Interdependence: Power as Mutual Need

(I suggest you read about Power in a Social Field first.)

Drawing of Blue Meanies such as in The Beatles' Yellow Submarine.

Suppose there is a meanie in your social field. If you don’t know said person is mean, you don’t anticipate a mean reaction from the meanie (unless you have learned to be wary in general). You might well be generous, approach this person, share personal information, and so forth because you don’t know not to trust the person. That is a good reason why meanies might try to hide what they will do—they want unsuspecting people to give them things of value. If you anticipate that a meanie will be mean and that changes the actions you would otherwise take, then the meanie has influenced you because of what you anticipate.

Some meanies of course try overtly to intimidate others, to communicate a negative consequence if one acts, or does not act, according to the meanie’s wishes. Bullies, kidnappers, parents, teachers, terrorists, and governments often communicate this way. Conceptually, you have to consider whether the “meanie” or negative influencer is conveying a promise or a threat. Is the meaning simply communicating consequences (a “promise”) or trying to frighten the behavior they want (“a “threat”).

Further following the social psychological scientization of social psychology, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) wrote a formal theory of power (meaning influence) called Interdependence Theory (IT). They focused on how a social relationship could also change, and the psychology involved in that and the relationship members’ actions. They not only brought in cognition in the form of expectations, predictions, attributions and imagination as Lewin (1951) had, but also the fundamental idea that people have desires and needs. At the center of interdependence theory is the concept that people have preferences based on their needs and desires, and people act in relationships depending on how they can meet their needs and desires.

Here is an example. Abe and Mary enjoy spending time talking with other people and bowling. If Mary is new in town, she doesn’t have as many people she can talk with or bowl with as Abe has. If her desire for company is strong, she might be willing to go out with Abe to meet his friends, even if she doesn’t like him very much. (Abe doesn’t have to know either of these things.) Maybe she will even offer to pay his way to persuade him to go bowling when he says he doesn’t want to. In this case, Abe has more power over Mary than vice versa because he is her only means of getting things she needs, whereas he has other alternatives for getting those same things. Interdependence Theory states that people compare the alternative possibilities they have inside and outside a relationship to weigh whether they want to continue in the relationship, and what they are willing to contribute to the relationship. If Mary doesn’t see that she has any other good option, then icky Abe is the least bad alternative.

Notice here some more psychology—it is Mary’s beliefs about what her alternatives are that influence her behavior, not some objective assessment of her alternatives or another person’s. If a person realistically imagines new (desirable) alternatives, the person gains more power. Figuring out how to give oneself more attractive possibilities is therefore empowering. For example, starting in the 1970s, when couples could imagine having sex without producing pregnancy, that women could finish college, that being divorced was survivable, relationships between many husbands and wives became more equal—less imbalanced in power because wives and potential wives had more alternatives. Of course, these things could also be bonuses and therefore empowering for men as well.

Increasing the positive alternatives that one has, or that another person has, I (Pratto, 2015) argue is empowering separate of any relationship to another person, but Interdependence Theorizing still focuses on power as an aspect of relationships, not a state of individuals or groups alone.

Interdependence Theory allows that any relationship might change as people’s desires and perceived alternatives change. If, for example, Abe gets sweet on Mary, she might well find that her bowling ticket and dinner will be provided by Abe if she allows it, rather than the other way around. If Mary finds Abe’s deeply hidden charms, they might develop commitment to each other, and that and the expectation their special relationship will become ongoing, become important desires for both. Doing things that they believe will help the relationship to be enjoyable, to last, to be worthwhile to the other suggests that they will probably be quite giving to each other, and perhaps also agree to forego other alternatives (e.g., Friday nights with other people, romantic relationships with other people, the food they love that the other hates, matching socks). Interdependence Theory, as a social psychological theory and not a financial/economic theory, implies that anything a person desires, not just money, and not just “selfish” things, are part of the psychology driving relationships. Further, there are things that one can only get through relationships, like shared feelings, intimate knowledge of another, perhaps social legitimacy for having a child or partner, and such things usually cannot be bought with money.

The fact that there are different normative kinds of relationships (e.g., close relationships and exchange relationships; Clark & Mills, 1979) helps fill in what kinds of things people seek in qualitatively different relationships like friendship, romance, employment, buyer-seller, and political representation. French and Raven (1959) worked in the same vein as interdependence theory, but instead of emphasizing relational dynamics and the possibilities of balanced relationships (i.e., equally interdependent relationships with mutually desired outcomes or relationship qualities), French and Raven (1959) listed “influence tactics” that really boil down to a list of things one person might want to get from another, such as expertise or a good reputation. To my ear these things seem much more apropos to non-close relationships than to close ones. French and Raven’s list is still often used in workplace surveys in which bosses and subordinates describe what influence tactics they use and that they feel are used on them, and outcomes of that such as what kind of boss tactics lead to commitment to the organization and better worker productivity (e.g., Aiello, Tesi,  Pratto,  & Pierro, 2018; for fun). Given that good/bad judgments or “valence” is everywhere in semantic meaning, it is not surprising that a huge lot of studies find that the most specific kinds of influence tactics fall into two classes: soft and hard.

A considerable amount of research on interdependence theory in social psychology has been done on adult romantic couples. However, the theory is written quite abstractly (with letters and equations and all) and so it is among the broadest theories in social psychology. It can also be applied to parent-child relationships, to business relationships, to understanding how countries might negotiate and trade agreements and how companies might negotiate prices, to how countries try to manage their relationships with other countries. (Notice that countries often tout their “long-standing alliance” just when one has ticked the other off or wants to change the terms of relationship like allying with another country, too — they invoke commitment in the face of what might seem like lack of commitment). To make sense of particular relationships using the theory, though, one would probably want to fill in just what each party desires and how well the other in the relationship, and others in the field, can provide those desires.

Here are some of the criticisms of Interdependence Theory:

  • It might seem to assume that people are always self-interested. Remembering that wanting good for other people can be a desire mitigates this criticism. Perhaps, like the idea that there is no “true” altruism because helping others is just a way to feel better yourself or fulfill your own idea of being a good person, you might argue that people are always, ultimately selfish. There certainly are people who put themselves at risk for others and put others before themselves. Even if this is to fulfill one’s own goal, that doesn’t mean it does not help others. Whose point of view should be considered here, I think.
  • Some theorists, notably Simon and Oakes (2006) and Turner (2008) dislike the concept that power is dependence. In my view this overlooks the fact that interdependence theory can account for asymmetric interdependence (e.g., Mary needs Abe more than vice versa) as well as symmetric interdependence (Mary and Abe both need each other equally). Simon and Oakes (2006) do offer an alternative definition of power that is also relational, namely that power is the ability to recruit others to one’s own agenda or goals.
  • I suspect that people may dislike the idea that power is about dependence because that does not fit the empowerment way of thinking about power, as something that does not require dominance. Though I view the following as a misreading, I suspect some people think that the “short-cut” version of interdependence theory’s view of power that Fiske (1993) provided, namely that power is control over another person’s outcomes, implies that  (a) that dependence is always bad, and/or (b) that people who are being controlled do not have agency. Careful thinking can help clarify this conundrum.

For the other readings this section, we can note a variety of approaches and consider how they relate (or don’t) to each other.

Bugenthal and Happany (2000) provide a different point of view of parent-child relationships than many people do. If one focuses on the child’s outcomes when a parent is abusive, the level of control that parent levels, and the means of it (terror and domination) one might not be able to see the parent’s point of view (I don’t mean approve of it, just notice it, find it useful to think about). One might make what I might call the “intentionality fallacy,” which is to presume that the effects of an action were what the actor intended to occur. In other words, if you feel abuse makes a parent dominant, you might assume that the parent’s intention in abusing is to dominate. But that might not be the parent's intention at all. Bugenthal and Happany (2000) offer a different perspective: that a parent who is abusive may be trying to regain some kind of power over a child who the parent feels is more dominant than the parent.

I can draw a parallel for you. Some years ago, Pratto and Walker (2004) reviewed the gendered bases of power, which include physical violence (i.e., some men and some women do this to their partners, but physical violence by men against women is more injurious and lethal if less frequent than violence by women against men is. In pulling together quite a number of different studies and theories about abuse, we noticed that the one point of commonality (such as that abuse is more common when men are unemployed, and more common if men believe in sexist ideologies that women are inferior to men) is that it men seem to abuse more often if they perceive themselves to have less power than they think they are supposed to vis-à-vis women. Later research tests related ideas men using violence as a means of asserting their masculinity when they think it is in doubt (search for terms like "precarious manhood" e.g., Vandello, Bosson, Cohen, Burnaford, & Weaver, 2008; "fragile masculinity," Howett, 2017; Stoltzer & Shih, 2012). What these insights have in common is that even people who act dominant and whom others may presume to have the upper hand (unfortunate pun intended) might act this way because they feel disregarded, disrespected, out of control, or other ways that seem the opposite of feeling powerful.

That conjecture, and the thesis and experiments that Bugenthal and Happany (2000) present, emphasizes that people’s perceptions of current relationships, and their expectations, and the possible gap between those, may have important influences on how they behave in the relationship. The original statements of IT do not seem to me to directly address this kind of cognitive comparison. Yet the notion that there are social norms for outsiders to the relationship and expectations that relationship members want to fulfill or have fulfilled would seem to be part of the calculus of weighing whether a relationship is “worth it” or should be changed. The article by Denzin (1984) also describes one of these unfortunate cases in which a husband’s abuse is the inept attempt at the desire for relationship closeness when it seems to the husband to have been thwarted by his  wife. From all three of these views, it is not just what people want that matters, but what they want in relation to what they perceive they have or lack.

This emphasis on subjective perceptions one can see writ large in the article by Muehlenhard and Kimes (1999), except that they are not focusing on individual psychology, but on the collective “social construction” of rape. The viewpoint they are taking about –constructivism-- is a broad modern conceptual approach to the meaning of concepts in the social sciences. Rather than argue that there is an object thing such as “rape” or “marriage,” the social constructivist approach assumes that these concepts are invented by consensus, very much like a word comes to signify an idea only because we consensually agree on what it signifies. We define concepts by consensus. Just as words can change their formal meanings and their evaluative connotations, so then can our consensual meanings of social ideas like whether rape exists and if so, what it is.

In implying that concepts change, and in articles such as that by Muehlenhard and Kimes (1999) that show how concepts change, the social constructivist approach reminds us that (a) scientists and other officials are not the only people who get to define terms, (b) people can change what they consider common, acceptable, legal, and so forth, (c) this means there is not one “right” way, (d) cultures and ideologies are fluid, (e) human relationships and ideals change, (f) understanding ordinary people’s understandings of the world is important to understand scientifically as it has much to do with how people live. The approach acknowledges the importance of subjective beliefs, but not simply for individuals, rather for collectives.  This article takes a different posture in social science research than all others we have read so far.

A separate reason that I selected it is that in reviewing a number of concepts and how their constructions have changed, there is a lot of richness in the alternative points of view and assumptions about what concepts like rape and violence mean.

Finally, the paper by Howard et al. (1986) uses interdependence theory’s approach to power with French and Raven’s (1959) approach to influence tactics. It presents an empirical study of the perceptions of U.S. adults in long-term relationships in what influence tactics they use and perceive their partner to use. Interdependence theory might suggest that the more dependent party in a relationship would use weaker influence tactics. Howard et al. (1986) studied heterosexual relationships and assumed that non-employed women were the weaker party in such relationships, yet they found that heterosexual couples in which the woman did not have a paid job, the women used more of some of the strong tactics. One potential interpretation of this finding is that it it goes along with the social comparison standard hypotheses introduced above: If women wanted to have an egalitarian relationship (the normative standard), but when they found themselves more dependent (lower in relational power), they used harsh tactics to try to re-balance power in the relationship.

Overall then, these readings suggest that power is fluid but always relational, but that the outside context of the relationship—its norms, consensual meanings, and affordances for meeting needs—has very much to do with power dynamics within the relationship. Unlike approaches emphasizing “social exchange,” social psychological applications of IT to close relationships identify mutual goals and desire for close relationships and their accoutrement as important – not just exchanges. To identify actual influence tactics, one needs to find out from the population under study what they are. French and Raven (1959) listed many of the means of influence by assuming what people want.



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Additional Resources

A Political Approach to Interdependence Theory

The Cultural Divide of Interdependence | New York Times

Staying in a Bad Relationship to Survive

Consent and Gender Roles

Feeding the Family

Violence Against Women: A Men's Issue | TED Talk