Power is a concept that cuts across a variety of social science disciplines, including sociology, political science, and criminal justice. Power is located at all levels of social life, from personal interactions, to relationships in institutional settings such as schools and prisons, and to the highest levels of corporate and governmental decision making and action. The organization and exercise of power, moreover, raise crucial ethical questions both for those who exercise power and those subject to it.
Power and Social Action
Max Weber defined power as the capacity of an actor to realize his/her will in an action with other actors even against the resistance of other actors participating in the action. Actors may be individuals, groups, institutions, corporations, or nation-states. The essential features of power are the will of one actor meeting the resistance of one or more other actors. Power is the capacity to overcome that resistance.
There are a variety of resources that enable those seeking to exercise their will over others utilize for overcoming the resistance of other actors. The three major resources are force or the threat of force, financial or economic remuneration, and providing reasons for the action that persuade resisting actors to support and engage in the action.
The use or threat of force may overcome resistance. The efficacy of force depends upon the manner in which it is used or threatened and the degree to which resisting actors are willing to comply with it. At one extreme, a mere show of force may be sufficient to overcome resistance. At the other extreme, the exercise of force or coercion may not dissuade resistance. Actors may be more willing to sacrifice even their lives rather than comply with the will of those in power. Even in situations in which force is effective, it is the least efficient means of exercising power. Force requires personnel to threaten and utilize instruments of violence and coercion.
This demands both training and investment in material resources, such as arms and munitions and detention facilities. These human and material resources, moreover, must be continually maintained and renewed. Beyond these costs, those subject to force rarely identify with the will and interests of those exercising it. Subordinates are not motivated to perform their actions with devotion to detail and with maximum effort. Rather, they typically comply with low levels of enthusiasm and minimal involvement in tasks. The threat or use of force, then, combines high costs to those exercising power and low levels of motivation for those in subordinate positions. Finally, given the hostile relationships between those in power and those subject to it, there is always the possibility of violent resistance and all the costs associated with the disruption it entails.
Economic remuneration has advantages over the use or threatened use of force. Overcoming resistance by paying or providing a reward for engaging in a task or an action does not require investments in personnel and materials for forcing compliance. In addition, the motivation of the resisting individual or individuals is tied to the action by self-interest: Submitting to the will of another for rewards or payments makes the task or action meaningful and valuable. Typically, actions motivated by self-interest based on rewards are more efficient, more attuned to detail, and more engaged than actions motivated solely by fear of force.
While these are advantages, remuneration has some shortcomings. First, while less costly than force, it still requires expenditure of resources. This varies depending on the needs and conditions of those resisting. Also, while subordinates are engaged in the action based on self-interest, they do not have any intrinsic commitment to it. Depending on the action, the duration of effects desired by those overcoming resistance may be limited. For example, students who are paid to study who get good exam grades often do not retain what they have learned. Their rewards were extrinsic to the activity they were engaged in rather than realizing any intrinsic value or reward from the activity or the relationship with those providing the reward.
Domination is a third type of power that overcomes resistance of those engaged in action. In domination, resistance is overcome by providing reasons for engaging in the action that are meaningful to the actor and make the action intrinsically valuable. Whether resistance is overcome based on the personality and trust in those providing the reasons, or whether the reasons are based on traditionally shared religious or philosophical beliefs, or whether the reasons are based on law or science, the will of the actor becomes positively tied to the action. In its purest form, domination does not require investments in personnel or materials, nor does it require monetary payment or rewards for engaging in action. Domination effectively overcomes resistance and motivates actors based on shared beliefs between superordinates and subordinates.
Power as Normalization
In modern societies characterized by large populations, complex divisions of labor, centralized governments, corporations, technological innovation, and extensive market economies, power is increasingly located in institutions and legitimized through rational law and norms and empirical sciences. Power tends to become increasingly impersonal and exercised by officials who are in positions of authority based on knowledge validated by educational credentials. Power becomes systemic and defined in terms of individuals being productive members of society.
In this constellation of social organization and relationships, Michel Foucault argued that power is realized through processes and discourses of normalization. In these processes and discourses, individuals are located in specific spaces where they are subject to surveillance by those in positions of authority. In institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, mental institutions, and places of work, individuals are made distinct from one another by locating them in seating arrangements, cells, beds and wards, and desks and work stations. At these locations, they are judged on the basis of norms relative to the tasks that they are required and encouraged to perform and by the progress they are making in recovering from mental, physical, or moral ailments. Each individual in rendered into a case that is documented in a file replete with diagnostic testing, performance scores on varieties of tests, and anecdotal observations by those in positions of authority.
Discipline is a core feature of normalization. In a variety of institutional settings, individuals are subject to timetables of activity through which their day is defined. They are subject to routine, repetitive tasks. In this light, discipline is a form of power that affects not only the mental life of the individual but also her or his body. It combines both mental and physical control of the individual that renders the individual healthy, productive, and capable of performing in the social system. The individual, moreover, internalizes the expectations of these routines, the value of the rewards associated with them, and the sensibility that he or she is under surveillance.
As a form of power, normalization develops knowledge that expands its range and application. Individuals are categorized and judged on the basis of definitions of normality, both in terms of averages calculated from tests and in terms of considerations of what is optimal performance or recovery. Data is aggregated and combined, and comparisons are articulated. Based on the data developed through these practices and continued observations of individuals in institutional settings, concepts and theories of deviance, crime, education, mental illness, disease, and work performance are formulated. Focused on explaining and predicting behavior, these knowledges are located in institutional settings of universities, government agencies, think tanks, and nonprofit and for-profit corporations. Thus, social institutions, knowledge, and power are not fully separate and distinct from one another. Rather, they are aspects of a process of power formation that serves to constitute society.
Social Sources of Power
While power, considered in terms of both social action and normalization, is analyzed in terms of processes and discourses, power is also studied as emerging from patterns of organization and distribution of social resources. This general framework provides the grounds for alternative approaches to the social sources of power.
One broad view considers power to serve the integration of society as a whole and to provide the means for enabling society as a whole to maintain itself in existence, set goals, and realize them. This approach, associated with Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, views society as an organism composed of a variety of specialized structures that perform the functions necessary to maintain the integrity of society as a whole, and to continue the existence of society by adapting to environmental contingencies, integrating individuals through processes of socialization, and developing and realizing goals. The underlying basis for social integration is social solidarity rooted both in shared values and beliefs and functional relationships. Power, in effect, is a result of the organization of society as a whole and is based on a consensus of values and beliefs. As society develops and grows in complexity, structures become more differentiated from one another. As a result, the shared beliefs and values that are sources of integration tend to become increasingly functional. Whatever the specific levels of complexity of any concrete society, power results from the unity of society, the integration of its structures and institutions, and the shared values and beliefs of its individual members.
While structural functionalism focuses on power as a result of integration and consensus, other approaches are more focused on the distribution of social positions and resources that enable the exercise of power. From this perspective, power is tools used by organized groups and individuals to realize their values and interests. The concern is more focused on differences in power and relations internal to society. Among the versions of power from this perspective are pluralism, class conflict, and corporate elite theories.
Pluralists, such as Robert Dahl and Lawrence Friedman, view power as an outcome of decentralized distribution of economic, social, and political resources and relationships. Consistent theories of free markets; rough equality in the distribution of such resources as capital, skills, and knowledge; and rough equality of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and political participation. Based on these principles of rough equality, people organize themselves into interest groups based on their economic locations and values. Power is always shifting and fluid, since interest groups may change and form different coalitions based on specific issues and concerns. At the level of public decision making, power is exercised by these shifting coalitions by affecting public opinion, through representations in cultural and media outlets, and through political parties and elections. In this light, power is fluid, exercised through democratic institutions, and an instrument of broad-based public opinion.
In contrast to the assumptions and vision of pluralism, Karl Marx’s class conflict theory views power as emerging from clashing social locations and interests of two major social classes, ruling classes that own the means of production and broadly defined working classes. Historically considered, ruling classes derive their incomes through the ownership of property, primarily in the means of production through which society satisfies its material needs. Based on property ownership, ruling-class individuals accumulate wealth and are free from the immediate needs to earn a livelihood. They not only have high levels of consumption, but also utilize their accumulated wealth to engage in politics, law, and developing ideas that are disseminated through the society by news organizations, cultural institutions, religious institutions, and schools.
While working classes also have their interests represented through trade unions, political parties, and cultural outlets, they are generally less able to exert their interests than ruling classes. In part, this is because capital is free to move around the globe seeking low wages and new opportunities for profit, while working people are more geographically limited. While ruling classes are generally dominant through their control of economic and political institutions, their power is not total. Rather, ruling-class power is limited because of differences among sectors in the ruling class, such as conflicts between those who derive their incomes from finance and those who derive their incomes from industry, and because of different values, such as religion or the importance of environmentalism. Also, working-class movements and political organizations challenge ruling classes politically. Based on these tensions and contradictions, it is best to characterize this approach to power in terms of class conflicts within a society generally dominated by the powers of ruling classes.
The corporate elite approach, developed by C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, agrees with much of the class conflict approach regarding the power of ruling classes. While wealth is a very important source of power, it is crucial to analyze power in terms of elites, that is, people who are in positions at the top of hierarchies in corporations, the political and media arenas, the executive branch of government, and the military. To be sure, corporate elites are drawn largely from the ruling class; yet, there are also some people who come from humble origins and rise through the ranks of corporate, political, government, and military hierarchies to achieve elite status. Through marriage and elite social networks, these people may become wealthy members of the ruling class.
Corporate elites emerge from the development of a concentrated, industrial and postindustrial, and highly technological corporate economy that requires coordination with financial, governmental, educational, and scientific sectors of society. Coordination of this highly complex society requires managerial and technical expertise and decision making. The leaderships of the various sectors of society intermingle with one another, socialize together, go to the same schools and resorts, live in the same residential areas, and tend to intermarry. This provides the social basis and common knowledge and understandings that are the foundations for elite agenda setting and decision making. In particular, using their financial, intellectual, and social capital, elites form institutions to develop knowledge and social policies dealing with such issues as social insurance and welfare, taxation, crime and criminal justice, education, economic growth, and energy. These elite policy-making institutions provide forums for discussing policy issues among legislators and their staffers and are more broadly disseminated through news outlets. While there are alternative policy-making institutions rooted, for example, in the labor, civil rights, and environmental movements, elite policy-making institutions exercise power by their capacity to set agendas in lawmaking and in public discussion.
Power and Ethics
As power becomes more located in corporate, government, and institutions such as prisons, schools, and workplaces, both the structure of power and relationships among those people who exercise it and those subject to it raise important ethical issues. One broad question is the degree to which the concentration of wealth and elite decision making is consistent with the principles of democracy. What does equal citizenship and participation mean in a society where wealth and income are concentrated in a small number of families, where corporations are free to make decisions about plant closures and the movement of jobs in a global economy, and where the terms of policy debates and law creation are largely set by elite institutions?
Conflicts of interest in the exercise of power raise additional ethical questions. Broadly defined, a conflict of interest is the exercise of power by someone in an official capacity who uses that power to benefit her or himself rather than the institution or individual they are serving, or has the appearance of providing such benefit. For example, in the corporate finance sector of the economy, officers appointed by boards of directors are ethically bound to place the interests of the firm and shareholders above their personal interests.
Such officers are often in situations where they have information regarding the profits and performance of their companies that puts them at an advantage compared to average shareholders and the general public regarding when to buy or sell stock. This issue of insider trading is an important ethical and legal question that requires regulation. In government, both elected and appointed officials, as well as employees, may face situations in which the decisions they make pose ethical questions by raising conflicts of interest: Should officials participate in making a zoning decision that may either positively or negatively affect the value of property they own? Should officials accept gifts with a substantial value from entities subject to their decision making?
Issues involving conflicts of interest are often regulated by ethical codes that provide both rules on how to manage them and sanctions for when they are violated. Officials may be either required or recommended to recuse themselves from decision making in which they have a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest. They may also be required to provide information about their financial and property holdings as well as connections that family members may have to entities they regulate. They may be required to provide information about gifts they receive from entities they regulate. They may ask for guidance or advisory opinions with regard to their participation in decision making or actions in which they suspect there may be a conflict of interest.
A final ethical issue is how those exercising power, from corporate executives to prosecutors, judges, police officers, teachers, and social workers, balance their own values and beliefs against the actual consequences of their decisions. To be sure, people in positions of power over others are bound by ethical and legal constraints. Indeed, one of the main promises of the rule of law is to limit arbitrary decisions and actions by those in authority. Yet, those in authority generally exercise some measure of discretion in actions and decisions. In this light, the values and ethics of colleagues as well as personal ethics are extremely important in shaping the exercise of power.
One of the fundamental ways of thinking about this issue is in terms of the balance between realizing one’s own values or beliefs and taking responsibility for the actual consequences of exercising power in positions of authority. On the one hand, commitments to justice, equality, or for that matter, prejudice, may be used to justify decisions and actions. Indeed, the exercise of power may always be justified on the basis of the commitments it serves. As the saying goes, you have to break eggs to make an omelet.
On the other hand, there are real effects on the lives of people when plants are closed, when someone is charged with a higher or lower crime, or when a student is suspended for drug use. In each instance, there may be individual values and beliefs that shape the decision by the person or group of people in authority making the decision. Also in each instance there are profound consequences for those subject to the decision. The ethics of power requires awareness of values and beliefs, minimizing them, and placing greater emphasis on actual consequences.
- Dahl, Robert. Who Governs? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961.
- Domhoff, G. William. Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
- Egan, Daniel and Levon A. Chorgajian, eds. Power: A Critical Reader. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Vintage, 1977.
- Friedman, Lawrence. Law and Society: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977.
- Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed. New York: Norton, 1978.
- Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.
- Parsons, Talcott. “The Hierarchy of Control.” In Talcott Parsons: On Institutions and Social Evolution, Leon Mayhew, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.