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). Powerful societies can maintain a high standard of living for their citizens, ensure self-defense, advance scientific and technological frontiers, and achieve other collective goals. By all these measures, the United States and other wealthy nations are powerful societies, whereas impoverished countries are much less powerful. Functionalist theories of power focus on the capacity of social systems to achieve collective goals. What is an example of a social system that you are a part of, and what collective goals does it attempt to achieve? Education is probably the best-known approach to empowerment. Some teaching philosophies, for example, focus heavily on empowering students rather than simply transmitting facts. Organization involves bringing people together to identify common goals and work to achieve them. Smoothly operating workplaces are well organized, for example, with employees and management cooperating to achieve organizational goals. Networking involves reaching outside your immediate circle of contacts to find allies. Professional associations in many fields hold conferences and social events to facilitate networking to search for employment or to advance careers. The effort to accomplish something meets opposition and produces conflict. That's why the second part of our definition of power includes the idea of conflict: “the ability to bring about an intended outcome, even when opposed by others.” This emphasis is called the “power over” approach, since it focuses on overcoming opposition or dominating others. In one classic definition from political scientist Robert Dahl (1957), power is seen exclusively in terms of domination: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (p. 202). The most obvious use of power as a means of domination is in political and economic conflicts, as powerful elites attempt to maintain their advantages over others. To persuade is to get people's compliance by convincing them of the correctness of your position and goals. An organization dedicated to combating sexually transmitted diseases, for example, might launch a campaign to educate people about the importance of condoms. A second strategy to overcome opposition is to offer a reward. To reward is to encourage people's compliance by offering a positive incentive. Rewarding a child with words of praise, an athlete with a trophy, or a country with economic or military assistance are all ways to encourage or reinforce desirable behavior. To coerce is to force compliance by threatening, intimidating, pressuring, or harming someone. Drivers generally obey the speed limit (or something close to it) because they know a speeding ticket can be very expensive. Therefore, the threat of possible punishment has a coercive effect on their behavior. Sociologists and social psychologists have done a great deal of research on the dynamics of small groups, including those associated with power. Researchers have shown that when authorities rely on reward or coercive power, their influence weakens if the amount of resources they control is reduced. However, authorities who have earned respect and are seen as legitimate enjoy group members' loyalty regardless of their ability to reward or coerce. Such loyalty can evaporate, however, if the person in authority acts in ways that group members consider unfair, unethical, or disrespectful. Compared to powerful people, those who feel relatively powerless are more likely to use coercion, because they think they have no other means of achieving their aims. Some parents and teachers feel relatively powerless when children seem out of control. These adults are more likely to use coercive threats and punishment than are parents and teachers who feel empowered. Power tactics are the specific strategies people use to influence others in everyday life. These familiar strategies involve power, though we often do not think of them in those terms. Power tactics vary along three key dimensions: Hard and soft. Hard tactics are forceful, direct, or harsh. People employing them use economic rewards and other tangible outcomes, and even threats. Rational and nonrational. Rational tactics appeal to logic and include bargaining and rational persuasion. Many newspaper editorials use rational tactics. Nonrational tactics include emotional appeals, such as when television commercials imply that driving a particular type of car will make you sexy. Unilateral and bilateral. Unilateral tactics do not require cooperation to initiate; they include demands, orders, or disengagement. Military leaders employ unilateral tactics when they issue orders. Bilateral tactics involve give-and-take, as in negotiations and discussions. In Discipline and Punish (1975/1995) Foucault explained how modern prisons emerged in the eighteenth century as a humane way of treating criminals, rather than torturing or killing them. Advocates of prison reform argued they would deter crime by more effectively controlling criminals. Foucault's study of prisons made use of his unique view of power, which has influenced many scholars. Foucault argued that although power can be oppressive and dominating, it can also have a positive effect. He wrote, “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact power produces; it produces reality …”Foucault coined the term power/knowledge to show that how we understand and interpret the world both enlightens and restricts us. That's because systems of knowledge order, rank, and make visible various aspects of the world, enabling it to be controlled more effectively. When applied to people, such systems of knowledge serve as mechanisms of social control. Within any group or society, power determines who will receive important resources and how those resources will be used. Governments at all levels have the power to allocate resources, generating revenue by collecting taxes and fees and then distributing that money through public projects, social programs, military spending, and other policies. Within particular agencies or departments, officials wield power by exercising control over budgets and supplies. Power can also be used for political purposes, enabling some people to set the conditions under which others are expected to live. Politicians and government officials pass laws and establish regulations that organize many aspects of our daily lives. Those with power set the rules, and those without power are expected to follow them. By selecting certain news stories and sources, the news media teach us to view certain topics and people as important and worthy of consideration (local crime stories or celebrities), while marginalizing or ignoring others who are not given routine coverage (advocates for the poor). Influencing the stories people read, the ideas they consider, and the perspectives to which they are regularly exposed is one way of exercising power in a society. Italian Marxist activist-scholar Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) argued that the class in power maintains its dominance not simply through the use of force, which is the job of the state's police and military forces, but also through the manipulation of ideas, which it accomplishes primarily through its control of cultural institutions such as the mass media, research and policy institutes (“think-tanks”), and universities. Gramsci (1929–1935/1971) applied the word hegemony to this situation. Hegemony exists when those in power have successfully spread their ideas—and marginalized alternative viewpoints—so that their perspectives and interests are accepted widely as being universal and true. Systems of social inequality are also reinforced by a justifying ideology that oppressed people themselves sometimes internalize. Cultural norms, the legal system, schools, the media, and other social institutions may all play a role in creating and maintaining this ideology. Economic, political, and cultural powers are based in real-world social institutions, including businesses, government, and religions. At different points in history, each of these has been more influential than the other two. In the West, the power of religious institutions was most important in shaping daily life in the medieval period. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the rise of the secular nation-state signaled the growing influence of military and political power. In recent decades, economic power, in the form of transnational corporations, has become the most influential, in many cases eclipsing the influence of government. Legitimate power is voluntarily accepted by those who are affected. Weber's idea of legitimate power is sometimes translated as “authority.” A religious congregation, for example, might recognize and accept its spiritual leader's right to issue instructions and therefore voluntarily follow his or her wishes. Illegitimate power relies on force or coercion to generate obedience. A kidnapper or military dictator may be able to cause others to obey orders, but they do not obey willingly. Instead, they comply only because of the threat of violence if they disobey. Weber further specified three types of legitimate power, or authority. The first, traditional authority, has legitimacy because of compliance with well-established cultural practices. Rational-legal authority has legitimacy because it is based on established laws, rules, and procedures. A president or prime minister is elected for a set term through an established process. A university president is hired after the school conducts a formal search and a series of interviews. Charismatic authority is power whose legitimacy is derived from the extraordinary personal characteristics of an individual leader, which inspire loyalty and devotion. Charismatic leadership is usually not transferable. Therefore, this form of authority is typically short lived and episodic. The degree of compliance in a social situation is often not apparent at first glance. It takes a sociological understanding of power to see that simmering conflict can lurk just beneath the apparently calm, orderly surface of societies. When compliance is withdrawn, conflict may seem to erupt suddenly and dramatically. For example, in 2011 a series of revolutions and uprisings swept northern Africa and the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Spring. Protests, riots, strikes, and other disruptions can start small and spread rapidly as people decide that they will no longer comply. This type of rebellion is itself another form of power: the power of disobedience. Promoting the Power of Nonviolence
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) was a sociology major as an undergraduate. His later activism showed his understanding of how power operates in social relationships and how those who appear powerless can organize to effect change. King's well-known role as a charismatic leader in the civil rights movement began during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955–1956, a campaign that relied on disobedience. By refusing to ride the city's buses for over a year and setting up an alternative system of transportation, thousands of African Americans helped end segregation on public transportation. King went on to aid other rights campaigns that relied heavily on civil disobedience: nonviolent direct action that violates unjust laws. Although not as well known as Dr. King, Saul Alinsky (1909–1972), who studied sociology as a graduate student, was also highly influential. Among activists he is recognized as the creator of what is often called “Alinsky-style” community organizing. Alinsky transformed his sociological understanding of power into practical applications on behalf of low-income citizens. In Alinsky-style organizing, trained organizers identify and coordinate the efforts of existing neighborhood leaders, who in turn mobilize fellow residents to work on issues they identify as priorities, such as better housing, safer neighborhoods, and stronger schools. In addition to emphasizing the importance of creating strong organizations, Alinsky advocated the use of creative confrontational tactics that rely on disobedience to apply pressure on those in power. He emphasized the importance of operating outside of the experience of your opponent: for example, he organized fun public demonstrations, street theater, and other actions in which community residents could participate, rather than closed-door meetings that those in authority could dominate. In 2008, Alinsky-style community organizing received some unusual popular attention when a one-time community organizer named Barack Obama was elected president. The success of efforts on behalf of oppressed groups, as well as student activism, demonstrates two simple truths about power. First, when people work together, they increase their own power as individuals to effect change. Second, disobedience is a powerful weapon for those who struggle to effect change. Since power is a social relationship, people ultimately have the power to refuse to comply. They rarely use this power, often out of fear of coercion or force. But when people unite in an act of civil disobedience, they can instigate enormous change. This insight has been a powerful tool for many social movements. Those in power typically resist change promoted by oppressed groups because it threatens the privileges they hold. When we learn about the unequal power various groups possess, we realize that, compared to many other people in the world, we enjoy a considerable amount of power and privilege. Privilege is a special advantage or benefit that not everyone enjoys. The fact that most people go about their daily lives unaware of the privileges they enjoy is, in itself, an indicator of that power. To understand dynamics of power and privilege, it is often useful to consider the situation of those with less power. Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990) developed standpoint theory, which questions taken-for-granted assumptions about society by looking at it from multiple viewpoints, especially from the perspective of people in subordinate positions. A “standpoint” is the place from which a person views the world. A person's standpoint is structured by his or her social location, which includes race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. People with different standpoints see and understand the world differently. For example, when Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding from a faulty levy destroyed large sections of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, the federal government's inadequate emergency response efforts left the poor and mostly black residents of this city abandoned (Squires and Hartman 2006). Two-thirds of Blacks believed the government response would have been faster if most of the victims had been white. More than three-quarters of Whites, though, disagreed (Pew Research Center 2005). In societies with deep inequalities, groups have differing perspectives. Each of these perspectives is necessarily partial. As a result, considering multiple standpoints, especially of those who have less power, is crucial to gaining a more complete understanding of social life. As we have seen, different groups have varying degrees of power within a society, a situation that inevitably produces inequality, the unequal distribution of resources among groups of people. Social inequality is multidimensional: in other words, different forms of inequality coexist within a society. Max Weber (1915/1946b) argued that society is stratified in terms of class, status, and political power. A class is a group of people who share a roughly similar economic position and lifestyle. Karl Marx's analysis of the importance of class was especially influential. In many ways, Max Weber agreed with Marx that economics is a key to understanding inequality. However, whereas Marx examined the concept of class in terms of work, Weber looked at class in terms of life chances, the opportunities offered by a person's economic position. Although Weber and Marx agreed on the importance of class, Weber differed from Marx by arguing that status and political power—two noneconomic factors—were also key to understanding inequality. To Weber, both status and political power could be sources of power independent of a person's class. The members of a status group can sometimes use their membership to gain power over nonmembers. Social closure is the process whereby a status group maximizes its own advantages by restricting access to rewards only to members of the group. This process can involve subtle or blatant discrimination, treating others unequally based on their background or other personal characteristics. The white populations in the southern states of the United States before the civil rights era and in South Africa before the 1990s both engaged in social closure to exclude other racial groups from access to voting, education, and other rights and opportunities. In addition to class and status, Weber argued that society is stratified in terms of political power. Weber saw that by creating organizations to advance particular goals, people working together could influence society. He referred to these organizations as “parties,” meaning a broad range of political groups; including what we would today call social movements, advocacy groups, and citizens' organizations. In recent years, some feminist scholars, including Patricia Hill Collins (2000), have built on this tradition through intersectionality theory, which highlights the connections and interactions between various forms of inequality, especially race, class, and gender. These theorists recognize the different dimensions of inequality and highlight the interactions that take place between these dimensions. For example, white people as a group enjoy privileges in our society because of their race, but white families trapped in poverty face hurdles because of their class. Meanwhile, within the context of poor white families, men are likely to enjoy privileges not afforded to women. When we recognize that race, class, and gender interact, we are better able to avoid overgeneralizing about any one group of people. Patricia Hill Collins notes, “Theories advanced as being universally applicable to women as a group upon closer examination appear greatly limited by the white, middle-class and Western origins of their proponents.” For example, the idea that the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s opened the way for women's participation in the paid workforce needs to be qualified, because significant percentages of poor and working-class women in the United States—especially women of color—were already part of the workforce. By viewing women's increased participation in the paid labor force solely through the lens of gender, we miss the important impact of class and race. Collins (2000) coined the phrase matrix of domination to indicate the interlocking systems of oppression associated with race, class, and gender. The metaphor of a matrix suggests more than one dimension and allows for the idea that people can be privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. When one group believes it is superior to another, has the right to dominate the other, and is able to do so, oppression results. Her framework highlights the active domination of weaker groups by those with more power at the individual, group, and institutional levels. Societies formalize and institutionalize inequality—including the unequal distribution of power—by developing social structures that perpetuate stratification. Stratification systems are made up of social structures and cultural norms that create and maintain inequality by ranking people into a hierarchy of groups that receive unequal resources. Over the centuries, various societies have created different types of stratification systems. All stratification systems, however, share three key elements: 1. The unequal distribution of valued resources
2. Distinct groups that make up society's strata (layers) 3. An ideology that explains and justifies inequality
In any stratification system, some resources are distributed more evenly than others. For example, in the United States all citizens have similar legal rights based on the principle of equality under the law, but there are stark differences between rich and poor in terms of economic and human resources. In addition, if a resource is available more readily to one group than to another, that discrepancy can have an impact on another resource. Because the affluent can afford better legal counsel than the poor, the apparent equality of the legal system can be compromised. Stratification systems based primarily on achieved statuses are said to be open: it is possible for an individual within such a system to achieve social mobility, movement from one stratum of a stratification system to another. In systems of class stratification, for example, a person's class status can change as a result of structural changes in the economy, individual ability, education, effort, luck, or other factors. However, a person's achieved statuses are still influenced to varying degrees by social factors beyond his or her control. For example, the family into which you are born can significantly influence your class status. The third element of all stratification systems is a related ideology, a system of beliefs that helps define and explain the world and justifies the existence of inequality. Those in power produce and promote these ideas to maintain the stratification system, but others sometimes internalize them, as well. In fact, the most efficient way to maintain a system of inequality is to convince most people that the system is fair, inevitable, or both. If the groups within a society believe in the ideology that justifies a stratification system, or if they are cynical about any possibility of changing the system, they are unlikely to challenge it. Consequently, those who struggle to reduce inequality must often debate the ideology that supports it. For example, women's rights advocates have long had to debunk myths about women's biological inferiority. A caste system features stratification based on various ascribed characteristics determined at birth. The social stratum—or caste—into which people are born largely determines their life chances, typically affecting their access to education, their work options, where they can live, and whom they can marry. Many agrarian societies have some type of closed caste system, but the best known, by far, is the one found in India, which was outlawed in 1952 but which continues to be practiced informally. During the Middle Ages, European societies were stratified into a castelike system that regulated economic, political, and social life based primarily on the unequal distribution of land. Feudalism, as this system is now known, varied but commonly featured three estates that comprised a society's major strata: The nobility, The Christian clergy, & Commoners. The system of racial segregation in the United States, which evolved between the Civil War and the 1960s, can be considered a caste-based stratification system. (It influenced South Africa's apartheid, another caste-based stratification system, beginning in 1948.) The division between Blacks and Whites was based on birth and could not be changed. The ideology that justified racial segregation was racism, which those in power supported by invoking tradition, Christian teachings, and pseudo-science. Racial inequality was said to be the foundation of the traditional “southern way of life.” Bible stories and passages were used selectively to justify slavery, including the tale that descendants of Noah's son, Ham, were cursed to be slaves (Genesis 9:18–27) and St. Paul's advice that servants accept their lot and obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5–9). So-called scientific classifications of races, based on racist assumptions, also justified racial inequality. Unlike a caste system, in which a person's position is determined by birth, a class system features stratification determined by economic position, which results from a combination of individual achievement and family of birth. Class systems are more flexible than caste systems and offer more opportunities for social mobility. They are still stratification systems, however; they organize the unequal distribution of resources among distinct groups and are supported by a justifying ideology. In capitalist class systems, the ideology emphasizes individualism—the idea that success is based on merit, not inherited advantage. The popular idea that “With hard work and determination, you can accomplish whatever you want” is an implicit explanation for inequality: those at the bottom do not work hard, while those at the top do. Inequality is seen as good because it motivates people to work hard to achieve economic success, thereby contributing to the overall affluence of society. However, structural factors and barriers beyond an individual's control have a considerable impact on economic success or failure. The major difference between capitalist and socialist class systems is the nature and degree of government intervention in the economy. Another type of systemic stratification is based on gender. Women have long been subjected to patriarchy, male domination through social institutions and cultural practices. Patriarchy can be thought of as a system of stratification since it emphasizes separate and unequal groups (men and women), distributes resources unequally, and justifies this inequality with an ideology that assumes the superiority of men. “As an African-American man, I was well aware of the various forms of racial discrimination and oppression that I witnessed and endured,” Stokes notes. “Sociology helped broaden my perspectives and showed me in a scientific way that there were other groups within our society that were also victims of various forms of oppression.” Learning about the intersections of inequality was not always easy. Stokes admits, “The process was slightly traumatic as I learned not only that there were other oppressed people here but that in different ways I had benefited and participated in their oppression. After I moved past the shame, and empathy, I decided that I needed to do something to make the world a better place.” If all societies have inequality, can it be reduced? The simple answer is yes, although some forms of inequality are easier to combat than others. Interestingly, equality is a fairly new value in human history. Only since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century has inequality been seen as undesirable. Before that time, it was considered inevitable and often a part of God's will. However, sociology teaches us that inequality is socially constructed and, thus, its nature and extent are neither inevitable nor foreordained. Human action produces inequality, and people can organize to empower themselves and reduce inequality.