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He began to help lead a grassroots adult educational program at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, in 1976, and was director from 1993 until 1996. He received a MacArthur Award in 1981 for his work with the Highlander Center. His first publication, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, broke new theoretical and empirical ground in the study of social power, winning the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award of the American Political Science Association, the V.O Key Book Award of the Southern Political Science Association, the Lillian Smith Book Award of the Southern Regiona Council, and the W.D Weatherford Book Award, and earned co-runnerup in the first annual Robert F. Kennedy Book Award competition.
While studying at Oxford with Steven Lukes, author of Radical Power (1976), Gaventa developed a theoretical and methodological approach to the study of community power that has radically transformed community power studies in political sociology and opened a path for the legitimization of participatory research in mainstream sociology and political science.
Gaventa's articulation and empirical demonstration of the "three-dimensional" approach to the study of power has informed many disciplines and scholars about the nuances of social power and the processes of its legitimization, while also lending support to scholars and social change advocates who would find the sources and the solutions of social problems not in the dictates or preconceived notions held by social scientists, theologians, and philosophers, but in the narratives of the affected alienated populations. In Gaventa's theory, such methodological subjectivity allows the framing of a social problem, and a social solution, to arise from within the group, thereby empowering and better enabling the group to take collective action in the face of authorities' power to frame issues as non-issues in the public's mind.
Borrowing from Lukes, Gaventa identifies three analytical dimensions that are the proper study of social power. Each subsequent dimension is increasingly difficult to empirically observe using traditional political science methodologies, forcing Gaventa to synthesize various understandings of socialization into a cogent articulation of observable processes through which symbolic production is channeled within identifiable networks and communities.
The "one-dimensional" approach involves direct empirical observations of openly contested public issues. It involves defining and framing these issues in terms of identifiable winners and losers, and reflects the traditional pluralist approach to the study of community power. The "second dimension" involves the addition of what Gaventa calls the "mobilization of bias", through which cultural hegemony is both asserted and legitimized. Empirically, Gaventa's contribution is to develop a method for examining the various channels through which those in power transform concerns, claims, and potential challenges about inequitable outcomes into "non-decisions". The "third dimension" therefore adds the capacity to influence expectations about social outcomes by manipulating symbols and ideology so that inequities themselves become "non-issues".
Gaventa's publications include
- Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, ISBN 0-252-00985-1
- We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, ISBN 0-87722-775-6
- Communities in Economic Crisis: Appalachia and the South, ISBN 0-87722-650-4
- Global Citizen Action, ISBN 1-55587-968-3
- The London Gazette: . 16 June 2012.