Sociologists usually define power as the ability to impose one's will on others, even if those others resist in some way.
"By power is meant that opportunity existing within a social relationship which permits one to carry out one's own will even against resistance and regardless of the basis on which this opportunity rests."
Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology
The imposition need not involve coercion (force or threat of force). Thus "power" in the sociological sense subsumes both physical power and political power, including many of the types listed at power. In some ways it more closely resembles what everyday English-speakers call "influence".
More generally, one could define "power" as the more or less unilateral ability (real or perceived) or potential to bring about significant change, usually in people’s lives, through the actions of oneself or of others.
The exercise of power seems endemic to humans as social and gregarious beings.
Analysis and operation of power
Power manifests itself in a relational manner: one cannot meaningfully say (pace advocates of empowerment) that a particular social actor "has power" without also specifying the other parties to the social relationship.
Power almost always operates reciprocally, but usually not equally reciprocally. To control others, one must have control over things that they desire or need, but one can rarely exercise that control without a measure of reverse control - larger, smaller or equal - also existing. For example, an employer usually wields considerable power over his workers because he has control over wages, working conditions, hiring and firing. The workers, however, hold some reciprocal power: they may leave, work more or less diligently, group together to form a union, and so on.
Because power operates both relationally and reciprocally, sociologists speak of the balance of power between parties to a relationship: 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.
Even in structuralist social theory, power appears as a process, an aspect to an ongoing social relationship, not as a fixed part of social structure.
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.
Types and sources of power
Power may be held through:
- Delegated authority (for example in the democratic process)
- Personal or group charisma
- Ascribed power (acting on perceived or assumed abilities, whether these bear testing or not)
Expertise (Ability, Skills) (the power of medicine to bring about health, another famous example would be "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king)
Knowledge (granted or withheld, shared or kept secret)
Money (financial influence, control of labour, control through ownership, etc)
Force (violence, military might, coercion).
- Moral suasion
- Application of non-violence
- Operation of group dynamics
Social influence of tradition (compare ascribed power)
- In relationships; domination/submissiveness
Theories of power
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.
Some schools of psychology, notably that associated with Alfred Adler, place power dynamics at the core of their theory (where orthodox Freudians might place sexuality).
In the Marxist tradition, Antonio Gramsci elaborated the role of cultural hegemony in ideology as a means of bolstering the power of capitalism and of the nation-state. Gramsci saw power as something exercised in a direct, overt manner, and the power of the bourgeois as keeping the proletariat in their place.
Feminist analysis of the patriarchy often concentrates on issues of power: note the "Rape Mantra ": Rape is about power, not sex.
Some feminists distinguish "power-over" (influence on other people) from "power-to" (ability to perform).
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 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. 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. 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).
Deconstruction often works to reveal hidden power structures and relationships.
"One needs to be nominalistic, no doubt: power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society." (History of Sexuality, p.93)
"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 continous 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)
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. For example, one can share knowledge on agriculture to ensure that everyone is capable of supplying himself and his family of food. Also, allied nations with a shared identity form with the spread of religious or political philosophies.
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 analyses 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 American 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, a French theorist, 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...
- Aldrich, Robert and Wotherspoon, Gary (Eds.) (2001). Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day. New York: Routledge. ISBN 041522974X.