As John Gaventa, political sociologist, educator and former leader of the Participation Team, observed in a 2010 paper Power and Making Change Happen, “whether concerned with participation and inclusion, realising rights or changing policies, more and more actors seeking change are also becoming aware of the need to engage with and understand this phenomenon called power.”

There are several helpful tools and classifications which can assist us in engaging and understanding this complex but important dimension of practicing participatory approaches to development.

What do we mean by power?

Power is most commonly understood as a form of authority, control or domination. Those with authority over others are considered powerful, while those who are dominated are seen as powerless. This kind of power is often labelled as ‘power over’.

Power over others can be exercised in many ways. The most obvious is brute domination, where a person or institution controls or constrains what another is able to do. But power can also be exercised by influencing what others think they can do or even imagine as possible. It extends beyond physical or verbal domination to affecting the ways in which people view themselves, their rights and capabilities.

A useful framework which builds on and moves beyond this understanding of power is summarised by Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller, whose 2002 book A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation outlines several ways of looking at power as a positive rather than a negative force. They argue that these positive expressions of power – sometimes called agency – can be recognised and supported in development cooperation efforts.

  • ‘Power to’ is about being able to act. It can begin with the awareness that it is possible to act, and can grow in the process of taking action, developing skills and capacities, and realising that one can effect change.
  • ‘Power with’ describes collective action or agency, and includes both the psychological and political power that comes from being united. ‘Power with’ is often used to describe how those faced with overt or covert domination can act to address their situation: from joining together with others, through building shared understandings, to planning and taking collective action.
  • ‘Power within’ describes the sense of confidence, dignity and self-esteem that comes from gaining awareness of one’s situation and realising the possibility of doing something about it. ‘Power within’ is a core idea in gender analysis, popular education, psychology and many approaches to empowerment.

These expressions of positive power or agency are reminders that power can be used positively as well as negatively, by the disempowered as well as the powerful. They encourage us to think about power as something that can be galvanized to create strategies and pursue opportunities for change. The concepts are often used together: people need ‘power within’ in order to act, and ‘power to’ in order to act collectively, while the ‘power with’ of shared understanding and action can also strengthen self-esteem and agency.

These four types of power are discussed by Robert Chambers, one of the driving forces behind the growth of participatory methods, in a short video – Power: the elephant in the room – made for Plan International in 2013. Chambers adds a fifth type of power to those discussed above: the power to empower, which he sees as critical to development thinking and practice. He emphasises that those with power cannot disown it but should instead quietly accept it, and focus on using it sensitively and meaningfully to empower others.

The hidden, visible and invisible faces of power

A widely used typology for analysing power in political decision-making and democratic participation identifies three faces or dimensions of power: the visible, the hidden and the invisible. The following summary, which draws on the theoretical work of Stephen Lukes and John Gaventa, is once again adapted from A New Weave of Power, People and Politics.

  • Visible power: observable decision-making. Visible power describes the formal rules, structures, authorities, institutions and procedures of political decision-making. It also describes how those in positions of power use such procedures and structures to maintain control.
  • Hidden power: setting the political agenda. Powerful actors also maintain influence by controlling who gets to the decision-making table and what gets on the agenda. These dynamics operate on many levels, often excluding and devaluing the concerns and representation of less powerful groups.
  • Invisible power: shaping meaning and what is acceptable. Invisible power shapes the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Significant problems and issues are not only kept from the decision-making table, but also from the minds and consciousness of those affected. By influencing how individuals think about their place in the world, this level of power shapes people’s beliefs, sense of self and acceptance of the status quo. Processes of socialisation, culture and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequality by defining what is normal, acceptable and safe

VeneKlasen and Miller also summarise strategies for responding to each of these faces of power:

  • Responding to visible power is usually about trying to change the ‘who, how and what’ of policy-making so that the process is more democratic, accountable  and responsive to diverse needs. Visible power is countered with strategies of political advocacy and seeking access to formal decision-making processes
  • Responding to hidden power focuses on strengthening organisations and movements of the poor, building collective power and leadership to redefine the political agenda, and raising the visibility and legitimacy of issues, voices and demands that have been silenced.
  • Responding to invisible power focuses on re-imagining social and political culture, and raising consciousness to transform the way people perceive themselves and those around them, and how they envisage future possibilities and alternatives.

It is often easier to engage with visible and hidden power than with power that is embedded in cultural and social norms and practices. But ignoring invisible power is likely to lead to a misreading of the complex ways in which change happens and make it harder to identify which change strategies should be developed.

These three dimensions of power are not only exercised from above, as power over; they may also be exercised from below, as forms of resistance and as expressions of power to, power with or power within. Some citizen groups may be able to mobilise their own forms of hidden power or invisible power as strategies for empowerment and social change.

Public, private and intimate realms of power

This framework is widely used in gender analysis to explore the way in which women and men experience power differently in the public, private or intimate spaces of their lives. These realms of power are frequently ignored in power analysis. As summarised by VeneKlasen and Miller,

  • the public realm of power concerns one’s experience of public interactions in areas such as employment, livelihoods, market activities, public social spaces and the community
  • the private realm of power includes one’s experience of family, relationships, friends, marriage and the household, and is usually defined by the social, cultural and religious norms of these relationships
  • the intimate realm of power concerns personal self-esteem, confidence, dignity, relationship to one’s own body, reproductive health and sexuality.

Take the case of a young professional woman as an example. She may be respected in her place of work, but lack status in her home or community. Or the reverse may be true: she may have power in her household but be marginalised in the public domain. She may feel powerful in the public or private realms, but not in the intimate realm; or, conversely, her lack of power in the intimate or private realms may serve to undermine her sense of power in the public realm.

The public, private and intimate realms of power draw attention to the ways in which experiences in particular spaces are both shaped by and can reinforce gender and other socially constructed norms. A person’s sense of identity and power as defined by gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexuality may shift from moment to moment according to which realm they are in. This framework sheds light on personal and familial sources of power which are too often ignored – even though they are experienced by everyone.

Socialised and internalised power

Much social theory focuses on less visible and culturally embedded forms of power to explain how social norms, hierarchies and behaviour are unconsciously reproduced and resist efforts to change them.

For some, the idea of invisible power is too concerned with the deliberate strategies of more powerful actors to shape the consciousness and felt needs of less powerful actors. Others explain this not as a result of intentional ‘agency’ or even of deterministic ‘structures’, but as a kind of continuous interplay between the two – where power is defined as the norms, discourses and behaviour that are socialised and internalised by all actors.

Perhaps the most important of these thinkers is influential philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, who sees power as everywhere, embedded in the very fabric of our daily lives and institutions. In his view, power is not monolithic or coercive but takes the form of multiple points of pressure and resistance, arising from all directions, and is in constant flux. Power is in the forms of truth and knowledge that we accept as given. It is internalised in our bodies, and we learn to discipline ourselves to conform to social norms. We are usually unconscious of these effects of power, because we take so much of what is around us for granted.

Social reformers have long been concerned with how to break the cycles that reproduce these social norms and conditioned responses. Most responses call for some process of critical reflection or consciousness raising as a stimulus for ‘power within’ and empowerment. Popular education and feminist pedagogy, for example, seek to empower by enabling people to become aware of the oppressions they face in their everyday lives, recognising these as man-made rather than the natural order of things.

Tools and frameworks for power analysis

Power Matrix

The Power Matrix was developed by Just Associates for use by social movement and NGO leaders using rights-based approaches to development and social change. It is a useful tool for assessing real examples of citizen engagement in terms of the visible, hidden and invisible dimensions of power and how they interact to define the possibilities for action. It can be used to identify possible responses and strategies in relation to each dimension of power, and to explore the sequence and synergies between them.


Powercube is a conceptual framework that can be used to understand and analyse how power works in processes of governance and citizen participation, in organizations and in social relationships. It uses a multi-faceted approach to explore the visible, hidden and invisible dimensions of power by mapping the various spaces and levels where actors experience and exercise these forms of power. It is best used as a strategic analytic framework and is helpful as a lens for analysing the context of an intervention, identifying entry points to support change, and for evaluation and learning.

Peeling the Onion

Peeling the Onion explores different forms of power arising at different levels: the individual stakeholder, the group or collective, the organisation or institution, and the wider society or system. It can be used with participants and key informants in a power analysis to explore both the negative or dominating forms of power, and the positive or alternative forms of power that can be mobilised for social change or supported by development co-operation strategies. (NB The above link takes you to a book on Power: see Section 2 for Peeling the Onion).

Ethnographic research methods

Some of the best tools for observing and making sense of multiple forms of power have been developed by qualitative researchers, particularly anthropologists and sociologists. These can easily be applied within a power analysis process by including experienced, applied academics in the team. Methods like participant observation, visual tools, storytelling, oral testimonies, semi-structured interviews and focus groups can all shed light on forms of power and their interaction.