What is Power?

The concept of power describes a person or technology's asymmetric capacity to structure or alter others' behavior. Scientific and technological powers are intertwined with political and socio-economic power, and some interactions can appear strongly unequal. In the data science process, power can take several forms:

  1. Knowledge or insight obtained through data science analysis or devices are instruments of power: “knowledge is power”
  2. Actions of producing knowledge about the world or human beings are acts of power over the world and human beings: “knowledge as power”
  3. Knowledge as power gives rise to entities and social arrangements: we become who we are through power relations (rather than pre-existing them)

Power in action

Scientists study tree ring data, dendrochronology, to understand how changes in local climate patterns affect the structure, diversity, and regeneration of a given tree population.

Dendrochronology results facilitate future tree growth projections and are applied in developing targeted greening policies for specific communities. It also generates evidence of anthropogenic climate change, indispensable for climate activists and elected representatives to determine the right course of action to mitigate the adverse consequences of climate change. By creating a coherent body of knowledge, dendrochronology holds power: it enables and allows other people's actions and opens the world of possibilities.

In certain circumstances, producing knowledge introduces an imbalance between a person, or a group, who has acquired scientifically robust and reproducible knowledge and those who have not.

An series of evenly-spaced spheres with a bright yellow sphere in the middle, and 2 spheres to both the left and right of the center sphere, and 3 spheres partially visible on the left and right sides of the image. The side spheres are in gradients ranging from yellow to teal to deep blue, becoming more transparent toward the edges of the image. Th background is concentric circles of teal lines set against a deep blue gradient background.
About the Illustration: The center circle imposes its influence and power over its surroundings through an expanding yellow gradient and pulses emanating out from 
the center.

Ways to evaluate the power dynamics

Power dynamics in the project

  • Who influences the research and who does not, even while it affects them?
  • Who gets to decide if the work is valid or sound, and who may dispute that conclusion?
  • Whose power is increased through the work, and whose power is diminished?
  • Through what mechanisms, methods, or technologies is that power wielded?

Power dynamics of the project

  • What are the assumptions about power in your project?: Who has it? Who needs it? How does this landscape impact the definition and execution of the research proposal?
  • Input-output: What kind of power (as input) does your project require? What kind of power (as by-product and output) does your project produce?
  • Transformations: How does the transformed field of power reorient identities, relationships, and life chances? How does the project impact the status quo regarding:
    • Power distribution? Power dynamics? To whom has power been given? Was power taken away from someone?
    • Who or what has gained agency? With whom, or what, has the delegation of agency been negotiated? From whom, or what, has the agency been removed?

Dive Deeper

Power focuses on the capacity of actors to exert agency in shaping the world around them. We understand the concept of power to mean the asymmetric ability to structure or alter the behavior of others, and we are concerned with how both people and technologies wield power in the pursuit of knowledge. For Michel Foucault, power is not only concentrated in the hands of those who wield blunt instruments of coercion and control; instead, “power is everywhere” (1990 [1976], p. 93) – a force field that constitutes human subjectivities, identities, and knowledge. Diffused and embedded within everyday discourses and practices, power anchors our understandings of what is expected, appropriate, and right (Foucault 1990 [1976]; Koopman, 2017). Knowledge and power are not just intimately connected but inseparable, producing a “regime of truth” (Foucault, 2008) that justifies and perpetuates a status quo in which some humans have more agency than others. Interrogating power, therefore, means asking how regimes of truth are shaped, who gets to produce knowledge, and who is the subject of expertise. Technology is a crucial conscript in the formation and perpetuation of power (Jasanoff, 2016).