Máire A. Dugan

June 2003 -- Updated August, 2012 by Heidi Burgess

In one of the few in-depth treatments of power in conflict situations, Hubert M. Blalock begins by acknowledging something most of us know but rarely state: "The concept of power is both exceedingly slippery to pin down and yet indispensable in enabling one to analyze...."[1]

Having defined power, as in physics, as having both potential and kinetic forms, he opts for the latter usage alone in his text. That is, he acknowledges power as both the capacity of an individual or group to accomplish something, and the actual doing of something, but he limits his discussion to "actions actually accomplished."

Additional insights into understanding power are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

This has two advantages. First, it dovetails with how most of us think about power most of the time. Second, it is easier to quantify. It is much easier to measure something that has occurred than something that is a possibility. An actual occurrence is a fact that can be checked. There may be disagreement on the sources of its occurrence, but the argument about its occurrence is likely to be short-lived if adequate facts can be brought to bear. If one side has won in a disagreement (in that it has gotten the other to do something it wanted), we have prima facie evidence that the first is more powerful -- or at least has exerted more power -- than the second.

Since concerns of relative power are important in conflicts, it is helpful to have a clear picture of who has more. We can then more easily say that one is more (or less) powerful than another. Theoretically, at least, we can predict who will win and who will lose the confrontation. Hopefully, we could then dissuade a party from pursuing a destructive battle that it is bound to lose.

Defining Power

Truth threatens power, and power threatens truth. -- Hans Morgenthau

Before defining power in a sociological sense, let's look at a type of power with which we are familiar on a daily basis -- electrical power. We know that electricity is available to us when we plug an appliance into an outlet and turn it on. Except in the case of an outage or a malfunction, we expect electricity to be available to us to make electrical appliances function. Further, when the appliance is functioning, we can see and benefit from the power we have at our disposal. In other words, we can detect both potential and actual power.

So, too, with social and political power. There's nothing quite as visible and uniform as an outlet to identify its source, but it functions in both the potential and actual. As with electricity, for all its complexity in operation, social and political power has a simple definition.

Power is the Capacity to Bring about Change

Oftentimes, power is more narrowly defined, even when both its actual and potential forms are considered. While change is central in these definitions, the authors tend to focus only on changing the other. Thus, power is often defined as the capacity to influence others' behavior, to get others to do what challengers want, rather than what the initial parties themselves want. 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

"Will is ineffective without power; but power is only randomly effective without will." -- Karl M. Deutsch

If power were one-dimensional, we could agree with some degree of certitude who has more and who has less and thus, who will be the victor in a contest of wills. However, we are often confronted with surprises in this regard when a seemingly less powerful party holds a more powerful party at bay. As an example, Iraq lost the first Gulf War. This can be documented. A major source of its defeat was that the massive alliance arrayed against it had vastly superior firepower. 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? It later fought the United States and a much smaller set of allies to an ambiguous end: some would say the US and its allies "won," but others would say that Iraq "won."  Actually, many more observer, and almost all peace scholars, are likely to say that both sides lost! Why wasn't the US --supposedly the most powerful nation in the world able to quickly and cleanly defeat Iraq in the second Iraq war?  To be able to answer such questions, it is important to look beyond military might as a source of power.

Electrical power provides an additional metaphor in the consideration of social and political power. It provides a window on the importance of the sources of power. There are many cases where electrical power may be insufficient. In the case of a developing nation, lack of inexpensive electricity may be limiting its industrial potential, which may in turn be contributing to the impoverishment of its citizens. In a region facing an influx of residents, there may not be sufficient electricity to provide expected services. In an overdeveloped area, people may be facing power outages during peak usage times of the day.

In the last case, the best plan of action may be to face hard choices about limiting future growth. But even here, people are most likely concerned with how to obtain more power, more easily accessible power, and/or less expensive power. To do any of these, we need to understand the sources of power and compare their relative ease, benefit, and cost. Is a fossil fuel plant the best option? What about the air pollution in the surrounding area? How about a nuclear plant? Who is to bear the cost of the heat pollution it generates in the waters into which its outtake valves deposit formerly cooler water? What about the dangers of accidents?

Obtaining power is never without cost. Technological advances provide additional choices on how to generate electricity, which may enable us to limit or mute some of those costs. The same is true with increasing or obtaining political power, where identifying and developing alternative sources of power may mitigate some of its undesirable impacts.

Gene Sharp provides a broad list of sources of power.[2] Sources include:

  • authority, that is, the perception among the governed that the leader has the right to give them directives.
  • human resources in the form of people who support and assist the leader as well as their percentage in the general population.
  • skills and knowledge, including the talents of those who work for the leader.
  • intangible factors, "such as psychological and ideological factors, such as habits and attitudes toward obedience and submission, and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission."[3]
  • material resources in the form of control over wealth, property, natural resources, communications, and transportation.
  • sanctions or reprisals which the leader is both willing and able to use against her/his own constituency and/or an adversary.

A couple of comments are in order before leaving this list. First, while each item on the list is obviously a potential source of the capacity to bring about change (power), only the last is, by definition, directly related to force and coercion. Second, I want to underscore authority as a source of power. Stanley Milgram has compellingly highlighted its import in the series of experiments in which people were asked to shock a "learner" at increasingly higher voltages if the learner did not answer questions correctly. Sixty-five percent of the subjects did as requested, even after hearing feigned cries of pain (the learner was a confederate of the experimenter and was not actually receiving any shocks). Milgram concluded that:

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. ...A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.[4]

Forms of Power (Power Strategies)

Given that power's sources are very different, it is not surprising that its manifestations are different enough in kind to justify a separate treatment for each. But as a brief overview, let us consider the image presented by Kenneth Boulding, a preeminent peace researcher and economist who has provided us with a powerful metaphor for grappling with the different types of power: the stick, the carrot, and the hug. The stick and the carrot are familiar metaphors, the first for force and the second for enticement. The third is for a form of power which Boulding claims to be the most-often used -- integrative or collaborative power.[5]

Coercive power, as mentioned above, is the form most meant when one refers to 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, when believed, can be sufficient to obtain compliance. The chapter on coercive and threat power will deal with this spectrum of power.

The carrot represents a much gentler type of power, one that relies on a variety of exchange and reward possibilities. Oftentimes, an exchange is made or implied. Person A does the bidding of Person B because of something Person A will do in return. Global economies are run largely on the basis of exchange power. So, too, on a more personal level, are much of day-to-day finances. Workers perform their tasks in exchange for the pay they are given. A worker may choose to meet an early deadline requested by a manager in order to receive the manager's appreciation, perhaps even a raise or promotion. This spectrum of reasons that people change their behavior is the subject of the section on Exchange Power.

It is the final element, the hug, which brings us to the least-explored form of power. The section on integrative or collaborative power will explore a range of more internalized reasons that people change their behavior in a direction that may be more desirable to themselves or someone else. The first element the hug brings to mind is love, but collaborative power can also be based on qualities such as loyalty and legitimacy, or simply a conviction that teamwork is a more productive approach than hierarchy. 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.

While love and other integrative aspects of power are not usually considered when discussing power, this focus is not new. Karl M. Deutsch, a pre-eminent political scientist of the mid-20th century, put it this way:

Power is...neither the center nor the essence of politics. It is one of the currencies of politics, one of the important mechanisms of acceleration or of damage control where influence, habit, or voluntary coordination may have failed, or where these may have failed to serve adequately the function of goal attainment. Force is another and narrower currency and damage control mechanism of this kind. Influence and the trading of ... desired favors -- the traditional "playing politics" of American colloquial speech -- are still others. All these are important, but each is replaceable by the others, and all are secondary to what now appears...as the essence of politics: the dependable coordination of human efforts and expectations for the attainment of the goals of the society.[6]

Feminist scholars provide a different lens through which to look at the three forms of power, which are referred to, respectively, as "power over," "power to," and "power with."[7] "Power over" refers to power through domination; it is coercive and operates largely through threat and fear. "Power to" directs our attention back to the definition of power in general. If power is the capacity to change, then should we not focus our first thoughts, not on fear and force, but on getting things done? "Power with" refers to a certain form of getting things done, that is, collaborative endeavors. This is the form of power that receives most emphasis in feminist literature as well as other literatures from those with lesser amounts of power, e.g., liberation theology. It reflects a concern about moving away from hierarchical forms of governance and society to what Riane Eisler calls "partnership societies."[8]

Louis Kriesberg looks at power from the position of a party in a conflict:

A conflict party has three basic ways to induce adversaries to move toward the position it desires: It may try to persuade, coerce, or reward the opponents.[9]

In a conflict, a party thus has three general sources of improving its chances of meeting its own goals and/or reducing the chances of its adversary from meeting goals to which it objects: sticks, carrots or hugs.

In the real world, it is rare that any of these forms of power is exercised on its own. More typically, exercise of power involves a combination of some aspects of at least two, and oftentimes all three. Sociologist Paul Wehr refered to the mixture as the "power strategy mix"--the specific combination of sticks, carrots, and hugs that is likely to yield the optimal result.  When one is dealing with an opponent who is reasonably agreeable and likely to negotiate, all one needs is a carrot, with a bit of a hug, perhaps to make sure the negotiation is cooperative, not competitive.  If the opponent is unwilling to budge, however, a minor show of force (as little as necessary) might get them to reconsider and come to the negotiating table. Sometimes, however, a major show of force is necessary--but as the essay on Coercive Power shows, that approach has grave dangers.  Those dangers can be termpered, at least to some extent, by integrating "some carrots" and even some "hugs" into the mix--which is actually what the US tried to do in the second "nation building" phase of the second Iraq war.  Here the U.S. switched away from the heavily stick-based approach of "shock and awe" to an approach where only violent insurgents were targeted, while the military tried to build relations -- and infrastrcutre such as schools, water projects, power plants, etc. for the peaceful population.  

A related essay in this section on power is empowerment. How can less powerful parties make use of the array of sources of power? What sorts of power should they seek? Feminist and other liberation literatures put a particular emphasis on this question, which is reflected in the empowerment essay.

[1] Hubert M. Blalock, Power and Conflict: Toward a General Theory (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989), 26.

[2] Gene Sharp, Power and Struggle (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part I), (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973)

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Thomas Blass, "Stanley Milgram." (2002, accessed on November 15, 2002); Available from http://www.stanleymilgram.com/quotes.php; Internet

[5] Kenneth Boulding, Three Faces of Power. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989)

[6] Karl M. Deutsch, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control. (New York: The Free Press, 1963), 124.

[7] Lynne M. Woehrle. Social Constructions of Power and Empowerment: Thoughts from Feminist Approaches to Peace Research and Peace-making (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.)

[8] Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988.) <http://www.amazon.com/Chalice-Blade-Our-History-Future/dp/0062502891>

[9] Louis Kriesberg, Social Conflicts (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 115.

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Power." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/power>.

Additional Resources