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Elements in the analysis of power

Problems of research


In approaching the study of politics through the analysis of power, one assumes, at a minimum, that relations of power are among the significant aspects of a political system. This assumption, and therefore the analysis of power, can be applied to any kind of political system, international, national, or local, to associations and groups of various kinds, such as the family, the hospital, and the business firm, and to historical developments.

At one extreme, an analysis of power may simply postulate that power relations are one feature of politics among a number of others–but nonetheless a sufficiently important feature to need emphasis and description. At the other extreme, an analyst may hold that power distinguishes “politics” from other human activity; to analysts of this view “political science, as an empirical discipline, is the study of the shaping and sharing of power” (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. xiv).

In either case, the analyst takes it for granted that differences between political systems, or profound changes in the same society, can often be interpreted as differences in the way power is distributed among individuals, groups, or other units. Power may be relatively concentrated or diffused; and the share of power held by different individuals, strata, classes, professional groups, ethnic, racial, or religious groups, etc., may be relatively great or small. The analysis of power is often concerned, therefore, with the identification of elites and leadership, the discovery of the ways in which power is allocated to different strata, relations among leaders and between leaders and nonleaders, and so forth.

Although the approach to politics through the study of power relations is sometimes thought to postulate that everyone seeks power as the highest value, analysts of power generally reject this assumption as psychologically untenable; the analysis of power does not logically imply any particular psychological assumptions. Sometimes critics also regard the analysis of power as implying that the pursuit of power is morally good or at any rate that it should not be condemned. But an analysis of power may be neutral as to values; or the analyst may be concerned with power, not to glorify it, but in order to modify the place it holds in human relations and to increase the opportunities for dignity, respect, freedom, or other values (Jouvenel 1945; Lasswell & Kaplan 1950; Oppenheim 1961, chapters 8, 9).

Indeed, it would be difficult to explain the extent to which political theorists for the past 25 centuries have been concerned with relations of power and authority were it not for the moral and practical significance of power to any person interested in political life, whether as observer or activist. Some understanding of power is usually thought to be indispensable for moral or ethical appraisals of political systems. From a very early time–certainly since Socrates, and probably before–men have been inclined to judge the relative desirability of different types of political systems by, among other characteristics, the relations of power and authority in these systems. In addition, intelligent action to bring about a result of some kind in a political system, such as a change in a law or a policy, a revolution, or a settlement of an international dispute, requires knowledge of how to produce or “cause” these results. In political action, as in other spheres of life, we try to produce the results we want by acting appropriately on the relevant causes. As we shall see, power relations can be viewed as causal relations of a particular kind.

It therefore seems most unlikely that the analysis of power will disappear as an approach to the study of politics. However, the fact that this approach is important and relevant does not shield it from some serious difficulties. These have become particularly manifest as the approach has been more earnestly and systematically employed.


The attempt to study and explain politics by analyzing relations of power is, in a loose sense, ancient. To Aristotle, differences in the location of power, authority, or rule among the citizens of a political society served as one criterion for differentiating among actual constitutions, and it entered into his distinction between good constitutions and bad ones [seeAristotle]. With few exceptions (most notably Thomas Hobbes) political theorists did not press their investigations very far into certain aspects of power that have seemed important to social scientists in the twentieth century [seeHobbes]. For example, most political theorists took it for granted, as did Aristotle, that key terms like power, influence, authority, and rule (let us call them “power terms”) needed no great elaboration, presumably because the meaning of these words was clear to men of common sense. Even Machiavelli, who marks a decisive turning point from classical–normative to modern–empirical theory, did not consider political terms in general as particularly technical. Moreover, he strongly preferred the concrete to the abstract. In his treatment of power relations Machiavelli frequently described a specific event as an example of a general principle; but often the general principle was only implied or barely alluded to; and he used a variety of undefined terms such as imperio, forza, potente, and autorita É [seeMachiavelli].

From Aristotle to Hobbes political theorists were mainly concerned with power relations within a given community. But external relations even more than internal ones force attention to questions of relative power. The rise of the modern nation-state therefore compelled political theorists to recognize the saliency of power in politics, and particularly, of course, in international politics (Meinecke 1924).

Thus political “realists” found it useful to define, distinguish, and interpret the state in terms of its power. Max Weber both reflected this tradition of “realism” and opened the way for new developments in the analysis of power [seeWeber, Max]. “Power’ (Macht) is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests” (Weber [1922] 1957, p. 152). This definition permitted Weber to conclude that “the concept of power is highly comprehensive from the point of view of sociology. All conceivable & combinations of circumstances may put him [the actor] in a position to impose his will in a given situation” (p. 153). It follows that the state is not distinguishable from other associations merely because it employs a special and peculiarly important kind of power– force. In a famous and highly influential definition, Weber characterized the state as follows: “A compulsory political association with continuous organization (politischer Anstaltsbetrieb) will be called a ‘state’ if and in so far as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order” (p. 154).

In his well-known typologies and his analyses of political systems, however, Weber was less concerned with power in general than with a special kind that he held to be unusually important– legitimate power, or authority.

Later theorists, practically all of whom were directly or indirectly influenced by Weber, expanded their objectives to include a fuller range of power relations. In the United States attempts to suggest or develop systematic and comprehensive theories of politics centering about power relations appeared in books by Catlin (1927; 1930), an important essay by Goldhamer and Shils (1939), and numerous works of the Chicago school–principally Merriam (1934), Lasswell (1936), and, in international politics, Morgenthau (1948). In the decade after World War ii the ideas of the Chicago school were rapidly diffused throughout American political science. [SeeMerriam.]

Elements in the analysis of power

Power terms evidently cover a very broad category of human relations. Considerable effort and ingenuity have gone into schemes for classifying these relations into various types, labeled power, influence, authority, persuasion, dissuasion, inducement, coercion, compulsion, force, and so on, all of which we shall subsume under the collective label power terms. The great variety and heterogeneity of these relations may, in fact, make it impossible–or at any rate not very fruitful–to develop general theories of power intended to cover them all.

At the most general level, power terms in modern social science refer to subsets of relations among social units such that the behaviors of one or more units (the responsive units, Jr) depend in some circumstances on the behavior of other units (the controlling units, C). (In the following discussion, R will always symbolize the responsive or dependent unit, C the controlling unit. These symbols will be used throughout and will be substituted even in direct quotations where the authors themselves have used different letters.) By this broad definition, then, power terms in the social sciences exclude relations with inanimate or even nonhuman objects; the control of a dog by his master or the power of a scientist over “nature” provided by a nuclear reactor would fall, by definition, in a different realm of discourse. On the other hand, the definition could include the power of one nation to affect the actions of another by threatening to use a nuclear reactor as a bomb or by offering to transfer it by gift or sale.

If power-terms include all relations of the kind just defined, then they spread very widely over the whole domain of human relations. In practice, analysts of power usually confine their attention to smaller subsets. One such subset consists, for example, of relations in which “severe sanctions …are expected to be used or are in fact applied to sustain a policy against opposition”-a subset that Lasswell and Kaplan call power (1950, pp. 7475). However, there is no agreement on the common characteristics of the various subsets covered by power terms, nor are different labels applied with the same meaning by different analysts.

Despite disagreement on how the general concept is to be defined and limited, the variety of smaller subsets that different writers find interesting or important, and the total lack of a standardized classification scheme and nomenclature, there is nonetheless some underlying unity in the various approaches to the analysis of power. In describing and explaining patterns of power, different writers employ rather similar elements (compare Cartwright 1965). What follows is an attempt to clarify these common elements by ignoring many differences in terminology, treatment, and emphasis.

Some descriptive characteristics

For purposes of exposition it is convenient to think of the analysis of power in terms of the familiar distinction between dependent and independent variables. The attempt to understand a political system may then be conceived of as an effort to describe certain characteristics of the system: the dependent variables; and to explain why the system takes on these particular characteristics, by showing the effects on these characteristics of certain other factors: the independent variables. Some of the characteristics of a political system that analysts seek to explain are the magnitude of the power of the C’s with respect to the R’s, how this power is distributed in the system, and the scope, and domain, of control that different individuals or actors have, exercise, or are subject to.

Magnitude. Political systems are often characterized explicitly or implicitly by the differences in the “amounts” of power (over the actions of the government or state) exercised by different individuals, groups, or strata. The magnitude of C’s power with respect to R is thought of as measurable, in some sense, by at least an ordinal scale; frequently, indeed, a literal reading would imply that power is subject to measurement by an interval scale. How to compare and measure different magnitudes of power poses a major unsolved problem; we shall return to it briefly later on. Meanwhile, we shall accept the assumption of practically every political theorist for several thousand years, that it is possible to speak meaningfully of different amounts of power. Thus a typical question in the analysis of a political system would be: Is control over government highly concentrated or relatively diffused?

Distribution. An ancient and conventional way of distinguishing among political systems is according to the way control over the government or the state is distributed to individuals or groups in the systems. Aristotle, for example, stated: “The proper application of the term ‘democracy’ is to a constitution in which the free-born and poor control the government–being at the same time a majority; and similarly the term ‘oligarchy’ is properly applied to a constitution in which the rich and betterborn control the government–being at the same time a minority” (Politics, Barker ed., p. 164). Control over government may be conceived as analogous to income, wealth, or property; and in the same way that income or wealth may be distributed in different patterns, so too the distribution of power over government may vary from one society or historical period to another. One task of analysis, then, is to classify and describe the most common distributions and to account for the different patterns. Typical questions would be: What are the characteristics of the C’s and of the R’s? How do the C’s and R’s compare in numbers? Do C’s and R’s typically come from different classes, strata, regions, or other groups? What historical changes have occurred in the characteristics of C and R?

Scope. What if C’s are sometimes not C’s, or C’s sometimes R’s, or R’s sometimes C’s? The possibility cannot be ruled out that individuals or groups who are relatively powerful with respect to one kind of activity may be relatively weak with respect to other activities. Power need not be general; it may be specialized. In fact, in the absence of a single world ruler, some specialization is inevitable; in any case, it is so commonplace that analysts of power have frequently insisted that a statement about the power of an individual, group, state, or other actor is practically meaningless unless it specifies the power of actor C with respect to some class of R’s activities. Such a class of activities is sometimes called the range (Cartwright 1965) or the scope of C’s power (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. 73). There is no generally accepted way of defining and classifying different scopes. However, a typical question about a political system would be: Is power generalized over many scopes, or is it specialized? If it is specialized, what are the characteristics of the C’s, the elites, in the different scopes? Is power specialized by individuals in the sense that Ca and Cb exercise power over different scopes, or is it also specialized by classes, social strata, skills, professions, or other categories?

Domain. C’s power will be limited to certain individuals; the R’s over whom C has or exercises control constitute what is sometimes called the “domain,” or “extension,” of C’s power (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. 73; Harsanyi 1962a, p. 67). Typical questions thus might be: Who are the R’s over whom C has control? What are their characteristics? How numerous are they? How do they differ in numbers or characteristics from the R’s not under C’s control?

Given the absence of any standard unit of measure for amounts, distributions, scopes, domains, and other aspects of power, and the variety of ways of describing these characteristics, it is not at all surprising that there is an abundance of schemes for classifying political systems according to some characteristic of power. Most such schemes use, implicitly or explicitly, the idea of a distribution of power over the behavior of government. The oldest, most famous, and most enduring of these is the distinction made by the Greeks between rule by one, the few, and the many (see Aristotle, Politics, Barker ed., pp. 110 ff.). Some variant of this scheme frequently reappears in modern analyses of power (e.g., Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. 218). Often, as with Aristotle himself, the distribution of power is combined with one or more other dimensions (e.g., Dahl 1963, p. 38). Rough dichotomous schemes are common. One based on “the degree of autonomy and interdependence of the several power holders” distinguishes two polar types, called autocracy and constitutionalism (Loewenstein 1957, p. 29). American community studies have in recent years called attention to differences between “pluralistic” systems and unified or highly stratified “power structures” [seeCommunity, article Onthe study of community power]. In One study that compares four communities the authors developed a more complex typology of power structures by combining a dimension of “distribution of political power among citizens” with the degree of convergence or divergence in the ideology of leaders; the four types of power structures produced by dichotomizing these two dimensions are in turn distinguished from regimes (Agger et al. 1964, pp. 73 ff.).

Some explanatory characteristics

Given the different types of political systems, how are the differences among them to be explained? If, for example, control over government is sometimes distributed to the many, often to the few, and occasionally to one dominant leader, how can we account for the differences? Obviously these are ancient, enduring, and highly complex problems; and there is slight agreement on the answers. However, some factors that are often emphasized in modern analysis can be distinguished.

Resources. Differences in patterns or structures of power may be attributed primarily, mainly, or partly to the way in which “resources/” or “base values/” are distributed among the individuals, strata, classes, and groups in different communities, countries, societies, and historical periods. This is an ancient, distinguished, widespread, and persuasive mode of explanation, used by Aristotle in Greece in the fourth century B.C., by James Harrington in seventeenth-century England, by the fathers of the American constitution in the late eighteenth century, by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century, and by a great many social scientists in the twentieth century. A central hypothesis in most of these theories is that the greater one’s resources, the greater one’s power. Although explanations of this kind do not always go beyond tautology (by defining power in terms of resources), logical circularity is certainly not inherent in this mode of explanation. However, there is no accepted way of classifying resources or bases. Harold Lasswell has constructed a comprehensive scheme of eight base values which, although not necessarily exhaustive, are certainly inclusive; these are power (which can serve as a base for more power), respect, rectitude or moral standing, affection, well-being, wealth, skill, and enlightenment (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. 87). Other writers choose more familiar categories to classify resources: for example, in trying to account for the patterns of influence in one community, the author described the patterns of social standing; the distribution of cash, credit, and wealth; access to legality, popularity, and control over jobs; and control over sources of information (Dahl 1961, pp. 229 ff.).

Skill. Two individuals with access to approximately the same resources may not exercise the same degree of power (over, let us say, government decisions). Indeed, it is a common observation that individuals of approximately equal wealth or social status may differ greatly in power. To be sure, this might be accounted for by differences in access to other resources, such as the greater legality, bureaucratic knowledge, and public affection that fall to any individual who is chosen, say, to be prime minister of Britain or president of the United States. Another factor, however, one given particular prominence by Machiavelli, is political skill. Formally, skill could be treated as another resource. Nonetheless, it is generally thought to be of critical importance in explaining differences in the power of different leaders–different presidents, for example, as in Neustadt’s comparison of presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower (1960, pp. 152 ff.). However, despite many attempts at analysis, from Machiavelli to the present day, political skill has remained among the more elusive aspects in the analysis of power.

Motivations. Two individuals with access to the same resources may exercise different degrees of power (with respect to some scope) because of different motivations: the one may use his resources to increase his power; the other may not. Moreover, since power is a relationship between C’s and R’s, the motivations not only of the C’s but also of the R’s are important. One person may worship authority, while another may defy it. A number of writers have explored various aspects of motivations involved in power relations (e.g., Lasswell 1930; Rogow & Lasswell 1963; Cartwright 1959).

Costs. Motivations can be related to resources by way of the economists’ language of cost–a factor introduced into the analysis of power by a mathematical economist (Harsanyi 1962a; 1962b). In order to control R, C may have to use some of his resources. Thus C’s supply of resources is likely to have a bearing on how far he is willing to go in trying to control R. And variations in C’s resources are likely to produce variations in C’s power. C’s opportunity costs in controlling R–that is, what C must forgo or give up in other opportunities as a result of using some of his resources to control R–are less (other things being equal) if he is rich in resources than if he is poor in resources. In concrete terms, to a rich man the sacrifice involved in a campaign contribution of $100 is negligible; to a poor man the sacrifice entailed in a contribution of $100 is heavy. C’s willingness to use his resources to control R will also depend on the value to C of R’s response; the value of R’s response is, in turn, dependent in part on C’s motivations. The relationship may also be examined from R’s point of view. R’s opportunity costs consist of what he is then unable to do if he complies with C. In R’s case, as in C’s, his supply of resources and his motivations help determine his opportunity costs. Thus a power relation can be interpreted as a sort of transaction between C and ft.

Problems of research

Like all other approaches to an understanding of complex social phenomena, the analysis of power is beset with problems. At a very general level, attempts to analyze power share with many –perhaps most–other strategies of inquiry in the social sciences the familiar dilemma of rigor versus relevance, and the dilemma has led to familiar results. Attempts to meet high standards of logical rigor or empirical verification have produced some intriguing experiments and a good deal of effort to clarify concepts and logical relationships but not rounded and well-verified explanations of complex political systems in the real world. Conversely, attempts to arrive at a better understanding of the more concrete phenomena of political life and institutions often sacrifice a good deal in rigor of logic and verification in order to provide more useful and reliable guides to the real world.

There are, however, a number of more specific problems in the analysis of power, many of which have only been identified in the last few decades. Relevant work is quite recent and seeks (1) to clarify the central concepts, partly by expanding on the analogy between power relations and causal relations, (2) to specify particular subsets that are most interesting for social analysis, (3) to develop methods of measurement, and (4) to undertake empirical investigations of concrete political phenomena.

Power and cause

The closest equivalent to the power relation is the causal relation. For the assertion “C has power over R” one can substitute the assertion, “C’s behavior causes R’s behavior.” If one can define the causal relation, one can define influence, power, or authority, and vice versa (Simon [1947–1956] 1957, p. 5).

Since the language of cause is no longer common in the formal theoretical language of the natural sciences, it might be argued that social scientists should also dispense with that language and that insofar as power is merely a term for a causal relation involving human beings, power-terms should simultaneously be dispensed with. But it seems rather unlikely that social scientists will, in fact, reject causal language. For the language of cause, like the language of power, is used to interpret situations in which there is the possibility that some event will intervene to change the order of other events. In medical research it is natural and meaningful to ask, Does cigarette smoking cause lung cancer and heart disease? In social situations the notion of cause is equally or even more appropriate. What makes causal analysis important to us is our desire to act on causes in the real world in order to bring about effects–reducing death rates from lung cancer, passing a civil-rights bill through Congress, or preventing the outbreak of war.

To interpret the terms power, influence, authority, etc., as instances of causal relations means, however, that the attempt to detect true rather than spurious power relations must run into the same difficulties that have beset efforts to distinguish true from spurious causal relations. Some analysts have confronted the problem; others have noted it only to put it aside; most have ignored it entirely, perhaps on the assumption that if social scientists tried to solve the unsolved problems of philosophy they would never get around to the problems of the social sciences. Yet if power is analogous to cause –or if power relations are logically a subset of causal relations–then recent analyses of causality must have relevance to the analysis of power.

In the first place, properties used to distinguish causation also serve to define power relations: covariation, temporal sequence, and asymmetry, for example. The appropriateness of these criteria has in fact been debated, not always conclusively, by various students of power (e.g., Simon [1947–1956] 1957, pp. 5, 11, 12, 66; Dahl 1957, p. 204; Cartwright 1959, p. 197; Oppenheim 1961, p. 104).

Thus, the problem whether A can be said to cause B if A is a necessary condition for B, or a sufficient condition, or both necessary and sufficient, has also plagued the definition of powerterms. Some writers have explicitly stated or at least implied that relations of power mean that some action by C is a necessary condition for JR’s response (Simon 1953, p. 504; March 1955, p. 435; Dahl 1957, p. 203). Oppenheim has argued, however, that such definitions permit statements that run flatly counter to common sense; he holds that it would be more appropriate to require only that C’s action be sufficient to produce R’s response (1961, p. 41). Riker has suggested in turn that “the customary definition of power be revised… to reflect the necessary-and-sufficient condition theory of causality” (1964, p. 348). However, Blalock in his Causal Inferences in Non-experimental Research has shown that defining cause in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions leads to great practical difficulties in research. “In real-life situations we seldom encounter instances where B is present if and only if A is also present” (1964, p. 30); moreover, specifying necessary and sufficient conditions requires the researcher “to think always in terms of attributes and dichotomies,” whereas “there are most certainly a number of variables which are best conceived as continuously distributed, even though we may find it difficult to measure them operationally in terms of a specified unit of some kind” (p. 32). “The use of ‘necessary and sufficient’ terminology …may work well for the logician but not [for] the social scientist” (p. 34). Blalock’s criticism, and indeed his whole effort to explore problems of causal inference in nonexperimental research, are highly relevant to the analysis of power.

Aside from these somewhat rarefied philosophical and definitional questions, which many social scientists are prepared to abandon to metaphysicians or philosophers of science, the analogy between power and cause argues that the problem of distinguishing cause from correlation, or true from spurious causation, is bound to carry over into the analysis of power. And indeed it does. The difficulty of distinguishing true from spurious power relations has proved to be quite formidable.

The most rigorous method of distinguishing true from spurious causation is, of course, experimentation, and this would be the most rigorous method for distinguishing true from spurious power relations, provided the proper experimental conditions were present. Unfortunately, however, as in many areas of the social sciences, so too in the analysis of power, experimental methods have so far been of limited value, and for similar reasons. In nonexperimental situations the optimal requirements for identifying causal relations seem to be the existence of satisfactory interval measures, a large supply of good data employing these measures, and an exhaustive analysis of alternative ways of accounting for the observations (Blalock 1964). Unfortunately, in the analysis of power, existing methods of measurement are rather inadequate, the data are often inescapably crude and limited, a variety of simple alternative explanations seem to fit the data about equally well, and in any case the complexity of the relations requires extraordinarily complex models.

The shortage of relevant models of power may disappear in time. In fact, the causal analogue suggests that the development of a great array of carefully described alternative models to compare with observations is probably a prerequisite for further development in the analysis of power. Again, the analogy between power and cause readily reveals why this would seem to be the case. In trying to determine the cause of a phenomenon it is of course impossible to know whether all the relevant factors in the real world are actually controlled during an investigation. Consequently, it is never possible to demonstrate causality.

It is possible to make causal inferences concerning the adequacy of causal models, at least in the sense that we can proceed by eliminating inadequate models that make predictions that are not consistent with the data.… [Such] causal models involve (1) a finite set of explicitly defined variables, (2) certain assumptions about how these variables are interrelated causally, and (3) assumptions to the effect that outside variables, while operating, do not have confounding influences that disturb the causal patterning among the variables explicitly being considered, (ibid., p. 62)

If power relations are a subset of causal relations, these requirements would also be applicable in the analysis of power.

In analyzing power, why have analysts so rarely attempted to describe, in rigorous language at any rate, the alternative causal models relevant to their inquiry? There seem to be several reasons. First, students of power have not always been wholly aware that distinguishing true from spurious power relations requires intellectual strategies at a rather high level of sophistication. Second, the crude quality of the observations usually available in studying power may discourage efforts to construct elegant theoretical models. Third, until recent times the whole approach to power analysis was somewhat speculative: there were a good many impressionistic works but few systematic empirical studies of power relations. Of the empirical studies now available most are investigations of power relations in American communities undertaken since 1950. These community studies have provoked a good deal of dispute over what are, in effect, alternative models of causation. So far, however, investigators have usually not described clearly the array of alternative models that might be proposed to explain their data, nor have they clearly specified the criteria they use for rejecting all the alternatives except the one they accept as their preferred explanation.

Theories about power relations in various political systems are of course scattered through the writings of a number of analysts (e.g., Pareto 1916, volume 4; Mosca 1896, passim; Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, chapters 9, 10; Mills 1956; Dahl 1961; Rossi 1960; Polsby 1963; Parsons 1963a; 1963b). But a straightforward presentation of an empirical theory of power relations in political systems is a rarity. A notable exception is offered by March’s formulation of six models of social choice that involve, in some sense, relationships of power.

The analogy between cause and power calls attention to one further point: any attempt to develop an empirical theory of power will run headlong into the fact that a causal chain has many links; that the links one specifies depend on what one wishes to explain; and that what one wishes to explain depends, in part, on the theory with which one begins. In causal analysis, it is usually

… possible to insert a very large number of additional variables between any two supposedly directly related factors. We must stop somewhere and consider the theoretical system closed. Practically, we may choose to stop at the point where the additional variables are either difficult or expensive to measure, or where they have not been associated with any operations at all.… A relationship that is direct in one theoretical system may be indirect in another, or it may even be taken as spurious. (Blalock 1964, p. 18)

Some of the links that a power analyst may take as “effects” to be explained by searching for causes are the outcomes of specific decisions; the current values, attitudes, and expectations of decision makers; their earlier or more fundamental attitudes and values; the attitudes and values of other participants—or nonparticipants—whose participation is in some way significant; the processes of selection, self-selection, recruitment, or entry by which decision makers arrive at their locations in the political system; the rules of decision making, the structures, the constitutions. No doubt a “complete” explanation of power relations in a political system would try to account for all of these effects, and others. Yet this is an enormously ambitious task. Meanwhile, it is important to specify which effects are at the focus of an explanatory theory and which are not. A good deal of confusion, and no little controversy, are produced when different analysts focus on different links in the chain of power and causation without specifying clearly what effects they wish to explain; and a good deal of criticism of dubious relevance is produced by critics who hold that an investigator has focused on the “wrong” links or did not provide a “complete” explanation.

Classifying types of power

Even though the analysis of power has not produced many rigorous causal models, it has spawned a profusion of schemes for classifying types of power relations (e.g., Parsons 1963a; 1963b; Oppenheim 1961; French & Raven 1959; Cartwright 1965).

Among the characteristics most often singled out for attention are (1) legitimacy: the extent to which R feels normatively obliged to comply with C; (2) the nature of the sanctions: whether C uses rewards or deprivations, positive or negative sanctions; (3) the magnitude of the sanctions: extending from severe coercion to no sanctions at all; (4) the means or channels employed: whether C controls R only by means of information that changes R’s intentions or by actually changing R’s situation or his environment of rewards and deprivations. These and other characteristics can be combined to yield many different types of power relations.

As we have already indicated, no single classification system prevails, and the names for the various categories are so completely unstandardized that what is labeled power in one scheme may be called coercion or influence in another. Detached from empirical theories, these schemes are of doubtful value. In the abstract it is impossible to say why one classification system should be preferred over another.

Nonetheless, there are some subsets of power relations—types of power, as they are often called —that call attention to interesting problems of analysis and research. One of these is the distinction between having and exercising power or influence (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950, p. 71; Oppenheim 1961, chapters 2, 3). This distinction is also involved in the way anticipated reactions function as a basis for influence and power (Friedrich 1963, chapter 11).

To illustrate the problem by example, let us suppose that even in the absence of any previous communication from the president to Senator R, or indeed any previous action of any kind by the president, Senator R regularly votes now in a way he thinks will insure the president’s favor later. The senator calculates that if he loses the next election, he may, as a result of the president’s favorable attitude, be in line to receive a presidential appointment to a federal court. Thus, while Senator R’s voting behavior is oriented toward future rewards, expected or hoped for, his votes are not the result of any specific action by the president.

If one holds that C cannot be a cause of R if C follows R in time, then no act of the incumbent president need be a cause of Senator R’S favorable vote. Obviously this does not mean that Senator R’s actions are “uncaused.” The immediate determinant of his vote is his expectations. If we ask what “caused” his expectations, there are many possible answers. For example, he might have concluded that in American society if favors are extended to C, this makes it more likely that C will be indulgent later on. Or he may have acquired from political lore the understanding that the general rule applies specifically to relations of senators and presidents. Thus, the causal chain recedes into the senator’s previous learning—but not necessarily to any specific past act of the incumbent president or any other president.

This kind of phenomenon is commonplace, important, and obviously relevant to the analysis of power. Yet some studies, critics have said, concentrate on the exercise of power and fail to account for individuals or groups in the community who, though they do not exercise power, nonetheless have power, in the sense that many people try assiduously to anticipate their reactions (Bachrach & Baratz 1962). This failure may be a result of certain paradoxical aspects of having power that can make it an exceedingly difficult phenomenon to study.

For in the limiting case of anticipated reactions, it appears, paradoxically, that it is not the president who controls the senator, but the senator who controls the president—i.e., it is the senator who, by his loyal behavior, induces the president to appoint him to a federal court. Thus, it is not C who controls or even attempts to control R, but R who attempts to control C—and to the extent that R anticipates C’s reactions correctly, R does in fact control C. It is, then, not the king who controls the courtier but the courtier who controls the king.

Now if we examine this paradox closely we quickly discover that it arises simply because we have tried to describe the relationship between king and courtier, president and senator, C and R by distinguishing only one aspect, namely, the exercise of power. The courtier does indeed exercise power over the king by successfully anticipating the reactions of the monarch and thereby gaining a duchy. But it was not this that we set out to explain. For it is the king who has, holds, or possesses the capacity to confer that dukedom, and even though he does not exercise his power, he gains the willing compliance of the courtier.

What is it, then, that distinguishes having power from exercising power? The distinction could hinge upon the presence or absence of a manifest intention. We could define the exercise of power in such a way as to require C to manifest an intention to act in some way in the future, his action to be contingent on R’s behavior. By contrast, C might be said to have power when, though he does not manifest an intention, R imputes an intention to him and shapes his behavior to meet the imputed intention. If one were to accept this distinction, then in studying the exercise of power, one would have to examine not only R’s perceptions and responses but also C’s intentions and actions. In studying relationships in which C is thought to have power, even though he does not exercise it, one would in principle need only to study R’s perceptions, the intentions R imputes to C, and the bearing of these on R’s behavior. Carried to the extreme, then, this kind of analysis could lead to the discovery of as many different power structures in a political system as there are individuals who impute different intentions to other individuals, groups, or strata in the system.

The distinction between having and exercising power could also turn on the directness involved in the relation between C and R and on the specificity of the actions. In the most direct relationship R’s response would be tripped off by a signal directly from C. In this case, C is exercising power. But some relationships are highly indirect; for example, C may modify R’s environment in a more or less lasting way, so that R continues to respond as C had intended, even though C makes no effort to control R. In these cases, one might say that although C does not exercise control over R, he does have control over R. There are a variety of these indirect, or “roundabout,” controls (Dahl & Lindblom 1953, pp. 110 ff.).

Measuring power

Even more than with power terms themselves, notions of “more” or “less” power were in classical theory left to the realm of common sense and intuition. Efforts to develop systematic measures of power date almost wholly from the 1950s. Of those, some are stated partly in mathematical formulas, some entirely in nonmathematical language. Since the essential features can be suggested without mathematics, we shall describe these measures in ordinary language. (The reader should consult the sources cited for the precise formulations. Most of the best-known measures are presented and discussed in Riker 1964.)

In a rough way, the various criteria for measuring power can be classified into three types: gametheoretical, Newtonian, and economic.

Game-theoretical criteria. Shapley, a mathematician, and Shubik, an econometrician, have jointly formulated a “method for evaluating the distribution of power in a committee system” (1954). This is intended to measure the power accruing to a voter where the outcome or decision is determined exclusively by voting. In these cases the rules prescribe what proportion of votes constitutes a winning proportion (e.g., a simple majority of all committee members). Thus each member has a certain abstract probability of casting the last vote that would be needed to complete a winning coalition, in other words to occupy a pivotal position with respect to the outcome. By adding his vote at this crucial juncture, a voter may be conceived of as having made a particularly decisive contribution to the outcome; thus, gaining his vote might have considerable value to the other members of a coalition that would lose without his vote. Shapley and Shubik proposed measuring the power of a voter by the probability that he would be the pivotal voter in a winning coalition. Because their measure is entirely limited to voting situations and excludes all outcomes other than the act of voting itself, the utility of the measure is limited to cases where most of the other familiar elements of political life—various forms of persuasion, inducement, and coercion–are lacking. [SeeCoalitions]

Newtonian criteria. On the analogy of the measurement of force in classical mechanics, a number of analysts propose to measure power by the amount of change in R attributable to C. The greater the change in R, the greater the power of C; thus Ca is said to exert more power than Cb if Ca induces more change in Ra than Cb induces in Ra (or in some other R). Measures of this kind have been more frequently proposed than any other (Simon 1947—1956; March 1957; Dahl 1957; 1963, chapter 5; Cartwright 1959; Oppenheim 1961, chapter 8 ).

“Change in R” is not, however, a single dimension, since many different changes in R may be relevant. Some of the important dimensions of the “change in R” brought about by C that have been suggested for measuring the amount of C’s power are (1) the probability that R will comply; (2) the number of persons in R; (3) the number of distinct items, subjects, or values in R; (4) the amount of change in R’s position, attitudes, or psychological state; (5) the speed with which R changes; (6) the reduction in the size of the set of outcomes or behaviors available to R; and (7 the degree of R’s threatened or expected deprivation.

Economic criteria. Where the game-theoretical measure focuses on the pivotal position of C, and Newtonian measures on changes in R, a third proposal would include “costs” to both C and R in measuring C’s power. Harsanyi has argued that a complete measure of power should include (1) the opportunity costs to C of attempting to influence R, which Harsanyi calls the costs of C’s power, and (2) the opportunity costs to R of refusing to comply with C, which Harsanyi calls the strength of C’s power over R (1962a, pp. 68 ff.). The measure Harsanyi proposes is not inherently limited to the kinds of cost most familiar to economists but could be extended—at least in principle—to include psychological costs of all kinds.

Designing operational definitions

Empirical studies discussed by Cartwright (1965), March (1965), and others, and particularly community studies, have called attention to the neglected problem of designing acceptable operational definitions.

The concepts and measures discussed in this article have not been clothed in operational language. It is not yet clear how many of them can be. Yet the researcher who seeks to observe, report, compare, and analyze power in the real world, in order to test a particular hypothesis or a broader theory, quickly discovers urgent need for operationally denned terms. Research so far has called attention to three kinds of problems. First, the gap between concept and operational definition is generally very great, so great, indeed, that it is no always possible to see what relation there is between the operations and the abstract definition. Thus a critic is likely to conclude that the studies are, no doubt, reporting something in the real world, but he might question whether they are reporting the phenomena we mean when we speak of power. Second, different operational measures do not seem to correlate with one another (March 1956), which suggests that they may tap different aspects of power relations. Third, almost every measure proposed has engendered controversy over its validity.

None of these results should be altogether surprising or even discouraging. For despite the fact that the attempt to understand political systems by analyzing power relations is ancient, the systematic empirical study of power relations is remarkably new.

Robert A. Dahl

[See alsoCommunity, article onthe study of community power; Political Science; Political theory. Directly related are the entriesAuthority; Balance of power; Government; Military power potential; Power transition. Other relevant material may be found inCausation; Coercion; Decision making; International Relations; Monopoly; Oligopoly; Political process; Social control.]


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family relationshipsbrian jory

marital relationshipscarrie l. yodanis


Family power is important to those who want to understand how families function as a unit to make decisions about how to manage money, about where to live, about occupational and educational choices, about parenting practices, about where to go on a vacation, and so on. Family scientists define power in terms of who is able to influence others to get their way in the family, and who is able to block others from getting their way. In most cases, family power is a property of the family system, not of a single individual, because it is almost impossible for one individual to have their way all of the time. Although the rules that govern power in a particular family may evolve as children are born, grow up, and move out, as the marital relationship changes or dissolves, or as the circumstances of the family changes, power is deemed to be fairly predictable within these stages. This predictability can be a comfort to those family members who are happy with the power arrangements or a matter of disdain, perhaps even a matter of personal health and safety, for those who find themselves dominated by others.

Ronald Cromwell and David Olson (1975) classified family power into three areas: power bases, power processes, and power outcomes.

Power Bases

J. R. P. French and Bertran Raven (1959) took a microsystemic view of family power. That is, they examined power strictly from inside the family and suggested that there are six bases of family power. Legitimate power is sanctioned by the belief system within the family, such as the belief that the husband should be the head of the household, that parents should have control over raising small children, or that adolescents should have control over what they wear. In the United States, an uncle who tries to impose his will on his nieces and nephews might be viewed as a meddler who is trying to exercise illegitimate power. In other cultures uncles are accorded legitimate power over nieces and nephews and might be respected for this kind of guidance.

Informational power has its foundation in specific knowledge that is not available or is unknown to others in the family and in one's ability to verbally present the pertinent information in a persuasive way. For example, if the man in the household is the only one who knows his income, or if he is viewed as knowledgeable about money, then he is likely to make decisions about how money is spent in the family. Alternatively, if a wife can assemble pertinent information about the benefits of purchasing a new car, she may be able to convince her reluctant husband.

Referential power is based on affection, mutual attraction, friendship, and likeability within the family. Positive feelings can be a powerful force in making alliances with others, if others want to make those they care about happy and, conversely, not to disappoint them. A parent's desire to please a favored child, a husband's desire to please his wife, a child's desire to please a grandparent are examples of referential power.

Coercive power involves the use of physical or psychological force in imposing one's way on others in the family, assuming that others are resistant or opposed. Parental discipline, threats, aggression, conflict, and competition are inherent in the use of coercive power because getting one's way is usually realized at the expense of others getting theirs. An example of coercive power: a parent forces a child to attend a school or college he or she does not wish to attend by threatening to withdraw the child's support.

Expert power is based on education, training, or experience that is relevant to the issue at hand. For example, if the woman of the household is a licensed real estate agent, she may have the most influence on where the family lives. If a child has studied the attractions of Florida, he or she may use the expert power accumulated to wield influence on decisions about a Florida vacation. Expert power can also be derived from the specific knowledge and experience of one individual in dealing with a specific issue. For example, if the husband was raised in Mexico, he is likely to be considered the expert about what relatives to visit in Mexico and where to stay on a visit there. Although he may not be considered an expert on Mexico outside the family, within the family he is.

Reward power is the ability to influence others by providing physical and psychological benefits to those who comply with one's wishes. With small children, parents often influence behavior with candy or sweets. With older children and adolescents, the price of power might be more expensive—a new outfit or bicycle. Adults in families often strike bargains, exchange pleasing behaviors, and "sweet talk" others to get their way.

The power bases articulated by French and Raven are often unclear in actual families. For example, if one family member has used coercion in the past, others may have learned that it is best to give in and keep their opinions to themselves. Although it may not be apparent to outsiders, those inside the family may feel coerced even though they do not signal their resistance in visible ways.

Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe (1960) took a macrosystemic view when they presented their resource theory of family power. That is, they looked for associations between power inside the family and power outside the family, and argued that power was apportioned between husbands and wives based on the relative resources that each contributed to the family. Blood and Wolfe specifically focused on the resources of income, occupational prestige, and educational attainment and, based on interviews with hundreds of white, middle-class wives in Detroit, Michigan, demonstrated that the greater the men's resources in these three areas, the greater the men's perceived power within the family.

The resource theory of family power was influential because the idea suggested that men do not become heads of households by divine right or natural biological processes, but because they have more and easier access to educational, financial, and occupational resources in society. The idea suggested that opening up women's access to resources outside the family could result in a more evenly balanced distribution of power within the family.

There has been considerable research support for resource theory in the United States and in Third World countries. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz (1983) conducted a study in the United States and found that when men made substantially more income than their wives, they were more likely to exert greater power in financial decision-making when compared with husbands that made about the same income as their wives. A study conducted in Mexico by R. S. Oropesa (1997) found that wives with higher education were equal to their husbands in family power, felt more satisfaction with their influence in the family, and were less likely to be a victim of domestic violence. A study of 113 nonindustrialized nations conducted by Gary Lee and Larry Petersen (1983) found that the more wives contributed to food production, the more power they exerted in marriage.

There has also been substantial criticism of resource theory. It has been pointed out that income, occupation, and education are only three among many resources that influence family power. Edna Foa and U. G. Foa (1980) suggested that in addition to tangible resources such as money, education, and occupation, intangible resources such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, likeability, love, and comfort impact family power. Actually, any trait or behavior that is valued by others in the family can be a resource that is exchanged for influence and power. For example, in immigrant families it has been observed that the ability to speak the host language can increase one's power if other family members depend on that ability to translate and interpret messages (Alvarez 1995). Among the Fulani tribes of West Africa, who primarily practice the religion of Islam, family members, especially women, can increase their power in the family by practicing traditional Fulani customs of conjuring the spirits of dead ancestors and others who have passed on to the other world ( Johnson 2000).

Most family scientists take a macrosystemic view, first articulated by Constantina Safilios-Rothschild (1967), that the bases of family power are a reflection of culturally defined gender ideologies and gender-segregated resources in the wider society in which a family is embedded. In practically all societies, this means that males have more power in families because of patriarchal beliefs about male authority. For example, a 1996 Gallup Poll conducted in twenty-two countries found that women are almost universally perceived as more emotional, talkative, and patient than men, whereas men are perceived as more aggressive, ambitious, and courageous than women. Even though there may be little scientific justification for these perceptions, they exert a strong influence in favor of male dominance in families that might be diminished through women's resources, but not completely muted.

Power Processes

An examination of power processes reveals that getting one's way in the dynamic interaction of families entails an ongoing set of complex and subtle maneuvers involving communication, commitment, bargaining and negotiation, coalition formation, conflict and conflict resolution, and parenting styles. Moreover, an examination of power processes reveals that in virtually all cultures, variables like the number of children and where the family lives make family power processes more complex.

Willard Waller (1938) is credited with first articulating the idea that family power is sometimes affected by commitment: The principle of least interest states that in disputes involving power, the individual who is least interested in continuing the relationship usually has more power than the one who is more interested in continuing the relationship. In dating relationships, the threat to break up can level the playing field of relative power. In some cases, an individual who feels "one-down" can make the threat and gain an equal footing if the other wants to stay together. In worse cases, an individual who is already "one-up" can threaten to break up and gain an even stronger hand in future disputes. In marriage, the principle of least interest can involve threatening to divorce, or in parent-child relationships, by parents threatening to send a child to foster care, to boarding school, or to live with a relative. Children and adolescents sometimes invoke the principle of least interest by threatening to run away or, in cases where parents are divorced, by threatening to go live with the noncustodial parent. In order to increase power, however, threats to leave must be feared by those one is threatening. Otherwise, they may say, "Go ahead and leave." If this happens, the tables of power could be turned against the one making the threat.

The principle of least interest applies mostly in societies where marriage is a free choice rather than arranged, and where it is possible for men and women to dissolve marriage through divorce. In many cultures, divorce is restricted by social and religious tyranny that makes personal selectivity in one's partner irrelevant to the establishment or continuation of marriage (Swidler 1990). For example, in societies that are ruled by intolerant legalists or religionists, the courts might allow a husband to obtain a divorce simply because he has lost emotional interest in his wife or because she has done something of which he disapproves. In the same society, a wife might not be granted a divorce even if she has legitimate reasons, such as her husband's abuse, desertion, criminal behavior, or, in polygamous societies, if he were to take another wife without the permission of the wife or wives he already has. In these societies, family power processes are so structured along gender and generational lines that selectivity has little to do with the establishment and maintenance of marital and family relationships. Alternatively, selectivity may be applied unfairly, allowing men to make choices that are not accorded to women or children. As previously discussed, family power processes reflect power bases in society: Without power in society, it is difficult to get power in the family.

Anthropologist Janice Stockard (2002) analyzed the power processes of married couples in four cultures and found that parent-child alliances had a strong impact on family power. For example, girls of the !Kung San tribe of South Africa were traditionally married around age 10, usually to men who were much older. Marriages were arranged by the girls' parents, who expected the bridegroom to live with them for a few years following the marriage and help out by hunting for food. Although one might think that these young girls would be powerless in relation to their older husbands, the fact that brides and grooms lived with the girls' parents permitted the girls to maintain strong alliances with their parents. These strong alliances tended to equalize power between husbands and wives, to the degree that !Kung San girls had strong veto powers over the marriage arrangement, which they often exercised.

In sharp contrast, girls in traditional Chinese societies were required to abandon alliances with their parents, grandparents, and siblings following marriage. On her wedding day, a traditional Chinese girl would be transported to live with her husband's family, where her mother-in-law would hold authority over her. The restriction of Chinese girls, who seemingly were not permitted to make many personal choices about their lives, was rationalized with the understanding that they would be compensated in later years by gaining rule over their own daughters-in-law. Because young girls were temporary participants in their families as they were growing up, it was difficult for Chinese girls to form deep, lasting alliances with their parents, grandparents, and siblings.

In Western culture, Theodore Caplow (1968) hypothesized that powerful male heads of households might find themselves at a power disadvantage in families with older children and adolescents because mothers and children might form coalitions to neutralize and override the fathers' power. A study conducted by Brian Jory and his colleagues (1996) found substantial support for coalition theory by observing the power processes of middle class families in the midwestern United States in moderately stressful problem-solving situations. In these families mothers were five times more likely to form power alliances with adolescent sons and daughters than with their husbands. These fathers, who were mostly in high power occupations, were at a clear disadvantage in family power negotiations. The importance of gender in family power processes was evident in another way: The study found that adolescent boys were more active in communication and bargaining than adolescent girls, and mothers offered more supportive communication to adolescent sons than daughters.

Diana Baumrind (1971) studied the balance between power and support in the childrearing behavior of parents in the United States and identified three parenting styles. The authoritarian style of parenting emphasizes obedience, giving orders, and discipline. Parents who exercise this style relate to their children with little emotional warmth because they view the child as a subordinate whose primary need is discipline. Children raised by authoritarian parents often feel rejected because their ideas are not welcomed, and these children may have trouble in tasks that demand autonomy, creativity, and reflection.

The permissive parenting style de-emphasizes parental control of children in favor of absolute acceptance and approval of the child. Permissive parents encourage children to make decisions on their own and to exercise creativity and independence in whatever they do. In the absence of parental guidance and limits, children raised by permissive parents may feel neglected and may struggle with tasks where focus, self-control, and perseverance are required.

The authoritative style of parenting combines a balance of parental control and parental warmth and support. Authoritative parents set limits on acceptable behavior in children, yet do so in an affectionate environment that encourages autonomy, values expression of opinions, and encourages participation in family decision-making. In reviewing a number of studies, Lawrence Steinberg and his colleagues (1991) demonstrated that children raised by authoritative parents—whatever their race, social class, or family type—develop better moral reasoning, do better academically, have less anxiety and depression, feel that their families are happier, are more self-confident, and are less likely to become delinquent.

A study by Brian Jory and his colleagues (1997) discovered that, in families with adolescents, power is not limited strictly to parental behavior, but is a property that affects the family system as a whole in terms of communication, bargaining, how affect is expressed, and how solutions to problems are generated. The study found four types of family locus of control. In families with individualistic locus of control, power resided in individuals who looked out for themselves. In these families, communication was egocentric and calculated, affect could turn negative or aggressive, and individuals sought solutions that benefited themselves at the expense of others.

In families with authoritarian locus of control, power was located in the parents, particularly the father whose role as head of household was pronounced. Communication in these families was directed one-way from fathers to mothers and mothers to children, affect was stilted, and bargaining was nonexistent as solutions to problems took the form of parental pronouncements, exclusively by fathers.

In families with external locus of control, nobody in the family was viewed as having power, and control seemed to be located in circumstances, fate, or the control of others. Communication in these families was chaotic, affect was directed towards others outside the family, and solutions to problems were sought from authority figures and others who were viewed as having control.

In families with collaborative locus of control, communication was systematically elicited from each family member, ideas were valued, affection was warm, supportive, and caring, and great effort was dedicated to find solutions to problems that had the least negative impact on individuals and would benefit the group as a whole.

As each of these studies shows, power processes in families involve a large number of complex cultural and family-related variables, many of which are yet to be discovered by family scientists. Making matters more complex, those variables that have been discovered are subtle and difficult to measure. For example, keeping secrets—an intentional withholding of information—is a form of communication that affects power in families. Withholding information takes away the power of others to make reasonable decisions because they lack pertinent information. How does a scientist measure secrets? This reveals the scientific challenge of studying power in families, but also the importance.

Power Outcomes

Power is an underlying dimension of every family relationship and virtually every family activity, and its importance lies in the fact that having a sense of control over one's life is necessary for the health and happiness of humans, including children, adults, and the elderly. In the studies already discussed, it is evident that power should be fairly apportioned to every family member, from the youngest infant to the most elderly person. If every member of a family has a sense of personal control, balanced with family control, the family can be a source of power and strength through its guidance, support, and care. When someone in the family abuses power, however, the damage to trust, loyalty, and freedom can have long-term negative effects for everyone in the family.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Western society began paying attention to the dark side of family power. A new set of concepts developed that are common in the language of the twenty-first century: child abuse and neglect, child sexual abuse, elder abuse, marital rape, date rape, psychological abuse, wife abuse, and domestic violence. In a volume entitled, The Public Nature of Private Violence (1994), editors Martha Fineman and Roxanne Mykitiuk assembled a number of articles by scholars who suggest that our discovery of family abuse has created a new conception of the nature of family life for the twenty-first century. The old conception that families are guided by a higher moral law or a natural order of compassion has been replaced by a more realistic conception that, for many, the family is a place of anguish, worry, pain, and trauma. These scholars argue that the abuse of family power is not simply a private matter, but is a public matter that needs to be part of the public agenda to be addressed by policy-makers, police officers, judges, social workers, clergy, teachers, physicians, and counselors.

The abuse of power in families is not strictly a Western idea. Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb (2000) compiled imagined childcare guides for seven societies. The variation in parental practices—the do's and don'ts of raising children—from society to society is astounding. For example, it may be difficult to understand why Turkish mothers keep their babies restrictively swaddled for several months following birth (to show that the baby is covered with care). It may seem odd, if enticing, that Beng mothers paint pretty designs on the faces of their infants every day (to protect the baby against sickness). Should parents clean and bathe children? That, according to the childcare guides, depends on what society the child is born into. Although parenting practices vary around the world, one principle underlies all cultural variations. In no extant culture are mothers or fathers legitimately granted absolute power to mistreat their children. There is a general ethical principle that is universal: the abuse of power in families is not socially condoned.

Building on the idea that family power should be subjected to the same ethical principles as other forms of social power, Brian Jory and his colleagues have conducted a number of studies exploring how the abuse of power in families is rooted in ethical beliefs about power ( Jory, Anderson, and Greer 1997; Jory and Anderson 1999; Jory and Anderson 2000). In studies of abusive men (and their women partners) conducted in the United States, Jory concluded that interventions that change the ethical beliefs of those who abuse power in their families can result in a positive transformation of their values and behavior. The abuse of power in families is a challenge for those who shape all societies to transcend the bounds of culture and custom and work towards balancing the scales of intimate justice in all societies by fostering ethical beliefs about equality, freedom, respect, fairness, and caring in families, and by showing compassion for those who are suffering the anguish of victimization, whatever their cultural heritage.

See also:Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Child Abuse: Sexual Abuse; Communication: Family Relationships; Decision-Making; Family and Relational Rules; Gender; Parenting Styles; Power: Marital Relationships; Problem Solving; Spouse Abuse: Prevalence; Spouse Abuse: Theoretical Explanations


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brian jory


Power is a fundamental aspect of all human relationships, including family and marital relationships. Since 1960, there has been a continuing dialogue among social scientists seeking to define, measure, explain, and understand the consequences of power differentials in marriage relationships.

Definitions and Measurement

Power in marriage has been defined and measured in various ways. The first and most common definition of power is the ability of one person to get another to do what she or he wants even in the face of resistance. Based on this definition, Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe (1960) developed the Decision Power Index. To measure power, respondents are asked to report whether wives, husbands, or both have the final-say on a number of decisions within the marriage, including selecting a car, home or apartment, vacation, doctor, husband's job, and whether or not the wife should work. Who has power in the relationship is measured based on who has the final-say.

This index has remained at the core of the dialogue on marital power. Being a short and easily administered instrument, this index continues to be included in surveys worldwide, although occasionally with adaptations. It has also been critiqued, developed, and improved. Nearly once a decade since its development, a review is written that raises methodological questions and concerns about the final-say decision-making measures (Mizan 1994). Many of these problems have been tested empirically.

One problem cited is the discrepancy between the answers given by husbands and wives. However, data from such countries as the United States, India, and Panama have tested this issue and found that wife and husband answers tend to be parallel (Allen and Straus 1984; Danes, Oswald, and De Esnaola 1998).

Another set of problems involves the types of decisions and assumptions about decisions that are included in measures. Merlin Brinkerhoff and Eugen Lupri (1978) and Vanaja Dhruvarajan (1992) present data from Canada to show that decisions are of varying importance and frequency and are made according to gender roles. Women tend to have final-say in some areas, particularly those decisions relating to care work—children, food, entertaining friends, and calling the doctor—which tend to be defined by both men and women as not very important. Thus, it is argued that a measure that gives each decision equal weight results in a flawed power score.

Furthermore, measures of power tend to be outcomes or consequences of power. The outcome serves as a proxy measure of power. For example, the individual with the most power in a relationship may or may not be most likely to make the decisions. Similarly, the division of household labor is an outcome of power differentials but is used in some studies as a measure of power.

It has been argued that it is important to define and measure power as a dynamic process, examining such issues as influence strategies and attempts (Aida and Fablo 1991; Zvonkovic, Schmiege, and Hall 1994). Using a multidimensional definition of power, Aafke Komter (1989) defines power as "the ability to affect consciously or unconsciously the emotions, attitudes, cognitions, or behaviors of someone else" (p. 192) and distinguishes between manifest power, latent power, and invisible power. As the usual conceptualization of marital power, manifest power refers to decision-making and associated conflict and influence strategies. Latent power refers to a lack of decision-making, conflict, or influence strategies as a result of one partner anticipating and deferring to the position of the other. This can result from the less powerful partner believing that they are unable to have influence or fearing negative reprisal. Finally, invisible power refers to an unconscious process in which social and psychological systems of inequality result in one partner being unable to even conceive of the possibility of having input in decision making, engaging in conflict, or using power strategies. In her study of Dutch couples, Komter found that although the couples share equally in decision making, there were uncovered hidden power mechanisms and strategies that result in women wanting more change in the relationship but being less successful in gaining it. As a result, an ideology of husbands' power over their wives was confirmed and justified.


Resources. Like their measure of power, Blood and Wolfe's (1960) resource theory has had a prominent role in explanations of marital power. According to their theory, power in marriage results from the contribution of resources—particularly education, income, and occupational status—to the relationship. The spouse who contributes the most will have the greater decisionmaking power. As with the measurement of power, theoretical and empirical work on explanations of marital power has often emanated from a critique and extension of Blood and Wolfe's theory.

Considerable work has been done within the realm of resources. Some researchers have added additional dimensions to the concept of resources. In a study of marital power in Israel, Liat Kulik (1999) found that not only material resources but also health and energy resources, psychological resources (problem-solving and social skills), and social resources (access to social networks) are directly or indirectly related to power in marriage. Particular attention has been paid to the impact of extended families and kin support resources on power in marriage. In Turkey and Mexico, a wife's ties to her family of origin can translate into power in marriage (Bolak 1995; Oropesa 1997). On the other hand, living in a joint residence with the family of the husband, as in India, has been found to be associated with higher levels of power for husbands (Conklin 1988). In a study of over a hundred nonindustrial societies, in general women have somewhat more power in nuclear than extended families. Nevertheless, in societies where extended families are the norm, women have substantially more power when residence practices are matrilocal and descent is matrilineal rather than patrilocal and patrilineal (Warner, Lee, and Lee 1986).

Greater attention has been paid to the meaning tied to the resources, and not just the amount of resources contributed. A spouse may contribute resources but if this contribution is not recognized as significant and valuable within the couple, the contribution is not likely to result in greater power (Bolak 1995; Blaisure and Allen 1995). From this perspective, unpaid family work can also be a valued contribution to the relationship and not working for pay may reflect women's power rather than lack of power (Pyke 1994).

Resources can also be thought of as alternatives to the relationship. Adding to Blood and Wolfe's theory, David Heer (1963) developed an exchange theory of marital power, arguing that the individual who has the greatest access to alternative resources outside of the marriage relationship will have the most power. In a related argument, Willard Waller's (1951) principle of least interest theory proposes that the spouse who is least interested in maintaining the relationship will have the greater power. Karen Pyke (1994) found that women's reluctance to marry after divorce is associated with their greater power in remarriage. Based on a study in the United Kingdom, Pat O'Conner (1991) argues for the need to also consider a principle of high mutual interest. Results show that women are powerful in relationships where dependence is high and balanced for both women and men. Using data from Israel, Liat Kulik (1999) developed the concept of anticipated dependence, defined as the extent to which one spouse expects to need the other at later points in life, and found greater anticipated dependence to be related to reduced power in the current relationship.

Culture. One of the most significant developments of Blood and Wolfe's resource theory came from Hyman Rodman (1967, 1972). Trying to understand cross-cultural inconsistency in the relationship between resources and marital power in Germany, United States, France, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, and Yugoslavia, Rodman developed the theory of resources in cultural context. This theory explains that the distribution of marital power results not only from an unequal contribution of resources, but also from the larger cultural context within which the marital relationship exists. Cultural gender norms affect the impact that resource contribution has on the distribution of power. In particular, he predicted that in patriarchal and egalitarian societies, the dominant norms would outweigh the influence of resources on marital power. So regardless of wife and husband's contribution, marriages will be male-dominated in patriarchal societies and equal in egalitarian societies. He predicted that the contribution of resources has the most significant impact on the balance of marital power in transitional egalitarianism, societies that are moving from patriarchal toward egalitarian norms, and among the upper classes in modified patriarchal societies, societies in which egalitarian values are new and common only among the upper strata.

The theory of resources in cultural context has been applied and tested in countries throughout the world. Some studies have focused on Scandinavian countries, which are considered egalitarian societies. A comparison of Danish and U.S. couples revealed that although couples in both countries often report equality in decision making, Danish marriages were even more likely to be described as equal. Within this egalitarian society, the resource contribution of spouses still has an impact on the balance of power (Kandel and Lesser 1972). Studies in Sweden and Norway show that even within these relatively egalitarian societies, male power may not be blatant but is widespread in marital relations (Calasanti and Bailey 1991; Thagaard 1997).

Latin American countries are often assumed to be characterized by machismo cultures and families. However, data from Chile, Mexico, and Panama show that although husbands may have somewhat greater power in marriage, many marriages tend toward egalitarianism and the contribution of resources is related to power (Alvarez 1979; Cromwell, Corrales, and Torsiello 1973; Oropesa 1997; Danes, Oswald, and De Esnaola 1998). This tendency toward egalitarianism has been discussed in terms of wider societal change, resulting from social movements, including the women's movement, and economic development.

The connection between culture and resources in the balance of marital power has been examined in a wide range of societies, including Turkey, India, Israel, Romania, Russia, and China. As Turkey and other Muslim countries combine modernity and traditionalism and become modified patriarchies, women are better able to negotiate power, with their contribution of resources having an impact on their success (Fox 1973; Bolak 1995). In Eastern Europe under communist regimes, both spouses worked outside of the home and tended to be egalitarian in decision making, but women remained primarily responsible for household work (Lapidus 1978; Elliot and Moskoff 1983). Today in some Eastern European countries, such as Russia, the woman's role as head of household and breadwinner does not necessarily result in greater power but is a result of necessity and lack of alternatives (Kiblitskaya 2000). In China, where the influence of Western ideology has increased the acceptance of egalitarian relationships, education and occupation are related to the distribution of marital power (Tang 1999).

Structure. The patriarchal and egalitarian differences between societies described above can be considered as not only cultural but also structural differences. Gender inequality is not merely found in norms and ideologies but characterizes the structure and practices of a society's political, legal, religious, educational, and economic institutions. Discrimination and male domination of these institutions result in women's lower access to resources, including income, occupational status, and education; condone and reinforce patriarchal ideology; and thereby contribute to the maintenance of gender inequality in marriage. As Dair Gillespie (1971) argued, marital power can be described as a caste/class system because husbands as a class have power over wives as a class as a result of male-dominated societal structures rather than any specific resources they contribute to the marriage.

Interaction. Researchers have looked beyond resources and culture to examine how marital power is part of the unconscious construction of gender categories and identity during interaction. Veronica Jaris Tichenor (1999) studied couples in which wives had higher income and occupational status than their husbands and found that wives did not tend to have greater marital power. Rather, women and men in these couples act to ignore or minimize the status and income differences and construct the husband in a powerful position, through such acts as upholding male veto power and redefining the provider role to fit the activities of the husband. Examining conversations of women and men, Caroline Dryden (1999) found that wives act to construct their marriage as equal and blamed themselves for aspects of the relationship that were not equal. Husbands, on the other hand, act to construct the marriage as unequal and also blamed their wives for the existing inequality. The outcome of these constructions is the reinforcement of the genders as unequal, with the man in the position of power. Tove Thagaard (1997) also found that power differences displayed during Norwegian couples' interactions served to confirm male and female identity, including gender inequality.

Another aspect of the growing interactionist perspective includes an examination of how couples publicly present marital power. The presentation may or may not correspond with the actual power dynamics in the relationship. In Turkey, couples who are equal in power may present their relationship as male-dominated to outsiders as a way to appear to be in compliance with dominant cultural norms (Bolak 1995). Another study found that couples who define themselves as feminist act to publicly present themselves as equal. Strategies used include maintaining different last names and putting the wife's name first on tax returns or car registration (Blaisure and Allen 1995). In a similar study, couples who claim to be egalitarian were found not to be in practice. However, they used language to create a "myth of equality" (Knudson-Martin and Mahony 1998).

Multivariate models. Attempts have been made to integrate many of these theories into comprehensive multivariate models. Rae Blumberg and Marion Tolbert Coleman's (1989) is one of the most complete. Starting with women's resource contribution, the model factors in societal and individual characteristics that can enhance or diminish women's ultimate economic power and then outlines the path through which women's net economic power translates into multiple dimensions of marital power.


Inequality in marriage is related to a number of consequences, many of which are interrelated and, in turn, reinforce gender inequality. This section focuses on two related categories of consequences: health and happiness.

Health. A lack of power in marriage is a threat to women's mental and physical health. Wives who have power in marriage report lower rates of depression (Mirowsky 1985) and less stress (Kaufman 1988). In India and Kenya, women's power in marriage is related to lower fertility rates and greater use of methods of family planning (Sud 1991; Gwako 1997).

Violence against women is also related to unequal power between women and men. Studies show that women are less likely to be victims of physical and verbal abuse in egalitarian relationships (Coleman and Straus 1986; Tang 1999). However, a loss of men's power relative to women's may also result in a greater likelihood for violence. According to Craig Allen and Murray Straus's (1980) ultimate resource theory, when husbands lack economic or interpersonal skill resources to maintain a dominant position in marriage, they may fall back on physical size and strength—resources that, on average, husbands tend to have more of than their wives.

Happiness. In addition to individual mental health and happiness, the distribution of power in marriage is also related to marital quality and satisfaction. Some older studies found that wives' satisfaction was highest in egalitarian marriages (Alvarez 1979), whereas others found that quality and satisfaction were highest in male-dominated marriages (Buric and Zecevic 1967). These findings may well reflect pressure to correspond with previously dominant gender ideologies. More recent studies in countries such as Norway and China are quite consistent in finding that marital satisfaction is highest in egalitarian marriages (Thagaard 1997; Tang 1999; Pimental 2000). Not only is equality directly related to increased satisfaction but also indirectly related through the development of closer emotional ties and perceptions of a spouse as fair and sympathetic. In addition, marital satisfaction is related not only to the distribution of power between spouses but also the types of power strategies and attempts used. Although the use of any influence strategy has been found to be related to lower marital satisfaction, indirect and emotional strategies, including negative affect and withdrawal, seem to have particularly negative effects (Aida and Falbo 1991; Zvonkovic, Schmiedge, and Hall 1994).


Marital power has been the topic of a dialogue among social scientists from diverse perspectives, cultures, and methodological approaches who build on the past and add to the future. The dialogue has been international, using cultural and societal differences to test and advance theory. The result of this dialogue is rich theoretical and empirical work on marital power. Still, participation in the dialogue waxes and wanes over time. Although since 1990 new insights and approaches have been brought to the debate, as Jetse Sprey (1999) outlines, there is still a need to revisit and rethink longstanding approaches and assumptions to studying and understanding power in marital relationships.

See also:Conflict: Couple Relationships; Decision Making; Depression: Adults; Division of Labor; Dual-Earner Families; Equity; Family Life Education; Family Roles; Gender; Marital Quality; Marital Typologies; Power: Family Relationships; Problem Solving; Rape; Resource Management; Retirement; Rich/Wealthy Families; Self-Esteem; Spouse Abuse: Prevalence; Spouse Abuse: Theoretical Explanations; Stress; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Work and Family


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In its most general sense, power refers to the capacity to have an effect. A powerful hurricane comes ashore uprooting trees and destroying houses; the power of music stirs our emotions; the power of love makes gentle the surly man or woman. We speak of electric or wind power, of powerful machines or human bodies. Many different phenomena with a very wide range of effects are said to be or to have power. The definition of the term therefore has led to a good deal of controversy.

Even more controversial has been the moral assessment of power: is power a good? Should one seek to acquire and to use power or is it the duty of morally conscientious persons to avoid power and the ability it implies of coercing others?

Personal Power

Much of the time, power is discussed only as it manifests itself in economic, social, and political life.

The power to get what one wants.

Most generally, "The power of man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good" (Hobbes, p. 56). The ability to get what one wants because one believes it to be good is what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (15881679) calls "power." Bertrand Russell (18721970), another English philosopher, defended a very similar conception of power. This is power to get what one wants.

The power to dominate.

Much more common, however, is a more limited conception according to which power consists of getting what one wants from another person, particularly if it is ceded unwillingly. Thus Max Weber (18641920) defines power as "the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests" (Weber, p. 152). Power here concerns the relationship between individual actors or groups of individuals where some are able to do as they please in spite of the resistance by others. A similar definition was given by Robert A. Dahl (b. 1915): "A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do" (1957, pp. 202203). These formulations describe a form of power excessively familiar to children who are bullied by classmates or teachers; to their parents who feel oppressed by their employers; and to citizens who must unwillingly obey the dictates of the government, sometimes in the guise of the neighborhood policeman. This is the power to dominate.

The power to manipulate.

However familiar, the preceding definition has encountered many criticisms and has had to defend itself against other concepts of power. Some theorists have pointed out that we do indeed exercise power when we overcome the resistance of others. But power can also shape situations and persons so that they will never think to resist. Instead, they submit willingly to a yoke, which later, perhaps, they may find onerous. The power to manipulate so that resistance does not arise is more impressive than the power to overcome resistance. Telling a child about to be inoculated that "it won't hurt" sidesteps the child's resistance and struggle. Official lies that persuade citizens that they have been attacked by a foreign power, when in fact it is their government that is the aggressor, have persuaded many who would not ordinarily consider becoming soldiers to flock to the flag of their country. The number of casualties in a war and the extent of destruction and suffering imposed would produce strong criticism, but if no one knows about the damage done by the armies, opposition will not develop.

Hegemonic power, or ideology.

Manipulation occurs between individuals and groups. But preemptive shaping of the agendas for discussion and action may be much more insidious and less deliberately deceptive. There are organizational structures that, although not intended for that purpose, function to lessen dissent and opposition. Electoral systems often function in that way, especially in a situation of severe economic and social stratification. The dissatisfied have a ready mechanism at hand for expressing their discontent, but unless they belong to the ruling elites, their efforts will consume a great deal of energy but bear little fruit. Such tamping down of discontent may be the unintended consequences of certain political arrangements. There exists no ready term for power in that sense. Terms sometimes used in this context such as hegemonic power or ideology are often understood in an excessively intellectual sense. At issue here is the power, inherent in existing institutions, of privileged strata of a society to avoid popular criticisms and demands.

These various forms of power, whether intentional or the side effect of certain political institutions, still deal with antagonists who are latent, if not actual, resisters. Were they not misinformed, or sidetracked by the complexities of electoral politics, they would certainly express their discontent quite vocally. These are all different variants of power that some one or some group has over another, individual or group. They are still variants of the power to dominate.

Influence and authority.

But not all power is power to dominate. Influence is the most obvious example of a different kind of power. Frequently someone is only too glad to follow the wishes of another whom they love and who loves them. Their love is strong; there is no shadow of a threat to withdraw love if the other does not yield. But each is glad to do what is asked of them because it pleases them to please their lover. In similar ways parents and children often have influence over one another. Each person has power in relation to the othera power freely givenwhich is power to influence the other. Influence does not dominate and neither does authority: one allows another to influence one's thought and action because the other is an expert, or a revered spiritual teacher. Their power to give us orders or directions is, in some way, legitimate. (The word authority also has a different meaning. "The authorities"not only legitimate authoritiesare only too frequently able and willing to dominate by making us do what we do not want to do.)

Power with.

Neither influence nor authority is the power to dominatepower over. Instead it is power with that arises out of the cooperation of several individuals or perhaps an entire people. We experience this in times of crisis, in a family or in a nation, when everyone ignores their own immediate needs and desires and pitches in to solve a shared problem or protect the entire group against imminent danger. Hannah Arendt (19061975) pointed out that a people gains strength from cooperation, from a shared sense of a common goal or mission: "Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert" (p. 44). The familiar slogan "United we stand; divided we fall" represents the popular understanding of this power that arises out of unity and cooperation. This power enhances the life of a nation and stiffens its resolve and ability to overcome difficult challenges. Only when it loses this power with does a government have to resort to violence. A nation subdued by violence may be tyrannized, but in order to govern it, one requires the support of the people. Only then can one have power.

Such power with exists not only in larger groups but is important in the relations between very few people. Couples find themselves better able to confront problems and to tackle difficult tasks because their shared values and understanding of the world increase their power. Power grows out of the mutual respect and recognition of two persons. Small groups, like families, grow better able to face demanding tasks when their mutual respect and understanding makes each stronger and wiser.

In the intellectual space of the West, power with, if recognized at all, is assigned a subsidiary role. But anthropologists report that among many of the indigenous inhabitants of the American continent, power was traditionally of this sortpower with. The chiefs of many tribes in North and South America did not have any power to dominate or to coerce. They provided leadership because they were respected. Many tribes had two chiefs; one led by authority and the voluntary compliance of the tribe's members in peace time. The other, the war-time chief, had the more familiar kind of powerthe power to coerce.

Comparisons between Western philosophy and Chinese thought are fraught with difficulties. Nonetheless, some experts recognize in Confucian classics distinctions very similar to the ones we draw between power to dominate and power with. Confucianism sought an ordered society through the education of a morally superior elite to lead the nation. For the purpose of forming such an elite, classical Confucian texts reject laws as means for developing this elite and, instead, recommend a civil, humane practice within communities resting on cooperation and mutuality. Laws threaten and coerce. The power to dominate wielded by laws is not acceptable to the Confucian educator who, instead, puts his faith in the power with of communal and reciprocal action.

Impersonal Power

The different forms of power discussed so far, whether variants of power to dominate or power with, are all intimately connected to specific and identifiable persons. One knows who the bully is in a group. One can identify the government functionaries who put out misleading propaganda. One can identify the persons who, through their solidarity and unity, give strength to their group, or even their nation. The power of ideology is more diffuse; it is less easy to identify the prominent contributors to dominant beliefs that reduce the possibility of resistance. But the ruling ideology is promulgated by and in the interest of the ruling strata of the society, and one knows who the members of these ruling strata are. One may not know all of them, but one knows that there are specific individuals and associations of individuals that yield the powers that manipulate the majority of the population. All the variants of power discussed so far belong to specific human beings or groups who wield this power.

But the power individuals wield presupposes complex social arrangements. Thomas Wartenberg points out that a judge's power to punish a convicted criminal depends on an intricate network of other institutions and the different roles these institutions contain. Judges can condemn the criminal only while seated on the bench in the courtroom; they must be within a prescribed context in order to exercise their official role. They cannot do it in their home while lounging in the bathtub. The court is not only a place; it is an institution, complete with court officers, stenographers, lawyers, prosecutors, and so forth. The entire power of the judge presupposes the law and the many different institutions that give rise to the law and legitimate it. The judge's power does not belong to the judge unless there exists an extended set of institutions that function because everyone is doing his or her job and exercising the power that comes with that job.

It is important that the different participants in the drama of crime and punishment understand the significance of the places, the institutions, and the actions of functionaries. Everyone must understand what it means when the judge bangs her gavel and says "Twenty years." Various persons understand that these two words instruct them to lead the criminal out of the courtroom and remand him to the prison authorities who, in their turn, must follow established bureaucratic procedures. In these two words the judge manifests her power and everyone must understand that. For power to function there must be a wealth of shared understanding of the significance of words and actions.

For this reason, Niklas Luhmann says that power is a "code"a quasi language. This conception was first introduced by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, who criticized the conception of power as belonging to individual persons, urging us, instead, to understand power as a "medium" analogous to money as the medium of the economy. An economic system, Parsons pointed out, consists of a large number of offers and demands for goods and services. These offers, and their acceptance or rejection, must be communicated, and money is the medium of this communication. ("Money" here does not refer to the dollar bills in your wallet but to the institution of the market and the banking institutions and other financial contrivances for communicating offers and demands within the economy.) Political institutions correspondingly are the medium in which in politics we pass on messages. Power is a form of "social knowledge."

The importance of personal power.

Power as medium or as code or as social knowledge is, indeed, social; it no longer belongs to specific individuals but inheres in the society. It is interesting to notice that, from the beginning of Western philosophy, the power inherent in societies to shape each of us has been familiar. In Plato's dialogue Crito, Socrates, on the eve of his execution, receives his friend Crito in prison. Crito urges Socrates to escape with him; everything is prepared for him to flee. But Socrates refuses. The laws of Athens, he says, have made him who he is. He owes them obedience even if they are, in his case, applied unjustly. Our culture shapes and constrains us and makes us who we are. While not a modern discovery, this social power has attracted a great deal of attention in modern times. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) complained about the conformity modern societies demand of their members, forcing them to pretend to be persons they are not rather than be themselves. Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) echoes that understanding of the power of social structures. Karl Marx (18181883) is very clear that the injuries capitalism inflicts on workers are not to be laid at the door of individual capitalists because they, too, are under the compulsion of the laws of the capitalist marketplace. The power to exploit inheres in the capitalist system; it is not the fault of the capitalists.

Discussions of the impersonal power of social institutions, the "regime without a master" in the words of Joan Cocks (p. 187), have become even more frequent in the twentieth century. John Dewey complained about the standardization of human beings in modern society. Members of the Frankfurt SchoolTheodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and otherswrote about the power of mass entertainment to regiment members of modern societies and to make it impossible for critical voices to be raised, let alone be heard. The concept of a power not owned by anyone, implicit in these critiques, was then made explicit by the theorists of power, Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, and Barry Barnes.

Popular culture took up the worry of these theorists; the subservience of the individuals to their culture that seemed to Socrates a perfectly obvious and uncontroversial fact about each of us, has in our world become a matter of unease. In many cases this unease takes the form of a polemic against what the author labels "conformism" in such works as The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (1956), or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), and in David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) as well as the novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961). After World War II, talk about authenticity became very commonbeing oneself in the face of great social pressures to conform became a frequently heard moral demand. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recently The Matrix, had enormous appeal because, among other things, they expressed the anxiety felt by many that impersonal forces, unknown to us, hold us in their thrall.

It was left for the French philosopher Michel Foucault (19261984) to attempt an explanation of why we moderns are much more concerned about being subject to impersonal social power. The eighteenth century, he believes, brought many changes: the beginning of capitalism with its much more rational, carefully planned methods of production, the acceleration of urbanization, which brings many persons together in a small space, and the beginnings of the study of humans and their societies. These changes gave rise to many new techniques of surveillance, of controlling and keeping track of persons. The new social sciences developed a typology of persons; each of us exemplifies many different types, being men or women, parents or not, educated or not, belonging to a particular income bracket or not, practicing a particular religion or not, having children in the approved way ("in wedlock"), and so forth. The typologies serve to "normalize," to set standards by which we are measured from birth as being within normal range of variation or needing to be supervised, cured, corrected, counseled, tutored, or otherwise brought back to the norm.

All of these are forms of domination, Foucault argues. But the origins of the acts of domination are obscure. We are dominated by impersonal systems, much more often than by specific persons. "Power is no longer substantially identified with an individual it becomes a machinery that no one owns" (Foucault, p. 156).

The Value of Power

There exists a range of different ideas in the different world traditions about the value of pursuing, having, and using power. Among the Old Testament Hebrews and in Islam, where temporal government and religion are very closely associated, the use and pursuit of power are accepted without question. Both the Old Testament Jews and the followers of Mohammed were quite content to use the temporal power in their possession for the purpose of extending the realm of the one true God. At the same time, the close association of governance and the deity imposed moral limitations on the uses of power. They were permitted only in the service of extending God's realm.

Both Judaism and Islam, in their classical formations, were religions of this world. While Islam speaks of an afterlife, the work of the religious person was in this world to extend and fortify the rule of the divine. Some Eastern religions, by contrast, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, saw everyday life as full of suffering and a realm of mere appearance. The goal of the religious individual was to overcome suffering by detaching him-or herself from ordinary desires, from emotions, from attachment to the things of this world.

Nevertheless, dominant strands of Buddhism and Hinduism were willing to use secular and military power to extend the sway of their religions. But at the same time, Buddhist and Hindu thought made room for a radical rejection of the pursuit and use of power. Doing no harm to any human or animal is an important principle of Buddhism. The thought of Mahatma Gandhi illustrates one version of Hinduism that rejects all uses of power, other than the power of persuasion. It resolutely refuses to coerce anyone or to use power to dominate. In this context, the use of violence is definitely an inferior alternative to the use of nonviolence.

The Christian tradition is equally conflicted. Jesus's saying that we should "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25) has encouraged Christian monarchs and popes to use violence and power to dominate in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, and in the conquest and devastation of the Americas. But there is another Christian tradition of nonviolence exemplified by the Christian injunction that we turn the other cheek to those who strike us (Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29). Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) elaborated this reading of Christianity in his doctrine and practice of nonviolence, which substituted persuasion for coercion.

See also Authority ; Autonomy ; Liberty .


Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970.

Barnes, Barry. The Nature of Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Clastres, Pierre. Society against the State: The Leader as Servant and the Humane Uses of Power among the Indians of the Americas. Translated by Robert Hurley, in collaboration with Abe Stein. New York: Urizen, 1977.

Cocks, Joan. The Oppositional ImaginationFeminism, Critique, and Political Theory. London: Routledge, 1989.

Dahl, Robert A. "On the Concept of Power." Behavioral Science 2 (1957): 201215.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore. Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. Edited and translated by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford: Blackwell, n.d.

Kelsay, John. Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Translated by Howard Davis, John Raffran, and Kathryn Rooney. Chichester, U.K., and New York: John Wiley, 1979.

Parsons, Talcott. Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Russell, Bertrand. Power: A New Social Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1938.

Schmitt, Richard. Beyond Separateness: The Social Nature of Human BeingsTheir Autonomy, Knowledge, and Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. R. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Edited with an introduction by Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Richard Schmitt

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Power is a central concept in the social and political sciences. It is also commonplace in everyday discussions: We often refer to a political party getting into power, or to the power of governments or individuals to perform a particular action or achieve a certain result, or to someone having power over another, or to a country being a super-power. Power would appear to be self-evident. However, power is an extremely elusive concept, and there are numerous disagreements over its definition, foundation, function, and operation. Power remains, as Steven Lukes says, an essentially contested concept (1974, p. 26).

Power is usually associated with the bringing about of consequences. However, what these consequences are, whether or not they are intended, how they are actually brought about, who brings them about and in whose interestsare all a matter of unresolved debate across a number of different disciplines. It is not possible here to give an exhaustive list of these controversies, or to touch on all the many questions regarding the nature and exercise of power. There are, however, several major areas of contention that should be mentioned:

  1. Should power be seen in terms of the actions or capacities of individual agents, or should it be seen as deriving from broader social structures?
  2. Is power a resource or capacity that can lie dormant, or does it only exist when it is exercised?
  3. Does power refer to the ability to achieve certain desired outcomes, or is it a relationship between agents where one exercises power over another?
  4. Does power necessarily involve domination, coercion, or constraint, or can it be based on consent?
  5. Is power exercised only where the consequences of a certain action are intended, or do unintended or unforeseen consequences also count as evidence of the exercise of power?

The remainder of the entry will explore a number of key theories and debates about power, which refer to several of the questions outlined above. It will also trace a certain logical development in the theorization of power from pluralist-behavioralism to structuralism to poststructuralism.


The idea that power has three dimensions or faces comes from Lukes, who argues that the formula for powerA has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do can be seen as operating in three distinguishable, yet interrelated, ways. The first face of power is usually associated with Robert Dahl who, along with Polsby (1963) and Wolfinger (1971), tried to show that power in the U.S. political system was distributed pluralistically. In doing so, they were opposing the ruling elite theorists such as Mills (1956), who believed that power was concentrated in the hands of a dominant group in society. In his study of local politics in the New Haven area of Connecticutwhich he took as a microcosm of the broader distribution of power in American societyDahl argued that there was no empirical evidence to support the idea of a ruling elite, and that, in fact, different groups were influential over different areas of policymaking (1961). Dahls analysis contained the implicit idea that there are plural centers of power in a democratic society. More importantly, its central focus was on decision-making behavior in cases where there is an observable conflict of interests. For Dahl, power is the ability to affect anothers decision-making: A exercises power over B when he can get B to make a decision that he would not have otherwise made.

However, this idea of power as decision-making was criticized for being too one-dimensional. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz argued that power also has a hidden or covert dimensiona second face (1962). Power involves not only decision-making, but also what they call nondecision-making. This refers to the ability of dominant elites to set the political agenda in such a way that certain issues are prevented from being aired, thus precluding the very possibility of a decision being made about them. In situations of conflict, there is often a mobilization of bias against certain interests. The mass media would be an example of this: Whether consciously or unconsciously, it reinforces dominant values and practices, thereby delegitimizing or marginalizing opposing viewpoints and preventing potential issues from becoming actual issues. In this paradigm, power operates not necessarily by directly influencing Bs decision-making, but by preventing B from raising concerns that might be detrimental to As preferences.

Lukes, however, contends that even this understanding of power was limited, because, like the pluralist-behavioralist view, it assumed that power is only exercised in situations of observable conflict between different interests. But what if it were the case that power functioned in such a way as to prevent conflict from arising in the first place (1974)? Here Lukes points to an even more insidious dimension of powerits third facewhere power operates not simply by A getting B to do what he does not want to do, but by shaping Bs thoughts and desires in such a way that B does what A wants him to do as if it were a free and autonomous act. In other words, power may operate as a form of subtle thought-control or manipulation, and may cause someone to act, not according to his own interests, but in the interests of those who are exercising this power. What is being suggested here is that what we think we want and is in our best interests may not actually be soour preferences may be shaped by external influences. Here we might think of the advertising industry, which sells us products that we do not necessarily need or even want, by manipulating our desires. This distinction Lukes draws between subjective interests and real interests is problematic, as discussed below, but his analysis of power is nonetheless interesting for the way it moves away from the domain of individual decision-making behavior, toward some notion of an overall structuring of the ideas and values that shape individual behavior.


The structuralist argument is that power derives not so much from individual or even collective agents, but from their place in a broader social structure. In other words, it is the structural position of agents that allows them to exercise power over others. Marxists like Nicos Poulantzas argue, for instance, that in a relationship of class conflict, the economic and political power of the bourgeoisieand its capacity to realize its interestsderives from its structural location within the capitalist system. In his debate with Ralph Milibandwho suggested that the class bias of the state could be explained by the privileged background and class allegiances of those who manned the state apparatus (1969)Poulantzas argued that Milibands view places too much emphasis on individual behavior, and neglects the effects of structural relations in the capitalist system (1973). In Poulantzass view, power derives from the ensemble of structures that make up capitalist society, which shapes relations between classes and allows one class to dominate others.


Michel Foucault further radicalizes the concept of power by taking it beyond questions of both individual behavior and structure. For Foucault, power is a non-derivative concept that cannot be reduced to the preferences of individual agents, economic classes, or even the structural requirements of the capitalist system. Rather, power must be studied in its own right. Here he introduces a number of important methodological innovations. Firstly, the focus must be on the how of powerbecause power only exists when it is being exercised. There is no mysterious substance called power that can lie dormant without being exercised: Indeed, Foucault goes so far as to suggest that power as such does not exist (1994, p. 336). Secondly, power is relational, rather than an individual or structural capacity: That is to say, power is a mutual relation between agentsboth individual and collective. Power is a way of acting on the actions of others. This implies, thirdly, a certain freedom of action on the part of both agents in a power relationship. The power relationship presupposes that agents are able to act differently, that they have a range of actions open to them, and that power involves constraining or influencing these actions. Foucault argues, for instance, that slavery is not a power relationship because there is no possibility of the slave acting differently. In this sense, power is not a zero-sum game as many suggest: Rather, it involves a dynamic interplay between agents. Fourthly, then, while power is not the same as coercion, neither is it a matter of consent, as Arendt (1969) or Parsons (1969) would claim. While power constrains, there is always the possibility of there being resistance to it, even in situations of domination, where the normally free and reciprocal flow of power becomes congealed.

However, the question of resistance in Foucaults theory of power is also ambiguous and problematic (see Newman 2001; 2004). This is because Foucault sees power as being not only repressive and prohibitive, but also productive: Power produces and incites (1978). Unlike Lukes, who sees power as distorting the subjects real interests, Foucault believes that this notion of real interests is an essentialist illusion manufactured by power itself. Power intersects with discourses and regimes of truth to construct the very identity of the subject. While this avoids the dubious notion of real interests, it would seem, at the same time, to undermine the idea of a firm ontological and normative foundation for resistance to power: The subject who resists power is at the same time constructed by it. Foucaults theory of power raises as many questions as it answers, and it should not be thought that he has revealed some elusive fourth dimension of power beyond which we cannot proceed any further. However, by focusing on the how of power, and by seeing power in terms of relationships rather than as a substance or capacity, Foucault has considerably advanced our understanding of the concept.

SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah; Community Power Studies; Dictatorship; Foucault, Michel; Galbraith, John Kenneth; Mills, C. Wright; Political Science; Politics; Postmodernism; Poulantzas, Nicos; Power Elite; Power, Political; Repression; Resistance; Structuralism; Wealth; Weber, Max; Zero-sum Game


Arendt, Hannah. 1969. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. 1962. Two Faces of Power. American Political Science Review 56: 947952.

Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. Histoire de la sexualité [The History of Sexuality]. Vol. I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. 1994. The Subject and Power. In Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 19541984, Vol. 3, ed. James Faubion, 326348. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan. Miliband, Ralph. 1969. The State in Capitalist Society. New York: Basic Books.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, Saul. 2001. From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Newman, Saul. 2004. New Reflections on the Theory of Power: A Lacanian Perspective. Contemporary Political Theory 3 (2): 148167.

Parsons, Talcott. 1969. Politics and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

Polsby, Nelson W. 1963. Community Power and Political Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1973. Pouvoir politique et classes sociales delétat capitaliste [Political Power and Social Classes]. Trans. Timothy OHagan. London: New Left Books, 1973.

Wolfinger, Raymond E. 1971. Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics. American Political Science Review 65: 10631080.

Saul Newman

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power Power is the concept which is at the heart of the subject of social stratification. It is therefore not surprising that we have seen so many disputes concerning its meaning (including disputes about what particular sociologists meant when they used the term in the past).

Perhaps the best known of all the definitions is that of Max Weber in his essay ‘The Distribution of Power within the Political Community: Class, Status, Party’ (in Economy and Society, 1922). Weber regarded power as the fundamental concept in stratification, of which class, status, and party were three separate (sometimes related) dimensions. Broadly speaking, classes were the outcome of the distribution of economic power (in Weber's terms, market relationships); status was a kind of normatively defined social power; and parties were groups active in the political sphere in pursuit of various goals. Power was then defined by Weber in general terms as the probability of persons or groups carrying out their will even when opposed by others. Note that power is therefore a social relationship. Hence, for Weber, the differential distribution of power leads to a situation where life-chances are also differentially distributed; that is, the ability to obtain economic, social, and political resources is unequally distributed. In Weber's famous phrase, ‘classes, status groups and parties are all phenomena of the distribution of power in a society’. Weber took this view in a fairly explicit attempt to counter the crude Marxism of his day, which made too easy an elision between economic control and political rule. He wished to make clear his view that power need not depend on the possession of economic resources—hence the importance of the concept of status, and his various observations concerning this in his general sociology.

Weber made further observations concerning the nature of power in his political sociology. Few groups in society base their power purely on force or military might. Instead, ruling groups attempt to legitimate their power, and convert it into what he termed domination (or, as Talcott Parsons translates it, ‘authority’). According to Weber there are three bases of domination: traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic.

Is Weber's conception of power adequate—or are there more satisfactory ways in which the phenomenon can be conceived? Steven Lukes (Power: A Radical View, 1974) argues that power is an essentially contested concept; that is, one whose definition and application will always be a matter for dispute between sociologists. How we define power and how we operationalize it will be dependent on our theoretical position and value-orientation. Accepting that, however, is it still possible to improve on the Weberian conception of power?.

If we examine Weber's definition, it obviously has built into it a notion of conflict and intention. The notion of intention can be seen in the view of someone or some group ‘carrying out their will’. This implies a quality of conscious, rational, and calculated action in pursuit of a specific goal. Now, this may well characterize some power relationships, but does it characterize them all? Can power be exercised unwittingly? Should we perhaps see power as involving the achievement of one's preferences—whether by intention or not—rather than as the pursuit of one's will? The other problem we can see in Weber's definition is the assumption of conflict or antagonism which it incorporates. As various critics have noted, the definition suggests that A has power over B to the extent that he or she overcomes the resistance of B if it is offered, implying that—at least some of the time—the interests of B are being sacrificed to those of A. Weber was certainly interested mainly in power in situations of conflicting interests. Many sociologists since Weber have assumed that power involves—even provokes—subordinate resistance which must be overcome by superordinates. Does this mean power can never be exercised in a consensual context; that is, where subordinates accept it as being used legitimately? This is where we have to be more specific about the nature of the power being used. Where power is used over subordinates who attribute genuine legitimacy to superordinates we could talk of authority of persuasion. These are clearly very different from power which rests on force or manipulation. Yet we have to remember that all four of these terms refer to types of power relationships.

The idea of power used in an apparently consensual context also leads to further problems. For example, where legitimacy is attributed in a power relationship, does this legitimacy flow from subordinate to superordinate, implying authority (which is what Parsons and many political scientists would say); or is legitimacy imposed from above, by ‘swinging’ of social norms, implying manipulation (a view which has firm roots in Marxism, especially the Gramscian notion of ideological hegemony)? As Alvin Gouldner (The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, 1970) noted, ‘power is, among other things [the] ability to enforce one's moral claims. The powerful can thus conventionalize their moral defaults.’ And, of course, this is part of what Weber meant by the term social status.

For all these reasons one should therefore remember David Lockwood's dictum: commenting on the problems of studying power, especially when it is recognized that power is a latent force, he observed that ‘power must not only refer to the capacity to realise one's ends in a conflict situation against the will of others; it must also include the capacity to prevent opposition arising in the first place. We often hear that the study of power should concentrate on the making and taking of important decisions. But in one sense power is most powerful if the actor can, by manipulation, prevent issues from coming to the point of decision at all’ (‘The Distribution of Power in Industrial Society—a Comment’, in J. Urry and and J. Wakeford ( eds.) , Power in Britain, 1973)
. So, power involves not only decision-making but also non-decision-making, not only the overt but the covert.

Finally, we should consider power resources. Power is a dispositional concept: it refers to the possibility of a certain action occurring rather than to its actual occurrence. So, power is a potential quality of a social relationship, and as such rests on actors' access to power resources. Quite obviously, in an advanced capitalist society, economic resources such as wealth and control over jobs are vital, but many other power resources exist: for example, organizational capacity, numerical support, competence, expert knowledge, control of information, occupation of certain social positions, control of the instruments of force, and reputation for power itself. The last of these is a unique power resource: it depends not on the actual possession of power but the mere belief by others that it is possessed. Equally, one does not have to own a power resource, but only to control it: senior civil servants and managers provide examples. Between all these potentials for power, and their manifestation, lies one's willingness (and efficiency) to use it. Potential power depends upon certain attributes. Manifest power, however, is revealed not by attributes but through social relationships; and part of the definition of a social relationship is its reciprocal nature. Consequently, the exercise of power involves feedback: A acts, B reacts, A reacts to B's reaction, and so on. Subordinates must have some effect on superordinates for there to be any relationship at all—a point noted long ago by Georg Simmel.

We can begin to see, then, how complex and difficult a concept power is to handle. Once we try to operationalize it we quickly appreciate Lukes's point concerning its essentially contested nature. This, and most of the other issues raised in this entry, are discussed is Dennis Wrong's Power (1979). See also BUREAUCRACY; COMMUNITY POWER; COMPLIANCE; FOUCAULT, MICHEL; GATEKEEPING; MICHELS, ROBERT; ORGANIZATION THEORY; ORGANIZATIONAL REACH; POLITICAL PARTIES; REFERENT POWER; STATE.

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"power." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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pow·er / ˈpou(-ə)r/ • n. 1. the ability to do something or act in a particular way, esp. as a faculty or quality: the power of speech | the power to raise the dead | (powers) his powers of concentration. 2. the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events: the idea that men should have power over women she had me under her power. ∎  political or social authority or control, esp. that exercised by a government: the party had been in power for eight years| [as adj.] a power struggle. ∎  a right or authority that is given or delegated to a person or body: police do not have the power to stop and search emergency powers. ∎  the military strength of a state: the sea power of Venice. ∎  a state or country, esp. one viewed in terms of its international influence and military strength: a great colonial power. ∎  a person or organization that is strong or influential within a particular context: he was a power in the university. ∎  a supernatural being, deity, or force: the powers of darkness. ∎  (powers) (in traditional Christian angelology) the sixth highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy. ∎  [as adj.] inf. denoting something associated with people who hold authority and influence, esp. in the context of business or politics: a red power tie. ∎  used in the names of movements aiming to enhance the status of a specified group: gay power. 3. physical strength and force exerted by something or someone: the power of the storm. ∎  capacity or performance of an engine or other device: he applied full power. ∎  the capacity of something to affect the emotions or intellect strongly: the lyrical power of his prose. ∎  [as adj.] denoting a sports player, team, or style of play that makes use of power rather than finesse: a power pitcher. ∎  the magnifying capacity of a lens. 4. energy that is produced by mechanical, electrical, or other means and used to operate a device: generating power from waste| [as adj.] power cables. ∎  electrical energy supplied to an area, building, etc.: the power went off. ∎  [as adj.] driven by such energy: a power drill. ∎  [as adj.] power-assisted: power brakes. ∎  Physics the time-rate of doing work, measured in watts or less frequently horsepower. 5. Math. the number of times a certain number is to be multiplied by itself: 2 to the power of 4 equals 16. • v. 1. [tr.] supply (a device) with mechanical or electrical energy: the car is powered by a fuel-injected 3.0-liter engine | [as adj. in comb.] (-powered) a nuclear-powered submarine. ∎  (power something up/down) switch a device on or off: the officer powered up the fighter's radar. 2. [intr.] move or travel with great speed or force: they powered past the dock toward the mouth of the creek. ∎  [tr.] direct (something, esp. a ball) with great force: Nicholas powered a header into the net. PHRASES: do someone/something a power of good inf. be very beneficial to someone or something. in the power of under the control of: a church ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit. power behind the throne a person or organization that exerts authority or influence without having formal status. the powers that be the authorities.

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"power." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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One's capacity to act or to influence the behavior of others.

Power may be defined in both personal and interpersonal terms. In the first sense, it refers to one's physical, intellectual, or moral capacity to act. In the second, it denotes the ability to influence the behavior of others. Philosophers have often described power as an integral facet of human existence. Psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) has claimed that power is a more crucial motivation than hunger or thirst.

Rollo May has written about power in terms of individual human potential, referring to the roots of the word "power" in the Latin word posse, which means "to be able." May distinguishes among five levels of intrapsychic power. The most basic level, the power to be, is literally the power to exist, which is threatened if one is denied the basic conditions of human sustenance. The second level, self-affirmation, goes beyond mere survival and involves recognition and esteem by others, while the third, self-assertion, refers to the more strenuous affirmation of one's existence that is required in the face of opposition. The next level of power, aggression , develops when one's access to other forms of self-assertion is blocked. In contrast to self-assertion, which May views as essentially defensive, aggression involves the active pursuit of power or territory. The endpoint in May's continuum of power is violence , which, unlike the other levels, is divorced from reason and verbal persuasion.

Power in its other sensethat of power over othersis a fundamental feature of all relationships, whether each party has a certain degree of power over the other (which is usually the case) or all the power resides with one party. Power may be based on force, acknowledged expertise, the possession of specific information that people want, the ability to reward others, or legitimization (the perception that one has the right to exercise it).

Other bases for power include identification with those who wield it and reciprocity (indebtedness to the wielder of power for providing a prior benefit of some sort). May has described various types of interpersonal power, ranging from harmful to beneficial: exploitative (characterized solely by brute force); manipulative (various types of power over another person); competitive (power against another); nurturing (power for another person); and integrative (power with another person).

Further Reading

May, Rollo. Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

Tillich, Paul. Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

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"Power." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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power (in physics)

power, in physics, time rate of doing work or of producing or expending energy. The unit of power based on the English units of measurement is the horsepower, devised for describing mechanical power by James Watt, who estimated that a horse can do 550 ft-lb of work per sec; a foot-pound is the work done when a weight (force) of 1 lb is moved through a distance of 1 ft. The unit of power in the metric system is the watt, named in honor of James Watt and equal to 1 joule per sec; the watt is used for measuring electric power in most countries, even those still using English units for other quantities. In common usage, the terms power and energy have become synonymous; for example, electrical energy is usually referred to as electric power (see power, electric). See also energy, sources of.

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power power behind the throne a person who exerts authority or influence without having formal status.
power corrupts proverbial saying, late 19th century; now commonly used in allusion to Lord Acton (1834–1902) ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
power of attorney a document, or clause in a document, giving a person the authority to act for another person in specified or all legal or financial matters.

See also balance of power, knowledge is power, powers.

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"power." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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power In mathematics, number of times a number is multiplied or divided by itself. If 2 is raised to the power 3 (written 23, called 2 cubed, or 2 to the 3rd power) it is 2 × 2 × 2 or 8. A negative power indicates a fraction: eg 2−3 is 1/23, or 1/8. A fractional power indicates a root – the power 1/2 is a square root (√), and the power 1/3 is a cube root (3√). Any number to the power 0 equals 1.

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"power." World Encyclopedia. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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The right, ability, or authority to perform an act. An ability to generate a change in a particular legal relationship by doing or not doing a certain act.

In a restricted sense, a liberty or authority that is reserved by, or limited to, a person to dispose of real orpersonal property, for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of others, or that enables one person to dispose of an interest that is vested in another.

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"Power." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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an abundance; a body of armed men; a fighting force; a large quantity, a great numberJohnson, 1755.

Examples : power of angels; of followers; of good, 1770; of goods (provisions); of horsemen, 1553; of fine ladies, 1706; of laymen, 1641; of men of war, 1523; of money, 1680; of poor people, 1661; of servants, 1801; of good things, 1755; of troops; of years.

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A. dominion, rule, authority XIII; ability XIV;

B. body of armed men XIII; one possessed of authority XIV; deity, divinity XVI;

C. (math., etc.) XVI. ME. po(u)er — AN. poer, po(u)air, OF. poeir, later po(v)oir, sb. use of inf.:- Rom. *potēre, superseding L. posse be able, f. *pot- (see POTENT).
Hence powerful XIV.

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"power." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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power In physics, rate of doing work or of producing or consuming energy. It is a measure of the output of an engine or other power source. The Scottish engineer James Watt was the first to measure power; he used the unit called horsepower. The modern unit of power is the watt, named after him.

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518. Power

  1. Force, The mystical source of a Jedi Knights righteous power. [Am. Cinema: Star Wars and sequels]

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power (in mathematics)

power, in mathematics: see exponent.

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powerbower, cower, devour, dower, embower, empower, endower, flour, flower, gaur, Glendower, glower, hour, lour, lower, our, plougher (US plower), power, scour, shower, sour, Stour, sweet-and-sour, tower •Beckenbauer • Eisenhower •Schopenhauer • safflower •passion flower • bellflower •mayflower • cauliflower • wallflower •cornflour, cornflower •sunflower • elderflower • man-hour •Adenauer • manpower • brainpower •willpower • horsepower • firepower •water power • rush hour •watchtower

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