Engaging and empowering communities and stakeholders in rural land use and land management in Scotland

Report on how best to assist rural communities to engage with decisions on land use and land management.

Annex 5 Power

Power dynamics impact both the nature and quality of decisions and the acceptance of decisions. Power determines whose voices get heard and how knowledge is created or used 1 2 3 4 5 . Before organisations think about how to 'empower' others it is helpful to understand the different types of power they hold and how power works.

Most ways of defining power refer to the various means by which individuals and groups act and influence each other to act 6 7 8 9 . This includes status, positional, and social power over others, such as power that is mediated through pressure groups or differences in formal educational status that prevent equal participation of disadvantaged groups 10 11 . It may also include power to act, power with and power within, where individual and collective action shares the knowledge and skills necessary to enact change 12 13 .

In this context, there are a range of social processes that can affect the quality of decisions and the likelihood that outcomes of a decision-making process will be accepted 14 . For example, collaborative, multi-stakeholder decision-making processes are significantly more likely to produce high quality and durable outcomes when they explicitly consider the role of power 15 16 17 .

For the purposes of this report, there are two typologies that are particularly relevant to stakeholder and community empowerment in the land use sector. The first categorises the power base organisations and individuals use to assert their view. The second categorises the modes in which power may be used.

Power Base 18

  • Statutory power is based on external laws and statutory obligations and roles. Public bodies must fulfil these responsibilities, but there is often scope for altering the way they are achieved. This could include delegating power and accountability to other organisations or sharing power to decide how the obligations are implemented and met.
  • Financial power can be exerted by sharing or withholding funds. In the current austerity context the financial power held by public bodies is diminishing, but there is still scope to share or give financial power through grants, service agreements or other forms of payment.
  • People power derives from the numbers of people that support organisations or individuals. Of the environmental organisations, public bodies do not hold this kind of power but the large environmental NGOs and environmental or community campaigners do.
  • Land-owning power is based on who holds land and the right to decide what to do with it. Environmental public bodies and third sector organisations hold considerable tracts of land and have typically held full 'say' over its use. Sharing this power involves either sharing land use and management decisions or selling or leasing land to others.
  • Knowledge power is rooted in the types of knowledge held by a group, with natural science and technical knowledge. Environmental organisations have strong science cultures. They employ mainly graduates trained in the natural sciences and commission scientific research. As a result, they hold considerable scientific knowledge power. There are a number of ways of sharing knowledge power including:
    • Co-creating science knowledge with communities, users and stakeholders
    • Citizen science programmes
    • Providing accessible language summaries and presentations
    • Helping communities and stakeholders to present their information and data in a professional way so it stands alongside other sources.
    • Making science findings, data and maps freely available

There has been a tendency for environmental organisations (across the world) to use science power to trump other interests. Some environmental organisations have a culture of 'scientism,' which is the belief that science is the only legitimate way of knowing and should determine the outcome. The solution to this is developing organisation cultures that recognise and respect the validity of other types of knowledge (for more on this see Section 7).

  • Moral/ethical power is used by environmentalists to argue the 'intrinsic value' of nature and natural systems and make the case for conservation and sustainable management. Sharing moral and ethical power is not about weakening these values but realising that there are other moral and ethical arguments in relation to land use and management, which need to be factored in. These include social and economic justice ( e.g. families having a right to a liveable income) that also need to be considered.
  • Economic power is about using economic benefit to make the case beside other arguments in a cost benefit analysis.

Many environmentalists who have relied on moral and ethical arguments are now shifting to economic arguments. This involves identifying what humans need and enjoy from nature and natural systems and working out what economic value it has. To do this, an 'ecosystem services' framework is being widely adopted within both research and policy communities. However, where this framework is used to justify the monetary valuation of ecosystem services, it is increasingly being contested 19 . Economic arguments and approaches work well where land is used to produce valued commodities (such as timber, food, or clean water) or to reduce risk (such as mitigating flood or climate change where risk to property and business can be quantified). The approach works less well for landscapes, rarity, beauty, or sense of place, which are difficult to give monetary value. Moreover, it can be argued from an ethical perspective that such services should not be valued purely in monetary terms.

Some commentators have raised serious concerns about the effect of public and third sector organisations using this form of power. Shifting from moral and ethical (intrinsic values) to economic and use benefits (extrinsic values), changes the 'frame' society uses to think about land and the environment to an economic consumer view of nature, 'places nature at our service', and results in people caring less for it 20 21 . There is also a wide range of other concerns, for example focusing primarily on ecosystem services to humans could mean reducing risk to ourselves by designing out essential ecosystem processes such as fire and flood, which may be essential to other creatures, or replacing natural biodiversity with non-native plants that are better at capturing carbon.

  • Resource power (people, equipment, buildings). Environmental public bodies and third sector organisations hold considerable resources of people, buildings and equipment. All of these can be shared with others in a variety of ways such as loaning meeting venues for free (or a token amount) or loaning land management equipment perhaps as part of a local tool and equipment share scheme.
  • Status/Positional Power is the role and place a person holds in a hierarchy. This power can't be shared but it can be moderated so that it does not intimidate or overrule others' views and ideas. This is important if support for ideas, priority issues, and solutions are to be based on the merit of the proposal not the status of the person who suggested it. The following are ways to moderate this type of power:
    • Fostering strong values around collaboration and respect
    • Use of informal meeting styles, using first names and avoiding titles (such as Dr, Prof, Sir)
    • Using a trained and experienced facilitator who will know relevant skills and techniques
    • Personal choice of the individual to function as an equal not a superior

When there are big differences of status power in a group, chaired meetings are not a good solution. The Chair is likely to be a person of status themselves and this can reinforce status power rather than moderate it.

  • Behavioural power is about the level of dominance that individuals or organisational cultures, exert on others. Behavioural power result from an individual's character, skills and choices and whether they behave in a passive, assertive or aggressive way when relating to others. Organisational behaviour can be enabling with strong equalities policies or in contrast have cultures where there is educational elitism, racism, sexism, class prejudice, or snobbery. To foster collaborative behaviours, organisations can provide training and skills in assertiveness and encourage deep respect for stakeholders and communities. Skilled and experienced facilitators will know a range of ways of moderating behavioural power to enable people to work constructively together.
  • Political Power results from a mix of status, allegiances and beliefs. Members of communities and stakeholders are likely to hold more political power at local levels whilst environmental public bodies will have more political power at landscape and national scales.

Modes of Power

The types of power listed above are expressed through four sets of power relations 22 :

1. Power over (the ability to influence and coerce). With this kind of power if one party increases power it will be at the cost of the other party whose power diminishes. When this happens, it can trigger a backlash and in an environmental context, a legal challenge or direct action campaign when the less powerful party fights back.

2. Power with (power from collective action). This contrasts with power over because when people work together, power to act increases, strengthens and leads to collective action.

3. Power to (the ability to organise and change existing hierarchies).

4. Power within (power from individual consciousness) is based on the character and psychology of the individual or group of individuals and how they see themselves related to others. Increasing 'power within' results from building self-esteem and changing perceptions of rights, capacities and potential 23 .

A common way of seeing power is to think of it as a commodity ( e.g. as something that can be passed from one generation to another) or as a structure ( e.g. a position in a hierarchy that grants the holder certain powers, or social structures such as class and religion). These views of power are that it is relatively unchanging or unchangeable 24 .

Another way of understanding power is that it is something that occurs between people or groups of people and is relational, so power dynamics can change if and when the social interactions change.

Figure 4: Ways that public bodies can hold or share power to decide, below, illustrates that power relations can be deliberately changed. The top level is where environmental public bodies (and/or third sector organisations) have 'power over' others and hold all the decision making power. The next level involves the organisation/s engaging others to inform and influence their decisions whilst holding power to make the final choice. Both of these levels can trigger resistance. The bottom level is where decision-making power is shared in a collaborative process.

Figure 4: Ways that public bodies can hold or share power to decide 25

Figure 4: Ways that public bodies can hold or share power to decide

Changing power relations

Changes of power can occur at three, interconnected levels: the personal, group and wider social sphere.

1. The Personal Level. At this level, empowerment is about progressively undoing the negative effects of feeling disempowered. This involves building self-esteem, self-belief, a sense of agency, confidence and capacity for powerful action without disempowering others 26 . At this personal level, empowerment satisfies a fundamental psychological need for self-determination and control 27 .

2. Group Level. Group power rests on personal power. When individuals have increased personal power they have confidence for interpersonal empowerment and influence within a group. The group takes on and influences decisions in the community or wider social sphere 28 .

3. Wider Power. At the wider, collective level, empowerment is a process where individuals and groups work together to gain levels of power that none can achieve alone. This could be through collective action, community organisation, campaigning or involvement in political processes 29 . In this way, individuals and organisations within an empowered community support each other and gain increased influence and control over the quality of life in their community.

This view of empowerment is that each level of empowerment is connected in a sequential and additive way with the initial focus on building self-esteem, confidence and individual capacity, leading to interpersonal empowerment at group level and in turn the social networks that form the basis for collective empowerment.

The idea of empowerment being an incremental process may apply where there are no professional engagement facilitators. However where there are, facilitators can design a process and use skills and facilitation techniques that moderate the more powerful voices and enable quieter less confident individuals to express their views and be listened to with respect. In this way, individuals gain confidence within the process from the outset.


Understanding these different types and ways of thinking about power is a helpful precursor for public bodies to think about empowerment and what it means for them and the choices they make. The key points are:

  • Power is highly dynamic
  • It is created in the interplay of power dynamics within relationships and in socially constructed power structures
  • Empowerment is both a process and an outcome that operates at interlinked scales
  • Power is the result of both structures and relationships
  • Environmental bodies hold different types of power
  • Environmental bodies have choices about whether they hold onto power, share it, or give it away, and whether they use their power to block or enable action

The presumption for community and stakeholder engagement and empowerment is that environmental public bodies will share or give away power to enable better outcomes for people, livelihoods, land and landscapes.


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