February 5, 2023

If You Want to Fight the Power, You Have to Know What Power Is
by Vago Damitio

Throughout the recorded history of humankind, and presumably even prior to that, human beings have ordered themselves in groups and often placed themselves into positions which necessitate relying upon other human beings. One can imagine the possibility of lean primates running across the Savannah in small groups and coming to some sort of point that would require a decision to be made. It is in these moments, when the welfare of the entire group rests in the hands of an individual, that the consequences of power become most obvious. If the leader of this pack of primates makes the wrong decision, his people will suffer; but if he makes the right decision, his people will thrive. In either case, his decision is both dependent on and resultant of something called power.

Power is more than just electricity. It is more than strength. Power is something that is actually, very hard to give a concrete definition to. If you ask five people on a bus in Nairobi what the definition of power is, you will most assuredly get five answers that are not the same. The same goes for if you ask any number of people anywhere on the planet. The opinion of one is sure to conflict with the opinion of another, somewhere at least. For instance, many Americans conceive of power as wealth, fame, or influence. They would tell you that power is a result, primarily of money. However, this is not the answer you would get, if you were to ask many of the people that live in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia has a diversity of conceptions of power within it. By no means, is there a single definition. The Shan people of Thailand view power in a very different way than the people of the United States. The Shan view power as the result of positive or negative actions taken in the current or past lives. Since the Shan are Buddhists, they conceive of this lifetime as one of many that each individual lives. In every life, an individual is able to build up a sort of bank account called Karma. Karma is what determines the position of an individual and hence, power(Tannenbaum 1989:74) The benefit of power to the Shan is a sort of protection that allows the individual to do whatever it is they want. (Tannenbaum 1989: 71). In this case, the result of power is not very different from the result of the American conception of power.

American power also offers degrees of protection but without the benefit of actions in past lives or concern for future lives to deal with. One of many factors that does affect the American conception of power is sex. American magazines and periodicals often point out that there is a gap between the wealth and hence the power of humans of different sexes. This is particularly interesting when one looks to the recent studies of sex, gender, and genetics. While Americans typically class individuals into two sexes and two genders, this may not be the most accurate way to divide the population. Typically, it is assumed that all men have a y-chromosome and that all women have two x-chromosomes. Sometimes, however, there are women with a y-chromosome and men with two x-chromosomes (Errington 1990: 19-22). Thus, this particular conception of power, may have to change.

The Lisu people of Northern Thailand, have a similar sort of association between wealth and power as Americans do. They believe that two elements of power are generosity and proper conduct. Since generosity is dependant on wealth, wealth is a means to power (Durrenberger 1989: 106). To be fair, this is a bit different from the American conception, but it does involve money. The American conception probably has less to do with generosity after acquiring wealth than with having the visible wealth itself.

The Javanese are also concerned with the visible signs of power. Rather than judging a person’s power by the actions they are able to take, the Javanese are more concerned with culturally important signs that a person has power. These signs span such things as specific talismans and personal strength of concentration (Anderson 1990:28). In addition, the Javanese lack a judgement of power, that is they think of neither positive nor negative power, simply of power (Anderson 1990:23). Power itself can actually take a physical form in many cultures.

Within the society of the Minangkabau of Western Sumatra, each person is held to be equal to each other person. That is to say that each person is regarded as having an equal voice to each other person. This equality is not as simple as there being no power, however, instead those with more prestige, rank, or wealth are actually in a position of power (Blackwood 2000: 45). Thus, even in an egalitarian society where people are conceived of as having a base level of equality, there is still a hierarchy of power. Power is a constant in human society. There is no such thing as an interaction of humans without the effects of power being felt.

How then, does one get power? How does one take power? How can one fight power? The answer, of course, depends on where one is and how the power that one is interested in is accumulated and held. If you are in a society where power is something that resides within a certain individual and cannot be removed, the answer might be as simple as the life of that person (but you may have to deal with them in their next life.) In a society where power is a result of wealth, one can affect the status quo and the distribution of power through manipulation of personal wealth (one’s own or another’s). In a society where power is based upon something else, one will have to figure something out.

If one wants the power, if one wants to fight the power, if one has the power and want to keep it, than one better spend a little time thinking about the source of the power that one is interested in. It might save a lot of confusion later, when one is discussing what one has done on a bus in Nairobi with one’s five friends that have a different conception of power than one’s own.


Anderson, Benedict. 1990. The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture. In Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Blackwood, Evelyn. 2000. Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Durrenberger, E. Paul. 1989. Lisu Ritual, Economics, and Ideology. In Ritual, Power, and Economy: Upland-Lowland Contrasts in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by S.D. Russell. DeKalb, Illonois: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illonois University.

Errington, Shelly. 1990. Recasting Sex, Gender, and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview. In Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, edited by J.M. Atkinson and S. Errington. Stanford University Press.

Tannenbaum, Nicola. 1989. Power and it’s Shan Transformations. In Ritual, Power, and Economy: Upland-Lowland Contrasts in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by S.D. Russell. Dekalb, Illonois: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illonois University.

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