Gender and Power

Many people view nurturing children as the central aspect of a parent’s job. Just as surely, adults supporting the other adults in a family is also a prescriptive norm – a shared standard for how people ought to behave. However, not all families share such ideals, and even those that do can not only fall short of them, and commit something contemporary US generations view as antithetical to the goals of nurturance, partnership, and support, namely violence.

On the other hand, a minority of people feel that one nation using violence against another is ethically wrong, at least under certain circumstances.  Similarly, relatively few people believe that police do not have the right and even sometimes the obligation to use physical force, including inflicting pain (such as with tasers or holds) and even deadly force (such as shooting or choke holds). In fact, the early sociologist Max Weber , in a 1918 lecture (see Weber, 1948 in translation), said that a (nation-)state is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” This implies that violence is what undergirds national government because the state can use the threat of jail to enforce laws. It also implies that a government has the right to decide whether its citizens can use violence, own weapons. The contrast between prescriptive norms regarding violence for families and for nations demonstrates that roles and other social norms may be essential in understanding how and when violence is used and what the consequences are.

At first glance, it may seem obvious that violence IS power (e.g., Dahl, 1957). The readings for this week challenge you to consider the relationship of violence to power more deeply. One might assume that the ability to use violence denotes a kind of power: the ability to harm or destroy. The “credible threat” of violence, such as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), is but one step in processes of coercion and resistance. Coercion limits one’s apparent choices to doing what the threatener wants, or choosing to let the threatener hurt one (Pratto, 2015), but it does not eliminate agency. Physical force can be used to prevent physical action (consider that jail or constraint prevent movement), but if a person being threatened with violence does something desired by the threatener (e.g., withdraw money from a bank account), the threatened person retains agency and is making a choice between alternative futures the person imagines. Coercion is a psychological beast, and the priorities a coerced person has may still be evident in the (constrained) choices he or she makes.

Related to this point, it should now be clear that violence can prevent, harm, and destroy, but it cannot produce, aid, nor create. In power basis theory terms, this is because violence is a destructive but not a constructive form of power (Pratto et al., 2011). The understanding that violence may be prohibitive and destructive but not creative nor coercive may indicate what kinds of emotions violence is likely to produce in its actual or likely victims: fear, terror, and trauma but not security, confidence, or awe.

Understanding what feelings or thinking may drive the use of violence, and the feelings being able to be violent and being violent may characterize users of violence is a different question whose answers may not simply be the opposite of those induced in victims of violence.

The term “structural violence” pertains more to the intergroup level and may need some explaining. If we think of violence as something that causes harm, and we consider how aspects of social structure induce harm, we identify examples of structural violence. Racialized policing and the unnecessary use of force against African-Americans easily fits the definition of structural violence. Some people use the term to refer not so much to out and out harm as to opportunity costs or actual costs. For example, because poorer people are considered worse credit risks by lenders, they often have to pay higher interest rates and other financial fees than middle class and wealthy people. Because public schools are usually funded by property tax, schools for poorer children are literally poorer than those for better-off children.

The ultimate form of violence deserves special consideration. Suppose that conceptually we mean ultimate violence is obliteration.  At the individual level, this could be murder, but it also might involve decimating positive memories and contributions of the murder victim, effectively erasing that person’s existence and mattering. When a person is treated as if they are not there even when they are alive, that level of ostracization is called “social death.” From a Power Basis Theory perspective, erasure also eliminates legitimacy and obligations.

At the intergroup level, ultimate violence we could say is genocide. The definition of genocide goes beyond the mass killing of a certain “people,” but includes additional processes that attempt to erase the existence of the people. For example, destroying cultural artifacts, language, music, religion, customs and the history of a people are acts of genocide.


Dahl, R. A. (1957). The Concept of Power. Behavioral Science 2, 201-205.

Pratto, F., Lee, I., Tan, J. & Pitpitan, E. (2011). Power Basis Theory: A psycho-ecological approach to power.  In D. Dunning (Ed.), Social Motivation (191-222). New York: Psychology Press.

Pratto, F. (2016). On power and empowerment. British Journal of Social Psychology, 55, 1-20.

Weber, M. (1948). Politics as a vocation. In Hans H. Gerth and Charles W. Mills (Editors & Translators) From Max Weber: essays in sociology. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press (pp. 77128).

Class Exercises

Considering the two different levels of social organization in this week’s readings, the family and large groups, a number of questions for thought arise:

  1. Is there a parallel between war and terrorism between groups and in family relations? What is different about them?
  2. Are the moral arguments for using violence different for interpersonal versus intergroup violence?
  3. Are there obligations to use violence?
  4. Why is intimate partner violence and intergroup violence predominantly committed by men? Is this a coincidence?
  5. Violence is sometimes viewed as a tactic for getting something, a “means to an end.” What kinds of things might someone or a group who uses violence gain? Are such things what the user of violence really needs?

Group Activities/Discussion Points

Have class get in teams of two to address the following items:

  1. When is using violence acceptable?  Expected?  Unacceptable?
  1. Why might an individual use violence strategically?
  1. What makes using violence effective?
  1. What makes using violence ineffective?
  1. When do people use violence against groups?
  1. What psychological states induce violence?
  1. What psychological consequences does violence have for perpetrators?
  1. What psychological consequences does violence have for victims?

Additional Resources

TED Talk: Why domestic violence victims don't leave

The Atlantic article: How Family Violence Changes the Way Children's Brains Function

New York Times: The Link Between Domestic Violence and Terrorism