of understanding power that is useful for analysis, strategy and action, and facilitating discussion.

Description: The powercube encompasses power in three dimensions: forms, spaces and levels, with each to be seen as a set of relationships, rather than a static set of categories.

Forms of power involves:

  • “Visible power – focuses on who participates and predominates in observable decisionmaking. Contests over interests are assumed to be visible in political institutions and policymaking processes, which in turn are presumed to be relatively open.
  • Hidden power – focuses on how certain issues and voices are kept out of the decisionmaking process through … rules of the game which favours certain interests over others.
  • Invisible power – focuses on how the internalisation of ideologies, norms and values keeps issues and contests from emerging, and leads to the acceptance of an unjust status quo” (Gaventa, 2021, p.116-7).

Spaces of power involves:

  • “Closed spaces, where decisions are made behind closed doors, without any pretence of broadening the boundaries for inclusion.
  • Invited spaces, where people are invited to participate in public arenas but within set boundaries. Invited spaces may be regularised; that is, they are institutionalised, ongoing or more transient, through one-off forms of consultation… .
  • Claimed/created spaces, where less powerful actors claim or create their own spaces, where they can shape their own agenda or express their own voices more autonomously. These spaces range from ones created by social movements and community associations, to those simply involving natural places where people gather to debate, discuss and resist, outside of the institutionalised policy arenas” (Gaventa, 2021, p.119).

Levels of power involves:

  • “Global – formal and informal sites of decision-making beyond the nation state;
  • National – governments, parliaments, political parties or other forms of authority linked to nation-states;
  • Local – subnational governments, councils and associations at the local level;
  • Household – the micro-level, which may be outside of the public sphere but which helps to shape what occurs within it” (Gaventa, 2021, p.122).

When analysing power along the dimensions of space, level and form, it is important to recognize that each of the concepts along a single dimension of power interacts with the others, and that the dimensions also interact with each other. This helps explain why change is so challenging to achieve, as it requires sustained effective action across all dimensions and subdimensions.

The powercube can be used to explore how power is expressed, especially ‘power over’, power to’, ‘power with’, and ‘power within’. This can be used both to analyse power and to find openings and build alliances for change.

Reference: Gaventa, J. (2021). Linking the prepositions: Using power analysis to inform strategies for social action. Journal of Political Power, 14, 1: 109-130 (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1080/2158379X.2021.1878409

Website: http://www.powercube.net/. This is an extensive website with multiple resources.

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Posted: July 2011
Last modified: November 2021