Overview of Power Concepts

In the Orientation, I told you that (1) power is complicated and that (2) social scientists use the same word to mean different things (Indeed, it is said that they would rather use another scientist’s toothbrush than they would use another scientist’s terms.)

This is why we need to make sure we know how different concepts of power, or concepts related to power, are the same or different. Let’s give it a go. The more formal version of this page is Pratto (2016).


Maybe you know what actual leadership is, but I don’t really. I know people think leaders cause things to happen, and if those are good things to us the leader is respected and even revered. If the leader causes things we think are bad to happen, then he (usually—sorry guys. This is what happens from being almost all the leaders. ) is called The Imperial Emperor of the Evil Empire, a Vicious, Diabolical, Blood-thirsty, Immoral  Enemy, a Rotten Scoundrel, or some other such terms I won’t publish here. It is easier to explain the Leadership approach to Power with questions that people who use it ask:

  • What are the personal qualities of a leader? Evidently they are different than everybody else. Focusing on leaders implies there are followers, who are sometimes forgotten.
  • How do leaders lead (get people to cooperate and do what the leader thinks is best)?
  • Why do people allow themselves to be led—or do they?
  • Is leadership just an illusion caused by people coordinating what they are doing together and letting some clueless guy in charge think he is orchestrating it all (like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss)?

Does a leader have to be an authority?

So in geek terms, leaders are people who either are or appear to be more influential than the average person. A teacher in control of a class, and a class clown who changes the teacher’s agenda and classroom atmosphere both fit that definition. Thus, some people think leaders must also be respected as persons and as leaders, which is sometimes why they are authorities too. (The reason people don’t respect politicians whose strings are secretly pulled by other people is that we think leaders can do stuff, and a marionette doesn’t actually do stuff, it just looks like it.)

Relational Power

Many social psychologists and other important people such as  Michel Foucault (e.g., 1972) assume that power can only be defined as a relationship, not as a possession or general property of a person or group.  In other words, it does not make sense to say that Party X is just plain powerful. One can also say how powerful Party X is compared to Party Y, or that Party X has power over Party Y, for example.

But there are important sub-types of this Relational perspective, and they are not necessarily compatible even though they belong to the same family (Does this sound like anybody you know? It does to me.)

One relational approach states that the power in a relationship has to do with how each party (no, not the kind with balloons—"party" means the person or groups or entities involved) in a relationship depends, to one degree or other, on the other party in the relationship. They might feel they depend one one another to the same extent, or they might not.

(And because we are all approximately adults, we admit that we can have lots of relationships with different kinds of power or dependency in each relationship. You might depend on the person who deducts you on income taxes for your tuition, and said person depends on you to make her or him proud, etc.)

If you depended on someone to give you exactly the same thing that they give you, like the same $1 passed back and forth, that would be silly. So usually people depend on each other for different things. Social psychologists call this “interdependence theory” and sociologists call it “social exchange theory” (told ya!).

Another general relational approach has to do with the kinds of roles, obligations, or duties two parties  have with each other. Is one person the boss of another? Do citizens cede their authority to enforce justice to the government? Are they allies or enemies or trading partners or romantic partners? Obviously there are a whole lot of kinds of affiliations parties might have, so when you read about this formally you will see other types of relational power.

Power as Non-Relational

You might argue that if it possible for one person to have power over another as in the relational sense, then it is also possible that there is someone over whom no one has power. This would mean that there must be non-relational ways of having power. If I can act independently, then I have agency. If I can get done what I wish, then I have efficacy. If I refused to be persuaded or coerced, then I exercise agency against an attempt at influence or control, that is, against these kinds of relational power. For such reasons and others (as you will read in Pratto, 2016), this is why I assert that there are also non-relational ways to think about power as well.

At this point, let’s just distinguish a few different concepts:

Agency: The ability to take action, to act. A marionette cannot act on its own accord (unless possessed in a really creepy nightmare. Shiver!). If marionettes could actually act on their own accord, then they would have agency. (Want an even worse word? How about agentic?)

Authority: Having social recognition for dominion in a certain arena. One has authority when others cede their agency to the authority to act on their behalf.

Autonomy: Self-determination. Independence, at least to the point of not being coerced or controlled.  (This is what Pinocchio has when he becomes a real boy and sings, "I got no strings”).

Engraving from Pinnicchio of the Puppetmaster Mangiafuocco with a nasty whip
Mangiafuocco by Carlo Chiostri, Le avventura di Pinnicchio: Storia di un burattino, por Carlo Collodi, 1902, Firenze. Bemporad & Figlio.

Coerce: To coerce someone is to get the other to act the way you want them to by offering them two bad choices, in which the least bad choice involves the other acting the way you desire. Notice, then, that coercion doesn’t mean the coerced party has NO agency or choice. Rather, coercion relies on choosing and agency. Coercion restricts control by predetermining the choices and their consequences. Puppet Master Mangiafuoco coerced Pinocchio by telling Pinocchio that he could either perform for the Great Marionette Theatre, or he would chop up Pinocchio and throw him into the fire. Mangiafuoco (which has an informative translation) wanted Pinocchio to perform; he did not want to burn him up; but he could guess that the latter option would appeal less to Pinocchio.

Control: The ability to absolutely (i.e., completely) determine what another does. The puppet master controls the marionette’s actions by pulling strings. With human beings, dogs, mules, and other friends, it is possible to stop them from doing certain actions using physical restraints. It may not be possible to make them do something, or to determine what someone else thinks or feels. (OK, I thought of one, controlling someone's actual actions, and it isn't that nice. When I was a small girl, one of my uncles would grab my wrist and push my arm so that my hand slapped my face, over and over. Then he would say, "What are you hitting yourself for?")

Efficacy: The property of being able to realize one’s goals. That is, efficacy is agency with the intended results.

Expropriate: Taking something of value from another party via coercion. (What do marionettes have that you would want to steal? Tiny shoes that are nailed on?) Somebody who is being exploited must have something the exploiter wants, even if that thing is belief in one’s own agency. Here is where the puppet cries, having discovered that he is a puppet. (I encourage even adults to read the original novel by Carlo Collodi, The Story of Pinocchio.)

Exploit: To take advantage of another’s already existing poor choice set to convince them to do something you want them to, or to take something of value to them without their resisting to the point of success. For example, “coyotes” often take advantage of migrants who are desperate to escape untenable lives, and may lack the expertise to cross the border without “help.” To me, one of the most important facts about power is this: Desperation allows for exploitation.

Influence: Influence is like control but to a lesser degree. Specifically, with influence control is not completely from the outside. Influence implies that one and at least one other party caused the action or state of a party (self or other). C influences B so long as C biases B’s behavior or state in a particular direction, but B retains some control over B’s action or state. Possibly B retains the sense of having complete authority over herself, and agency still belongs to B.

Freedom: Is this just another way of saying “autonomy?” Well, autonomy means that control is not happening. Freedom means one has a lot of choices, and at least some must be good ones (i.e., likely bringing about good consequences). If some choices were not good ones, freedom would be the same thing as coercion. Making those choices and acting on them is using agency.

Politically some people mean “freedom” to mean they are not under dictatorship or strong government repression, and other people mean they do not have obligations to others, nor does the government. Sometimes in our discourse, “freedom” just means “something I think is good and you can’t argue with because all decent people value freedom.” I think “fairness” is sometimes used to mean exactly the same thing. Watch for that vague rabble-rousing.

Leadership:  You do this one. I did the hard ones.

Philosophical Positions

One of the interesting things to think about is what different approaches to power imply about the human condition (OK, OK, interesting if you are a geek like me). For example, if one party has power/control/influence over another, or if one can be coerced, is there such a thing as free will? If people do not know who they are without others, can people really be considered to be autonomous? Can freedom be scarier than being controlled? Is “responsible use of power” an oxymoron?


Foucault, M. (1972). Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. C. Gordon (Ed.). NY: Pantheon Books.

Pratto, F. (2016). (Dec. 22, 2015 on line). On power and empowerment. British Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 0.1111/bjso.12135