Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Understanding Power, written by Máire Dugan for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess



The capacity to bring about change.


Anyone participating in or intervening in a conflict where there are stronger and weaker parties.


Power is often defined as the capacity to influence others' behavior. It is, however, important to recognize that change can be within rather than without, or that it may be a combination of the two. This recognition is important in concerns about empowerment; beyond this, it opens up additional strategies to consider in combating injustice and seeking social change.

Sources of Power

If power were one-dimensional, we could agree with some degree of certainty who has more and who has less and thus, who will be the victor in a contest of wills. However, we are often surprised in this regard when a seemingly less-powerful party holds off or defeats a more-powerful party. Because of this, it is important to look beyond size, wealth, or political or military might as a source of power.  Gene Sharp, a leading scholar on nonviolent direct action, provides a list of sources of power. These include authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, i.e. psychological and ideological factors, material resources, and sanctions or reprisals which the leader is both willing and able to use against constituents and/or an adversary.

Power Strategies

Kenneth Boulding, a preeminent peace researcher and economist, has provided us with a useful metaphor for understanding what he referred to as different types of power: the stick, the carrot, and the hug. These can also be considered to be power strategies--what one does with one's sources of power to bring about change. Coercive power (the stick) is the power strategy most often referred to as power. Coercive power is based on superior strength, often in the form of physical strength or superior arms. While the stick is its metaphor, force can be achieved through less overtly violent means, as, for example, when the necessities of life are withheld or when someone is embarrassed into submission. Coercion is often accomplished without the actual infliction of force. The mere threat of its use can be sufficient to obtain compliance.

The carrot represents a much gentler power strategy, one that relies on exchanges and rewards. Person A does the bidding of Person B because of something Person B will do in return. Workers perform their tasks in exchange for the pay they are given. That's an example of the carrot--or exchange power. 

It is the final strategy, the hug, which brings us to the least-explored form of power. The first element the hug brings to mind is love--the term Boulding used for the third type of power. But collaborative power (another name for the same thing) can also be based on qualities such as loyalty, legitimacy, or a conviction that teamwork is more productive than hierarchy or force. It may also involve the use of persuasion, the persuader drawing on not only the logic of her own case, but also the values of the other.

In the real world, it is rare that any of these three power strategies is exercised on its own. Typically, exercise of power involves a combination of two or three of them--which Paul Wehr refers to as a "power strategy mix." 


Iraq lost the first Gulf War mostly because the massive alliance arrayed against it had vastly superior firepower. Thus the coalition allied against it had far greater sources of power, and it used those sources coercively to attain the alliance's goals.  That situation remained after the war was over. Nonetheless, Iraq successfully evaded U.N. inspection directives for over a decade. Where was its source of power? To be able to answer such questions, one must look at a combination of different  types of power as well as power strategies.  Iraq was able to utilize its own (internal) authority, its skills and knowledge, and intangible factors to resist the US and the UN (at least until the Second Iraq war), and was able to use exchange and collaborative power, in addition to coercive power, to resist UN sanctions and inspections for many years.  Even though the US prevailed -- at least insofar as we removed Saddam Hussein from office -- in the second Iraq war, by many measures, Iraq was still not "beaten" by the United States, and the US would be hard pressed to claim a "victory" when we withdrew our forces in 2011.


Anyone seeking to change or influence a situation must understand their own, and their opponents' sources of power, and make an assessment of what strategy (or combination of strategies) is likely to work best. While it is commonly assumed that having superior power is desirable, power imbalances can lead to the failure of mediation or negotiation. Thus, it is important for disputants to have a good understanding of relative power and also empowerment, i.e. how to share power between parties for the benefit of both.

Links to Related Articles:

Coercive Power
Integrative Power
Exchange Power