Metaphors of Power

the idea of upward anthropology depends on a spatialized metaphor for power. Power increases as you move up the scale and decreases as you move down. It’s a common way of talking about power or of diagramming power relations. But there is no natural reason why we should imagine power along these spatial dimensions – except that perhaps there was a time when it was a more literal configuration. Those with power were literally higher than others – set up on pedestals, living in the tallest buildings, forcing others to bow before them, etc. we have remnants of that, perhaps, in the imagination of the penthouse suite, but very often today the sites of power are more distributed and not so spatially recognizable. In some ways that makes things harder for us. 

Imagining the spatiality of power has its benefits, so I wouldn’t suggest changing the name or idea of this group. Situating power spatially forces us to situate ourselves in relation to it. Laura Nader’s call to “study up” (setting aside the pun aspect of the phrase) forces us to recognize that very often what we do is study down. Why do we do that? It situated us somewhere in the middle – not powerless, but also more powerful than many of the communities in which we work. Those are positive developments, but maybe the spatial metaphor makes it more difficult in some ways to conceive of how we can carry out our project. How does one study upward in a world where power is not actually spatially distributed? 

I’m a metaphor pluralist, meaning that I’m interested in exploring different metaphors and the way they enable different ways of thinking. And I have no qualms about the normative dictums around “mixing metaphors.” I can imagine other metaphors for power that might help us tactically consider how to go about doing “upward” anthropology. For example, there is the visual metaphor made famous by Foucault’s study of the panopticon. Granted the panopticon still depends on a spatial dimension, but the primary characteristic of power is the ability to see without being seen. Another example is the network metaphor. In a network we have nodes and edges representing the individual agents and the various relationships between them. A node with many edges attached represents a very powerful nose with a lot of influence on other nodes. A third metaphor is that of penetrability. John Holloway makes good use of this metaphor in his book Crack Capitalism. The image is of a room or facade that seems impenetrable – one cannot easily gain access. Holloway says that we need to find the cracks by carefully scouring the wall, clawing at it with our fingernails. And when we find such a crack, we must work on it until we are able to pry it open. 

Those are a few of the metaphors I’m familiar with. The question is how can these different metaphors enable different ways of thinking about power and about the project of “studying up”? What other metaphors might we enlist in this project?


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