Power is having the ability to change the outcome of a situation whether or not there is oppositional resistance. There are two basic, interconnected forms of power: social/political and physical power. In both cases, power is the ability to make a change over a given period of time.
Change can be made from a machine that carries goods from one area to another (an example of physical power), or this change can take the form of a manager of a company changing the course of the company’s future by redirecting its goals (a political form of power). Power may be held in many different circumstances, it is a result of one’s relational social structure, and it can be achieved in many different ways.
“Relational character” is one of the most important features of social/political power (Moss 160). Relational character means that one has a certain amount of power according to their specific position at a given time in a social/political structure. Moss uses a chess board as an example to describe this. A queen that takes a pawn in chess does so not necessarily because the queen is more powerful. Instead, the relative and superior positions of the queen and its accompanying pieces allows for the queen to take the pawn. The same can be said for the pawn if it were to take the queen.
Power can also be a construction of your own social habitus. For example, one’s language and word choice can indicate power dynamics within a conversation. A doctor or lawyer who speaks in advanced technical jargon to their audience (patients or members of the jury, respectively) exhibit power in that particular situation. The patient or audience member who do not understand may feel overwhelmed and less powerful by their lack of knowledge (Foss, Foss, and Domenico 199).
There are five forms of power relationships: legitimate power, referent power, expert power, reward power, and coercive power. Legitimate power, also known as positional power, results from one’s superior position to others. For example, a king has legitimate power over the people of his country (French and Raven).
Referent power arises from popular social standing among others and is usually the result of superior charisma, social skills, or high achievement. Most celebrities and professional athletes have referent power and, as a result, are portrayed prominently in television advertisements and on billboards (French and Raven). In Angels in America, Roy Cohn, a prominent American attorney, says to his doctor, “I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?
“Even better, Henry. His wife” (Kushner 51). Roy uses his referent power in this conversation to convince his doctor to report his condition as liver cancer and not AIDS.
The third form of power, expert power, happens when somebody gains power based on their specific area of expertise used in a certain situation. An example of this could be when a head football coach has less power than the weight-lifting coach during his players’ weight training session (French and Raven).
Reward power is the ability to use rewards as a means to garner power over others. Rewards are a highly effective method of persuading people to do what you want. However, this power diminishes when your rewards fail to entice your subjects, when your subjects become saturated with ‘too many’ rewards and become disinterested, or you lose control over the ability to give rewards (such as company pay raises or vacation time) (French and Raven).
The final form of power is coercive power and takes the form of punishment and negative rewards in order to gain power. This could include pay decreases, firing, or demotions and tends to build resentment towards the one in power (French and Raven).
Power in relation to gender is ambiguous, at best. Our society frequently uses a phallocentric language to put power in a patriarchal community (Butler 4). Thus, predetermined word choice through our standard language system has already decided the allocation of power in our society. Judith Butler argues that becoming a society with a plurality of “genders” will help destroy the referent power garnered by males (202-203)
Power, in a social/political context, is dependent on strategic social relationships; moreover, it “is the effect of interactions between unequal positions in the social landscape” (Lynch 66). In addition, it is intertwined with all forms of social relationships. This is in opposition to a physical form of power which involves work, or force exerted over a distance, done over a specific amount of time. However, both forms of power have one thing in common: they result in change over time.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. Print.
Foss, Sonja, Mary Domenico, and Karen Foss. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a Binary World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2013. Print.
French, John, and Bertram Raven. "The Bases of Social Power." Group Dynamics. (1960): Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
Moss, Jeremy. “Power and the Digital Divide.” Ethics and Information Technology 4.2 (2002): 159-167. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
Lynch, Richard. “Is Power All There Is? Michel Foucault and the "Omnipresence" of Power Relations.” Philosophy Today. 42.1 (1998): 65-70. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.