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SOC Chap 5
Power is a fundamental sociological concept, affecting every level of society and influencing our daily lives in countless ways. Because power pervades social life, to understand how society works we must consider its role in various social contexts. As noted political philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell (1938/2004, 4) put it, “the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same way in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.” Power, like energy, takes many forms and is essential in understanding why things happen as they do in society. The amount of power that we have heavily influences what we can accomplish in life, whether at home, at work, or in our community. People with more resources typically have more power, and those with power can use it to obtain more resources. Power, therefore, is closely linked to social inequality, another fundamental feature of society. Inequality can be based on many different characteristics, including class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. But these different forms of inequality have something in common: power and its influence. The word power is derived from a Latin word, potere, which means “to be able.” Max Weber viewed power as the ability to bring about an intended outcome, even when opposed by others. Two key components of this definition are the basis for an important distinction: Some sociologists focus on the “ability to bring about an intended outcome,” or the “power to” approach, so called because it highlights the capacity to accomplish something. Others focus on the ability to overcome opposition, or the “power over” approach, so called because it highlights the capacity to dominate others. These two aspects of power are not mutually exclusive, and feminist scholars, especially, have worked to integrate both approaches into a comprehensive analysis of power. Empowerment, which increases people's capacity to bring about an intended outcome, is the focus of much feminist scholarship on power. Social philosopher Virginia Held, for example, argues that power is the capacity to change and empower oneself and others. According to political scientist Nancy Hartsock , the “feminist theory of power” views power as a competence and ability, rather than a form of dominance. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (2000) highlights the use of power to resist oppression. People often discuss power and empowerment in terms of individual effort and achievement. If your goal is to find an interesting, decent-paying job, then acquiring appropriate education and experience can help give you the “power to” accomplish your objective. Empowerment often involves individual enhancement and self-improvement. Individual self-empowerment is the theme of popular self-help books with titles such as Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life as You Want It. Feminist theories point out that power can involve competence and empowerment, rather than just the domination of others. Have you experienced empowerment in your own life in some way without diminishing the power of others? Empowerment can also involve organizations, communities, and entire categories of people. International development agencies, for example, try to empower poor people by increasing their capacity to care for themselves and their families. The “power to” approach can also apply to social systems such as schools, governments, or even entire societies. American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1960) saw power as the capacity of a social system to achieve collective goals. In the tradition of structural functionalism, Parsons was most interested in the overall operation of societies as social systems. According to his framework, a society is powerful to the extent that it can accomplish its goals. Wealthy societies have more resources—and thus are more powerful—than poorer societies (one way that power and inequality are often connected)....
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