The Social Construction Series Part 9: The Social Construction of Power

Why Understanding How Power and Race are Connected is Important to Building a More Equitable and Just World

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I’ve been thinking a lot about power this past week, and how power, like everything else we’ve covered in this series, is also a social construction. Important to understand. Why?

Because when we fully understand that power, and how it is distributed, is a social construction we create a space to discuss the possibility of changing how that power is distributed. It is inside of this possibility that we will discuss power as a social construction. Ready? Good let’s go.

Power defined. Here we go.


Pronunciation /ˈpou(ə)r/ /ˈpaʊ(ə)r/ 

See synonyms for power

Translate power into Spanish


The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.

The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.


Alright, so here’s what we have thus far.

Power is the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality, such as influencing the behaviors of others or the course of events.

We could discuss power in a myriad of ways. In this article, however, we will cover five ways power is experienced. For it is in the experience of power that lies, pun intended, the power to change how power is socially constructed and distributed.

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Power Granted

Using a Foucauldian lens for this analysis, we can say that power is granted through knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more power you have. Why? Because the more you know, the more you understand, and the more you understand, especially about how systems and institutions work, the more you can deploy your power, or knowledge, to change the system.

Now, there are other concepts, which we will also discuss a little later that make the distribution and deployment of power unequal.

For now, let’s take a look at how Michel Foucault describes the connection between knowledge and power.

“On Foucault’s account, the relation of power and knowledge is far closer than in the familiar Baconian engineering model, for which “knowledge is power” means that knowledge is an instrument of power, although the two exist quite independently. Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In knowing we control.

That’s a pretty powerful concept. Meaning, that the more we know, the more control we have over our experiential field, life. Why? Same reason as above. Because the more we understand how the system works, the more we can work the system to our advantage.

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Power Internalized

Now, the latter part of that quote, in controlling we know, is, for me, about internalization. Meaning that once we are aware of our knowledge base, and we seek out new knowledge, we understand that in order to create change, we must control and effect our actions to create such change.

We can also term this concept personal agency, which basically means understanding how much personal agency someone has, you have. As was alluded to earlier, the field of experience, available life choices, if you will, is not equally distributed.

Thus, power and knowledge are also not equally distributed, nor then are they internalized across racial, cultural, sexual, gendered, geographical, and socioeconomic statuses the same. They are not.

Kimberle Crenshaw, who developed Intersectionality Theory, might argue that, in fact, in order to understand people’s available life choices, you must do so within a framework that analyzes all dimensions of a person’s identity, especially as that identity is located and embedded in social structures and systems.

Here is a short quote about Intersectionality Theory.

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” -Kimberle Crenshaw

Columbia Law School

Now, we can connect the internalization of granted knowledge and power, and available life choices, to the need to analyze these system dynamics through an intersectional lens. Very important.

An intersectional lens would ensure that we look at how people are situated and located, or in a Founcalidian term, observed, within the social system, before making any claims about access to knowledge and power to begin with.

Here is another excerpt from Foucault’s work on observation.

“The examination also situates individuals in a “field of documentation”. The results of exams are recorded in documents that provide detailed information about the individuals examined and allow power systems to control them (e.g., absentee records for schools, patients’ charts in hospitals). On the basis of these records, those in control can formulate categories, averages, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. The examination turns the individual into a “case”—in both senses of the term: a scientific example and an object of care. Caring is always also an opportunity for control.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Now here we can see that being observed also matters in relation to the access to knowledge and power. Observation, or what I’ll term surveillance, ensures that knowledge and power, and ultimately control, stay in certain hands, and out of “others.”

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Power Distributed

The effect of distributing knowledge and power in this way creates even more inequality. Meaning that power is distributed in ways that embed power within social institutions, and those that work in those institutions convey their power in very prescriptive ways.

Foucault writes about the Panopticon to describe the distribution of power.

“Bentham’s Panopticon is, for Foucault, a paradigmatic architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) and each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower. Monitors do not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must behave as if they are always seen and observed. As a result, control is achieved more by the possibility of internal monitoring of those controlled than by actual supervision or heavy physical constraints.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Now, whereas Foucault is focusing on prisons in this last excerpt, or what many contemporary activists call the prison industrial complex, the way that power is distributed in the prison has corollaries to all social institutions.

“The principle of the Panopticon can be applied not only to prisons but also to any system of disciplinary power (a factory, a hospital, a school). And, in fact, although Bentham himself was never able to build it, its principle has come to pervade aspects of modern society. It is the instrument through which modern discipline has been able to replace pre-modern sovereignty (kings, judges) as the fundamental power relation.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

And as this last excerpt alludes to, once power is codified into social institutions, it is the actors within those insitutision that take on the role and responsibility of the deployment of institutional power. And with that deployment discipline follows.

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Power Deployed and Discipline

The deployment of power by actors working within social institutions, ranges from school teachers to priests, to police offers, and government officials.

The reason we have brought identity characteristics into this discussion, such as race, culture, sexuality, gender, geography, and socioeconomic status, is that the deployment of power, and the discipline that follows, is centered on the body.

“Foucault’s genealogy follows Nietzsche as well as existential phenomenology in that it aims to bring the body into the focus of history. Rather than histories of mentalities or ideas, genealogies are “histories of the body”. They examine the historical practices through which the body becomes an object of techniques and deployments of power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault shows how disciplinary techniques produce “docile bodies”: bodies of prisoners, soldiers, workers and schoolchildren were subjected to disciplinary power in order to make them more useful and at the same time easier to control. The human body became a machine the functioning of which could be optimized, calculated, and improved. Its functions, movements and capabilities were broken down into narrow segments, analyzed in detail and recomposed in a maximally effective way.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

And, though in this excerpt these identity characteristics are not presented. We can now take a look at Simone Brown’s work to make this connection concrete.

“Importantly, Browne also accounts for methods of evading or repositioning surveillance, which she gathers under the phrase “dark sousveillance.” Dark surveillance refers to “the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight.… Dark sousveillance is a site of critique, as it speaks to black epistemologies of contending with antiblack surveillance” (p. 21). In addition to writing about the sociotechnical processes that catalog, control, and delimit black bodies, the cataloging of “dark sousveillance” offers an agenda for coping with and subverting structures of control.”

UPenn Repository

Here we can see clear connections to a Foucauldian analysis, yet the analysis is taken further by Brown by centering race as the means by which the deployment of institutional power is a central focus. Black bodies are surveilled and then disciplined (controlled), by the continuous objectification of their bodies as a commodity of power.

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Individual Power

Now, from this analysis, we can see various ways that power is granted, internalized, distributed, deployed, and then used as a disciplinary tool.

Yet, power is socially constructed. Meaning, there is no natural law that requires power to be distributed and deployed as it is today. And, in fact, we can see people all across the United States today, protesting institutional and structural racism.

Both institutional and structural racism keep the distribution and deployment of power as is, status quo.

Yet, we as individuals, have the ability to create and effect change, and you can see that movement in the streets all across this country, as people call for, and demand, an end to police brutality against people of color.

Here is a statement from the Black Lives Matter website.

“Enough is enough. Our pain, our cries, and our need to be seen and heard resonate throughout this entire country. We demand acknowledgment and accountability for the devaluation and dehumanization of Black life at the hands of the police. We call for radical, sustainable solutions that affirm the prosperity of Black lives. George Floyd’s violent death was a breaking point — an all too familiar reminder that, for Black people, law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them. Right now, Minneapolis and cities across our country are on fire, and our people are hurting — the violence against Black bodies felt in the ongoing mass disobedience, all while we grapple with a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting, infecting, and killing us. We call for an end to the systemic racism that allows this culture of corruption to go unchecked and our lives to be taken. We call for a national defunding of police. We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive. If you’re with us, add your name to the petition right now and help us spread the word.

Black Lives Matter

We must remember that though the entire world is socially constructed, moment by moment, these social constructions are very real in their consequences.

When we stand by and tacitly give our agreement to the ways in which power is distributed and deployed in this country, we are condoning the continued surveillance and brutalization of communities of color. Unacceptable.

As I’ve written about in many articles, it starts with each of us. How we think, feel, speak, and act. We each have available to us our own unique gifts, talents, knowledge, and thus power.

And, when we can use these tools to take action and increase awareness about the world, how it operates, both its strengths and weaknesses, we are at once working together to create a more equitable and just world.

And, for today, this is my action. What will yours be?

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The Social Construction Series Part 2: 5 Reasons Why Understanding The Social Construction of Knowledge is Important

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In The Social Construction Series Part 1: 7 Reasons Why Understanding Social Constructions Is Important, I write about the need to understand how the world is actually socially constructed. All of it. Important.

One of the most important social constructions to understand is how knowledge is socially constructed. Numerous books and articles have been written on this topic, from both a theoretical and practical perspective.

Here, we will explore the social construction of knowledge likewise. Both theoretically and practically. Ready? Let’s go.

Let’s first define knowledge.


noun ˈnɒlɪdʒ/ /ˈnɑːlɪdʒ/

  1. [uncountable, singular] the information, understanding, and skills that you gain through education or
    1. experience practical/medical/scientific knowledge
    2. knowledge of/about something He [she] has a wide knowledge of painting and music.
    3. There is a lack of knowledge about the tax system.

There we go.

Now before we go onto our discussion, let’s take a look at what two prominent philosophers had to say about knowledge, Jurgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault.

Habermas’s Perspective

“Habermas argues that domination is an obstacle in the pursuit of true knowledge” (Anttonen, Saila. 1999).

University of Leeds

Foucault’s Perspective

“Foucault, however, argues that all knowledge is constituted and socially constructed under conditions of power” (Anttonen, Saila. 1999).

University of Leeds

And, what prey tell, do both of these philosophers consider an obstacle to knowledge for some, and a boon for others? Power.

Let’s now consider the social construction of knowledge.

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How is Knowledge Constructed?

Knowledge is continually produced, internalized, and practiced, or acted upon. Though not always in this order. Sometimes intellectual knowledge precedes practical knowledge, and sometimes practical knowledge precedes intellectual knowledge. Depends.

Think about a time when you learned something through doing. For instance, learning how to drive a car. You can possess the intellectual knowledge about how to drive a car, yet until you actually drive a car, you don’t possess the knowledge necessary to drive a car.

You need both. And, in fact, some would argue, as would I, that practical knowledge outweighs intellectual knowledge. For it is in the doing, or practice, that we learn the most.

We accumulate the real knowledge about something when we do it.

Conversely, however, you can ask me to create a presentation on the social construction of knowledge, yet unless I possess the intellectual knowledge about the social construction of knowledge, I will be unable to create that presentation, try as I might.

Therefore, knowledge is constructed two ways. Through our intellect and through practice. Both.

Who Constructs Knowledge?

Everyone constructs knowledge. From a young child to an older adult, knowledge is continuously produced, internalized, and practiced. Knowledge is all around us. Everywhere.

Think about an interaction you’ve had recently where you learned something new, or taught someone something new. That is knowledge production.

Knowledge is produced, internalized, and practiced continuously, all day, every day.

Yet, there is some knowledge that is considered more illusive, more special, or maybe the more appropriate term is specialized. You typically go to University, College, or Trade School to learn about these types of specialized knowledge.

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Who Constructs Specialized Knowledge

Simple answer, experts. Yet, what does that really mean? Ah, good question. Someone is considered an expert when they have attained a reasonable amount of intellectual and or practical knowledge about a particular subject or topic. Simple. Why does this matter?

Because the humans that have constructed this knowledge, are just that, human. Meaning that they are like you, like me, and like everyone else. Full of strengths and weaknesses. Both

People often get caught up in the term, expert, thinking that because someone has a degree or certification in one specialized area or another, that they should know what is best for us, or know the best path to take in a certain area of our lives.

Yet, because experts are also human means that they are not infallible. Important. Additionally, because we know that the world and all knowledge within it is socially constructed, we also know that there are many, many ways to understand a subject or topic. Many ways. Not one.

Further, not all knowledge about a particular subject or topic has yet been discovered. Meaning that there is always something more to learn. Always.

Here is what Socrates said about knowledge.

“At the trial, Socrates says, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” Socrates put emphasis on knowledge all his life because he believed that “the ability to distinguish between right and wrong lies in people’s reason not in society.”

The Independent

Ah, wonderful. According to Socrates, then, it is up to the individual, each one of us, to distinguish between right and wrong. And that includes distinguishing between the right and wrong of what someone is telling us is true about our bodies, families, community, and the greater world.

Of course, that does not mean that we don’t need assistance from others, and access to the knowledge we need to make informed decisions and choices. Quite the contrary. More assistance and access is needed.

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How is Knowledge Disseminated?

Knowledge is disseminated in many different ways. We’ve covered some of them already, such as through Universities, Colleges,and Trade Schools. Yet, knowledge is also produced, internalized, and practiced in many other social contexts, which are typically referred to as social institutions.

Before we go further, let’s define the term social institution.

“Typically, contemporary sociologists use the term to refer to complex social forms that reproduce themselves such as governments, the family, human languages, universities, hospitals, business corporations, and legal systems. A typical definition is that proffered by Jonathan Turner (1997: 6): “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ah, helpful. Thus far, we’ve covered the social construction of knowledge within University, College, and Trade Schools, yet as you can read above, there are many social institutions that socially construct knowledge.

The issue? Same as with the socially constructed knowledge that Universities, College’s, and Trade Schools produce. When we internalize a socially constructed view of the world, and our place in it, we are receiving knowledge that has been produced within a very particular framework.

And, those frameworks include within them people that have biases, just like you and I. Yep. We can deny we have biases, yet we all have them. They are part of socialization.

All socialization, which just means the how, what, why, when, and where of all that you learned as a child, youth, and young adult has within it bias. It has to. It’s one way of viewing the world. Yet, it’s not the only way.

Now, choose any social institution you like, and we can discuss the problems inherent with the production, internalization, and then the eventual reproduction of that knowledge through practice, or action. What problems, you ask? Good question.

One of the largest problems, or issues, we have just discussed. Because we know that knowledge is socially constructed, and we know that all social institutions have within them a particular worldview (or bias) this knowledge then, which is often told as truth, is not truth.

This knowledge is, rather, a subjective interpretation of life and the world through one lens, or viewpoint.

However, when we internalize this socially constructed knowledge as truth, we limit ourselves. We limit that which we can really know about the world and life. If we are conscious of this fact, and continue to choose a limited framework, very well.

However, most people are unaware, so do not actively choose. They subscribe to a particular set of knowledge constructs because they were socialized to do so. Many people live their entire lives this way.

Hm. What to do? Before we get to that question, let’s take a look at obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge. Important.

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What are the obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge?

As we’ve discussed, Habermas and Foucault would both argue that power is an obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge. Meaning that with more power comes more knowledge. Or, maybe, it’s that with more knowledge comes more power?

Actually power and knowledge have a reciprocal relationship. Meaning that with more knowledge, you do have more power. Likewise, with more power, you have more access to knowledge. Truth.

And, then?

Well, those with power construct more knowledge, especially of the specialized kind. And, as we’ve discussed, accessing such knowledge is inaccessible for many people.

Therefore understanding how knowledge is socially constructed is important for everyone. Why?

5 Reasons Why Understanding The Social Construction of Knowledge is Important

1. Know matter how much you know intellectually, you must practice it

Practicing our intellectual knowledge is necessary to develop ourselves. When we learn something, and internalize it, the cycle of knowledge production is not complete.

We must practice that knowledge to really know it.

Once practiced, we know it through our entire selves, which is a very different experience than simply having intellectual knowledge about a subject or topic.

2. You can do something with that which you know, or are knowledgeable about

Knowing that knowledge is socially constructed, and that you are an active participant in constructing knowledge creates an opportunity for you to practice distributing your particular knowledge to others.

You are the only one that can educate someone on that which you know, just as you know it.

And, when you give out that which you are knowledgeable about, you will get back that which someone else is knowledgeable about. Meaning, that you will now have acquired more knowledge by giving someone your knowledge. Reciprocal learning.

3. Specialized knowledge is an interpretation, so question it

When we know that all knowledge is socially constructed, we know that questioning all that we learn is necessary and needed. We must question what experts tell us is true about our bodies, families, community, and the greater world.

When we begin to question other people’s truths, we create a space to develop ourselves more. Why?

Because we have created a space to learn more from the expert. Simple. When we don’t take expert knowledge at face value, we create a space to learn more about the subject or topic. Keep questioning.

4. Because bias is inherent in all socially constructed knowledge, be wary of limitation

When we accept knowledge as true, which is given to us by a social institution we limit ourselves. We limit what is knowable.

However, as was aforementioned, when we question that knowledge, we create the opportunity to learn more, and develop more. We don’t accept one worldview or interpretation of the world, which is limiting.

We know knowledge is socially constructed, so we question. We question the knowledge. We become unlimited.

5. Search for knowledge everywhere, both intellectually, and in practice

When we know that knowledge precedes and follows power, we can intentionally create opportunities to learn more. Acquiring more knowledge, both intellectually and practically, moves us forward as human beings.

When we internalize and practice what we learn, we also create an opportunity to produce something out of this knowledge. Of which this article is an example.

And, when we practice that which we know, we have more power as a human being.

In Closing: Question Everything

My final thoughts on the social construction of knowledge is to question everything. Really.

Question the knowledge you now have. Question the knowledge people communicate to you. Question all of it. Powerful.

We choose to accept the knowledge that we have, as well as the knowledge that is communicated to us as true. However, when we know that the world is socially constructed, and that all knowledge is likewise socially constructed, we create an opportunity to question these truths.

Both the ones we’ve considered as truth for most of our lives, and other people’s truths.

We also create a developmental opportunity for ourselves, and as we have discussed, for everyone that we know. We move ourselves from a limited framework to an unlimited one.

Remember, on any subject or topic, there is more to learn. Always. Because we know this to be true, there is always an opportunity to share your knowledge with someone, and for them to share their knowledge with you.

That which you know is powerful. That which you can learn about is powerful.

Knowledge that is produced, internalized, and practiced is socially constructed by you, by me, by experts, by every human being. Thus, question it, question all of it.

Definition of knowledge taken from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.

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