There’s an old joke: Two Jews; three opinions.

(You should feel free to ignore all the things in parentheses while reading, especially if you are not easily amused. Because I’m not that funny. Trust me.)

Like the joke above (whether one substitutes “Jews” with “professors” “interior decorators,” “your family members” etc.), it’s a safe bet that power could mean as many different things as the people you ask. Part of the problem is that social scientists usually use words from ordinary language as their concept terms, and power has multiple meanings, according to dictionaries (and you surely know how to use a dictionary, so no, I am not going start this reader by listing dictionary definitions). In physical sciences, scientists can co-opt ordinary words (like charm) or make up silly new words (like quark) to define precisely what they mean. Social scientists usually don’t. (I don’t know why. Maybe social scientists are not confident enough to sound silly.) Another problem is that different social sciences can take different approaches. Some approaches focus on individuals and person-to-person relationships, some on international relations, some on societal contexts, some on culture, and so forth. Sort of like polarized lenses, each perspective makes certain things assumed, certain things seem important, and certain things seem to need to be explained.

Because I want you to “have it all,” we are going to include all kinds of approaches to power. As you will see, people (please assume that scholars are people, but people here includes activists and power-users, like business people and politicians, too) use different approaches to address the power problems (problems can include troubles and challenges) they care about.  So in the end, you are going to be broadly read, and able to use the approaches you like to tackle the problems you care about. Plus you are going to be really sharp (I mean, even sharper—you wouldn’t even tackle power unless you were sharp already, she said pointedly). That’s because you are going to get really good at the “What do you mean?” game. (This is kind of like the grown-up version of the game three-year-olds play, continuing a conversation perpetually by asking “Why?” over and over. Come to think of it, I’m a professor so I also ask “Why?” over and over. But usually only to my myself and to my unfortunate students.)

So let’s start with some brainteasers that you get to answer:

  1. Think of five different people who you would say are powerful. What do they have in common? (Besides that you thought of them. Duh.)
  2. Would you like to be known as a powerful person? Why or why not? (Hint, this is a good class for essay exams.)
  3. Can everyone be powerful ?
  4. If one is not powerful, then what is one? (“Powerless” doesn’t count as an answer. Only I get to be snarky around here.)
  5. What can low-power groups do that high power groups cannot?
  6. What must you do if you are powerful that you don’t have to do if you are not powerful?
  7. What is power for?
  8. Why do some people want to be powerful?
  9. Can people get along with no power, or with very little? What is easier or harder about having little power
  10. Can people’s power be taken away from them
  11. Is using violence powerful?


I delineate for you several different ways of conceiving of power (from Pratto, 2016):

Properties of Power Examples Important Sources Power Basis Theory’s view
Freedom of choice: Power to

Interdependence theory states that the more powerful party in a relation is the one with the best alternatives to the relationship (e.g.,  freedom to exit, can fulfill desires elsewhere).

A person whose job skills are in demand is more free to leave any particular job.


A person with family commitments in an area with few employers has restricted job options.

Thibault & Kelly (1959)

Keltner, Gruenfeld, Anderson (2003)

PBT incorporates the important insight that alternatives are essential to understanding power. However, PBT argues that one could be empowered because of one’s relation to one’s environment, without dominating another party.

Power over


One party has power over another by controlling the other’s outcomes.

Supervisor influences whether a subordinate gets fired or receives opportunities for advancement.

A classmate can praise or humiliate another classmate.

French & Raven (1958) identified several interpersonal influence tactics, now termed soft (positive) & harsh (negative).

Fiske & Berdahl’s (2007) review centers on this definition.

PBT asserts that relational power is not the only kind of social power (see above). PBT argues that power is social because of the property below.
Transformable: Liquidity

Kinds of power can be fungible with other kinds (i.e., can be transformed into another) and can be transferred without loss from one party to another.

Colonizers use wealth to “buy” weapons and armies, which enable their access to other people’s resources.


An endorsement from an expert confers legitimacy on a novice.

Russell (1938)

Cartwright (1959)

Wilson (1973)

Yes—Power Basis Theory argues that different kinds of power are fungible (depending on social context), which is why they are rightly called “power.” Power is often social because social interaction is necessary for fungibility.
Potential: Power enables possibilities. Coercion works because one anticipates the possibility another may cause harm. Flattery may be appealing because one anticipates it may produce a desired outcome. Lewin (1951) Yes—PBT argues that an important way people gauge their ecologies is anticipate what they can do and what others can do. This is why subjective judgments are an important part of the psychology of power.
Power as position:

Power is associated with position in a social structural, or with authority.

People whose gender or ethnic group is favored in employment is likely to have more power in several ways; readier access to resources, to valuable associations with other people, to safety, to social legitimacy or prestige. Parsons (1952);

Sidanius & Pratto (1999) Social Dominance Theory states that a group who has better access to any socially-desired thing than another group has more power.

PBT acknowledges the fact of structural power. Unlike structural approaches, PBT extends these approaches by identifying a different motivation for power (survival), and suggesting how power distributions are created and can change because of fungibility.

Additional Reading Resources

The Psychology of Power | WIRED Magazine

Understanding Power Basis Theory