Case #2236.9

Power and Social Change

Publication Date: December 6, 2021
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The concept of power has often been viewed very narrowly by public leaders. In this 30-minute video, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Archon Fung lays out a broader vision of how power works in our society. Public leaders need to understand power and, in particular, how to build power to make their organizations more effective and generate social change that is more sustainable over the long term. Using well-known and sometimes controversial examples (immigration, gerrymandering, labor unions, gay marriage, etc.), Professor Fung explores how four types of power manifest themselves: 1) Individual or everyday power, or the ability of individual actors to further their own interests; 2) Policy power, or the power of laws, regulations, or private sector policies to protect or constrain the interests of whole classes of people; 3) Structural power, or the power deriving from money, alliances, knowledge, leverage, membership, etc., that can often make any given playing field unequal; and, 4) Discursive power, or the power of ideas, beliefs, values, and narratives to influence the other three levels of power. Professor Fung pays special attention to the last two levels of power – structural power and discursive power – arguing that they can be deployed to create deeper, more sustainable change that will foster a more equal society. The ideas in this video are also developed in the following academic article: “Four Levels of Power: A Conception to Enable Liberation”(Journal of Political Philosophy, July 2, 2019).

Learning Objective:
The goal of this video is to focus attention on sources of power that often go unexamined, and to help students of public policy understand how they work and how they can be used to create change. The video can be assigned as preparation for a case discussion on a topic that allows for these hidden power levels to be surfaced and analyzed. Students may be asked to identify the different levels of power at play, explore how they shaped specific outcomes, and compare their effectiveness (see teaching plan for The Making of a Public Health Catastrophe: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Flint Water Crisis, forthcoming). The video can also inform a more general discussion on the different impact of policy power versus structural power and discursive power, with an emphasis on their relative ability to address inequality.


Other Details

Video Producer:
Patricia Garcia-Rios
Faculty Lead:
Archon Fung
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States