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The Social Anatomy and Dynamics of Power: Bases, Depth, Scope, and Dimensions

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The Social Anatomy and Dynamics of Power
The Social Anatomy and Dynamics of Power
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Orientation:

Question about the where, when, what of power

Is power something inside a person (an attribute) or a relationship between people? Is power a neutral concept, or does power have a positive or negative charge? Is power vertical or horizontal? Most of the time it seems that power is hierarchical and can be called power over people. But can there be horizontal power, that is power with people? What is the relationship between power and politics? Is politics a specific form of power or is power a particular form of politics? What is the relationship between power, persuasion, and control? Are they interchangeable? Are they three completely different categories or are they related and overlapping?

What is the relationship between power and authority? Are power and authority opposites? Is power a form of authority or is authority a form of power? Is all power intentional or can power be exerted unintentionally? What is the relationship between power, wealth, and prestige? Can you be powerful but not be wealthy and prestigious? Can you have wealth and prestige but not have power? What is the difference between potential power and latent power? What is the range of power in terms of the number of people it affects, the variety of tactics used or its depth of intensity?

Resources for this article

The field of political sociology has many very good theories of power. G. William Domhoff has written about how power is produced and distributed in two books about how the ruling class rules Yankeedom. These books are The Powers That Be and Who Rules America? W. Lawrence Neuman has covered much ground in his textbook Power, State and Society. The Italian Gianfranco Poggi has identified three types of power in his book Forms of Power. Michael Mann has written on three volumes on power that has demonstrate a deep historical grounding. They are called The Sources of Social Power. Peter Morris has developed a theory of power from a philosophical standpoint. Stewart Clegg has written three books on power that I devoured. His work would require way more space than a single article. Robert Alfred and Roger Friedland have developed the richest theory of power from the point of view of six sociological schools. However, for purposes of just getting our feet wet, I will only draw from two books, one by Dennis Wrong, and the other by Steven Lukes. Wrong's book is titled Power: Its Forms, Bases and Uses. Lukes' book is called Power: A Radical View.

This piece will focus on vertical power: when a person or class has power over people to harness energy and labor to get work done. How exactly do they do this? My article is divided into three parts. The first is the delineation of eleven power bases. The second is a description of the three dimensions of power - pluralist, elitist, and class. I will close by answering the questions that I first posed in the orientation. At least as important, how does it get to be that people come to accept their own submission to power? This will be the subject of my next article.

I Range of power

We need to be able to access the range of power. What is the scope of power, in other words how far in breadth and depth does it cover? How long does it last? Dennis Wrong identifies three areas of extensiveness, comprehensiveness, and intensiveness.

  • Extensiveness has to do with how many people are involved.
  • Comprehensiveness is the variety of strategies the powerholder can employ to achieve their outcome.
  • Intensity is the range of how far it can used before it loses control over people. This has to do with the degree of coordination (in the case of power with) and subordination (in the case of power over).

Let's use some examples. In the case of the sadist and masochist, power relations are narrowly extensive but highly comprehensive and intensive power relations. While dictatorial-tyrannical power will wield extensive and intensive power, the difficulty of maintaining the visibility at all times of the behavior of subjects sets limits to the comprehensiveness of its power.

There are 3 reasons why greater extensiveness of a power relation sets limits on authoritarian comprehensiveness and intensity. The first is the greater the number of subordinates makes for greaterdifficulty supervising all of their activities. Secondly, the more people it subordinates the more differentiated the chain of command is necessary to control them. Thirdly, the more people are involved the greater the likelihood of wide variation of the population's attitudes toward the power holder.

II Power bases

By what means does the dominator achieve and maintain power? Let's begin with the typology of power bases provided offered by Dennis Wrong. I've added a few of my own from some of the sources listed in the orientation section.

1) Force With force, an individual or political group achieves their objectives in the face of another group's noncompliance by stripping them of the choice between compliance and noncompliance. Force is treating a human subject as if they were a physical object or a biological organism subject to pain or injury. There are two kinds of forces - physical force and psychic force.

  1. a) Physical force includes the use of violence, damaging the body. Its purpose is to eliminate people from the scene or prevent them from taking any action at all. Violent force can also involve the denial of food, sleep or on a larger scale, employment. Force can also be non-violent by those resisting to domination. In the case of civil disobedience, resisters use their bodies as physical objects.
  1. b) The use of psychic force involves the damages of ideas, emotions, such as verbally insulting, degrading, or the deformation of character. On a group level, this would be ritual degradation, engaging in sorcery or casting a spell. On a less severe scale, nagging and browbeating are instances of psychic violence.

2) Coercion This is a term that is mistakenly used interchangeably with force. Coercion is a threat of the use of force. For example, I am driving on a city street and I see a cop's flashing lights go on, indicating for me to pull over. I pull over not because I respect the cop's legitimate authority, but because he has a gun. A man involved with a woman having a domestic quarrel stands up and begins shouting and pointing. This is not force because there is no physical contact. However, there is clearly a threat of force.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. http://planningbeyondcapitalism.org/

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