Power & Autonomy

When we think of power, we usually think of hierarchical power exercised over us by those in certain positions. There is also power in culture. Harari, in his book Sapiens, says cultures have typical beliefs, norms and values but that they are in a constant state of flux and that culture is changed through environment. He says that cultures are simply stories we tell ourselves, stories that we are conversant with. These stories have power because they hold values in them – ways of being, seeing the world, and behaving.

Our social work favourite – Thompson’s PCS model – says that the personal is embedded in the cultural and that cultural is embedded in structural. I’d suggest that this can bring each of these level into conflict with each other in a power struggle for dominance. Think about the white teenager in conflict with the culture norm of their family who are comfortable with racist jokes or cultural norms around the role of women that are in conflict with an ideological view of equality. I wonder is power about who decides what is right? Is there a ‘right’. Or are there many rights? Are people not free to choose their version of right? If they are not where’s the line?

Those who have power or are perceived to have power end up making the decisions…. Don’t they? Sometimes people have a legitimate power that is bestowed on them through position – but sometimes there’s perceived power in the labels that people have – people assume social workers have more power than they often do

Tedam in the Chapter Developing Cultural Competence in Bartoli’s Anti-Racism in Social Work Practice says that culture is difficult to define, it adds to, but doesn’t need to define, someone’s identity – it doesn’t constitute the whole person – but how often do those in power make assumptions it does? It can include ethnicity, religion, beliefs, taboos, language, and history. Ayn Rand, controversial writer in the 60’s who heavily influenced Thatcher and Reagan, says in her essay on racism in The Virtue of Selfishness that history has no business influencing the individual – for her the individual is everything (hence the title of the book). I would tend to agree with this. History has the power to influence culture and culture influences individuals – but we are more than our history. “Glory the past and your future dries up”. says Bono in God Part II on U2’s Rattle and Hum album

Disclaimer! – I’m not suggesting we lose sight of what history has taught us – or indeed that I agree with everything in Rand’s essay – but I do agree that people should be able to shape their own lives and ‘self’ despite their cultural heritage.

Karen Healey in Social Work theories in Context says some things we should be mindful of. She says power is not necessarily repressive. It can be – but it doesn’t have to be. Power can be liberating – ask those who feel they have a lot of it! How power is used, not who has it, shapes the outcome of it. Because… Power is exercised rather than possessed – power isn’t something we have to distribute but rather it is something we exercise over people as a result of position, authority, or because we can because others feel they lack it. When we talk about empowerment, I feel we often talk about it like – as the powerful person – we have it and we can do something that somehow gives the other person some of it. This is not the case.

She says power is analysed as coming from the bottom up. We all can exercise power. But often we don’t realise we can, and if we don’t know we can then we don’t know that we can. We remain disempowered. It’s about showing people how to exercise power rather than thinking we can give them some of ours – that’s not easy and there are all sorts of things that can get in the way. Often how the person views themselves or how the person feels individuals and society views them. Thompson’s PCS model again.

Relating this to social work and drawing on Foucault’s view (also in a Karen Healey book Social Work Practices) Foucault argues that helping professionals play a vital role in providing a bridge between the individual and the efficient management of “men and things”. Societal control if you like, agents of the state maybe? That’s a contested idea but worthy of some consideration. ‘Caring’ interventions he says allow the state to manage and discipline citizens. Think of those with substance misuse problems who can’t get their mental health issues addressed until they are substance free. Such intervention result in a conduit for state control. Power produces a certain kind of population. A one that is subjugated and produces a certain type of ‘self’. Foucault doesn’t deny the existence of structures but says such structures don’t produce ‘local’ power. But rather it is local power – power exerted between individuals – that enables the global phenomena of power.

There are links here then to Autonomy – we need to know we can exercise power to be autonomous – power to control our own destiny if you like. We have autonomy as practitioners and how we use that autonomy is in our hands. But also, how we apply our power, perceived or otherwise, enhances or restricts the power of those we work with.

Davies in Social Work with Adults says autonomy is the right to make your own decisions on personal matters and to be free from interference from the state, noting, however that autonomy is not absolute. We can’t simply do what we want.

He says that where power is exercised through intervention in citizens lives it should be transparent – there should be no hidden agenda – it should be clear what is going on. It should be fair – which begs the question what is fair and who decides what is. Also, rational – what we do should make sense – we should be able to explain it – and it should all stack up. It should be lawful – social work is a profession with a legal framework to adhere to – we need to do that. And finally, it needs to be impartial – this links to being fair I suppose. We shouldn’t disadvantage someone because of our own personal values or opinions. The same should apply for the organisations we are part of. It’s worth considering whether this is the case?

What we do, our actions, should seek to show people the power they can exercise not limit their ability to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please reload

Please Wait