If you want to be an agent of change in a specific organization or community or in the broader world, I think you need to understand how power operates in relationships. Most people are aware that power dynamics matter in their working relationships. For example, in informal conversations, people often talk about “the politics” of their workplaces. But, surprisingly little direct attention is paid to the way power operates and how power dynamics might be changed.
Throughout my time with the Learning Exchange, I knew that people and relationships were the foundation of our work. I tried to create a culture within the staff team characterized by an ongoing concern not only for what we were doing but how and with whom we were doing it. I spent a fair amount of time trying to focus my teammates’ attention on the ways in which we were relating with each other. I sometimes tried to make the power dynamics in our interactions visible and a subject of reflection and discussion. I also spent time working with the team to identify how we could make our work with other organizations in the community or units within UBC more effective. Eventually, the team was able to articulate some guidelines for how to build TRUST in collaborative relationships and how to make partnerships work.
Similarly, in our programs, the staff team tried to pay attention to the relationships among the people involved. We worked hard to establish the Learning Exchange storefront as a place where people from the neighbourhood respected and learned from each other. In addition, our Community Service Learning (CSL) programs were designed to create opportunities for UBC students to form relationships with people they might otherwise not meet, knowing that these relationships would likely open students’ minds and hearts.
But looking back, I find it curious that, as a leader and manager, I spent so much time focusing on the structure of our operations and programs. And later, as an analyst trying to make sense of the evolution of the Learning Exchange, I found myself at first thinking much more about structures than about people. For example, when the staff team was developing the model for Reading Week CSL projects, we spent a lot of time talking about what kinds of projects to do, what the student recruitment materials should look like, what to include in the agenda for the orientation kick-off day, and how to organize ourselves during Reading Week so that everything would go smoothly. Later, when I tried to identify the reasons for the model’s success, what initially came to mind were these structural elements of the model, e.g., types of projects, recruitment materials, and approaches to training and supporting project leaders.
It was only after months of thinking and writing that I realized how odd it was that while I believed that relationships were the foundation of our work I had focused on things other than relationships.
The appeal of structure
This is perhaps not surprising. We are so immersed in social relationships it is very difficult to see them analytically. It is akin to the difficulty we have seeing our own culture. It is easier to focus on material things you can control than intangible dynamics you cannot. You can see, touch, and easily manipulate meeting agendas, recruitment posters, and training manuals. It is not so easy to grasp interpersonal or inter-group dynamics. It is even more difficult to intentionally influence them.
In some ways, the physical structures are proxies for the relationships. The efficacy of recruitment materials and training approaches depends on how well they inspire people to get involved and how effectively they connect people with each other. But when I look around at all the advice given to leaders, managers, and change agents I see that I am not the only one who has been confounded by structures and other tangible expressions of what really happens when people work together.
How can we focus attention more explicitly on the relationships that form the foundation for social change initiatives or attempts to engage people from different social domains with each other (e.g., people from universities and marginalized communities)? How can we shine a light on power dynamics? Can we use our preoccupation with structures to identify important features of different kinds of social relations that will help put our attention where it belongs? In particular, how can we think about the ways that power tends to circulate in social relations?
I am especially curious about this question because in my experience, this is the thorniest aspect of interpersonal and group dynamics. Power dynamics can make or break efforts to effect change. The unhealthy exercise of power can be extremely destructive of relationships. And the healthy circulation of power can be what nourishes collaborative relationships and provides the platform for their creativity and productivity.
Circles and triangles
In a lecture John McKnight gave on one of his visits to UBC, he talked about the differences between formal societal institutions and informal associations of citizens. (To watch the video of the event, click here.) John described hierarchical institutions as triangles and more egalitarian citizen associations as circles. To me, this metaphor describes how power circulates in the two different kinds of organizations.
In hierarchical institutions (like UBC) one’s power depends on one’s position in the hierarchy. In triangles, social relations are fairly rigid, defined and regulated by one’s assigned position in the hierarchy. The most noticeable kinds of power tend to move vertically. One’s positional power can legitimately be directed at people whose position is lower in the triangle (or pyramid). One’s power is limited by decisions made by the “higher ups.”
In citizen associations, power is generated within the circle. People gain power and the legitimacy to use it through their participation in the organization or group. In circles, social relations are more fluid. They depend on things like personal attributes, shared histories, and the chemistry between people. Power moves horizontally around and across the circle.
In general, in triangles, people are aware of the ways that positional power operates. For example, individuals know it when their supervisor expresses approval or disapproval of their performance. Similarly, members of a team see it when their leader shuts down an idea in a meeting.
In contrast, in circles, it can take time for power dynamics to settle into a pattern and the patterns can be difficult to discern. With few or no formal positions of authority, where authority is granted through elections or other forms of group consent, it can be hard to track the circulation of power since everyone has the same positional power as an equal member of the group.
It would be naive to think that hierarchies in some form do not emerge in citizen associations. People are always vying for recognition, status, and power in groups. But the group itself has more power to adjust unsatisfactory relations of dominance in citizen associations than in formal hierarchical organizations. For example, if someone tries to dominate an informal group but is not trusted and respected by other group members, he or she will eventually be displaced from any leadership position (although this process can take time and be very unpleasant).
In contrast, it is more difficult for a group of people in a formal hierarchy to unseat a boss who has been given authority by those who are even higher up in the organization (although it does happen).
Looking at differences in the way power moves depending on the overall shape of the organizations or groups you are involved with is one lens through which you can try to uncover important features of how relationships operate. Using this lens can be a useful way to examine power dynamics among people who are working together. In addition, if you are trying to understand how social marginalization works, this lens makes it clear that the position of the individual citizen is very different depending on whether he/she is interacting with a triangle or a circle.
Just as power moves differently within triangles compared to circles, the boundary between inside and outside is different for the two types of organization. Individual citizens stand outside hierarchical organizations and institutions. If individuals interact with such organizations, they do so within a limited range of roles, e.g., as customers, clients, patients or students. They are on the receiving end of programs or services whose control is in the hands of the people with positional power in the triangle who are paid to fulfill their formal roles.
In contrast, citizen associations are more inclusive, at least theoretically. An individual citizen can join a group and participate in the group’s activities, including its decision-making activities. Obviously, there are many associations or groups whose membership is not totally open, e.g., membership may be restricted based on gender, religious belief, place of residence, or commitment to a particular cause. And many informal groups marginalize particular members. But the boundaries of such groups are more permeable than those of formal hierarchical institutions.
Gift and market economies
The structural shape of organizations or groups affects the way power circulates inside the entity and at its boundaries. The ways in which the movement of objects and ideas is structured also affects power dynamics in social relationships. In his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde (2007) offers a thought-provoking analysis of the ways that things and ideas circulate in gift economies compared to market economies.
Gift economies arise within small social groups where everyone knows everyone else (e.g., a family, village, or tribal group). Gifts can be material objects (e.g., food, clothing, tools, ceremonial objects, etc.) or intangibles such as ideas or emotional support. Gifts are given in response to someone’s need or a generous impulse to share what one has or a desire to forge a bond with the recipient or to strengthen the community or to establish one’s social status in the group. Gifts are given without an expectation that the giver will immediately get something in return. But there is an understanding that the gift is given within a system where gifts circulate freely and that mutual indebtedness is part of what keeps the community strong.
In contrast, market economies thrive in social settings where people do not know each other and do not have sustained social connections. Market exchanges take place between strangers. Goods or services are bought and sold with, in most cases, the payment of currency (in some form) signifying that the exchange is complete. The value of particular commodities is quantified and agreed on.
As Hyde notes (2007, p. 72), when a gift is given an emotional bond is created between the giver and recipient but the sale of a commodity does not leave this kind of connection. In fact, the lack of feeling and connection is viewed as a virtue of market transactions. In a market exchange, everyone retains their independence; no indebtedness ensues. Both parties are free to walk away. Another difference is that, in a gift economy, individuals control the flow of property (or intangibles) away from themselves; in a market economy, the focus is on things that flow toward the individual.
The question of how particular relationships are influenced by the norms and patterns of relationships in gift or market economies is an important consideration for social change agents. Hyde points out that the question facing modern societies is, “How to preserve true community in a mass society, one whose dominant value is exchange value and whose morality has been codified into law.” (2007, p. 116) He says, “It is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained (e.g., by laws and contracts) but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears” (Hyde 2007, p. 120).
Hyde argues that we need to keep parts of our social, cultural, and spiritual life out of the marketplace. Gift economies include volunteer labour, mutual aid, and efforts to strengthen the bonds of kinship. “A needy person is not seen as having a separate and personal problem. His neediness is felt throughout the group, and its wealth flows toward the need and fills it without reflection or debate, just as water flows immediately to fill the lowest place” (Hyde, 2007 p. 148). Hyde also asserts that, “The spirit of the gift demands that no one makes a living off another man’s need” (Hyde, 2007 p. 162).
Hyde points out, however, that acts of charity where those with privilege “give” to their social inferiors do not constitute gift-giving in his terms. He says, “The recipient of a gift should, sooner or later, be able to give it away again. If the gift does not really raise him to the level of the group, then it’s just a decoy . . . . This ‘charity’ is a way of negotiating the boundary of class. There may be gift circulation within each class, but between the classes, there is a barrier. Charity treats the poor like the aliens of old; it is a form of foreign trade, a way of having some commerce without including the stranger in the group. At its worst, it is the ‘tyranny of gift,’ which uses the bonding power of generosity to manipulate people (Hyde, 2007 p. 179).
Obviously, Hyde’s perspective is highly relevant to the question of how social change agents can and should respond to issues such as poverty and marginalization. It is not easy to imagine how to incorporate community-building aspects of gift economies in countries like Canada where market forces seem to be increasingly dominant. I use the word “imagine” intentionally because Hyde has some provocative views about art that I think can be applied to the project of social change (which I think is more an art than a science).
Commenting on the work of the poet, Ezra Pound, Hyde asserts that Pound tried to create art through the force of will. According to Hyde, Pound believed that the will is the agent of order, including the social order which depends on the durability of social structures. But Hyde believes that the will can interfere with the crucial initiating phase of the creative process. The will must be suspended in order for the artist to feel moved, for intuition or imagination to operate, for creative impulses to emerge. Later, the will can be used to ensure the artistic creation is completed. But willpower must be used wisely (Hyde, 2007 p. 289).
Hyde goes as far as to say that willpower applied in situations where the will is of no use is a form of evil—“For when the will dominates there is no gap through which grace may enter . . . . Any artist who develops the will risks its hegemony . . . . Willpower has a tendency to usurp the functions of imagination . . . “ (Hyde, 2007 p. 299).
Hyde then argues that willpower and the desire for control are linked to logic and abstraction, which are tools of the market. He quotes Marx who said, “Logic is the money of mind . . . logic is alienated thinking and therefore thinking which abstracts from nature and from real man” (Karl Marx cited in Hyde 2007, p. 345-6). In contrast, the imagination is the gift of the mind. It is associated with faith, not a need to exert control. Hyde says, “Neither the gift nor the imagination can survive as servants of the will toward order” (Hyde 2007, p. 318).
This identification of the constellation of abstraction and logic, willpower and the desire for control, and market economies coupled with the warning about the risks of relying on willpower when it is of no use are sobering messages for people who want to make change in society. Hyde’s analysis provokes challenging questions: What kinds of social relations do we want to engage in? What kinds of organizations and social structures do we want to align ourselves with? What are the motives behind our impulses to make change? Are we trying to impose our will when this is not appropriate? Are we trying to control things that cannot or should not be controlled? How do we balance logic and imagination?
The answers to these questions depend on the context. In his book Making Social Science Matter, Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) describes a paradox at the heart of social science. “(A) social science theory of the kind which imitates the natural sciences, that is, a theory which makes possible explanations and prediction, requires that the concrete context of everyday human activity be excluded, but this very exclusion of context makes explanation and prediction impossible” (Flyvbjerg 2001, p. 40). Drawing on different analyses of the complexities of gift exchange, Flyvbjerg points out that, “The problem in the study of human activity is that every attempt at context-free definition of an action, that is, a definition based on abstract rules or laws, will not necessarily accord with the pragmatic way an action is defined by the actors in a concrete social situation” (Flyvbjerg 2001, p. 42).
I think Flyvbjerg’s argument about the social sciences applies to social innovation and other attempts to effect social change. And it fits with Hyde’s warning about the limits of logic and abstraction. I do not think these authors are advocating that logic and abstraction have no value. Rather, they are pointing out the danger of relying exclusively on logic. A reliance on logic to the exclusion of magic (by which I mean mystery or ineffability) and attempts to predict and control social relations without recognizing the importance of the actors in the particular context are both deluded and futile. This does not mean that it is wrong-headed to try to understand what is happening in social relations or to try to influence power dynamics. It does mean that you need to be extremely attentive and careful.
Inside or outside?
The typical stance of the rational analyst is to stand outside the phenomenon under consideration. This is supposed to render your observations objective and thus, valid. Sometimes change agents concern themselves with the question of whether to try to change systems from the inside or outside. Based on my own experiences and the writings of the authors cited above, I think the question about whether to position oneself as a change agent inside or outside the system (which I have pondered at length at different times in my life) and the attempt to distance oneself from social relations in order to generate legitimate analyses about them (which I have done at various points in my career) are misguided. Unfortunately, prevailing discourses about social science and social change reinforce these misguided ways of thinking and behaving.
But if we are going to be socially innovative, if we are going to forge social relations across social distance, we have to change our minds as well as our social systems. We have to develop not only the rational mind, but also emotional intelligence, creative imagination, intuition, and the kind of disciplined attention that is cultivated through various spiritual practices. And we have to engage with people and social systems deeply and intensely. We have to realize that we are not outside any of the problems or systems we want to change. We are profoundly inside everything. Humans are not separate from the world or each other.
I know how challenging it is to live, work, and practice in the midst of these conundrums about how to understand and take action in relation to social relations and social change. I go to meditation retreats and feel profoundly connected to all of life. I relax into the spaciousness of not knowing (and knowing). I come face to face with the uncontrollability and vulnerability of life. Then I return to work and quickly fall back into the routine of trying to control circumstances, events, other people and myself. I focus my attention not on my breath but on my dissatisfaction with the social, environmental, and economic problems around me. My logical mind overwhelms my meditative equanimity.
What to do? I have tried most of the usual strategies: running away, denial, etc. I have learned that my impulse to take action in the face of the suffering in the world cannot be ignored. I have also learned there is no point in trying to kill the rational mind’s attempts to make sense of the world, to name, systematize, categorize, and analyze. That is like trying not to think. It is impossible. It is the mind’s nature to think. But I also know that the rational mind has limits. It can be wrong. Its truth is conditioned, constructed, contingent. And I know that the mind has many capacities beyond the ability to reason. So I try to enlarge these other mental capacities.
The other thing I try to do is remember that, while it is easy to feel overwhelmed when contemplating big, abstract, global problems, it is not as difficult to respond in local, specific contexts where the immediacy of the situation and the proximity of other people provide natural channels for action. It is often not easy to figure out what to do in certain contexts, but it is possible.
If, in such contexts, you are trying not to exercise or facilitate the unhealthy flow of power, I think it is important to listen to the voices of people who have experienced oppression or marginalization. People who are marginalized tend to be acutely aware of moves that attempt to dominate, manipulate, coerce or otherwise control people or situations. Their radar for abuses of power tends to be finely tuned. This is partly why these voices tend to be silenced. They tell unpleasant truths. But these voices need to be listened to and respected for the way they can contribute to attempts to reshape power relationships. Marginalized people need to be brought inside efforts to make social change. When this inclusion is done well, more of the logic in relationships can be revealed, and more of the magic in relationships can be unleashed.
One of the conditions that provokes this magic is the attempt to cross social distance. When we are relating to people from the same social circumstances or similar social or cultural groups, the “rules of the game”–things like behavioural norms, social conventions, and cultural assumptions–are familiar. When we relate across social distance, suddenly we do not necessarily know how to interpret the “stuff” of relationship–things like body language, jargon, cultural references, and humour. The ease that characterizes social relations among insiders is lost. This can be uncomfortable.
But if the context includes shared commitment to make the effort to cross the social distance, the discomfort can lead to profound learning. In some fortunate instances, when kinship is recognized despite apparent differences, the social distance is somehow magically erased. This is what happened for the student whose words end About the Learning Exchange when she met the Downtown Eastside resident she was assigned to visit. “We just clicked right away,” she said. This mysterious chemistry that can arise between people is one example of the magic in relationships. I do not think such magic can be intentionally produced. But I do think it is possible to create fertile conditions where the magic can appear. For example, the motivations behind the effort to build relationships and bring about social change are important.
To read more on motivations for change and the importance of community, see the other articles in Learning to be a change agent.
Flyvbjerg, Bent (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press
Hyde, Lewis (2007) The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (second edition) New York: Vintage Books