Without Rigour It’s Just Ideology

Pritpal S Tamber

November 17, 2022

More and more organisations are getting behind the idea of community power as a solution to local issues. But one internationally respected researcher thinks the enthusiasm is not being met with sufficient analysis of how power is formed and whether there are any negatives in the process. 

That researcher is Jennie Popay, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Lancaster University in the UK. We speak to Jennie in the latest episode of our podcast series on community power, which you can find on Ratio’s website and Apple podcasts.

Jennie’s view is that despite decades of initiatives in which communities were ‘empowered’ to improve their lives, the impact has not been that big. An easy measure of this is the growing social inequity in many countries. So, what’s going on? 

Her view is that so-called ‘empowerment’ initiatives have tended to ask residents to think about their local conditions and accrue the ‘capacities’ required to change them. Good though this may be, what it doesn’t do is address how those conditions came about – i.e., the political and social forces that gave rise to them. 

Jennie calls the focus on conditions and capacities an inward gaze. Her view is that this approach effectively burdens residents with the responsibility to put right what political and social forces have got wrong. It would be more legitimate, she and her colleagues argue in their recent article in Health Promotion International, if residents were ‘empowered’ to address the aforementioned forces – in other words to adopt an outward gaze. 

You’ll have noticed that I have put inverted commas around the words empowerment and empowered. According to Jennie, the term is problematic because it assumes that communities do not have power. As she says in the episode (Ratio/Apple), it’s the language of deficits – it focuses on what communities are assumed not to have, essentially looking down on them. But in her view, communities always have power; whether it can act depends on whether it’s being limited. 

To help practitioners and researchers think about that, she and her colleagues proposed the Limiting Power Framework in the aforementioned article. It essentially lists the things that can restrict communities, separating them into four groups – compulsory (formal instruments of the state), institutional (rules, procedures and norms), structural (biases that sustain social hierarchies) and productive (narratives that legitimise some and delegitimise others). 

Mapping the power in a community means understanding how it’s being limited and how it’s being emancipated, Jennie says (image by Molly Bland for Communities in Control Study team)

If these restrictions could be suppressed, the power of communities would be released – ‘released’ being the word that Jennie prefers over ‘empowerment’ or ‘empowered’. 

Some of you may think that this is semantics. I don’t think it is. If community power is a solution to the growing inequities in society, we need clarity on how it’s released – including what might be limiting it. 

Another way in which Jennie and her colleagues have tried to provide that clarity is in how you might measure how a group of people come together to release their power. In their follow-up article in Health Promotion International, they describe qualitative ‘markers’ for this process, such as growing agreement amongst members over shared values, growing recognition that to achieve something requires alliances outside of the community, and the emergence of structures through which community members can exert influence over decision-making. 

The work of Jennie and her colleagues makes it possible for practitioners and researchers to be more intentional and thoughtful. But in all this, there is a danger of assuming that the process by which communities form and release their power is always positive. Can that be true? 

Jennie and her colleagues have been looking at that and their preliminary analysis of a long-term ‘empowerment’ initiative showed that the benefits – in this case mental wellbeing – were greater amongst men and people with higher socioeconomic status. This suggests that initiatives designed to release the power of communities should pay special attention to the potentially negative impact on women and people of lower socioeconomic status. 

I find Jennie’s work rigorous, insightful, practical and of strategic importance. Even the briefest glimpse at her publication record illustrates her embrace of systems theorygender equalityepistemic justicebetter methods for research, and an unashamed empathy for people living in difficult circumstances. In the few conversations I’ve had with her, I sense someone that believes in community self-determination but is not blinded by the ideology. To be frank, I don’t think that can be said of many scholars in the field. 

In our next episode, Michael Little, the host of the podcast, talks to Paul Speer, a former community organiser who now conducts research on organizing, social power and community change. But, for now, I’ll leave you to enjoy the unparalleled insights of Jennie Popay (Ratio/Apple). 

See you in two weeks. 

Pritpal S Tamber

PS: To learn more about Ratio’s work, sign up for their newsletter or drop them a line: hello@ratio.org.uk

Previous Episodes in the Series 

  • Episode 2 (November 1): A conversation with Jonathan Heller, one of the most innovative practitioners in the journey to health equity (Ratio/Apple)
  • Episode 1 (October 17): Pritpal S Tamber talks to Michael Little, the host of the podcast, on what community power is and why it might be important (Ratio/Apple)

Further Reading

The credit for the image behind the title is: Gary Waters / Ikon Images.

Pritpal S Tamber

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

3 thoughts on “Without Rigour It’s Just Ideology”

  1. Thank you for this reassuring article. Building communities from within begins with asset identification by community members themselves. So long as outside groups see only communities needs, which they can address, community members are not heard regarding what they have as assets important to them regarding their issues rather than what the outside sees.

  2. Thanks, Pritpal! This is relevant, thought-provoking and has me wondering…
    -After describing Jennie Popay’s Limiting Power Framework, you present a hypothesis: “If these restrictions could be suppressed, the power of communities would be released.” What will it take to suppress these restrictions?
    -Jennie’s work also explores potential “danger” in the release of power, which could accrue benefits to some (e.g., “men and people with higher socioeconomic status”) at the expense of others (e.g., “women and people of lower socioeconomic status”). Does this suggest that power should be governed in some way, according to some criteria/values? And if so, what, how and by whom?
    -Finally: Does power of any individual/group — even if it’s to suppress restrictions or balance things out — always carry with it the seeds of separation (and its downstream effects, such as dominance over an “other”) that the release of this power is trying to avoid?

    1. Dear Rick,

      Thank you for your questions. I will answer each in turn.

      What it takes to suppress the things that are restricting a community really depends on the community’s political and social context. There is a good report by the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California that explored power in 16 places across the US. Many of the communities in those places had to overcome some kind of ‘limits’. The report was produced for RWJF’s Lead Local programme and can be found here:

      https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ee2c6c3c085f746bd33f80e/t/5f98a9a4cd172a172549dcce/1603840428427/Leading_Locally_FULL_Report_web.pdf

      My view is that power should always be governed, whether held by politicians, the elite or community members. The question then becomes governed to what end? It seems to me that the ultimate aim should be to ensure the redistribution of resources and opportunity in society, which is what’s required to pursue health equity. I have written about that idea in my new post:

      https://www.pstamber.com/understanding-power-through-stories-of-change/

      On your final question, I think that potential is always there, yes (the academics call it ‘power over’). It seems to me that that’s yet another thing for the governance process to be mindful of.

      Pritpal S Tamber

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