Ideas about power

September 5, 2003 / New Internationalist

A sample from the magazine issue Reinventing Power:

Illustration: Hugh Davidson

Participation and liberation
Most people have never heard of him, but almost all effective social-change projects today draw on the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator with revolutionary learning methods.

Freire starts with the assumption that people have enormous archives of knowledge within them. He rejects the notion that one is ignorant unless one has learned to communicate using the culture of the powerful; learning should not be about being a mere receptacle of that culture.

With Freire’s method the learner is part of a group ‘culture circle’ within which she builds her own view of reality, starting with the circumstances of her everyday life. These, rather than textbooks which teach only the culture of the powerful, are the ‘texts’ from which the learner can analyse and begin to transform the world in which she lives.

Dialogue – an exchange of knowledge and a process of co-learning – as opposed to monologue – imparting of knowledge from the teacher to the ignorant – is key. This group-learning process doesn’t just teach people literacy at an extraordinarily fast rate: it builds a shared understanding of their world. For Freire, learning begins with action, which is then shaped by reflection on the action, which gives rise to further action. The learner goes on creating herself from the inside out, expanding her capacity to act in the world and change it. Fundamentally this is a process by which the powerless transform their relationship to power.

Read: The Paulo Freire Reader, edited by Ana Maria Araujo Freire and Donald Macedo, Continuum.

[image, unknown]

Illustration: Hugh Davidson Power and knowledge
Michel Foucault, one of the key thinkers about power, knowledge and society, was a French intellectual working in fields as diverse as history, medicine, cultural criticism and psychology (what he called the ‘human sciences’) in the 1960s and 1970s. Put simply, Foucault says that if enough people accept as ‘common knowledge’ the particular belief systems of a group of authority figures such as scientists, priests, or medical doctors, then this group exercises power in society by defining right from wrong and who, or what, is ‘normal’. It is a subtle form of power: easier to overlook than power enforced by law or violence, hard to resist because it is all about ‘normalization’.

He came to this conclusion through studying prison systems, mental asylums, schools, attitutudes to homosexuality and the ways in which society creates categories of deviance and abnormality. Take the example of a person in a mental institution. Their life is tightly controlled; their resistance to this control though non-co-operation is seen by most as a symptom of their abnormality or madness. But couldn’t it be a rebellion against a power system that has defined them as abnormal? And might not this ‘outsider’ have powerful insights into the nature of that system? Queer theorists and others have embraced Foucault, celebrating the importance of the marginal perspective.

Contact: Queer theory
Read: Foucault for Beginners, Ludia
Alix Fillingham, Writers and Readers.

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