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Unfair Law vs. The People: Activism, Power and Social Change

Nicolás Varela


Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”. That quote always reminds me about the power of the individual and the multiplication of that power when we come together.

Throw-out history, the possibility to generate social change was primarily reserved in the hands of kings, emperors, pharaohs, and more recently, goverments. However, history also shows us that change was not only possible when it was orquestrated by those in position of power, but also when everyday people got together to generate social change.

Even though power is important, resistance to power has been an equaly important tool for citizens to lead and promote social change.

This essay will explore the concepts of power, resistance, and social movements, aswell as to analize the causes, theories, and real-life examples of how human actors resist statutory policy to promote social change.

The complexities of Power

Power is an inescapable feature of human social life. It appears to be a universal and indispensable characteristic of social organization, at work in all political, organizational and institutional life and, according to some[1], present in every social relationship. However, power is not easily defined.

The standard theory; a set of general assumptions about the relationship between power and influence which is shared by all the classic theories of social influence (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Festinger, 1950, 1953, 1954; French & Raven, 1959; Kelman, 1958); considers that power is the capacity of influence and that influence is based on the control of resources valued or desired by others and which make them dependent upon the influencing agent for the satisfaction of their needs or reaching their goals. (Festinger, 1953).

The idea that resource control is the basis of power tends to imply that differences in power between individuals and groups are relatively static and enduring. Suggesting that as long as one controls sufficient resources has power, and those without resources have little option but to submit.

However, the standard theory does not sit easily with the historical facts of social change and minority influence (Moscovici, 1976). It implies that influence flows only in one direction, from the top down, from those with power to those without it. Nevertheless, there are countless historical examples of social movements, in which power and control of resources did not precede but followed processes of social change. New movements can gain adherents despite often lacking resources, expertise and prestige. If the standard theory is true, then social change from below could have never taken place, where subordinate groups, for example, came together to reject the legitimacy of statutory policy or the social order and oppose it.

Similarly, the excersice of influence, it’s presence or absence, its effectiveness or not, is what determines whether power will take the shape of persuasion (conversion of cognitive change to convince others to carry out one’s will), authority (ingroup norms that a person, role or group has the right to exercise power), or coercion (compliance without inner conviction). Correspondingly, the later may be one of the reasons why power has been frequently conceived in negative terms where typically, the effects of power are seen as excluding, corromping, repressing, censoring, masking, concealing, or leading to abuse. (Keltner et al., 2003; Lee-Chai & Bargh, 2001).

In this sense, Michel Foucault has been hugely influential in shaping understandings of power, leading away from the analysis of power as an instrument of coercion. Foucault is one of the few writers on power who recognise that power is not just a negative, coercive or repressive thing that forces us to do things against our wishes, but can also be a necessary, productive and positive force in society (Gaventa, 2003).

Foucault conceives power not as some property or possession but as a strategy, a mechanism which has positive and useful effects. As Foucault himself stated: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us a force that says no; it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network that runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression”. (Foucault, 1980)

However, the most general meaning of power is that it is the capacity to cause effects, to have an impact or change things, it has to do with getting things done, or getting others to do them (or not do them)[2]. Thus, we could relate power to the transformative capacity of human action.

Furthermore, some of the different theories suggests that power can be gained through:

· Referent power: the ability of individuals to attract others based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. A person may be admired because of specific personal trait, and this admiration creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence.

· Expert power: derived from the trust of the skills or expertise of a person trained and qualified in a specific area.

· Reward power: refers to the influence one can have based on the possibility to give others a reward of some kind such as benefits, time off, desired gifts, promotions or increases in pay or responsibility.

· Coercive power: based on the ability to ensure obedience based on fear, threats or punishment.

The art of resistance

Power and resistance are all most inseparable from each other. The concept 'resistance' is necessary for an understanding of power relations and irreducible to the concept of 'power' itself. Resistance can take different forms, but what they all have in common is the fact that resistance imposes limits to power. Therefore, there can be no adequate understanding of power without the adequate understanding of resistance aswell. (Barbalet, 1985).

Social change does not usually occur out of the generosity and kindness of those in positions of power, rather, as a result of hard processes of resistance and fights by ordinary people trying to provoque change.

Max Weber defined power as the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance. Therefore, it could be argued that Weber's point is that over-coming of resistance is a necessary feature of power itself. This is clearly why Weber defines power in terms of 'probability' and 'chance'. The higher or more widespread the resistance, the lower the probability of realizing one's will, and the less one's power. (Barbalet, 1985).

Weber is not the only writer who has treated the power relation in terms of power and resistance. Conceptualizations of power relations in which resistance is given an explicit and irreducible role can be also found in the work of the mentioned Michel Foucault. He claims that “Where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault, 1978). This also mean, as Lila Abu-Lughod observes, that “where there is resistance, there is power” (Abu-Lughod, 1990), highlighting the individuals potential to promote social change.

Trough-out history resistance has taken many forms, from campaings, movilizations, manifestations, strikes, artivism, protests, non-violent resistance, civil desoviendece, among many others.

Nontheless, there has been one practice in particular that has proved to be extremly usefull over the years which provides great real-life examples to draw attention in this essay: Boycott.

A boycott consists of refusing to buy, sell, or practice any other form of commercial or other relationship with an individual or a company considered, by the participants in the boycott, as the authors of something morally reprehensible.

The word Boycott, takes his name from Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, an estate manager in Ireland during the 19th Century. When bad harvests made a famine likely, Boycott was asked by the Irish Land League to reduce rents by 25 percent. When he refused, the League suggested a non-violent alternative to force the captain to give in: suspend all kinds of dealings with him. The day laborers refused to harvest or work in his house, the shops to sell him food, and the local postman stopped depositing his mail. That same month, the british newspaper The Times used the term "boycott" for the first time to describe the novel form of action.

Although the term had yet to be coined, the practice has a history dating back to at least 1830, when the National Negro Convention encouraged boycotting products made by slaves.

In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi called on India to boycott all British products and thus revitalized local industries, in the first of his non-violent actions that would allow, in 1947, to regain the independence of India.

One of the most significant victories achieved through a boycott was precipitating the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, supported by "divestments" since the 1980s. Boycotts were launched around the world against the companies: Shell, Kellogg and Coca Cola among others, to protest against the racist policies of the South African government. The companies targeted by the boycott promoted shareholder decisions demanding not to operate in the country, thus accelerating the abolition of the segregationist regime in 1994.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama (United States) Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus as she was expected to do. The driver called the police and they arrested her. Civil rights leaders organized a boycott of the bus company with Pastor Martin Luther King at the helm. The boycott was a resounding success and both the company and downtown merchants began to suffer huge losses, and in response, on January 30, 1956, the homes of Martin Luther King and other leaders such as Jo Ann Robinson were bombed. Black leaders took the issue to court, but they were no longer calling for a decrease in segregation, as in the negotiations with the company, but for its outright abolition. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court declared segregation on buses unconstitutional, and the boycott ended with a resounding victory.

Even though the term “resistance” is often associated with these kinds of boycotts, riots, protests or revolutions; resistance is not always so direct. “Everyday resistance”, or resistance in everyday life, is a theoretical concept introduced by James Scott in 1985 in order to cover a different kind of resistance. Everyday resistance is about how people act in their everyday lives in ways that might undermine power. Everyday resistance is quiet, dispersed, disguised or otherwise seemingly invisible; something Scott interchangeably calls “infrapolitics”. Scott shows how certain common behavior of subaltern groups (for example, foot-dragging, escape, sarcasm, passivity, laziness, misunderstandings, disloyalty, slander, avoidance or theft) is not always what it seems to be, but instead resistance. Scott argues these activities are tactics that exploited people use in order to both survive and undermine repressive domination; especially in contexts when rebellion is too risky. These small acts can build up and just like a domino effect end up changing society, a small gesture of everyday life such as not giving a seat on a bus like Rosa Parks did, could end up igniting a revolution.

Theories of social change

Heraclitus once said: The only constant in life is change. Likewise, social change it is equally fluctuant. We could define social change as any significant alteration over time in behavior patterns and cultural values and norms. Involves alteration of the social order of a society. It may include changes in social institutions, social behaviours or social relations.

Social change can diverge in its scope and in speed. Changes can occur quickly and violently through civil revelions, or in a more measured and gradual form through elections for example. It may occur as a result of a planned effort or ignitided for a haphazard event. Among its benefits, social change keeps governments accountable, change can draw attention to injustices, dismantle destructive structures, and help societies transition into better systems. Social change can also make life better for future generations (at least for the mayority who does not oppoust change).

While it’s inevitable for all societies to go through some changes, why that happens isn’t obvious. Throughout history, different theories tried to explain the causes of social change, some of the main theories are:

- The evolutionary theory: based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, considers that society always evolves into “higher levels”. Like organisms evolve from simple to more complex, so do societies. Societies that don’t adapt fast enough will fall behind.

- Thetelic theory:helds that social change can be brought about by means of conscious and systematic efforts. Lester F. Ward has asserted that progress can be achieved by means of purposive effort or conscious planning. According to Ward, natural evolution is a very slow process, whereas intelligent planning can and in fact always accelerates the process of natural evolution.

- The functionalist theory: teaches that society is like a human body and each part is like an organ. Individual parts cannot survive on their own. Emile Durkheim, a major leader in the social sciences, believed that all parts of a society must be harmonious. When one part suffers, all the other parts must adjust.

- The conflict theory: states that society is by nature unequal and competitive. Karl Marx, deeply impressed by the German philosopher Hegel’s metaphysical idealism, held that material conditions of life are the determining factors of social change. His theory is known as the theory of economic determinism or “the materialist interpretation of history”. Briefly put Marx held that human society passes through various stages, each with its own well-defined organisational system. Each successive stage comes into existence as a result of conflict with the one preceding it. Conflict provokes social change. Change from one stage to another is due to changes in the economic factors, namely, the methods of production and distribution.

- The deterministic theory: according to this theory there are certain forces, social or natural or both which bring about social change. For example, during the years leading up to 1789, there were numerous droughts and frosts in France which ruined several crops and generated famine and, even though this was not the only reason, it could had help to ignite the French Revolution.

- The pluralistic theory of social change: according to Sorokin change is caused by the interaction of the various parts of a culture, none of which may be considered primary. It means that change is pluralistic rather than monistic in origin, it is initiated in the material culture and thence spreads to other spheres.

New inventions, discoveries, and the spread of ideas contribute to cultural changes. New ideas about gender, race, religion, work, education, and so on also can change a culture. When members of a society become dissatisfied or frustrated with their social, economic, and political situation. to address their situation, groups come together to fight for change.

Despite these theories, no single factor can explain the origin, direction, manner or consequences of social change because change is a complex process; thus, it is difficult to explain its causes, limits and consequences in a unique manner.

Social Movements and Non-Governmental Organizations

While many different factors can prompt social change, only when members of a society organized into social movements does true social change really occurs. There are countless examples throughout history, some of the most famous include: The Reformation, The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, The Civil Rights movement, The feminist movement, The LGBTQ+ rights movement, The environmental movement, among many others.

Social movements typically question a culture's established state of affairs. The term social movements refer to collective activities designed to bring about or resist primary changes in an existing society or group. Therefore, social movements can dramatically shape the direction of society when individuals and groups of people bring about major shifts in social policy and structures.

Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) evolved out of social movements.On a global level, the history of international non-governmental organizations dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Active in the anti-slavery movement and the movement for women's suffrage, they had expanded significantly at the time of the World Disarmament Conference.

However, the concept of "non-governmental organization" only came into popular use with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945[3]. Then, the definition of "international NGO" is first given in resolution 288 (X) of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in 1950[4]

Globalization facilitated the rapid rise of NGOs in the latter part of the 20th Century, and the revolution in electronic telecommunications not only reinforced that trend, but fostered growing cooperation among NGOs across national borders.

Among its benefits it can be mentioned that NGOs can bring fresh solutions and a a cost-effective alternative, providing solutions were the public or private sector are not doing enough. As the work undertaken by NGOs is wide-ranging, they can inspire, facilitate or contribute to promote social transformation in a variarity of different aspects of society (Lewis, 2010).

Moreover, in being ‘‘non governmental’’ they constitute inclusive vehicles for people to participate in development and social change despite political ideologies in ways it may not be possible through government programmes.

However, NGOs turn out to be quite difficult to analize. While the term ‘‘NGO’’ is widely used, there are also many other over-lapping terms used such as “non-profit”, “voluntary”, and “civil society” organizations.

For example, the term ‘‘non-profit organization’’ is frequently used in the USA, where the market is dominant, and where citizen organizations are rewarded with fiscal benefits if they show that they are not commercial, profit-making entities and work for the public good. In the UK, ‘‘voluntary organization’’ or ‘‘charity’’ is commonly used, following a long tradition of volunteering and voluntary work that has been informed by Christian values and the development of charity law. But charitable status in the UK depends on an NGO being “non-political”, so while some NGOs can be formally registered as a charity (with its associated tax benefits) because of its humanitarian focus, others such as Amnesty International are not, because its work is seen by the Charity Commission as more directly “political”. (Lewis, 2010).

In many cases, the use of different terms does not reflect descriptive or analytical rigour, but is instead a consequence of the different cultures and histories in which thinking about NGOs has emerged. Precise definitions as to what constitutes an NGO vary, and the challenge of analyzing the phenomenon of NGOs remains surprisingly difficult. One reason for this is that NGOs are a diverse group of organizations that defy generalization, ranging from small informal groups to large formal agencies. NGOs play different roles and take different shapes within and across different societies. As a result, ‘‘NGO’’ as an analytical category remains complex and unclear. In relation to structure, NGOs may be large or small, formal or informal, bureaucratic or flexible, well funded or with a small budget. (Morris-Suzuki, 2000) An NGOs may pursue change, but they can equally work to maintain existing social and political systems (Lewis, 2010).

Dispite the challenges to define NGOs, the vital role that they play in inspiring discontented members of a society to bring about social change is widely aknowledge, and there is now almost no country of the world where NGOs do not exist or operate.

Technology and Social Change

Technological advances changed the way people meet, interact, learn, work, play, travel, do business, and more.

Nowadays, a resistance method such as the mentioned Boycott, has many more possibilities to succed and gain a wider audience with new technologies. The snowball effect of the internet allows to spreade a message faster and farther away across more platforms and mediums such as images, videos, podcasts, oe memes, allowing to understand an issue deeper and permiting getting involved to try to solve it.

Moreover, technology allows the creation of youth digital networks, powerfull tools for identity formation, social organization and collective action to promote social change. Social media, for example, can be used to raise awareness about important issues that matter to us and information can “go viral” and reach many people in a very short time and in a global scale. These low-rent organizing halls and offices in virtual space can facilitate political activity, even formal political parties, that could mature into transformative social movement (Tuck & Yang, 2013).

The revolution in Tunisia which ignited the so-called Arab Spring, for example, is an illustration of what new technologies can generate to assist resistance. During and after the revolution, political commentators pointed out the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter as a decisive part of the revolution, which shaped and accelerated the dynamics of organisation and mobilization (Sørensen, 2019).


In this essay I briefly explore the difference theories, causes, history and consequences of power, resistance, and social change.

In the globalized world we live in todat, many of the pressing issues we face are global, affect us all, and recognize no frontier. From climate change, terrorism, global pandemics, economic ruin, to name just a few; dealing with such transnational problems, it is required some form of political collaboration, both with governmental agencies from different states, non-governmental organizations of various kinds and citizens in general to ensure governments are on the right track and if they are not, individuals can take the matter into their own hands and offer some kind of resistance.

Dispite the fact that we might never fully understand all the intricancies that occur in a such complex phenomenon as social change in modern societies, I believe activism necesarily has to be deeply connected with, hope because if we do not think things could be better, if we do not believe the issues that matter to us can change or society by different, why bother at all to so something to try to make de world a better place? We do not have to see the world as it is, but as it could be. There has to be a consciousness that we are working to usher in a brighter and better future.

Lastly, the kind of leadership required to promote these changes is one where power not only consist in the possession of resources in the abstract but by standing for, representing, believing, or working for something.

Therfore, it is possible to redefine the nature of power, not only based on influence and the control of resources, but also as a set of skills and an organized, collective form of action from a collection of empowered individuals sharing mutual believes and working towards a common goal. A kind of power which emerges from human social relationships, from the capacity of people to organize themselves into groups, institutions and societies and by shared values, ideologies, and cultures which allow citizens to resist statutory policy and promote social change.


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[1] For example, Foucault sees power as an everyday, socialised and embodied phenomenon practiced in all social relations throughout the society, on all levels and in indeterminate struggles, negotiations and changing relations of forces. Also, the concept of symbolic power, also known as symbolic domination or symbolic violence, first introduced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, accounts for the tacit, almost unconscious modes of cultural/social domination occurring within the everyday social habits maintained over conscious subjects. [2] Power can prompt people to take action or prevent them to do so. For example, the approach/inhibition theory developed by D. Keltner and colleagues, assumes that having power and using power alters psychological states of individuals. The theory is based on the notion that most organisms react to environmental events in two common ways. The reaction of approach is associated with action, self-promotion, seeking rewards, increased energy and movement. Inhibition, on the contrary, is associated with self-protection, avoiding threats or danger, vigilance, loss of motivation and an overall reduction in activity. [3] Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter permitted a consultative role for organizations which are neither governments nor member states. [4] The resolution 288 (X) of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations defined Internationals NGOs as: "Any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty”.