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Power: a wider perspective

In this video, Roisin examines the concept of Power.
This presentation follows on from the presentation on gender. And for the next few minutes, we’re going to look specifically at the concept of power. Power is multifaceted, and you’ll see, just from the range of words that are on this slide, that there are many definite ways, and definite domains, in which power is exercised. The extensive range of words should lend itself to let us know that it’s a complex concept and that there may be other words that you could add to this slide that would help you to think about, where do you see power manifest? Where do you see power displayed in your everyday life?
It’s probably worth considering whether or not you see power as something that’s positive or negative, and something which enhances, or reduces, life chances and life opportunities. Thinking about how it is something that, in your life, has enhanced your experience of the world and the way in which you see the world, the way in which you see your own place in the world. You may argue that power is a very subjective thing, and it depends on the context in which it operates, and whether or not you feel any resistance to, or engagement with, the power statuses that exist within your life. If we try to define what it is, that can become quite a challenging exercise.
Some of the key theorists who write about power, seminal works on power. And people like Max Weber, Michel Foucault are, I suppose, in sociological terms, the dead white men who have written so much of the fundamental, and foundation, and ideas and concepts, and former thinking about the ways of the world. But it continues to be contested. It continues to be a major philosophical question, with many, many different perspectives. Max Weber describes power in different ways.
He describes the different kinds of power that we can hold, one of those being charismatic power, where people are thought to have exceptional qualities and are therefore able to exert power because of the characteristics that people see in them, and are therefore willing to do what charismatic people ask of them to do. He talks about traditional power, in terms of issues such as loyalty. Issues such as customs and beliefs and things being long-established, and power existing because this is the way that things are, because this is the way that things have always been, and this is the way that things will continue to be.
And if you think back to, in the last section on gender when we talked about socialisation, the power that socialisation has in all of our lives– the way it helps us to define ourselves, and the difficulty that there is in resisting the socialisation that we have been subject to. For Foucault, power is a definite kind of an animal. He conceptualises power very differently than Weber. And he is at pains to point out that we should resist always characterising power as a negative thing. And he argues that we should cease, as he says, once and for all, to describe the effects of power in negative terms.
We talk about power as being something that can exclude people from certain roles or certain positions in society. It can repress people. We can exercise power in a negative way. It can censor our experiences. It abstracts, it masks, it conceals. Foucault would say that rather than categorising power in that sort of a way, we should embrace the positive dimensions, or the more positive dimensions that, in fact, can imbue. He argues that power actually produces reality, that this is what the world is, and therefore we should engage with it and embrace it. He argues that power produces what he describes as rituals of truth.
So when we recognise what power is and how it exists within our society, we’re recognising, in some ways, the truth of our existence. But it is a complex concept, and it takes some reading and thinking. And some of the supporting materials for this section will illustrate for you and help you to develop and expand your understanding and your awareness of power. We think about personal power– power that we have to direct our own lives. Thinking about the power that you have to make decisions for you, and perhaps sometimes for others. Some very simple demonstrations of power– when you get up in the morning, are you beholden to the alarm clock?
Do you have to get up, or do you have choices about that? Do you have choices about what to wear? If we think about the ways in which certain societies have dress codes– sometimes traditional dress that seem to celebrate cultural dimensions. But coming from definite cultural perspectives, some people may perceive the way in which people in one culture dress as being oppressive and repressive and negative. The exact opposite perspective can apply when people see that that covering of oneself affords oneself a protection, affords oneself a privacy, affords oneself the ability to define oneself, other than through the clothes that we wear and the ornaments that we place upon our bodies.
So that idea that we have things that we can choose to wear is oftentimes an identifier, a way in which we signify our status in society. We can decide what to eat. We can decide where to go, generally. But many of the things that we think that we have power over, we take for granted in the society that we live in in our day-by-day existence. But almost all of them are qualified by a range of external factors, perhaps by the legislative context in which you live. What are the laws of the country in which you live? And we had, across the United Kingdom, for a number of years, a man who chose to exercise his right not wear any clothes.
He perceived himself as having the right not to wear any clothes and was characterised as the Naked Rambler. That man spent many, many months of his life imprisoned for what he believed was in his right to go into the countryside without wearing clothes. Now, our laws in the United Kingdom do not permit people to behave in that way. So whatever power he thought he had about what he could wear, or what he could choose not to wear, was qualified by the legal system in the country. What we eat is very carefully regulated by governments. We look at some of the factors that affect in the Western world, in terms of the obesity problem that exists throughout the Western world.
And various governments are exercising power over what we eat by requiring manufacturers to reduce sugar content, to reduce fat content in their food. So in some respects, we may feel that we have the power to choose what to wear and choose what to eat. But even those very basic things are regulated and qualified, as I said, by a range of external factors. So our family sometimes exert power on these things that we think we have choices over. And certainly teachers in schools have a curriculum that is regulated by government, so that what they teach is subject to regulation. And employers will have power over us, in terms of the conditions of service within which we work.
Police, politicians– all of these different domains exercise power and impact on the power that we have or don’t have to make choices in our lives.

This video looks at power from a wide perspective. It draws on some key theorists and their ideas and how these translate into our everyday lives.

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