Power in Social Systems II – What Is It? How Measured? How Is It Acquired?

  • May 22, 2014 · 7:00 PM

This topic represents a continuation of the exploration of power.  The first session consisted of an attempt to determine what power is and is not, and how it relates to other concepts, especially influence.  Taxonomy 00 (highlighted) below has been added as an effort to add clarity to the relationships discussed.  Those that took exception to inclusion of an individual and his/her capabilities in the power discussion are referred to Nietsche’s ‘will to power” and the concept of agency.


“… power, per se, is not a proper subject for indignation.  The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it.  It is a subject to be approached with a skeptical mind but not with one that has a fixation of evil.  Judgment thereon must be rendered, but no general judgment applying to all power can possibly serve.” – JK Gailbraith, 1983

 [This sentiment is echoed by most of the authors who have seriously undertaken the effort to describe and analyze power, rather than just trying to find reasons to condemn it.  Also, Galbraith coined the term “conventional wisdom” that is an idea is thought to be true because one thinks that everyone else thinks it is true.]

The intent here is to identify the different types of power that can be compiled/derived, their sources, and relationships and transactions that can transfer or transform power.  We will try to identify measures, other than money, that can be used to value the quantity and quality of a type of power as a potential.  [The initial focus will be to try to find non-money measures, using the last third of the time to examine the role money plays in facilitating the employment of power.]  Finally…What power resources can money buy?

[Appeal for Neutrality/Objectivity in Discourse:  I would also like to lodge an appeal to approach this topic using the most neutral discourse possible so as to avoid getting locked into one corner of a spectrum without ever discussing alternative explanations.  This objective may be served by avoiding such patterns as pejorative/demonic labeling (e.g., ideology vs. beliefs, greedy, status hungry, power hungry, exploitation), folk psychology (attribution of motivations/intentional stances to people the speaker has never met and vague rationalization of beliefs/personal stances), conspiracy theories, broad generalizations from a few anecdotes, etc.]

Concepts of Power

  a.  To what extent and how can we get what we want? (KE Boulding, 1989)

  b.  Our capacity to get other people to do things that contribute to what we want. (KE Boulding, 1989; Wrong, 1988; Russell, 1938)

c.  Instrumentalism:  Using other people as a means to one’s own ends. (Kant, 1785)

  d.  Ability of one or more persons to realize their own will in a communal act against the will of others. (Max Weber, 1954)

  e.  Power is the ability to employ force, not its actual employment, the ability to apply sanctions, not their actual application. (R Bierstedt, 1974; also DH Wrong)

  f.  Is it “power to” or “power over”?  Also, “freedom to”?  (DH Wrong, 1988)

Nature of Power Relationships:  Dominance vs. Acquiescence?  Leadership vs. Cooperation?  Authority vs. Acceptance?  Exploitation vs. Submission?  Subject vs. Object?  Subject vs. Subject?  Agency?  Exchange?  Teamwork?  Joining groups?  [Other pairs of antonymic terms may be more appropriate or useful for characterizing power relationships.]

Domains:  Personal/family/school/neighborhood, production and trade/exchange; voluntary groups (shared values), alliances/coalitions, pluralist groups (group anarchy), favored/privileged groups, and elites; governance (institutions, services and public goods; social order, legal system, enforcement); politics (policy discourse, policy choice/legislation/laws/rules, representation--delegation of agency), elections, review/recall); intergovernmental/ international, foreign policy and military; environment; scientific community; media.

Sources/Limits:  Personal resources (capabilities, knowledge--how to, emotional quotient--social skills, street smarts, delayed gratification, tenacity, follow-through, job/career, family/friends/mentors, internalized moral duties), success image (charisma, income level, wealth, benevolence, budget, academic attainment, company-you-keep, rank/grade level/title, key-note speaker/ honorariums, consultancy, morality),  economic (convertible/fungible materials, property/eminent domain, income/wealth/benefits), jobs (income, learning), constituents (consumers, investors, donors, employees, group members, campaign workers, donations/fund raisers, voters/eligible non-voters), out-of-district supporters (fund raisers, donors) , incumbency, years in job, legislation (laws/rules/public goods choices/positions, set-asides, sponsorships, votes/appropriations) contract funding, committee chairmanships, patronage, delivering on promises/contracts, doubts, fears, legislative opportunities and normative issues/legitimacy (social, moral, and legal expectations); message (quality/resonance), constituent beliefs, unequal resource distribution, “big man” selection principle--brings most benefits back to tribe, Peter Principle (capabilities/leadership; begins with initiatives and hiring), brand loyalty, market share, ideas/product and production technology/patents; military conscription/draft; temporal omniscience/unintended consequences; business competition/barriers to entry; government competition (state and local, globalization; tax/regulatory/trade policies).

Miscellaneous Concepts/Factors:

  a. Power is a capacity that states a potential relation.

  b. Power is a concept without meaning in the absence of human valuation and human choice.

  c.  Authority is viewed as “legitimate power”. (H Gerth and CW Mills)

d.  [Compliance] may rest upon fear, rational calculation of advantage, lack of energy to do otherwise, loyal devotion, indifference, or a dozen other individual motives. (H Gerth and CW Mills)

e. Does victim theory always imply an adverse power relationship.

  f. Wordsmithing:  Some words that enter into the debate over good-evil, benign-malign, beneficial, sinister, etc. include impact, manipulate, control, empowerment, et al.  Books on influencing and manipulating also evoke debate.

  g.  Power can serve as a hedge over uncertainties of the future.

Taxonomy 00 (R Bierstedt, Power & Progress, 1940-1965+)

A.  Power [social], distinguished from Prestige, Influence, Dominance, and Rights [also knowledge, eminence, strength, authority, and force].

  1.  Prestige – There are many prestigious groups that have no power, but powerful groups are frequently prestigious.  The class with the most prestige will have the most power. [DH Wrong]  Knowledge, eminence, skill, and competence may accompany power, but have nothing intrinsically to do with [the application of] power. [There are others (mostly more modern) who value these factors more highly as contributors to power.]  Ideas are influential and can change the course of history.  Prestige can affect the location of power.

  2.  Influence – Influence is persuasive, where application of power must be coercive.  One submits[?] voluntarily to persuasion, but power requires submission[?].  Influence lacks efficacy unless it is transformed into power.

3.  Dominance – Power is a sociological phenomenon (behavior, social structure), while dominance is psychological (mental state,

  4.  Rights – Rights are more closely associated with privileges and authority than power.

B,  Power, Force, and Authority – Inter-relationships

  1.  Power is latent force; predisposition, or prior capacity that makes the use of force possible.  Threat is force

  2.  Force is manifest power; production of an effect; interference with a person, [including movement from rest or indifference]; force vs. violence--.

  3.  Authority is institutionalized power.

Taxonomy I

(KE Boulding,

Three Faces of Power

, 1989)

A.  Kinds of Power (Dimension 1)

  1.  Destructive – power to do injury/damage; overcoming other persons, will, or institution; includes threat of the foregoing and revolutionary initiatives

  2.  Productive – power to construct from resources (labor, materials, capital equipment, knowledge, ideas, a purpose, a plan); includes construction of weapons

  3.  Integrative – power to build an organization, create families and groups, bind people together, inspire loyalty, develop legitimacy (normativity); includes power to alienate (fear, envy, jealousy) and create enemies.

B.  Characteristic Behaviors in Power Relationships (Dimension 2, correlates with Dimension 1)

  1. Threat (including offensive action).  Reactions to threat includes submission, defiance, counterthreat, and flight.

  2.  Exchange  - including purchase of goods and services, reciprocal services; discourse; bargaining; quality factors include ratio of exchange, honoring commitments, and satisfaction which may affect future transactions.

  3.  Love/respect - including family nurturing, romantic and other close personal friendships, shared values, teams-including military, patriotism, professional associations, brand and neighborhood loyalty, moral commitments/altruism.  Failure to observe implied personal commitments can result in destructive hateful behaviors.

C.  Types of Institutions by Which Power is Exercised (Dimension 3 correlates with Dimension 2) – personal, interpersonal and social (group), economic, political, and military.  [See Domains above.]

D.  Sources –  [See Sources/Limits above.]

Taxonomy II (DH Wrong, 1989)

A.  Forms of Power (intended influence)

  1.  Force (physical and psychic)

  2.  Manipulation (hidden /secretive/disguised persuasion)

  3.  Persuasion

  4. Authority (coercive, induced, legitimate, competent, personal)

B.  Qualitative Measures of Power Relations

  1.  Extensive - number of objects of relationship (1-on-1 vs. president)

  2.  Comprehensive – variety (number of scopes) of possible actions (parent vs. special interest group); division of labor, homogeneity

  3.  Intensive – How far can subject push objects before losing compliance? Boundaries?  boss, extremes of the political parties

Taxonomy III (JK Galbraith, The Anatomy of Power, 1983)

A.  Kinds of Power

  1.  Condign (appropriate/measured treatment) – wins submission by the ability to inflict or threaten a sufficiently unpleasant or painful alternative to the preferences of the individual or group so that these preferences are abandoned.

  2.  Compensatory – wins submission by the offer of affirmative reward.

  3.  Conditioned – is exercised by changing belief through persuasion, education, or social commitment to what seems natural, proper, or right.

B.  Sources

  1.  Personality (Condign) – Wins submission by persuasion…cultivating belief.

  2.  Property – Wealth, success image

  3.  Organization I – Common purposes

  4.  Organization II - Complete (totalitarian) control


a.  I had intended to include material on economic/ruling elite as discussed by CW Mills and G Mosca  and corporation critics (N Chomsky, Huffington Post, et al) but press time arrived first.

b.  Executive Compensation – If someone expects to be compelled to mention executive compensation, I suggest this article:  Negotiating Success: What to Learn from Marissa Mayer’s Compensation Package [Yahoo]

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  • Larry

    I looked into the question Why were native Americans not enslaved. Big surprise. They were enslaved big time.

    May 23

  • Carolyn

    Good meet........and now for the off switch.........................................

    May 23

  • Craig Y.

    Power is what can get things done. That can be further divided into force(hard power) or love (soft power). Each of which can be further divided into the application mechanics/methodologies which is dependent on the context of time and space. Certain methods are successful in the application of power on one context but not on the other. As the conditional context changes with time, arrogance prevents the person who had power before to adapt the old methods to the new context (which he does not have the humility to recognize) resulting in losing power. Arrogance also makes one exercising hard power ignoring needs of others or the other part of power (love) also limits his power.

    Kenney set the agenda for NASA space besides standing up in the cold war. He did not cater to the hawks and resulting losing life and power. Nixon, a master tactician, setting the stage of the collapse of the Soviet, after Vietnam war, ignored the liberal media resulted in his losing office and power.

    May 22

  • Stan

    Further thoughts:

    It isn’t about the kind of power that one exerts because they can. It’s about the ‘value’ of power which ‘others’ allow you to have that is sacred - - so that leadership then takes on the core precepts of humility, empathy and perseverance.

    May 22

  • Stan

    Count me in tonight:

    'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' -- Lord Acton

    'When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.' -- Jimi Hendrix

    'Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.' - - MLK, Jr.

    May 22

  • Gene R.

    Craig Ref 1): Hopefully, as we work our way through the domains and sources/resources/limits, we will identify the transactions that support acquisition of power, and its application and transformation. Trying to create a path for discussion when dealing with a matrix is always difficult.

    May 22

    • Craig Y.

      Gene: Sorry would not able to attend again, a little too far. There are reasons that one does not have sources of power. How is he going to change that: In one's wish to transform from powerless to the powerful, there are roadblocks thrown in his way to stop him. How is he going to deal with that, because he does not have the power to deal with that in the first place.

      May 22

  • Carolyn

    so,at this point with our planets current population, and technological connections worldwide, I believe that power, in the form of control, is what we are actually gravitating towards; a worldwide same page, for better or worse....with no guarantees. Anything beyond that is an illusion of our puny selves. The ultimate power of natural forces makes that very clear.

    May 21

  • Craig Y.

    Just a couple of questions:
    1) Not too much reference on how power is acquired for a person who does not yet have it.
    2) Power is relational. Mother can be very powerful as far as son is concerned, but the same can't influence anybody else. Dinosaur was powerful but not to the climate change, mammal was more powerful and survived.

    May 21

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