Power lies at the heart of a political system. According to Max Weber, power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others. To put it another way, whoever can control the behavior of others is exercising power. Power relations can involve large organizations, small groups, or even people in an intimate association. Power plays a critical role in both creating and addressing social problems.
Max Weber’s Conceptualization of Power
German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) established the widely accepted conceptualization of power as people realizing their own will in a communal action, even over others’ resistance. Critical to this notion of power is that it emerges from a social relationship. Power does not exist in the abstract but is exercised over others.
Weber did not contend that power is complete; rather he argued that it affected nearly all significant decision making. This qualifier of “nearly all” accounts for the limited influence of altruistic actions. Often these are actions such as relief drives to hurricane victims or creation of a homeless shelter that can obscure to the casual observer the social consequences of how power operates typically in a society.
Because Weber developed his conceptualization of power in the early 1900s, he focused primarily on the nation-state and its sphere of influence. Later scholars argued that power was exercised through a power elite of an interlocking network of government officials, the military, and big business. Scholars today recognize that the trend toward globalization has brought new opportunities, and with them new concentrations of power. Power as the ability to exercise one’s will over others is now exercised on a global as well as a national stage, as countries and multinational corporations vie to control access to resources and manage the distribution of capital worldwide.
Sources of Power
There are three basic sources of power within any political system: force, influence, and authority. Force is the actual or threatened use of coercion to impose one’s will on others. When leaders imprison or even execute political dissidents, they are applying force; so, too, are terrorists when they seize or bomb an embassy or assassinate a political leader. Influence, on the other hand, refers to the exercise of power through a process of persuasion. A citizen may change his or her view of a Supreme Court nominee because of a newspaper editorial, the expert testimony of a law school dean before the Senate Judiciary Committee, or a stirring speech by a political activist at a rally. In each of these cases, such efforts to persuade people are examples of influence.
The term authority refers to institutionalized power that is recognized by the people over whom it is exercised. Political scientists and sociologists commonly use the term in connection with those who hold legitimate power through elected or publicly acknowledged positions. A person’s authority is often limited. Thus, a referee has the authority to decide whether a penalty should be called during a football game but has no authority over the price of tickets to the game.
Social scientists have not limited their consideration of power to purely economic aspects of society. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) argues that power, typically wielded through the nation-state, could determine the behavior and cultural values followed by the people, the masses. He referred to these values and beliefs as a hegemonic culture that becomes viewed by the general public as normal and common sense. Power creates a consensus culture that also serves to maintain the status quo and, therefore, the interests of those in power.
Power in the 21st Century
In the 20th century, large states, particularly Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, came to be identified with maximizing nation-state power through their totalitarian governments. Yet in the latter 1900s and the 21st century, private corporations were as likely to be the focus of concerns about unbridled power. Motion picture documentaries focused on big box stores (Store Wars and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) or fast food restaurants (Super Size Me) and their negative impact on society. This corporate power, rather than being seen as reducing unemployment, is likely to now be identified with impacting the environment and people’s health in very negative ways.
The nation-state level of power analysis by Weber has also given way to the recognition of globalization, whether it is through multinational corporations and the continuing global influence of major economic powers like the United States. Superpowers and multinational businesses proceed in what they view as their best interests, with minimum interference worldwide. This kind of power challenges attempts to check or even regulate global economic and political powers.
Power also has assumed a new social significance as people feel their privacy invaded through surveillance of their own lives. Therefore, data-gathering agencies, whether they are government based or private, can influence people through the monitoring of their movements, financial dealings, or medical records. While sometimes this exercise of power is based on lofty motives, such as with the USA PATRIOT Act, others see this as an abuse of power.
- Domhoff, G. William. 2006. Who Rules America? Power Politics and Social Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lenski, Gerhard E. 1966. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Valelly, Richard M. 2006. “Political Scientists’ Renewed Interest in the Workings of Power.” Chronicle of Higher Education 52, August 11, pp. B6-B7.
- Weber, Max.  1968. Economy and Society, edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. New York: Bedminster.
- Whimster, Sam. 2005. “Max Weber.” Pp. 877-83 in Encyclopedia of Social Theory, edited by G. Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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