The concept of power is of central importance in gender research and other critical theory in order to understand how societies and social relations are constructed. Inequality can be understood as a form of power imbalance where some people have better opportunities than others to influence society and their own lives. Power is expressed in many different ways and can be at work at many different levels of society, for example in interpersonal interaction and in social and societal organisation both locally and globally. The power over knowledge is an important theme in gender research. This type of power concerns both who the producers of knowledge are and what types of knowledge are considered legitimate and important (see also situated knowledge). Individuals and groups can exercise power in relation to others. One obvious way of exercising power is to use violence, whether it is state-sanctioned violence, for example by the police, and non-state violence, for example against a partner. It is important to remember that violence includes so much more than the physical kind. Linguistic, psychological and symbolic violence also fills a function in the exercising of power (see also hegemony).
A critical analysis of processes and social orders that explores and questions power relations and power structures can be referred to as a power-critical analysis. The awareness that there are systematic inequalities that affect individuals’ is a key component of a structural perspective on power and inequality. This means that regardless of a person’s individual traits and desires, it is more difficult for some people to get a job, a home or food on the table. Sexism, racism and ableism are examples of systems and structures that divide people into groups with different access to power. However, it is important to point out that the structures that affect people’s opportunities in life do not affect all people equally. We all carry different biological and social characteristics, and two persons can never exist in the exact same place in the complex fabric woven by these structures. A person is never affected by only one structure, for example gender, but is always affected by and part of several different structures. Imagine a situation in which a group of people have education, jobs and homes they share with their families. A war erupts in their country and they are forced to flee to a country where they do not understand the language, their education is worthless and they are subjected to racist and sexist attacks. As a result of the war in the home country and of oppressive systems and structures in the new country, these people’s power in society and over their own lives has changed dramatically.
Power and resistance are tightly interlinked. In fact, resistance is a type of power; to acquire or demand power. This view is based on the understanding of power as productive, or as a force that makes something change. Refusing to comply with a binary gender norm, struggling for one’s right to speak one’s native tongue and trying to use a public transport system that is designed for people with a certain type of functionality are some examples of resistance against the power structures that make it difficult, or even impossible, for some people to enjoy their rights.