“And power is a game of smoke and mirrors,’ said her ladyship, reaching for the wine. ‘Oddly enough, Commander Vimes reminds me of that nearly every day. No civil police force could hold out against an irate and resolute population. The trick is not to let them realize that.” – Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals
The situations you find yourself in day-to-day almost inevitably involve an exercise of power. You need to understand how power works and the three types of power you will come across in order to deal with it effectively, When you don’t it’s easy to use a method that you’re familiar with in a situation where it will not work, leaving you worse off than before.
The first kind of power is based in natural laws. You can’t argue with gravity. The Coronavirus doesn’t care about your approach to border control. This is the kind of power engineers like – we make things and they work or they don’t. Your opinions don’t matter – but whether a bridge holds up or not under its designed conditions does.
The second kind of power is based in social structures. Sometimes they are set down as social laws, sometimes they are custom and practice. You need to recognise the power dynamics that exist if you want to get things done.
With these two types of power you have two strategies you can follow. With natural power you simply dictate what is to be done. The Coronavirus response provides an example of how this works. Left to itself, the virus will keep spreading. You have to do something. Politicians around the world felt they had a choice – they could ignore the science and bend nature to their will. They were wrong.
With social power, however, your only choice is to appeal to power. You have to plead your case, going to those who have power and getting them to buy into what you’re selling. And that means dealing with the reality of the situation you’re in, sometimes you’ll get what you want, sometimes you won’t – but the people with the power will make the decisions in either case.
Sometimes those people are wrong and that’s when the third kind of power comes in, the power of action. If you believe that those with power are doing the wrong thing you can undermine them, dig away at the ground under their feet. People that have been overlooked, repressed, unrepresented can take action. Power is a fragile thing – the people with it only have it because the people without allow them to. Action doesn’t mean rioting – it means shining a light on what is going on, showing things as they are.
The approach you take depends on the situation you’re in. As a scientist your focus is on the first kind of power. As a politician or businessperson it’s the second. And as a particular group of marginalised people it’s the third.
You can’t go into a business and dictate what must be done like it’s scientific fact – that will work against you. At the same time you can’t go into a business and undermine what’s going on, that will get you kicked out. In business you have to work with the people in power – appeal to them to make the change that you want to see. And it’s the same with the other groups. Scientists will not change their findings because you feel that things should be different from the facts on the ground. And politicians will do anything, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong in your eyes, to stay in power – because that’s their job – to stay in power.
In a nutshell, then, if you want to work with power you have to first recognise what kind of power you’re dealing with and then select a strategy that’s going o work in that situation.