Essays Featured — 21 June 2015

Marc explores power in social actions and concepts.

In social science, power is the ability to influence or control the behaviour of people. The term ‘authority’ is often used for power perceived as legitimate by the social structure. Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to humans as social beings.

The use of power need not involve force or the threat of force. At one extreme, it more closely resembles what English-speaking people might term ‘influence’, although some authors distinguish ‘influence’ as a means by which power is used.

Much of the recent sociological debate about power revolves around the issue of its means to enable – in other words, power as a means to make social actions possible as much as it may constrain or prevent them.


Five bases of power:

Legitimate power
Also called ‘Positional power’, it is the power of an individual because of the relative position and duties of the holder of the position within an organization. Legitimate power is formal authority delegated to the holder of the position. It is usually accompanied by various attributes of power such as uniforms, offices etc.

Referent power
The power or ability of individuals to attract others and build loyalty. It is based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. A person may be admired because of a specific personal trait, and this admiration creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence. Here the person under power desires to identify with these personal qualities, and gains satisfaction from being an accepted follower.

Nationalism and patriotism count towards an intangible sort of referent power. For example, soldiers fight in wars to defend the honour of the country. This is the second least obvious power, but the most effective. Advertisers have long used the referent power of sports figures for product endorsements, for example. The charismatic appeal of the sports star supposedly leads to an acceptance of the endorsement, although the individual may have little real credibility outside the sports arena. Abuse is possible when someone that is likable, yet lacks integrity and honesty, rises to power, placing them in a situation to gain personal advantage at the cost of the group’s position.

Referent power alone is unstable, and is not enough for a leader who wants longevity and respect. When combined with other sources of power, however, it can help achieve great success.

Expert power
Individual power deriving from the skills or expertise of the person and the organization’s needs for those skills and expertise. Unlike the others, this type of power is usually highly specific and limited to the particular area in which the expert is trained and qualified.

When a person has knowledge and skills that enable him/her to understand a situation, suggest solutions, use solid judgment, and generally outperform others, people will have reason to listen to him/her. When demonstrating expertise, people tend to trust and respect what he/she says. As a subject matter expert, her/his ideas will have more value, and others will look to him/her for leadership in that area.

Reward power
Depends on the ability of the power wielder to confer valued material rewards; it refers to the degree to which the individual can give others a reward of some kind such as benefits, time off, desired gifts, promotions or increases in pay or responsibility. This power is obvious but also ineffective if abused.

People who abuse reward power can become pushy or be reprimanded for being too forthcoming or ‘moving things too quickly’. If others expect that they will be rewarded for doing what he/she wants, there’s a high probability that they’ll do it.

Coercive power
The application of negative influences. It includes the ability to demote or to withhold other rewards. The desire for valued rewards or the fear of having them withheld, ensures the obedience of those under power. Coercive power tends to be the most obvious but least effective form of power as it builds resentment and resistance from the people who experience it.

Threats and punishment are common tools of coercion. Implying or threatening that someone will be fired, demoted, denied privileges, or given undesirable assignments – these are examples of using coercive power. Extensive use of coercive power is rarely appropriate in an organizational setting, and relying on these forms of power alone will result in a very cold, impoverished style of leadership.

Power principles in interpersonal relationships:

Power as a Perception: Power is a perception in a sense that some people can have objective power, but still have trouble influencing others. People who use power cues and act powerfully and proactively tend to be perceived as powerful by others. Some people become influential even though they don’t overtly use powerful behaviour.

Power as a Relational Concept: Power exists in relationships. The issue here is often how much relative power a person has in comparison to one’s partner. Partners in close and satisfying relationships often influence each other at different times in various arenas.

Power as Resource Based: Power usually represents a struggle over resources. The more scarce and valued resources are, the more intense and protracted are power struggles. The scarcity hypothesis indicates that people have the most power when the resources they possess are hard to come by or are in high demand. However, scarce resource leads to power only if it’s valued within a relationship.

The Principle of Least Interest and Dependence Power: The person with less to lose has greater power in the relationship. Dependence power indicates that those who are dependent on their relationship or partner are less powerful, especially if they know their partner is uncommitted and might leave them.
According to interdependence theory, quality of alternatives refers to the types of relationships and opportunities people could have if they were not in their current relationship. The principle of least interest suggests that if a difference exists in the intensity of positive feelings between partners, the partner who feels the most positive is at a power disadvantage. There’s an inverse relationship between interest in relationship and the degree of relational power.

Power as Enabling or Disabling: Power can be enabling or disabling. Research has been shown that people are more likely to have an enduring influence on others when they engage in dominant behaviour that reflects social skill rather than intimidation. Personal power is protective against pressure and excessive influence by others and/or situational stress. People who communicate through self-confidence and expressive, composed behaviour tend to be successful in achieving their goals and maintaining good relationships.
Power can be disabling when it leads to destructive patterns of communication. This can lead to the chilling effect where the less powerful person often hesitates to communicate dissatisfaction. And then there is the demand withdrawal pattern, when one person makes demands and the other becomes defensive and withdraws. Both effects have negative consequences for relational satisfaction.

Power as a Prerogative: The prerogative principle states that the partner with more power can make and break the rules. Powerful people can violate norms, break relational rules, and manage interactions without as much penalty as powerless people. These actions may reinforce the powerful person’s dependence power. In addition, the more powerful person has the prerogative to manage both verbal and nonverbal interactions. They can initiate conversations, change topics, interrupt others, initiate touch, and end discussions more easily than less powerful people.

Recent experimental psychology suggests
that the more power one has,
the less one takes on the perspective of others,
implying that the powerful have less empathy.

Essay by Antar Marc

Source Wikipedia