An Exposition on Power


There are no universally accepted definitions for the term, power, and its interpretation varies according to one’s perspective. With that said, the concept of power is still important for critically understanding, assessing, and evaluating relationships. Whether this relationship is as broad in scope as a government or society, or whether it is as narrow in scope as an interpersonal relationship, power is an essential dynamic to relationships. The purpose of this essay is to provide a more nuanced overview of the definition, distribution, and uses of power than is typically found in colloquial usage.

What is Power? What Forms Does It Take?

     Power can be most broadly understood as the ability to cause someone to “do what they would have not otherwise done” (Mintz Close Croci 4). In this sense, power manifests itself solely within relationships between individuals or groups. It is not necessarily the resources that an individual or group has, but what resources they have to other individuals or groups, and how they use (or can use) those resources to achieve their objectives. To illustrate this, we can think of the instance of a strong person. They can use their physical strength to compel a weaker person to do something. Note, however, that when we remove the weaker person from the relationship, there is nobody to exercise power over. In this sense, the strong person is still strong, but they are no longer powerful. Similarly, a strong person might have a strong influence over a weaker person (powerful), but they might have a relatively weak influence over the state police (non-powerful). This demonstrates that power is relative to the relationship. Many political scientists believe that there are two kinds of power: “power over” and “power to” (Brodie Rein Smith 11-12). “Power over” is refers to the kind of power we typically think of: it is a kind of control over an individual or group by limiting their choices or compelling them to make certain choices. When a mugger robs an individual, the mugger uses the threat of violence to compel the individual to choose to give the mugger their belongings. When a marketing executive produces an ad campaign, they use persuasion to compel an individual to purchase their product. “Power over” is the direct power that an individual or group has in a relationship. Some political scientists don’t believe that power relationships consist solely of power over, so they’ve “power to” as an additional kind of power. It refers to the “capacity to realize personal or collective goals” (11). It can be thought of as the kind of power that is permitted through the laws and other institutions of a society. The ability for individuals to affect political decisions through voting is a kind of collective power to. The ability for individuals to speak freely or practice their religion, as permitted by their society’s laws, is an individual power to. “Power over” refers to all relationships of power while “power to” more distinctly refers to relationships in which the uses of power by both individuals or groups is deemed acceptable. While that defines what power is, distinctions are often made between the ways that power is realized and the forms that it takes.

Power generally takes the form of coercion, inducements, or persuasion (Mintz et al. 6). Coercion is the threat or usage of force to achieve an objective. In the example provided earlier, when the mugger threatened the individual with the use of violence, they were using coercion as the means to achieve their objective. Inducement, on the other hand, is the offering of a reward in order to achieve an objective. When companies provide bonuses for their employees when they achieve high sales, they are using an inducement. Persuasion differs from both of these; it is the usage of information to achieve an objective. When an individual uses their credit history to convince the bank to provide them a loan, they are using persuasion. They use the information of their credit history to achieve the objective of attaining a loan. When it comes to persuasion, it refers to all instances when information is used to achieve an objective, whether that information is accurate or inaccurate and sincere or deceitful. Some individuals, such as Joseph Nye, prefer to distinguish between these different kinds of power. Joseph Nye uses the term, “hard power,” to refer to the use of coercion while also using the term, “soft power,” to refer to the use of inducement or persuasion (Nye 1-11). Finally, power can be distinguished in a kind of tiered way, based on the top-down effects that it has. This is the position presented by Steven Lukes in his book, “Power: A Radical View,” and it has come to be known among political scientists as the three faces of power. The three faces of power are: (1) the ability to directly affect decisions, (2) the ability to affect which issues are raised, and (3) the ability to affect the dominant ideas or values of a society. The first case is what is typically thought of when it comes to power. When the police have the ability to execute the law, this is the direct power of the first case. When a politician attempts to persuade voters to vote for them based on their position on an issue, this is the same situation. Beyond this, if the CEO of an environmentally unfriendly company pays reporters and media companies to write positive reviews about the company’s provision of jobs and wealth, they are preventing the issue of pollution from becoming publicly raised. This illustrates the second case. The third case is arguably the most powerful type of power, because it affects the way in which issues and decisions are assessed. It also determines the scope of what resources are powerful and which are not. Many countries, especially in the West, strongly support capitalism. While there are different interpretations of how it should be implemented, it’s generally viewed as a positive thing. Capitalism was not always the status quo, however, nor is it in some parts of the world. Capitalism arose from mercantilism (a system in which monarchs controlled the economy) and has spawned alternative propositions like communism (a system in which the economy is controlled communally). Capitalism had to be pioneered by key thinkers and it had to be established. From this, material possessions and wealth have become a prominent form of power. In a mercantile system, whereas wealth would have some influence, power is ultimately invested in the monarch. In a communist system, wealth (ideally) has very little power due to its even dispersal among community members. Capitalism has resulted in wealth as a form of power, as well as the values of productivity and material prosperity as a way of assessing issues. In short, this third face of power frames power – it determines the way that power can operate in society. While power can be defined in a number of different ways, these are among the most broadly accepted understandings of the forms of power.


How is Power Distributed?

     Power is distributed in the form of power resources, and it is distributed between political actors within the framework of political institutions. Power resources includes anything that can be utilized in a relationship to achieve an objective. So, wealth, as discussed earlier, is a kind of power resource. Wealth can be used to acquire desirable materials and to compel people to do things (through jobs or bribes). Information is a kind of power resource as well, such as when the individual seeking a bank loan presented the information of their credit history to achieve this goal. Their credit history, a kind of information, was used as a resource to achieve their goal. Other resources include time, people power, job titles, violence, and essentially anything else that can be utilized to achieve an objective. Political actors are the individuals or groups within these relationships. The individual seeking a loan is a political actor and so is the bank. Citizens, politicians, governments, organizations, protest groups, juries, and so on are all types of political actors. Finally, political institutions are the mediums through which power is exerted. The free market system of capitalism is a kind of political institution that allows wealth to be used as a viable power resource among consumers and producers (political actors). Democracy is a kind of political institution that allows the will of the people to be used as a viable power relationship among citizens and leaders (political actors). The law is a kind of political institution which defines, limits, or restricts the scope of various actions (power resources) among individual (political actors). So, in short, political actors (like consumers or producers) use power resources (like wealth) within political institutions (like the free market). It is important to remember, however, that some political actors can use the same power resources more efficiently than others (Mintz et al. 8). For example, between two investors, one may be able to make more profitable investments than the other from the same amount of money. Beyond merely noting the form this power relationship takes, there are many different theories on how power is distributed.

While there are many different theories of power distribution, Elite Theory and Class Analysis are among the most prominent at the societal level. Elite Theory, or Elitism, is the idea that society is predominantly controlled by a few powerful elites (Brodie et al. 6). Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, in the early 1900s, posited that elite classes developed naturally according to the talents or qualities of the individuals in societies. In short, some individuals were better than others in some respects and this would result in the polarization of the best individuals acquiring the most power. In a capitalist framework, for example, those who are particularly apt at generating wealth (through investing, innovating, etc.) would gain greater power (such as in the form of wealth) over time (Higley 1). Roberto Michels, during the same period, suggested the concept of the “iron law of the oligarchy.” In his concept, he postulated because of an individual’s position within a hierarchy, they would slowly accumulate more experience, wealth, and other resources over time that would result in greater power. Elites developed, according to Michels, from the accumulation of power due to existing power. He believed this to be unavoidable, although not necessarily desirable (Brodie at al. 7). Class analysis, on the other hand, is the idea that classes develop based on the distribution of products and the means of production. This was the position advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in “The Communist Manifesto.” They argued that capitalism resulted in two classes: the proletariat (worker) and the bourgeosie (capitalist). This relationship consisted of the capitalist owning most of the means or production while the proletariat having very little, if any, ownership over the means of production. This resulted in the bourgeosie having significant power over the proletariat and exploiting them (Marxists 14-21). Class analysis has also gone by different labels, such as Marxism, historical materialism, and scientific communism. These two perspectives on the distribution of power have been very influential in contemporary and recent history.


Power as a Tool for Good and Evil

     It’s common to think of power only in a negative connotation, but it’s important to remember that power has both positive and negative outcomes. The law is a kind of political institution (enforced by political actors like the government, police, and judiciary) that serves to maintain order, fairness, stability, and other such things. The free rider problem is an example of such a problem where power may help accomplish something positive. The free rider problem is where, in groups of individuals, a few individuals may not contribute equally to a group project but may still benefit from the project’s completion. If everybody or most people in the group adopt this mentality, the project will not get completed (Russell). An example of this would be the issue of polluting. If individuals believe that most other people in the group will stop polluting but their own individual actions will not matter significantly (and therefor polluting is okay), then most individuals will continue polluting and no changes will occur. This is an instance where power can help. By compelling each member of the group to do their equal part, projects for the common good can be completed. In this sense, power can be understood as a tool to be used to either end.


     While there are no universally accepted definitions of power, it can be understood as a kind of tool for achieving objectives – one that only manifests itself within relationships between political actors. Political actors may differ in the way they use their resources, the types of power resources they use, or the face of power they can affect. The types of political actors or power resources that are viable and inevitably shaped by the political institutions that confine them. These are important factors to bear in mind when analyzing any sort of power relationship. It should be noted that due to the complexity of the concept, power is difficult to measure and quantity. Nonetheless, a deeper understanding can still provide insights into many topics. Power relationships and structures affect everyone as well, so understanding the concept and its applications provides greater tools for understanding one’s position in society, understanding the kinds of power relationships that are influential, and setting effective goals for realizing the change one wishes to see in the world.


Brodie, Janine, Sandra Rein, Malinda Smith. Critical Concepts: An Introduction to Politics. Pearson, 2014. Print.

Higley, John. “Elite Theory in Political Sociology.” University of Texas at Austin. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.

Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View. Palgrave Macmillian, 2005. Print.

Marxists. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxist Internet Archive. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.

Mintz, Eric, David Close, Osvaldo Croci. Politics, Power, and the Common Good: An Introduction to Political Science. Pearson, 2014. Print.

Nye, Joseph S.. Soft Power: The Means to Success In World Politics. PublicAffairs, 2005. Print.

Russell, Hardin. “The Free Rider Problem.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring, 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.


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