Wielding and yielding : power, subordination and gender identity in the context of a Mexican development project

M. Villarreal

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    <p>Three lines of inquiry can be found in the present study. The first is of an empirical nature. It is a story of a group of women and a development project, based upon field research I carried out in 1987-88 concerning a group of female beekeepers who were organized as an UAIM <em>(Unidad Agrícola e Industrial de la Mujer Campesina,</em> Agrarian and Industrial Unit of Peasant Women) in Ayuquila, a small rural community in western Mexico. The initiative was backed by the Federal Law of Agrarian Reform, which stipulated that groups of women should be encouraged to participate in economic activities by allotting them plots of agricultural land and supporting them with credit from official institutions to set up small enterprises. It was expected that the organization of women would thus be stimulated and that they would be incorporated into the 'production process'. In some cases, government rhetoric went on to suggest that this would eventually lead to the reduction of gender inequalities.<p>Second, it is an exploration into issues of power: How does power work? Can one point to secret mechanisms by which it is triggered and held, resolutely oppressing, permeating the most hidden niches of society, controlling actions, thoughts and desires? How is it constituted, identified and recreated or crushed, transformed and channelled? How do changes in power come about? How can we come to grips with the ways in which power is constructed in everyday situations? How can we understand it in its relation to more macro phenomena? I explore these issues through my ethnographic material, discussing theoretical approaches to power such as those advanced by Foucault, Latour, Callon, and Barnes and drawing upon more general theoretical insights proposed by Long, Giddens, Strathern, Moore, Habermas, Bourdieu and other social scientists. The aim is to arrive at the construction of theory through the analysis of field data. Hence, I examine theoretical perspectives throughout the chapters in terms of their usefulness for addressing the issues I encounter and the questions I want to deal with.<p>Third, it is a methodological venture in which I use diverse techniques to explore theoretical and empirical concerns from an actor-oriented perspective. Thus, I draw upon a survey of the village, discourse analysis, situational analysis, network analysis and actor-network analysis (or the sociology of translation) to highlight the ways in which actors construct their lifeworlds and deal with constraints in their everyday lives. From this perspective, propelling agents are not outside forces but actors and their interpretations. Actions are not predefined in terms of their functional significance to self-regulating systems, but are constantly redefined and given meaning in dynamic interrelations between people and the natural and social environment.<p>My challenge is to reach a better understanding of the processes of change taking place in the 'development interface', that is, in the spaces opened up by the interaction between different social groups engaged in development practices where discontinuities in terms of power are recreated and transformed. Grounded upon critical observation and analysis of detailed ethnographic data, I hope to contribute to a sounder theoretical perspective on issues of power and social difference.<p>Analyzing my empirical material, it became clear that subordination was central to an understanding of power, and so relations of subordination constitute the main issue explored throughout the chapters. These are the elements that give life to power, that make it possible. The wielding of power presupposes the exercise of yielding to it, of recognizing the other as powerful. Furthermore, power must often be yielded in order to wield it. Hence, to open the discussion on power, I take as a starting point, not a blatant description of domination or a striking set of statistics to prove its strength, but the trivial everyday manifestations of power, which lives to the degree to which it is exercised upon others, and hence to the degree that there are countervailing forces which must be controlled. Otherwise it would be fruitless to conceive of such a notion. In fact, it is impossible to envisage power without an image of those affected by it, without notions of subservience, inferiority, subjugation and control, but also without some kinds of counter forces, of negotiation, resistance, conflict and opposition.<p>However, what one might identify as points of resistance, of defiance and challenge, are intertwined with elements that may be described as compliance, conformity and submission. Hence, when speaking of subordination, one implies both an action imposed from 'outside' and a self-inflicted condition. It is this interweaving of processes that I explore, specifically with respect to gender relations.<p>To this endeavour, I start, in Chapter 1, by introducing the reader to Ayuquila with brief descriptions of three women and the ways in which they deal with subordination in their everyday lives. The three women are involved in different kinds of enterprise and dissimilar relations and attitudes towards 'capital' and entrepreneurs, and hence work under distinct perspectives and motivations to access specific networks, to build diverse relations with men, with authorities and with other women. However, subordination and self-subordination is a common theme, whether imposed or assumed, used to soften blows, to create personal space or to consolidate power.<p>Ayuquila is a small town of 161 households located within an important irrigation district along the main road linking the Municipal capital of El Grullo to the State capital of Guadalajara, in Jalisco, western Mexico. Village economic life is built basically upon agriculture and the commercialization of agricultural products. In describing the world of Ayuquila as it was presented to me in 1988, the webs of relations which include bonds to different environments, organizational forms embedded in the villagers' use of land and their work procedures, their economic strategies, household patterns and solidarity networks - which I document in Chapter 2 - I came to realize the significance of specific domains or interaction for understanding how social asymmetries are reproduced, how linkages to wider social and economic scenarios are created and resignified, and how the project is woven into village I life.<p>Such domains do not only entail undertakings pertaining to distinct levels of articulation of power, nor do they demarcate specific fields of social analysis - such as the economic, political or family-kinship. Activities within domains involve a heterogeneity of relationships - that could be labelled political, economic, religious or emotional - and they intertwine power relations that draw upon diverse normative frames. In specific domains, 'rules of the game' are negotiated and defined, authorities are recognized, and relations to institutions, to other villagers and with the environment, are 'fixed'. Interaction within a domain entails distinct organizing practices, criteria with which to evaluate and shape others' behaviour and ways of securing resources.<p>The beekeeping project came to constitute a specific domain of interaction. In Chapter 3 1 provide a brief history of the project as it was described by the different actors involved. This enables me to discuss the ways in which the women saw themselves and the ways in which they were labelled and how this shaped the project and its perspectives. The identities adopted by the women at different stages of the project were very much coloured by social expectations, by images of hierarchies and by the identification of boundaries for action. I thus examine the boundaries the women set to their undertakings and ambitions, as well as the struggles they have to undergo in the defense of their own space when interacting with the state, but also with the <em>ejido</em> - commonly regarded a 'men's world' in the village, exploring critical social interface situations where members of the group are exposed to encounters with people from 'the outside' and to definitions, ideas, representations and interpretations. I analyze the ways in which discursive practices reproduce and change, exploring the intertwining of actions, strategies, understandings and self-perceptions where knowledge and power are created, negotiated and transformed. I highlight the significance that labelling had in terms of their activities and their relations to others, and how the names which the women attributed to themselves became modified. This pointed to the relevance of knowledge in the process by which social relations are constructed.<p>The domain of the family is described in Chapter 4, where I map out the kin networks and social webs that shape the interactions taking place. I examine how the beekeepers were clustered into particular networks - often linked to other village domains - where issues were discussed, commitments and non- verbalized agreements shouldered and emotions, loyalties and opinions shared. In this chapter, four kinds of network configurations are presented and contrasted: 1) a genealogical map of the network of kin and affinal ties encompassing the members of the women's group; 2) a series of net diagrams representing <em>specific types</em> of transactions and commitments among the members; 3) an aggregated net diagram depicting the <em>multiplexity</em> and density of ties; and 4) a tree diagram which contrasts the patterns formed by the various sub-group clusters and illustrates their social distance vis-à-vis other members of the beekeeping group. I describe the ways in which kin networks feature within the beekeeping group, showing how they are not motionless, nor present as an external structure, but are brought to life and resignified by the different actors in their interrelations within specific networks. This also entails an analysis of the fissures within the group, and of how these were dealt with, or supplanted by other linkages. As it is, these splits and the beekeepers' attempts to fill the gaps between them, provided valuable information about the process of 'gluing together'.<p>The ways in which different ties are combined and resignified, however, is largely defined through the lifeworlds of the different women, or rather through the intersection of lifeworlds that takes place within the project. This is evident in the three profiles of women beekeepers which I also describe in this chapter. I have chosen three beekeepers, drawn from different social clusters in the group, to explore aspects of their everyday lives, and their experiences, motivations and interests within the project. I highlight the significance of the group, its encounters and activities, for shaping the lifeworlds of these women. The individual women used the project and its sense of 'belongingness' to reconceptualize their own life circumstances and expectations, and to sustain them in their efforts to change their social relationships and strategies. They thus create space for themselves and reconstruct their lifeworlds.<p>The women's commitment to specific networks shapes their practices and influences their views on the UAIM and its perspectives. But networks also open up spaces for them, that is, they put people in touch with different sets of relations. Whilst networks provide coordinating mechanisms for the allocation of resources and the circulation of meaning, they are not totalizing systems, and whilst they entail some kind of governing coalitions that regulate behaviour, as such they do not control. Actors draw upon networks and rework them in response to their immediate needs, resignifying them through personal experiences, and using them whenever possible to achieve control. Hence, networks have no life but through the organizing practices of the lifeworlds of their members.<p>This points to the crucial importance of agency within social relations, and to the action of keepers and power brokers within networks and domains. Through the analysis of a social situation - a meeting in which the women as a group interact face-to-face with a 'dominant' group in the village, typically considered a male organization - Chapter 5 delves into the intricacies and subtleties of authority and command in the everyday wielding of power. During the meeting, experiences, views and discursive elements were transposed from the domain of the state to the domain of the <em>ejido,</em> from the <em>ejido</em> to the project, etc. The interaction between the group of beekeepers and the <em>ejidatarios</em> shows how agency works to bring such elements to the fore. We can also see how, in a particular moment in time and space, boundaries pertaining to 'formal maps of power' are differentially interpreted and negotiated, how expectations are forged and issues veiled. Power is constructed with respect to access to resources, to the identification and defense of particular interests and the control of means of action. In the struggle for access to resources and control, power brokers emerge and authorities are redefined.<p>These processes also entail maps of knowledge, negotiation of interests, loyalties and formal identification of powers, as well as particular skills and techniques of control. Although not physically present in the event, the state wields power through the interpretations of the different actors, who surrender to what they consider are its designs.<p>The state is typically a 'power wielder', that is, it is commonly recognized as a powerful actor. In Chapter 6 1 describe how this 'macro power' is constructed, and identify the mechanisms by which it is recognized as such in the case of the UAIM projects in Mexico. I discuss the vicissitudes of different UAIMs in various parts of the country, focusing on the ways in which the state manages to snare different actors into its own network of interests, thus providing opportunities for women to engage in economic enterprises, but by so doing, sets frameworks that regulate aspects of women's lives. I concentrate on the UAIM itself as a juridical model and a form of control, exploring how people, emotions, beliefs, money, technology, gender images, legal forms, documents, and social networks are associated and dissociated - physically and symbolically - to generate power or inhibit its development. I discuss Callon and Latour's (1981, 1986) approach to the analysis of power, which I believe to have made great strides in its conceptualization and study. However, as our case shows, their analyses leave out critical aspects which can be tackled more adequately through an actor-oriented approach. An important premise is that power is not a pre-determined attribute which is possessed or not, but a fluid resource which is negotiated and used at all levels.<p>Chapter 7 draws the threads together and compares my findings with current theories on power. I discuss how conceptualizing power as embedded in multi-directional relations, in processes, linkages, disjunctions and strategies, allows us to see its diverse faces as well as the compromises, negotiations and struggles. Power relations are recreated in the interaction and not totally imposed from one side. Power is not inherent to a position, a space or a person; it is not possessed by any of the actors, and it is not a zero-sum process whereby its exercise by one of the actors leaves the others lacking. Interests are not necessarily the propelling force behind power, but are fixed and defined in the process.<p>It is necessary to explore the social construction of meaning, which then reveals the messiness of power processes. A power wielder - be it a collective or individual actor - is also influenced by myths, language and symbols. Hence, those wielding power carry out at the same time more and less than their own wills. Less, because they must negotiate with the wills of others; they must allow others' wills to be carried out if they are to succeed - so discretion is limited by the force of those in subordinate positions. And more, because power is more than getting one's own will across. Generally speaking, those considered powerful incline dispositions and influence processes which are in no way part of their strategies. It would therefore be too simple to regard power as an unidirectional process whereby defined objectives are in the end reached. The complexity of power relations resides in its largely unintended consequences, in the web of routines which are triggered or channelled in specific directions, not only by the power wielder, but by the social constituency that attributes identities and roles to him/her and responds to these very same attributions by locating themselves in a somewhat inferior plane, in a subordinate condition.<p>In this way, we often attribute agency and power to social categories such as class, ethnicity and gender; to resources such as capital and land and to institutions like the state. Thus, we credit this abstract constituency we call the state with power and respond accordingly. This might have little to do with the actual intelligence, knowledgeability or capacity to act of the particular subject of agency, but it is important in delimiting the effects it can have on others. Banks, corporations, kings and priests are attributed qualities that 'bounce back' on the actions of people. This speaks of a mode of socially attributed agency, a capacity to act which is granted by others, in contrast to the agency of individuals in dealing with the world around them. Hence, the agency of an actor can be 'stretched' out to incorporate the agentive or patientive actions of others, enroling people, objects or symbols into networks or domains. Domains can wield power within a macro perspective, but they themselves will be shifting terrains for power because of the social relations acting within them. Discourses and interpretations can thus become 'dominant' when they are enroled in a specific strategy and are instrumental in constraining or defining the behaviour of a large number of people or social groups. Hence power relations are strengthened by multiple translations. The quality of certain power relations as 'macro' then., can only be seen as an effect, and not as a cause. This leaves us with a more 'vulnerable' version of macro relations, albeit a more dynamic one.<p>The power wielder has to rely on the actions of others who acknowledge its power. These actions generally entail subordination, compliance or resistance. The concept of resistance, however, already implies an identification of a weaker force which is counteracting a stronger one and which is unwilling to yield. But I argue that power wielders should not be defined as such in <em>a priori</em> terms, and hence resistance cannot be identified as such beforehand. Compliance generally entails an acceptance to become the vehicle of others' agency, thus strengthening the network of power, but one can, of course, be an unknowing vehicle of power by forming part of such a network without resisting or subordinating, or by agreeing to certain representations which are enroled in its exercise, thus granting credibility and effectiveness to the associations which constitute it. Compliance contributes crucial support for power networks and is often indirectly provided.<p>Compliance, as well as subordination, not only sustains the wielding of power, but also the <em>capacity</em> to wield power. Such capacity is not a storage of power as social scientists frequently describe it, but is underpinned by a social recognition of ranks, authority and superiority, where the action falls on those who acknowledge an actor as 'powerful' or who are willing (or obliged by the social circumstances, the intersection of domains, etc.) to submit to what they consider are its designs. Hence, the yielding of power resides in the social acknowledgement of it; it does not necessarily entail subordination and can be independent of the will or intentions of the potential wielder.<p>Subordination, on the one hand, indicates the action of 'patients', of being the vehicle of others' agency. It allows power to be wielded by yielding, by acceding to the wishes of the other, relinquishing a possible social capacity or status to acknowledge a stronger, better or more appropriate bearer. On the other hand, such yielding can emanate, not from the wishes of others, but from the 'subordinate' actors' own agency. Subordination, then, does not imply a zero- sum process whereby those who yield are necessarily left powerless. If power is fluid and constantly negotiated, those wielding power also need to subordinate themselves to discourses, social beliefs and wills of others. Thus, subordination cannot be exclusively attributed to the lower strata of society, to marginalized groups, or to the 'losers'. Power relations also necessitate the yielding of power by the power wielder.<p>In the final chapter 1 discuss the notions of power and empowerment underpinning development thinking and practice. 1 suggest that power is often misconstrued and that many issues remain unresolved in the notions of empowerment and participation, especially where gender is concerned. Thus, there is a need to question ourselves what is understood by participation, how to define the interests of the beneficiaries in order to assist them in helping themselves, and who 'the object of empowerment' is as compared to who it is intended to be. The new associations formed through projects, participatory training sessions and other activities oriented towards the empowerment of local population constitute domains of interaction which also require the action of keepers and brokers to sustain them, people who understand schedules and plans, who have organizational awareness, strategic visions, a drive to persuade and motivate others, a sense of enterprise, and the urge to analyze problems that arise in order to expand their 'project' through processes of enrolment, and to avoid diversion from set goals. This often ends up in the empowerment of the development agency itself.<p>Women are in many ways resisting impositions and striving to increase their claim-making capacity, but this is intertwined with short-term interests., emotions and loyalties. As keepers of a gender-oriented development endeavour, facilitators often try to delink women from such conceptions of their interests and loyalties. Their own conception of alternatives for women is frequently simplistic, stemming from questions such as who owns the land, who spends the cash and who makes the relevant decisions. But an analysis of 'development' endeavours cannot avoid an examination of the complex power processes and battles over images, definition of interests and interpretations that take place at the interface between 'outsiders' and 'local groups'. These interface struggles shape the arena of intervention situations where power is wielded and yielded.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date14 Sep 1994
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054852834
    Publication statusPublished - 1994


    • sociology
    • rural communities
    • woman's status
    • women
    • mexico
    • women's movement
    • feminism
    • woman and society
    • cum laude

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