Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2003

By Jean Baker Miller

Many of us in this society are mixed up about power. Yet power is very real and is operating right in front of us all the time. Quite amazingly, those who have the most power in our society almost never talk about it, and, even more amazingly, they induce many of the rest of us not to recognize it, either.

When I was a kid, for instance, my friends and I adored the movies. We'd go every Saturday afternoon, and for five cents we'd always see two full-length films, a cartoon, a newsreel, and an episode of an ongoing adventure story, which was almost always a Western. Every week we'd see the "bad guys," the so-called Indians, portrayed as strange-looking, fierce, uncivilized, savage murderers who were threatening the white cowboys. The theater rang with ear-shattering cries, cheers, whoops, and whistles when the cowboys hurt or killed the Native Americans.

It never occurred to us that it was the white people who had taken power by force, stealing the Native Americans' land and destroying their cultures, even calling them by a false name. We absorbed these untruths routinely every week, and I was drawn into disparaging and even fearing these powerful, violent people (from where I lived in the heart of New York City). I don't remember history classes in elementary or high school changing these images, and I can't recall how old I was before I learned to my shock that we, the whites, had brutally taken
power over the Native Americans. Indeed, we never saw any people of color portrayed with truth. This is one example of how the "cultural materials" of a dominant group mystify its operation of power.

For various historical reasons, a dominant segment in any society tends to divide people with less power into groups by race, class, gender, sexual preference, and the like. The dominant group often gains tremendous power over the less powerful groups in economic, social, political, and cultural realms. But dominant groups do not usually say, "I have great power over your life; I want to keep it and, if possible, increase it because I'm afraid of losing any of it to you."

It is important to recognize that there are different kinds of power. We use the term "power-to" to mean the ability to make a change in any situation, large or small, without restricting or forcing others. The term "power-over" we apply to situations or structures in which one group or person has more resources and privileges and more capacity to force or control others. Structural power reinforced by power-over practices obstructs growth and constructive change.

Dominant groups usually manufacture false belief systems that act to perpetuate their power-over position and sustain their separation from subordinate groups. Patricia Hill Collins (1990), an African-American sociologist, discusses the impact of controlling images. She notes that dominant groups tend to create sets of images about themselves and about each of the "subordinate" groups. These controlling images are always false, yet they exert a powerful influence, holding each group in its place and maintaining the status quo. We absorb these images about others and ourselves, usually without fully realizing it, just as I absorbed the negative images of Native Americans in the Westerns I saw as a child. This is part of the way dominant groups mystify their power-over practices and entice many of us into cooperation.

As an alternative to power-over practices, Judith Jordan (1986) and Jan Surrey (1987) have developed the concept of mutual empowerment. Mutual empowerment is a two-way, dynamic process in which all people in a relationship move toward more effectiveness and power, rather than one moving up while the other moves down. Mutual
empowerment is a possibility in all relationships, even when one person clearly has more power than the other, such as parent-child, teacher-student, therapist-patient. The people in these relationships are not equal along such dimensions as age, experience, knowledge of a certain field, and so on. Yet the goal in these types of unequal relationships is similar: for the more powerful person to foster the growth of the other person. The move is toward change, toward equality and mutuality (Miller, 1976). Mutuality means joining together in a kind of relationality in which all participants are engaged, empathic, and growing (Jordan, 1986). Mutual empowerment involves finding ways to
make interactions growth-fostering for everyone in the relationship.

What are some ways we can encourage movement toward mutual empowerment, especially when many people have suffered trauma or severe psychological isolation as a result of interpersonal, social, and structural power-over practices? Interpersonal approaches would include:

  • Identifying how we use power-over maneuvers or obfuscate our use of power in our relationships.
  • Seeking mutually empowering ways of engaging in relationships, such as developing shared agreements about expectations for the relationship.
  • Negotiating new agreements as relationships grow or change, rather than implementing power-over maneuvers to control the relationship.
  • In temporarily unequal relationships (such as parentchild, teacher-student relationships), helping the less powerful person move toward mutual empowerment, mutuality, and, eventually, equality.

The way to prevent or reduce power-over practices is to increase each person's power in the relationship, their power-in-connection rather than power that is coercive and arising out of fear. In growth-fostering
relationships, facilitating the power of one person does not mean less power for the other. That kind of thinking usually follows from the notion of a "zerosum game" or from patriarchal, power-over thinking. This is still how most institutions operate. However, we can begin to envision the ways of reframing the power issue. The answer does not lie in flipping over whoever is in power so that subordinates gain more power but continue operating in the same old dominant-subordinate framework. The answer is to search for a new structure altogether, one of mutual empowerment. This transformation would change life for all of us.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought. New York: Routledge.

Jordan, J. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Work in Progress, No. 23. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Miller, J.B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Miller, J.B. (1988). Connections, disconnections, and violations. Work in Progress, No. 33. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Miller, J.B. (2002). How change happens: Controlling images, mutuality, and power. Work in Progress, No. 96. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Miller, J.B. and Stiver, I. (1997). The healing connection. Boston: Beacon Press.

Surrey, J. (1987). Relationship and empowerment. Work in Progress, No. 30. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Walker, M. (2002a). Power and effectiveness: Envisioning an alternate paradigm. Work in Progress, No. 94. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center
Working Paper Series.

Walker, M. (2002b). How therapy helps when the culture hurts. Work in Progress, No. 95. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Jean Baker Miller, M.D., is the director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Stone Center. This article is based on her new working paper, the 100th in the Stone Center's distinguished series. "Telling
the Truth about Power" was first presented in July at the 2003 Jean Baker Miller Summer Training Institute. The paper, JBMTI/Stone
Center Working Paper No. 100, may be ordered from the WCW Publications Office at 781-283-2510 or via the online store.

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