Power Research

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Powerful people and organizations tend to abuse their power. Without understanding who has power, how the power is wielded, and how that power can be kept within legitimate boundaries, people with less power can be ignored, swindled, lied to, led into war, or otherwise mistreated.


This pattern should be considered in any situation in which institutionalized power is a strong influence.


The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. — C. Wright Mills

In 1956 sociologist C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite provided an in-depth examination of power in the United States. About a decade later, in 1967, G. William Domhoff wrote Who Rules America? which was followed by Who Rules America Now? in 1983. As one might expect, these books contained a detailed analysis of who has power, how the power is exercised and through what routes the powerful came to their positions. To some degree, the who of "who has power" is not as relevant as what they do with it and how they came to possess it. Their routes to power were so uniform as to suggest that specific, repeatable social mechanisms were at work to ensure that the same type of person, with the same ideologies would be elevated to these positions — and that other people from other circumstances would be denied entrance.

That social mechanisms are at play is of course not news to sociologists who make it their business to understand these mechanisms. The rest of us have vague suspicions but little concrete knowledge. Although the powerful may be visible to some degree the representations that we witness in the media are likely to be sanitized, scrubbed clean of improprieties, stereotyped and otherwise rendered useless for thoughtful consideration. This knowledge is vital to all participants in a democratic society. Knowing who and how people who occupy the seats of power wield the levers of social control is key to positive social change.

While the work of Mills and Domhoff have uncovered the processes of the maintenance of power in America, it is undoubtedly the case that similar processes are being played out every day around the world. For that reason, it's imperative that these studies be undertaken throughout the world. The point of gaining an understanding of these processes is not to insert different people into the process (although in many cases this is desirable). Nor do we gain this understanding in order to derail the entire system or to just "throw the bastards out." (After all, in some cases the people holding power may not be scoundrels!) An understanding of the process will help us adjust the system as necessary, know where the points of intervention exist and, in general, increase the level of awareness thus making it more difficult for the people with less power to be bamboozled by those with more.

There are many exciting examples of this pattern. One particularly compelling one is based on the Reflect theory. It combines adult learning and social change using the theories of Paulo Freire integrated with participatory methodologies. Their report on Communication and Power describes how written and spoken word, images and numbers can be used by villagers in India (see figure below) in analyses of caste power.


Research power — what it is, how is it organized and applied, who has it. Although it is important to make the findings freely available. It is at least as important to disseminate the ideas and techniques that help people initiate their own power research projects. This pattern particularly applies to government and corporations but other people, institutions, and groups (such as hate groups, militias or organized crime families) need to be thoroughly investigated as well.

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