Power and Conflict
by Peter T. Coleman
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Power and Conflict." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 108-130.
Power plays a role in most conflicts. Coleman draws on a variety of the social sciences to develop a working definition of power. He then explores the implications of this definition for conflict resolution, focusing on power strategies commonly used during conflicts. Finally, he examines the implications of his findings for training in conflict resolution.
Popular misconceptions about power include the belief that it has some physical location, that there is only a fixed amount of it, that it operates in only one direction, and that the use of power is basically adversarial or competitive. Within the social sciences Coleman finds four perspectives on power. Some theorists emphasize "power over"--the ability to compel someone to do something. This view suggests a view of power as coercive and competitive. Other theorists have developed the concept of "power with," which emphasizes the effectiveness of joint or cooperative action. A third set of theorists focus on issues of powerlessness and dependence, while other explore the obverse: empowerment and independence. Empowerment theorists employ the notion of "power to," as in the power to act effectively without constraint or disability.
Coleman draws on Deutsch's work to synthesize a working definition of power. "Power can be usefully conceptualized as a mutual interaction between the characteristics of a person and the characteristics of a situation, where the person has access to valued resources and uses them to achieve personal, relational, or environmental goals, often through using various strategies of influence."(p. 113) Power is understood in relational terms, and power itself is distinguished from sources of power, the effective use of available power, and strategies for deploying power.
Coleman then seeks to identify which aspects of persons and of situations are most relevant to power. Personal factors include different cognitive, motivational and moral orientations regarding power. In their concepts of power, people may adopt any of the four perspectives commonly found in the social sciences. In terms of motivation, some people have an authoritarian orientation that stresses obedience to authority. People may be motivated to pursue personal power, or power for their group. Peoples' moral orientations toward power vary with their degree of moral development, their degree of egalitarian sentiment, and with their perception of the scope of justice.
Understanding situational factors requires examining the larger structural and historical context. One significant aspect of situation is role a person plays. Also significant is the individual's place in the hierarchy. Culture is also an important factor, influencing, for instance, peoples' attitudes toward power inequalities.
This approach to understanding power has significant implications for understanding conflict. First, Coleman argues that the predominant understanding of power is the competitive "power over" view. Given this understanding, power conflicts are then viewed as win-lose competitions, thus impairing their chances of a satisfactory resolution. More emphasis on cooperative, dependent and independent power is needed. Cooperative conflicts, for instance, actually generate power, understood as "power with." Second, parties' conceptions of power shape the strategies the employ in conflict. Here again a broader understanding of power would offer alternatives to the competitive strategy.
Third, when evaluating the balance of power between parties in conflict, it is important to note that some of the parties' power may be irrelevant or useless in that particular situation. Assessments of relative power must focus on relevant power. Similarly, parties should reflect carefully on their goals in a conflict, and ask themselves which types of power could be effective, and which detrimental, in reaching those goals.
Finally, research shows that high-power groups "tend to like power, use it, justify having it, and attempt to keep it."(p. 124) They pay less attention to low-power people, and have an "unreflective tendency to dominate."(p. 125) High-power groups tend to alienate low-power groups, and to elicit resistance. Low-power groups, on the other hand, tend to be shortsighted and discontent. They may express their discontent by projecting blame onto even less powerful groups, undermining their ability to empower themselves through cooperation and coalition building.
In conclusion, Coleman makes suggestions for training in conflict resolution, and offers an example of a useful training exercise. Students should reflect on their current conceptions of power, and on their own typical reactions to being powerful of powerless. They should become aware of structural sources of privilege or disadvantage. Students should be able to identify the various types of power, of personal orientations to power, and available sources and strategies of power, in a given conflict setting.