A new study looks at widening the concept of power to include social-ecological interdependencies - the domestication of fire provides a useful example. Photo: P. Lamas

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Power relations

Tame the flames, rule the world

New understanding of power shows important relations between humans and nature

Story highlights

  • From a social-ecological standpoint it makes sense to expand the concept of power to include not only humans but also other living creatures
  • Power can be used to change the conduct of living beings, as well as the conditions under which they live, for example through managing and controlling landscapes
  • Including other living beings in the concept of power can remind us that our responsibilities stretch beyond our own species

Ask academics to define power and the reaction could well be that of panic or sheer confusion. That is because power is a perpetually contested concept in social theory.  Power is difficult to define because it exists in many forms, be it economic power, military power, or symbolic power. The famous sociologist Max Weber defined it as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests”.

Weber’s definition highlights that power only exists through social relationships between persons: it is employed by someone and influences others. From a social-ecological perspective, Weber seems to have been missing something.

In a paper recently published in Ecology and Society centre research Wijnand Boonstra argues that power needs to be redefined as including not only dependency relations between people, but also between people and other living beings. His research is timely, because resilience scholars have been relatively silent when it comes to addressing the issue of power relations.

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The power of fire
Boonstra illustrates how the concept of power can be used to analyse the interdependency between humans and nature with the example of the domestication of fire. Relations between humans and the natural environment dramatically changed when humans learned to tame the flames and acquired firepower.

"By including humans as well as other living beings in the concept of power, we are reminded that our responsibilities stretch beyond our species"

Wijnand Boonstra

When early humans came to learn how to use fire, they gained control over a crucial source of power. With fire they could influence the conduct of other people and species, for example by using fire as a source of protection or to chase others away.

But the use of fire also indirectly changed the social and ecological conditions under which both humans and other species lived. Landscape burnings radically changed the habitat in which humans and other species lived. Fire also enabled cooking and so led to human physiological changes that in turn triggered other human abilities.

For maintaining, transporting and handling fire people also had to learn how to collaborate, think ahead, and communicate. The domestication of fire highlights how the use of power sources comes with shifts in interdependencies between people and nature.

With great power comes great responsibility
The story of how humans tamed the flames is important because it helps us understand how power can be used to think about responsibility.

For example, terming the current geological era the Anthropocene in a sense disperses responsibility for human-caused global change to the whole of humanity. However, only a small minority has been responsible for the majority of the activities that drive the ‘great acceleration’. The Indian subsistence farmer, the African herder and the Peruvian slum-dweller are grouped together with inhabitants of the rich world, despite playing  different roles in ecological devastation and planetary overshoot. In this way, the term Anthropocene points to the power of humans as a species but conceals who is exercising that power and how, where and when.

“The concept of social power that I present is an effort to provide a tool to address the issue of responsibility for this kind of complex and global social-ecological interactions,” says Boonstra.

“My effort to conceptualise power is to help tease out whose actions are impacting whose conduct and situation, and to include social-ecological interdependencies. By including humans as well as other living beings in the concept of power, we are reminded that our responsibilities stretch beyond our species,” he concludes.

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Published: 2016-07-21

Related info

Boonstra, W. J. 2016. Conceptualizing power to study social-ecological interactions. Ecology and Society 21(1):21. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07966-210121

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About the centre author:

Wijnand Boonstra is particularly interested in understanding how individual use of ecosystems aggregates to form so-called regimes of ecosystem use. Describing and explaining the complex set of social and ecological conditions and their interaction at micro and macro scales that cause these regimes to shift, is a key research objective.