The Field of Power: Reimagining Civil Society
By Michael Pearson
Modern theories of civil society emerged during the last years of the Soviet Union, as grassroots movements found voices that helped topple the authoritarian regime.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting that Kate Pride Brown, an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology, chose an increasingly authoritarian Russia as the place to study the impact of state and corporate power on civil society organizations in a globalized era.
After 10 months studying environmentalists in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, Brown emerged with a novel way to look at civil society that she said will give social scientists a new analytic to examine the power relationships among civil state actors, the governments they are often seen as trying to restrain, and the corporate elites who covet the moral influence civil society actors often wield.
Brown’s work is another example of how scholars the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts are helping frame the issue of globalization
“As the world becomes ever more complex, it is important to understand the nature of all these forces pushing and pulling on societies around the world. This theory can help social scientists more effectively analyze these relationships and reveal solutions to possibly make the world a better place.”
What is Civil Society?
“Civil society comprises all the shared human activities that take place outside of the government, the economy, the individual, or the family,” Brown wrote in the book in which she introduces the theory, Saving the Sacred Sea: The Power of Civil Society in an Age of Authoritarianism and Globalization. “It represents the outpouring of voluntary human initiative, wherein people unite and act in concert toward some self-directed end.”
In political theory, Brown says, it is often seen as “the guarantor of democracy.” In the age of globalization, it also is seen as increasingly a wholesome check on the power of corporations.
But, Brown argues, contemporary notions of civil society fail to take into account “a troublesome contradiction between this claim and the empirical reality of a civil society that is itself undemocratic.”
The theories also fail to adequately explain the origins of civil society, which is often seen as both cause and result of liberty, Brown says.
Instead, she sees civil society as something more.
“Civil society is not simply a ‘check’ on the power of economic and political elites; it is a power unto itself,” she said.
The Field of Power
Brown sees civil society “as better understood as one player among many, where each is endowed with different resources and all operate from their unique social positions.”
Her concept adapts existing work on the sociological concept of field theory to incorporate a “field of power” in which civil society, the state, and corporate elites each wield their own form of generalizable power: the law and money, in the case of the state and corporations.
“Civil society’s power is the ability to move human beings, through capacity and virtue,” Brown wrote. “Once we understand how worthiness functions for the creation of civil power, we no longer need to tie ourselves into theoretical knots to explain civil society as both the heroic guarantor of democracy or the villainous purveyor of social exclusion.”
Reframing civil society on the basis of what it does, instead of what it is, gives social scientists a new way to think about the issues raised by the interplay of states, corporations, and civil society in our complex modern world, Brown said.
“I’m offering social scientists a new analytic for addressing power relationships,” she said.
“When social movements protest to demand progressive taxation, they are using civil power to lay claim on state power. When governments enforce progressive taxation, they are using state power to diminish financial power. When wealthy donors then fund think tanks to promote tax cuts, they are using financial power to defang civil power. My theory allows us to understand these activities as power relationships,” Brown said. “From there, we can measure the levels of diffusion or concentration in these three power sources in the field at any given time.”
Brown has long nurtured an interest in Russia. After all, the Soviet Union and the Cold War were unraveling when she was a child, making the far-away country a nearly omnipresent fixture in the news.
It was only later she discovered the environmental movement surrounding remote Lake Baikal and chose it to study the power dynamics among environmentalists, multinational corporations, and the Russian government.
She found that globalization had exerted a powerful influence on what, until recently, had been a fairly closed community of activists in a remote Siberian location. Among other things, a growing tourism industry fueled by globalism helped the Russians find inspiration in a somewhat unlikely source: environmental activists from the Lake Tahoe region in the United States. The U.S. activists forged a relationship with their Russian counterparts and helped shift their view of environmental activism in Russia.
“There seemed so little in common between these villagers in Lake Baikal and the activists in Tahoe, but when they started talking about issues, growing food or how to keep the children from moving to the big city, a hint of similarity emerged,” Brown said, “The experience of interacting with difference has the possibility of changing people’s perspectives on what is possible.”
Brown has moved on to other projects. She is currently using the field of power to study nuclear power in the United States. But she still nurtures a love for Russian people and culture, and finds it a fascinating place to conduct research, one she hopes to return to someday.
“Siberia is not a place most people would think of to go study civil society,” she said. “But it offers valuable lessons. It is very different from the West, but its difference can help us to see more acutely the underlying social forces that shape our modern world.”