Power is a measure of an entity's ability to control the environment around itself, including the behavior of other entities. The term authority is often used for power, perceived as legitimate by the social structure. Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to humans as social beings. Often, the study of power in a society is referred to as politics.
The use of power need not involve coercion (force or the threat of force). At one extreme, it more closely resembles what everyday English-speakers call "influence", although some authors make a distinction between power and influence - the means by which power is used (Handy, C. 1993 Understanding Organisations).
Much of the recent sociological debate on power revolves around the issue of the enabling nature of power. A comprehensive account of power can be found in Steven Lukes Power: A Radical View where he discusses the three dimensions of power. Thus, power can be seen as various forms of constraint on human action, but also as that which makes action possible, although in a limited scope. Much of this debate is related to the works of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who, following the Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), sees power as "a complex strategic situation in a given society [social setting]". Being deeply structural, his concept involves both constraint and enablement. For a purely enabling (and voluntaristic) concept of power see the works of Anthony Giddens.
Because power operates both relationally and reciprocally, sociologists speak of the balance of power between parties to a relation == == : all parties to all relationships have some power: the sociological examination of power concerns itself with discovering and describing the relative strengths: equal or unequal, stable or subject to periodic change. Sociologists usually analyse relationships in which the parties have relatively equal or nearly equal power in terms of constraint rather than of power. Thus 'power' has a connotation of unilateralism. If this were not so, then all relationships could be described in terms of 'power', and its meaning would be lost.
One can sometimes distinguish primary power: the direct and personal use of force for coercion; and secondary power, which may involve the threat of force or social constraint, most likely involving third-party exercisers of delegated power
Power may be held through:
JK Galbraith summarises the types of power as being "Condign" (based on force), "Compensatory" (through the use of various resources) or "Conditioned" (the result of persuasion), and their sources as "Personality" (individuals), "Property" (their material resources) and "Organizational" (whoever sits at the top of an organisational power structure). (Galbraith, An Anatomy of Power)
All forms of Power fall under one of two possible sub-headings.
Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) defined power as a man's "present means, to obtain some future apparent good" (Leviathan, Ch. 10).
The thought of Friedrich Nietzsche underlies much 20th century analysis of power. Nietzsche disseminated ideas on the "will to power", which he saw as the domination of other humans as much as the exercise of control over one's environment.
Game theory, with its foundations in the theory of Rational Choice, is increasingly used in various disciplines to help analyse power relationships. One rational choice definition of power is given by Keith Dowding in his book Power.
In rational choice theory, human individuals or groups can be modelled as 'actors' who choose from a 'choice set' of possible actions in order to try and achieve desired outcomes. An actor's 'incentive structure' comprises (its beliefs about) the costs associated with different actions in the choice set, and the likelihoods that different actions will lead to desired outcomes.
In this setting we can differentiate between:
This framework can be used to model a wide range of social interactions where actors have the ability to exert power over others. For example a 'powerful' actor can take options away from another's choice set; can change the relative costs of actions; can change the likelihood that a given action will lead to a given outcome; or might simply change the other's beliefs about its incentive structure.
As with other models of power, this framework is neutral as to the use of 'coercion'. For example: a threat of violence can change the likely costs and benefits of different actions; so can a financial penalty in a 'voluntarily agreed' contract, or indeed a friendly offer.
In ordered groups, such as school classrooms and military groups, the leader's power over an individual is amplified by the virtual power gained from having the other group members already obeying the leader's order. For example, if a school student gets out of her seat, she can be identified easily if all the other students are already sitting in their seats. Each disobedient student is thus easily identified and can expect to be confronted by the teacher.
In the Marxist tradition, the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci elaborated the role of cultural hegemony in ideology as a means of bolstering the power of capitalism and of the nation-state. Drawing on Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, and trying to understand why there had been no Communist revolution in Western Europe, whilst there had been in Russia, Gramsci conceptualised this hegemony as a centaur, consisting of two halves. The back end, the beast, represented the more classic, material image of power, power through coercion, through brute force, be it physical or economic. But the capitalist hegemony, he argued, depended even more strongly on the front end, the human face, which projected power through 'consent'. In Russia, this power was lacking, allowing for a revolution. However, in Western Europe, specifically in Italy, capitalism had succeeded in exercising consensual power, convincing the working classes that their interests were the same as those of capitalists. In this way revolution had been avoided.
Like Gramsci stresses the significance of ideology in powerstructures, Marxist-feminist writers like Michele Barrett stress the role of ideologies in extolling the virtues of family life. The classic argument to illustrate this point of view is the use of women as a 'reserve army of labour'. In wartime it's accepted that women perform masculine tasks, while after the war the roles are easily reversed. Therefore, according to Barrett, the destruction of capitalist economic relations is necessary but not sufficient for the liberation of women.
One of the broader modern views of the importance of power in human activity comes from the work of Michel Foucault, who has said, "Power is everywhere...because it comes from everywhere."
—Aldrich, Robert and Wotherspoon, Gary (Eds.), 2001
Foucault's analysis of power is founded on his concept "technologies of power". Discipline is a complex bundle of power technologies developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as Foucault demonstrated in Discipline and Punish. For Foucault power is exercised with intention. Instead of analysing the difficult problem of who has which intentions, he focused on what is intersubjectively accepted knowledge about how to exercise power. For Foucault, power is actions upon others' actions in order to interfere with them. Foucault does not recur to violence, but says that power presupposes freedom in the sense that power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. One way of doing this is by threatening with violence. However, suggesting how happy people will become if they buy an off-roader is an exercise of power as well; marketing provides a large body of knowledge on techniques for how to (try to) produce such behavior.
Foucault's works analyze the link between power and knowledge. He outlines a form of covert power that works through people rather than only on them. Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge (hegemony). Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable "truths", come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such "truths" becomes normalized. This subtle form of power lacks rigidity and other discourses can contest it. Indeed, power itself lacks any concrete form, occurring as a locus of struggle. Resistance, through defiance, defines power and hence becomes possible through power. Without resistance, power is absent, but it would be a mistake, some recent writers insist, to attribute to Foucault an oppositional power-resistance schema as is found in many older, foundationalist theoreticians. This view 'grants' individuality to people and other agencies, even if it is assumed a given agency is part of what power works in or upon. Still, in practice Foucault often seems to deny individuals this agency, which is contrasted with sovereignty (the old model of power as efficacious and rigid).
"Domination" is not "that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over others, or one group over another, but the manifold forms of domination that can be exercised within society." (ibid, p. 96)
"One should try to locate power at the extreme of its exercise, where it is always less legal in character." (ibid, p. 97)
"The analysis [of power] should not attempt to consider power from its internal point of view and...should refrain from posing the labyrinthine and unanswerable question: 'Who then has power and what has he in mind? What is the aim of someone who possesses power?' Instead, it is a case of studying power at the point where its intention, if it has one, is completely invested in its real and effective practices." (ibid, p. 97)
"Let us ask...how things work at the level of on-going subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviours, etc....we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects." (ibid, p. 97)
Tarnow considers what power hijackers have over air plane passengers and draws similarities with power in the military. He shows that power over an individual can be amplified by the presence of a group. If the group conforms to the leader's commands, the leader's power over an individual is greatly enhanced while if the group does not conform the leader's power over an individual is nil.
The seminal work of Steven Lukes Power: A radical view (1974) was developed from a talk he was once invited to give in Paris. In this brief book, Lukes outlines two dimensions through which power had been theorised in the earlier part of the twentieth century (dimensions 1 and 2 below) which he critiqued as being limited to those forms of power that could be seen. To these he added a third 'critical' dimension which built upon insights from Gramsci and Althusser. In many ways this work evolved alongside of the writing of Foucault and serves as a good introduction to his thoughts on power.
In his own words, Lukes states that the "one-dimensional, view of power involves a focus on behaviour in the making of decisions on issues over which there is an observable conflict of (subjective) interests, seen as express policy preferences, revealed by political participation."
Two-dimensional: 1D plus:
Three-dimensional: Includes aspects of model 1 & 2, plus:
Alvin Toffler's Powershift argues that the three main kinds of power are violence, wealth, and knowledge with other kinds of power being variations of these three (typically knowledge). Each successive kind of power represents a more flexible kind of power. Violence can only be used negatively, to punish. Wealth can be used both negatively (by withholding money) and positively (by advancing/spending money). Knowledge can be used in these ways but, additionally, can be used in a transformative way. Such examples are, sharing knowledge on agriculture to ensure that everyone is capable of supplying himself and his family of food; Allied nations with a shared identity forming with the spread of religious or political philosophies, or one can use knowledge as a tactical/strategic superiority in Intelligence (information gathering).
Toffler argues that the very nature of power is currently shifting. Throughout history, power has often shifted from one group to another; however, at this time, the dominant form of power is changing. During the Industrial Revolution, power shifted from a nobility acting primarily through violence to industrialists and financiers acting through wealth. Of course, the nobility used wealth just as the industrial elite used violence, but the dominant form of power shifted from violence to wealth. Today, a Third Wave of shifting power is taking place with wealth being overtaken by knowledge.
The idea of unmarked categories originated in feminism. The theory analyzes the culture of the powerful. The powerful comprise those people in society with easy access to resources, those who can exercise power without considering their actions. For the powerful, their culture seems obvious; for the powerless, on the other hand, it remains out of reach, élite and expensive.
The unmarked category can form the identifying mark of the powerful. The unmarked category becomes the standard against which to measure everything else. For most Western readers, it is posited that if a protagonist's race is not indicated, it will be assumed by the reader that the protagonist is Caucasian; if a sexual identity is not indicated, it will be assumed by the reader that the protagonist is heterosexual; if the gender of a body is not indicated, will be assumed by the reader that it is male; if a disability is not indicated, it will be assumed by the reader that the protagonist is able bodied, just as a set of examples.
One can often overlook unmarked categories. Whiteness forms an unmarked category not commonly visible to the powerful, as they often fall within this category. The unmarked category becomes the norm, with the other categories relegated to deviant status. Social groups can apply this view of power to race, gender, and disability without modification: the able body is the neutral body; the man is the normal status.
Gilles Deleuze, the twentieth century French philosopher, compared voting for political representation with being taken hostage. A representational government assumes that people can be divided into categories with distinct shared interests. The representative is regarded as embodying the interests of the group. Many social movements have been successful in gaining access to governments: the working class, women, young people and ethnic minorities are part of the government in many nation-states. However, there is no government where the government represents the population along the characteristics of the categories.
The problem of finding suitable representatives relates to an individual's membership of different categories at the same time. The only truly representative government for a population is the population itself. These ideas have become popular in social movements for global justice. The logic of government open to all underpins the social forums (such as the World Social Forum) that have developed in contradistinction to the forums of the powerful. These alternative forms are sometimes called counter-power.
This view appears in many projects of social change, but its founder Paulo Freire is largely unknown. Freire assumes that people carry archives of knowledge within them. In particular he rejects the idea that people remain ignorant unless they have learned to communicate using the culture of the powerful. The person is seen as part of a culture circle with its own view of reality, based on the circumstances of everyday living.
Dialogue can bring about social change. Such dialogue directly opposes the monologue of the culture of the powerful. Dialogue expands the understanding of the world rather than teaching a correct understanding. The process of social change starts with action, on which the group then reflects. Commonly, more action of some kind then results...
Social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, in a now-classic study (1959), developed a schema of sources of power by which to analyse how power plays work (or fail to work) in a specific relationship.
According to French and Raven, power must be distinguished from influence in the following way: power is that state of affairs which holds in a given relationship, A-B, such that a given influence attempt by A over B makes A's desired change in B more likely. Conceived this way, power is fundamentally relative - it depends on the specific understandings A and B each apply to their relationship, and, interestingly, requires B's recognition of a quality in A which would motivate B to change in the way A intends. A must draw on the 'base' or combination of bases of power appropriate to the relationship, to effect the desired outcome. Drawing on the wrong power base can have unintended effects, including a reduction in A's own power.
French and Raven argue that there are five significant categories of such qualities, while not excluding other minor categories. Further bases have since been adduced - in particular by Morgan (1986: ch.6), who identifies 14, while others have suggested a simpler model for practical purposes - for example, Handy (1976),  who recommends three.
Recent experimental psychology suggests that the more power one has, the less one takes on the perspective of others, implying that the powerful have less empathy. Adam Galinsky, along with several coauthors, found that when those who are reminded of their powerlessness are instructed to draw Es on their forehead, they are 3 times more likely to draw them such that they are legible to others than those who are reminded of their power. Powerful people are also more likely to take action. In one example, powerful people turned off an irritatingly close fan twice as much as less powerful people. Researchers have documented the "bystander effect": they found that powerful people are three times as likely to first offer help to a "stranger in distress".
A study involving over 50 college students suggested that those primed to feel powerful through stating 'power words' were less susceptible to external pressure, more willing to give honest feedback, and more creative.
Quotes regarding power.