Power Dynamics


Introduction  >> Activities >> Resources

Picture of Canvassing with Charles

Our Power Dynamics Section is almost entirely drawn from Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View, originally published in 1974, as studied and articulated in John Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness; Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (University of Illinois, 1982), and Gaventa’s later work, elaborated on the website http://www.powercube.net/ which describes a visual interpretation of this way of analyzing power, known as a power cube.

Of particular interest is the 90 page document Powerpack; Understanding Power for Social Change, describing the power cube and outlining a basic workshop series with which to teach it. We find this workshop series extremely prescient, and hope that you use it. Although there are more things on the website than in the document, the document covers all the bases, and is well-organized. It can be found here


and here


Although many of the exercises on our Activities page can be conducted without reading Gaventa, Lukes or Powerpack; Understanding Power for Social Change, it is highly recommended that you read through at least the first half of Powerpack, as this stuff is deceptively simple, and we have tied ourselves in knots when we have tried to quickly zip through the concepts, or when we have attempted to conduct exercises based on the concepts without fully understanding them first.

However, the basics are as follows:

We spend a lot of time thinking of power in terms of oppression or strength to force and manipulate others.

This could be defined as “power over.” However, we all know that power is more fluid than that. There are also, among other manifestations of power,

“power to” – individual ability to act, linked to idea of capability
“power with” – collective action, the ability to act together
“power within” – individual or collective self-worth and dignity

Power can be seen through many prisms, and a useful way of analyzing power is the power cube.


The Z axis is Power according to Form– Visible, Hidden, or Invisible/Internalized

The X axis is Power according to Space– Closed, Invited, or Claimed/Created

The Y axis is Power according to Place– on a Local, National or Global level



visible power” – formal and observable decision-making, pluralist politics with visible rules for engagement, and clear winners and losers

hidden power” – setting the agenda behind the scenes, mobilising biases and interests, excluding people and issues from debates

invisible power” – shaping public opinion and needs; social conditioning, ideology and values; may be internalised


Obviously, this is a spectrum, which arguably could stretch from internal decisions made within an individual, through the intimate decisions made within a family to the decisions made at the workplace, school, and up through the local, the national, to the global, international decisions. The idea is to consider the effect of power on all these levels on a specific issue. For the sake of simplicity, Gaventa breaks this into three categories:

“Local” – Power relationships within the family, at the workplace, and on the municipal and state-wide level

“National”– Regional and National Power relationships.

“Global” – Power and Decisions that span countries and continents.


“Closed spaces” – Decisions are made by a set of actors behind closed doors, without any pretence of broadening the boundaries for inclusion.

“Invited spaces”– Spaces which do not belong to us, but to which we have been invited for participation. Strategies to strengthen participation in invited spaces include gaining knowledge and expertise on key issues and regulations, and learning the arts of public speaking, negotiating and compromise.

“Claimed and self-created spaces” – spaces for participation which relatively powerless or excluded groups create for themselves. These spaces range from ones created by social movements and community associations, to those simply involving natural places where people gather to debate, discuss and resist, outside of the institutionalized policy arenas