Pillars of Oppression

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  • To enable participants to become familiar with Gene Sharp’s theory of power
  • To explore the relationship between power and consent


At least 30/40 minutes


Six or more


  • A mattress
  • Flip charts
  • Markers
  • Handouts for each of the six sources of political power (see below).


I) Place a mattress on the floor in the centre of the room.

II) Divide the plenary into six groups and ask each group to sit together.

III) Distribute the handouts illustrating the sources of power according to Gene Sharp – a different one to each group (see below). Allow sufficient time for the groups to read and become familiar with the content.

IV) Tell the groups that each of them is going to focus on the source of power described in the handout they received. Ask them to think of their government and how that specific source of power applies to it.

V) Now ask the groups to brainstorm and identify what forms of nonviolent action would hamper a/their government from effectively disposing of the specific source of power. Ask them to note down their findings. Allow sufficient time.

Example: The first group is focusing on “authority”. Their task is to think about and decide what forms of nonviolent action could deprive the ruler/government of his its authority – or diminish it. After some discussion a member of the group summarises the key forms of nonviolent action they’d use and notes them down.

VI) Ask each group to choose a representative and have representatives standing close to the mattress. Explain that the mattress represents the ruler/government (specific or hypothetical, depending on the situation). Ask the representatives of the six sources of power to raise the mattress together, each using one hand.

VII) Ask the partners remaining on the sidelines to come to the centre and loudly proclaim their actions – one group at a time – and take away their representative. Do not allow discussion, just proclaiming actions and removing representatives.

VIII) Repeat the procedure with each group and representative. Gradually the mattress becomes shakier and unstable, even though the remaining pillars/people are doing their best to hold it steady, and eventually falls to the ground. Enjoy that moment.


The following questions are not prescriptive. Please add, remove or adapt them as necessary.

  • How do you feel about this activity?
  • How do you feel about planning action to make the ruler/government fall?
  • How did you feel when the mattress became unstable and eventually fell to the ground?
  • To what extent do rulers or governments depend on these sources of power?
  • To what extent do these sources of power depend on consent and cooperation from the population?
  • What role do consent and cooperation play in political power?
  • How different is dictatorship from democracy in terms of its dependence on consent and cooperation from the population?
  • How can you relate this activity to political power in your country?
  • Can you recall any examples of nonviolent action in your country that challenged political power?
  • Why do people obey?
  • In general, how can you reduce the level of support that a government or ruler enjoys? How about in your country?


Alternative ways to carry out this activity include:

  • Start the activity by brainstorming and identifying the main sources of political power. Then use participants’ findings as pillars, or sources, of power throughout the rest of the activity.


This activity has been adapted from George Lakey, Training for Change, www.trainingforchange.org. The six sources of power and their descriptions in the handouts are taken from Sharp, Gene, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Power and Struggle (Part One), Boston: Porter Sargent, 2000 (1973); pp. 11-12.


Handout 1: Authority

Authority may be defined as the right to command and direct, to be heard or obeyed by others, voluntarily accepted by the people and therefore existing without the imposition of sanctions. The possessor of authority may not actually be superior; it’s enough he be perceived and accepted as superior. While not identical with power, authority is nevertheless clearly a main source of power.

Handout 2: Human Resources

A ruler’s power is affected by the number of persons who obey him, cooperate with him, or provide him with special assistance, as well as by the proportion of such persons in the general population, and the extent and forms of their organisations.

Handout 3: Skills and Knowledge

The ruler’s power is also affected by the skills, knowledge and abilities of such persons, and the relation of their skills, knowledge and ability to his needs.

Handout 4: Intangible Factors

Psychological and ideological factors, such as habits and attitudes toward obedience and submission, and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission, all affect the power of the ruler in relation to the people.

Handout 5: Material Resources

The degree to which the ruler controls property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, means of communication and transportation helps to determine the limits of his power.

Handout 6: Sanctions

The final source of the ruler’s power is the type and extent of sanctions at his disposal, both for use against his own subjects and in conflict with other rulers.

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