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organizing people for stronger communities

What is power, and how can it be used for the common good.

An essay by Robert Linthicum, ICON

The Nature of Power

What is power?  Power is the capacity, ability and willingness to act!  Every word in that definition is important for an adequate understanding of power.

First, power is the capacity to act.  “Capacity” means, “the facility to produce, perform or deploy”.  For a group to have the capacity to act means that they have developed or gathered the resources together in order to exercise power.  A military illustration makes the concept of capacity clear.  If a military unit has been issued rifles, but hasn’t been given any ammunition, then they don’t have the capacity to act.  Even though they might want to attack the enemy and are expert marksmen, the absence of ammunition means that they don’t have the resources at their disposal that enables them to act.

Second, power is the ability to act.  Ability consists of having the skill, aptitude and/or competence to carry out the action one wishes to undertake.  Thus, to use our military illustration once again, if one has adequate rifles and ammunition in abundance, but no one in the unit knows how to fire the rifles or can’t hit “the side of a barn”, they don’t have the ability to act.  Capacity without ability still creates a powerless situation.

Finally, power is the willingness to act.  There must be a resolve and a commitment on the part of the group to act, even if that means taking the risks necessary to act.  Thus, if one has sufficient ordinances (capacity) and the skill to use them (ability), but they do not have the resolve or motivation to go into battle, then you would still have a powerless situation.

It takes capacity plus ability plus willingness to act powerfully.  And this is as true of individuals or of a community of people as it is true of an organized basketball team or college students or army or even a nation.

Change cannot occur in a city, a neighborhood, a church, a tribe or a nation unless the people and their institutions have developed their capacity, ability and willingness to act.  Then – and only then – do they have power!

Now I particularly want you to note that power, as I’ve described it above, is neutral.  It is neither good nor evil.  What makes power either good or evil is the intent and commitments of those who exercise that power.  The motivation and intentions of the person or people holding power determines whether that power will move in evil or transformative directions.  Thus, Hitler had the capacity, ability and willingness to act – and he used that capacity, ability and willingness to drag an entire world into war!  But a religious leader like Jesus also had the capacity, ability and willingness to act, exercised that power towards individuals, towards his community of disciples and towards the religious-political powers of Israelite society and began a movement that has transformed society and millions of lives for more than two thousand years!

The Two Kinds of Power

There are two essential types of power.  One type of power is called unilateral.  The other type of power is relational.  Both types of power are built by honing the capacity, ability and willingness of its people and institutions to act.  Either type of power can be used for good or used for evil – but most often is a mixture of both.  But unilateral power primarily organizes institutions and those institutions’ capacity to create and adjudicate laws, use military power, control wealth or act symbolically.  Relational power, on the other hand, organizes people and the institutions of people (e.g., churches, clubs, community groups, unions, etc.) to act as one.  Thus, one can say that unilateral power is essentially institutional while relational power is built upon the people.  Let’s look more thoroughly at these two exercises of power.

Unilateral power is the kind of power that is most often used by large corporations, fiduciary institutions, government and organized religions.  Unilateral power is basically “power over” a people.  There are two types of unilateral power.  Dominating power is the lowest form of power.  That is the power exercised by a government or group through the force of guns and physical intimidation.  It is the tyrannical use of power — colonial, plantation, paternalistic power.  It was dominating unilateral power against which most of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible protested.

A second form of unilateral power is constitutional power.  This is a “higher” or more “sophisticated” form of power than dominating power.  But it is still essentially unilateral in nature.  Constitutional power is power over people as defined by the law rather than defined by force.  It tends to be highly structured and hierarchical, with responsibility being delegated by the people to those who hold power.  That was the kind of power being exercised by Pilate in his trial of Jesus or by massive business that was so virulently opposed by the recent “Occupy” movement. It might have been unethical and even tyrannical, but it was all perfectly legal!

Under constitutional power, those in power theoretically rule by the consent of the governed and thus are responsible for representing the governed.  But, in reality, the governed play little role in the day-to-day operation or influence of the government or of multinational corporations.  Thus, in the United States, the people’s responsibility is to vote upon their selection of representatives and to write letters of protest or telephone their protest.  But that is what people assume is the limits of participation by the people in the decision-making process.

The other essential type of power is relational power.  Whereas unilateral power is “power over” a constituency, relational power is “power with”.  Therefore, it is a higher form of participatory power than is either dominating or constitutional power.  There are two types of relational power, the first being mutual power.  Mutual power exists when two people or groups hold fairly equal power.  Rather than trying to enhance their own power at the expense of the other party, however, mutual power will respect each other’s power and position, working together for common objectives.  It is therefore a negotiating exercise of power.  A biblical example of mutual relational power was the power exercised by David and Jonathan toward each other.  Jonathan had power as the son of the king; David’s power was based upon his military acumen and popularity.  Both men could have acted destructively toward each other, and Israel would have suffered.  Instead, because they loved each other, they used their mutual power to both strengthen and secure Israel.

The second type of relational power is reciprocal power.  This is the deepest form of relational power.  It is one in which the people understand that both parties or forces can benefit from power decisions if they authentically share decisions.  Therefore, reciprocal power is truly shared power, in which each party is of equal strength, is equally participative in the decision-making process, and each commits itself not to its private or exclusive good but to the common good.  This was the type of power being presented in Deuteronomy as the base for a relational culture that resulted in justice, an equitable distribution of goods and the elimination of poverty.  If power is the ability to get things done, relational power is the capacity to organize people around common values, relationships and issues so that they can bring about the change they desire.

Relational Power in Action

People who act together with relational power operate in significantly different ways to people who don’t know how to use power.  The very way you respond to the system in a mutual encounter with them informs them whether or not you and the people possess power (and, therefore, whether they need to pay attention to you or can dismiss you).

For example, people who have built strong relational power with each other will be direct with the leaders of the system they have targeted for action.  They will be confrontive in their statement of the issues (but not necessarily nasty) and specific in what they demand of the systems.  People who don’t feel powerful, on the other hand, will be vague and abstract, and will preach lofty principles but not specific concrete action.  People with power will seek to negotiate; people without power will polarize.  Thus, people with power will seek a win-win resolution of the issue (precisely because they negotiate from a powerful position); people without power will seek to destroy the opposition (“win-lose”).  People with power, when meeting with the systems, will set the agenda for the discussion; people without power will let the systems set the agenda for them.

In essence, people with power will be extremely realistic in what they are seeking to accomplish, willing to build on little victory after little victory after little victory.  People without power, on the other hand, will be idealists who will demand “the whole loaf or none at all”.   People with power are always able to accept “half a loaf” (because they have enough power to know that they can be back tomorrow with greater negotiating force to get the other “half”), and are therefore free to compromise, settle and deal.  People without power will feel the necessity to fight “to the death” or surrender.  Thus, people with power are flexible while people without power are rigid.  Finally, people with power will always be accountable for their actions, while those without power will refuse to be accountable to anyone other than themselves.

If any well-meaning people’s institution (like a church or union or community group) wants to make a difference in its city, it will not accomplish this by pontificating on the same from lofty pulpits or by passing resolutions or releasing statements.  It will make a difference — and will be respected by the political, economic and values-creating systems and leaders of a city — only as the people use power intelligently.  And what does it mean to use power?  It means a willingness to work together in a city as one single disciplined body, rather than each people’s institution “doing its own thing” and seeking to grab all the credit.  It means being direct, confrontive and specific in its demands upon the systems.  It means a willingness to set the agenda rather than reacting to the city’s agenda, being proactive in working for the city’s social righteousness.

It means that it must set and execute its agenda out of its own perceived highest common self-interest in which it also understands both the articulated and unarticulated objectives of the systems.  And out of that understanding, the people’s organization (like ICON) must seek a “win-win” resolution in which both the people and the systems benefit by the decision made.  To accomplish that win, the entire organized body must be willing to negotiate, settle, deal, compromise, work on details, negotiate and negotiate some more while remaining flexible in the midst of the struggle.  It must be realistic in regards to the decisions made and the toll of the struggle.  Each member institution of a broad-based organization like ICON must be willing to be accountable to the full organized body for both its actions and its delivery of the commitments it has made.  In other words, to be powerful, the people organized in that city must be disciplined!  And, finally, for power to be authentically and successfully exercised, the leaders of the people must be able to trust each other, for that is the very essence of relational power!

Relational Power and the Discipline of Community Organizing

The exercise of relational power by any relationally based organization is difficult for it to undertake by itself.  The reason why is because we have such little experience in actually exercising it in “the world as it is”.  Consequently, to effectively exercise relational power in public life, a group needs to be in relationship with a professional community organizer – someone who has been trained and is deeply experienced in the mobilizing of relational power to enable the people’s institutions to work for significant systemic change in its city or community.  That relationship is best lived out in an organization of organizations – an organization of like-minded people and institutions that want to build and use relational power together as their base for impacting the political, economic, educational and social systems of their city and thereby work towards the transformation of their city.

ICON refers to itself as a broad-based organization.  That means two things.  First, the constituency of the organization is broad-based – that is, it includes all kinds of institutions that build their power primarily upon relationships: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, unions, schools, not-for-profit organizations, civic organizations, local neighborhood clubs, etc.  Second, the reach of the organization is also broad-based – that is, it might not only include the entirety of a single city but of an entire metropolitan area or region, like the Inland Empire of southern California.

All organizing, such as that done by ICON, operates around the Iron Rule: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves”.  It concentrates upon equipping the people and their institutions to act powerfully together to bring about systemic change in their societies.  Unless a church, community group, union or any other well-meaning people’s organization joins with other relational institutions and is adequately equipped to use its relational power, it will have an exceedingly hard time being effective in bringing about significant systemic transformation in its parish area, community or city.  But if it knows how to exercise relational power – then watch out!  They will then be a people who know how to use relational power, and will use it to build through confrontation and negotiate their societies into communities of shalom!

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By Máire A. Dugan

June 2003 -- Updated August, 2012 and again in June 2017 by Heidi Burgess  

Current Implications

Reading through this essay in June, 2017, I was struck, mostly, with how relevant it was, and once, by how wrong it seemed on one (astonishing) point. Let me go through these one-by-one. More...

In one of the few in-depth treatments of power in conflict situations, Hubert M. Blalock begins by acknowledging something most of us know but rarely state: "The concept of power is both exceedingly slippery to pin down and yet indispensable in enabling one to analyze...."[1]

Having defined power, as in physics, as having both potential and kinetic forms, he opts for the latter usage alone in his text. That is, he acknowledges power as both the capacity of an individual or group to accomplish something, and the actual doing of something, but he limits his discussion to "actions actually accomplished."

This has two advantages. First, it dovetails with how most of us think about power most of the time. Second, it is easier to quantify. It is much easier to measure something that has occurred than something that is a possibility. An actual occurrence is a fact that can be checked. There may be disagreement on the sources of its occurrence, but the argument about its occurrence is likely to be short-lived if adequate facts can be brought to bear. If one side has won in a disagreement (in that it has gotten the other to do something it wanted), we have prima facie evidence that the first is more powerful -- or at least has exerted more power -- than the second.

Since concerns of relative power are important in conflicts, it is helpful to have a clear picture of who has more. We can then more easily say that one is more (or less) powerful than another. Theoretically, at least, we can predict who will win and who will lose the confrontation. Hopefully, we could then dissuade a party from pursuing a destructive battle that it is bound to lose.

Defining Power

Before defining power in a sociological sense, let's look at a type of power with which we are familiar on a daily basis -- electrical power. We know that electricity is available to us when we plug an appliance into an outlet and turn it on. Except in the case of an outage or a malfunction, we expect electricity to be available to us to make electrical appliances function. Further, when the appliance is functioning, we can see and benefit from the power we have at our disposal. In other words, we can detect both potential and actual power.

So, too, with social and political power. There's nothing quite as visible and uniform as an outlet to identify its source, but it functions in both the potential and actual. As with electricity, for all its complexity in operation, social and political power has a simple definition.

Power is the Capacity to Bring about Change

Oftentimes, power is more narrowly defined, even when both its actual and potential forms are considered. While change is central in these definitions, the authors tend to focus only on changing the other. Thus, power is often defined as the capacity to influence others' behavior, to get others to do what challengers want, rather than what the initial parties themselves want. It is, however, important to recognize that change can be within rather than without, or that it may be a combination of the two. This recognition is important in concerns about empowerment ; beyond this, it opens up additional strategies to consider in combating injustice and seeking social change .

Sources of Power

If power were one-dimensional, we could agree with some degree of certitude who has more and who has less and thus, who will be the victor in a contest of wills. However, we are often confronted with surprises in this regard when a seemingly less powerful party holds a more powerful party at bay. As an example, Iraq lost the first Gulf War. This can be documented. A major source of its defeat was that the massive alliance arrayed against it had vastly superior firepower. That situation remained after the war was over. Nonetheless, Iraq successfully evaded U.N. inspection directives for over a decade. Where was its source of power? It later fought the United States and a much smaller set of allies to an ambiguous end: some would say the US and its allies "won," but others would say that Iraq "won."  Actually, many more observer, and almost all peace scholars, are likely to say that both sides lost! Why wasn't the US --supposedly the most powerful nation in the world able to quickly and cleanly defeat Iraq in the second Iraq war?  To be able to answer such questions, it is important to look beyond military might as a source of power.

Electrical power provides an additional metaphor in the consideration of social and political power. It provides a window on the importance of the sources of power. There are many cases where electrical power may be insufficient. In the case of a developing nation, lack of inexpensive electricity may be limiting its industrial potential, which may in turn be contributing to the impoverishment of its citizens. In a region facing an influx of residents, there may not be sufficient electricity to provide expected services. In an overdeveloped area, people may be facing power outages during peak usage times of the day.

In the last case, the best plan of action may be to face hard choices about limiting future growth. But even here, people are most likely concerned with how to obtain more power, more easily accessible power, and/or less expensive power. To do any of these, we need to understand the sources of power and compare their relative ease, benefit, and cost. Is a fossil fuel plant the best option? What about the air pollution in the surrounding area? How about a nuclear plant? Who is to bear the cost of the heat pollution it generates in the waters into which its outtake valves deposit formerly cooler water? What about the dangers of accidents?

Obtaining power is never without cost. Technological advances provide additional choices on how to generate electricity, which may enable us to limit or mute some of those costs. The same is true with increasing or obtaining political power, where identifying and developing alternative sources of power may mitigate some of its undesirable impacts.

Gene Sharp provides a broad list of sources of power.[2] Sources include:

  • authority, that is, the perception among the governed that the leader has the right to give them directives.
  • human resources in the form of people who support and assist the leader as well as their percentage in the general population.
  • skills and knowledge, including the talents of those who work for the leader.
  • intangible factors, "such as psychological and ideological factors, such as habits and attitudes toward obedience and submission, and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission."[3]
  • material resources in the form of control over wealth, property, natural resources, communications, and transportation.
  • sanctions or reprisals which the leader is both willing and able to use against her/his own constituency and/or an adversary.

A couple of comments are in order before leaving this list. First, while each item on the list is obviously a potential source of the capacity to bring about change (power), only the last is, by definition, directly related to force and coercion . Second, I want to underscore authority as a source of power. Stanley Milgram has compellingly highlighted its import in the series of experiments in which people were asked to shock a "learner" at increasingly higher voltages if the learner did not answer questions correctly. Sixty-five percent of the subjects did as requested, even after hearing feigned cries of pain (the learner was a confederate of the experimenter and was not actually receiving any shocks). Milgram concluded that:

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. ...A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.[4]

Forms of Power (Power Strategies)

Given that power's sources are very different, it is not surprising that its manifestations are different enough in kind to justify a separate treatment for each. But as a brief overview, let us consider the image presented by Kenneth Boulding, a preeminent peace researcher and economist who has provided us with a powerful metaphor for grappling with the different types of power: the stick, the carrot, and the hug. The stick and the carrot are familiar metaphors, the first for force and the second for enticement. The third is for a form of power which Boulding claims to be the most-often used -- integrative or collaborative power .[5]

Coercive power , as mentioned above, is the form most meant when one refers to power. Coercive power is based on superior strength, often in the form of physical strength or superior arms. While the stick is its metaphor, force can be achieved through less overtly violent means, as, for example, when the necessities of life are withheld or when someone is embarrassed into submission. Coercion is often accomplished without the actual infliction of force. The mere threat of its use, when believed, can be sufficient to obtain compliance. The chapter on coercive and threat power will deal with this spectrum of power.

The carrot represents a much gentler type of power, one that relies on a variety of exchange and reward possibilities. Oftentimes, an exchange is made or implied. Person A does the bidding of Person B because of something Person A will do in return. Global economies are run largely on the basis of exchange power . So, too, on a more personal level, are much of day-to-day finances. Workers perform their tasks in exchange for the pay they are given. A worker may choose to meet an early deadline requested by a manager in order to receive the manager's appreciation, perhaps even a raise or promotion. This spectrum of reasons that people change their behavior is the subject of the section on Exchange Power .

It is the final element, the hug, which brings us to the least-explored form of power. The section on integrative or collaborative power will explore a range of more internalized reasons that people change their behavior in a direction that may be more desirable to themselves or someone else. The first element the hug brings to mind is love, but collaborative power can also be based on qualities such as loyalty and legitimacy, or simply a conviction that teamwork is a more productive approach than hierarchy. It may also involve the use of persuasion, the persuader drawing on not only the logic of her own case, but also the values of the other.

While love and other integrative aspects of power are not usually considered when discussing power, this focus is not new. Karl M. Deutsch, a pre-eminent political scientist of the mid-20 th century, put it this way:

Power is...neither the center nor the essence of politics. It is one of the currencies of politics, one of the important mechanisms of acceleration or of damage control where influence, habit, or voluntary coordination may have failed, or where these may have failed to serve adequately the function of goal attainment. Force is another and narrower currency and damage control mechanism of this kind. Influence and the trading of ... desired favors -- the traditional "playing politics" of American colloquial speech -- are still others. All these are important, but each is replaceable by the others, and all are secondary to what now the essence of politics: the dependable coordination of human efforts and expectations for the attainment of the goals of the society.[6]

Feminist scholars provide a different lens through which to look at the three forms of power, which are referred to, respectively, as "power over," "power to," and "power with."[7] "Power over" refers to power through domination; it is coercive and operates largely through threat and fear. "Power to" directs our attention back to the definition of power in general. If power is the capacity to change, then should we not focus our first thoughts, not on fear and force, but on getting things done? "Power with" refers to a certain form of getting things done, that is, collaborative endeavors. This is the form of power that receives most emphasis in feminist literature as well as other literatures from those with lesser amounts of power, e.g., liberation theology. It reflects a concern about moving away from hierarchical forms of governance and society to what Riane Eisler calls "partnership societies."[8]

Louis Kriesberg looks at power from the position of a party in a conflict:

A conflict party has three basic ways to induce adversaries to move toward the position it desires: It may try to persuade, coerce, or reward the opponents.[9]

In a conflict, a party thus has three general sources of improving its chances of meeting its own goals and/or reducing the chances of its adversary from meeting goals to which it objects: sticks, carrots or hugs.

In the real world, it is rare that any of these forms of power is exercised on its own. More typically, exercise of power involves a combination of some aspects of at least two, and oftentimes all three. Sociologist Paul Wehr refered to the mixture as the "power strategy mix"--the specific combination of sticks, carrots, and hugs that is likely to yield the optimal result.  When one is dealing with an opponent who is reasonably agreeable and likely to negotiate, all one needs is a carrot, with a bit of a hug, perhaps to make sure the negotiation is cooperative, not competitive.  If the opponent is unwilling to budge, however, a minor show of force (as little as necessary) might get them to reconsider and come to the negotiating table. Sometimes, however, a major show of force is necessary--but as the essay on Coercive Power shows, that approach has grave dangers.  Those dangers can be termpered, at least to some extent, by integrating "some carrots" and even some "hugs" into the mix--which is actually what the US tried to do in the second "nation building" phase of the second Iraq war.  Here the U.S. switched away from the heavily stick-based approach of "shock and awe" to an approach where only violent insurgents were targeted, while the military tried to build relations -- and infrastrcutre such as schools, water projects, power plants, etc. for the peaceful population.  

A related essay in this section on power is empowerment . How can less powerful parties make use of the array of sources of power? What sorts of power should they seek? Feminist and other liberation literatures put a particular emphasis on this question, which is reflected in the empowerment essay.

Reading through this essay in June, 2017, I was struck, mostly, with how relevant it was, and once, by how wrong it seemed on one (astonishing) point. Let me go through these one-by-one.

  • Defining power and determining who has more: The president of the United States is thought to have a tremendous amount of power. Yet if power is measured only in terms of changes actually brought about, President Trump has much less than anticipated. He keeps on getting blocked by Congress, the courts, by lower-level officials (who for instance are vowing to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement even after Trump said the U.S. would back out), and the public at large (who, for example, massively lobbied their Congresspeople, insisting that they not pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Thus by defining power by what actually gets done, one has a very different image of who has how much power than if one just looks at “potential” power.
  • Sources of power: Gene Sharp’s list of sources of power is still a good one, and it illustrates why Trump’s opponents are doing as well as they are at blocking his various initiatives. While the President has a great deal of authority, he is learning that the Constitution and the courts have even more…so when the courts struck down his travel ban as unconstitutional, he was powerless to do anything about that. Another of his problems involves skills and knowledge. He, and most of his cabinet, is new to government. They therefore lack the skills and knowledge needed to know how government systems work, and what needs to be done in order to get one’s interests, needs, or even one’s orders met. However, both he and his opponents have a great number of people who support them (human resources), and they both have material resources (mostly money) supporting each side. Both sides also have “intangible factors”—habits and attitudes that cause some to support Trump’s more authoritarian, dogmatic, and outspoken tendencies (“he tells it like it is!”) while others are completely disgusted with that approach. Lastly, Trump has sanctions he can use against people he dislikes—ranging from tweets to firings to arrests. But the other side may have sanctions they can use against Trump as well…for instance the courts striking down several of his Executive Orders.
  • Forms of power/power strategies. As we will be discussing at some length in the Conflict Frontiers seminar, both Trump, and many other leaders seem to be almost entirely relying on coercive power to accomplish their goals. As this article, and subsequent ones, make clear, coercive power is dangerous to use—it makes enemies who will often come back to attack you later. Exchange and integrative power are much safer and in many ways more effective forms of power. One can only hope that the tendency to rely on coercive power will soon give way to leaders (Gerzon called them collaborative leaders in his post on Leadership) who will be both more effective and more secure, as they won’t be creating enemies with every step they take.
  • One Change: And lastly, the astonishing point where this essay now seems wrong, is the statement that "It is much easier to measure something that has occurred than something that is a possibility. An actual occurrence is a fact that can be checked. There may be disagreement on the sources of its occurrence, but the argument about its occurrence is likely to be short-lived if adequate facts can be brought to bear." Not so in 2017--we are disputing "facts" and "alt-facts" all the time! Hopefully, we'll get over this soon!

--Heidi Burgess, June, 2017.

Back to Essay Top

[1] Hubert M. Blalock, Power and Conflict: Toward a General Theory (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989), 26.

[2] Gene Sharp, Power and Struggle ( Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part I), (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973)

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Thomas Blass, "Stanley Milgram." (2002, accessed on November 15, 2002); Available from ; Internet

[5] Kenneth Boulding, Three Faces of Power . (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989)

[6] Karl M. Deutsch, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control . (New York: The Free Press, 1963), 124.

[7] Lynne M. Woehrle. Social Constructions of Power and Empowerment: Thoughts from Feminist Approaches to Peace Research and Peace-making (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.)

[8] Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future . (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988.) < >

[9] Louis Kriesberg, Social Conflicts (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 115.

Use the following to cite this article: Dugan, Máire A.. "Power." Beyond Intractability . Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 < >.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

His tongue was framed to music, And his hand was armed with skill, His face was the mould of beauty, And his heart the throne of will.

There is not yet any inventory of a man's faculties, any more than a bible of his opinions. Who shall set a limit to the influence of a human being? There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race. And if there be such a tie, that, wherever the mind of man goes, nature will accompany him, perhaps there are men whose magnetisms are of that force to draw material and elemental powers, and, where they appear, immense instrumentalities organize around them. Life is a search after power; and this is an element with which the world is so saturated, — there is no chink or crevice in which it is not lodged, — that no honest seeking goes unrewarded. A man should prize events and possessions as the ore in which this fine mineral is found; and he can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power. If he have secured the elixir, he can spare the wide gardens from which it was distilled. A cultivated man, wise to know and bold to perform, is the end to which nature works, and the education of the will is the flowering and result of all this geology and astronomy.

All successful men have agreed in one thing, — they were causationists . They believed that things went not by luck, but by law; that there was not a weak or a cracked link in the chain that joins the first and last of things. A belief in causality, or strict connection between every trifle and the principle of being, and, in consequence, belief in compensation, or, that nothing is got for nothing, — characterizes all valuable minds, and must control every effort that is made by an industrious one. The most valiant men are the best believers in the tension of the laws. "All the great captains," said Bonaparte, "have performed vast achievements by conforming with the rules of the art, — by adjusting efforts to obstacles."

The key to the age may be this, or that, or the other, as the young orators describe; — the key to all ages is — Imbecility; imbecility in the vast majority of men, at all times, and, even in heroes, in all but certain eminent moments; victims of gravity, custom, and fear. This gives force to the strong, — that the multitude have no habit of self-reliance or original action.

We must reckon success a constitutional trait. Courage, — the old physicians taught, (and their meaning holds, if their physiology is a little mythical,) — courage, or the degree of life, is as the degree of circulation of the blood in the arteries. "During passion, anger, fury, trials of strength, wrestling, fighting, a large amount of blood is collected in the arteries, the maintenance of bodily strength requiring it, and but little is sent into the veins. This condition is constant with intrepid persons." Where the arteries hold their blood, is courage and adventure possible. Where they pour it unrestrained into the veins, the spirit is low and feeble. For performance of great mark, it needs extraordinary health. If Eric is in robust health, and has slept well, and is at the top of his condition, and thirty years old, at his departure from Greenland, he will steer west, and his ships will reach Newfoundland. But take out Eric, and put in a stronger and bolder man, — Biorn, or Thorfin, — and the ships will, with just as much ease, sail six hundred, one thousand, fifteen hundred miles further, and reach Labrador and New England. There is no chance in results. With adults, as with children, one class enter cordially into the game, and whirl with the whirling world; the others have cold hands, and remain bystanders; or are only dragged in by the humor and vivacity of those who can carry a dead weight. The first wealth is health. Sickness is poor-spirited, and cannot serve any one: it must husband its resources to live. But health or fulness answers its own ends, and has to spare, runs over, and inundates the neighborhoods and creeks of other men's necessities.

All power is of one kind, a sharing of the nature of the world. The mind that is parallel with the laws of nature will be in the current of events, and strong with their strength. One man is made of the same stuff of which events are made; is in sympathy with the course of things; can predict it. Whatever befalls, befalls him first; so that he is equal to whatever shall happen. A man who knows men, can talk well on politics, trade, law, war, religion. For, everywhere, men are led in the same manners .

The advantage of a strong pulse is not to be supplied by any labor, art, or concert. It is like the climate, which easily rears a crop, which no glass, or irrigation, or tillage, or manures, can elsewhere rival. It is like the opportunity of a city like New York, or Constantinople, which needs no diplomacy to force capital or genius or labor to it. They come of themselves, as the waters flow to it. So a broad, healthy, massive understanding seems to lie on the shore of unseen rivers, of unseen oceans, which are covered with barks, that, night and day, are drifted to this point. That is poured into its lap, which other men lie plotting for. It is in everybody's secret; anticipates everybody's discovery; and if it do not command every fact of the genius and the scholar, it is because it is large and sluggish, and does not think them worth the exertion which you do.

This affirmative force is in one, and is not in another, as one horse has the spring in him, and another in the whip. "On the neck of the young man," said Hafiz, "sparkles no gem so gracious as enterprise." Import into any stationary district, as into an old Dutch population in New York or Pennsylvania, or among the planters of Virginia, a colony of hardy Yankees, with seething brains, heads full of steam-hammer, pulley, crank, and toothed wheel, — and everything begins to shine with values. What enhancement to all the water and land in England, is the arrival of James Watt or Brunel! In every company, there is not only the active and passive sex, but, in both men and women, a deeper and more important sex of mind , namely, the inventive or creative class of both men and women, and the uninventive or accepting class. Each plus man represents his set, and, if he have the accidental advantage of personal ascendency, — which implies neither more nor less of talent, but merely the temperamental or taming eye of a soldier or a schoolmaster, (which one has, and one has not, as one has a black moustache and one a blond,) then quite easily and without envy or resistance, all his coadjutors and feeders will admit his right to absorb them. The merchant works by book-keeper and cashier; the lawyer's authorities are hunted up by clerks; the geologist reports the surveys of his subalterns; Commander Wilkes appropriates the results of all the naturalists attached to the Expedition; Thorwaldsen's statue is finished by stone-cutters; Dumas has journeymen; and Shakespeare was theatre-manager, and used the labor of many young men, as well as the playbooks.

There is always room for a man of force, and he makes room for many. Society is a troop of thinkers, and the best heads among them take the best places. A feeble man can see the farms that are fenced and tilled, the houses that are built. The strong man sees the possible houses and farms. His eye makes estates, as fast as the sun breeds clouds.

When a new boy comes into school, when a man travels, and encounters strangers every day, or, when into any old club a new comer is domesticated, that happens which befalls, when a strange ox is driven into a pen or pasture where cattle are kept; there is at once a trial of strength between the best pair of horns and the new comer, and it is settled thenceforth which is the leader. So now, there is a measuring of strength, very courteous, but decisive, and an acquiescence thenceforward when these two meet. Each reads his fate in the other's eyes. The weaker party finds, that none of his information or wit quite fits the occasion. He thought he knew this or that: he finds that he omitted to learn the end of it. Nothing that he knows will quite hit the mark, whilst all the rival's arrows are good, and well thrown. But if he knew all the facts in the encyclopaedia, it would not help him: for this is an affair of presence of mind, of attitude, of aplomb: the opponent has the sun and wind, and, in every cast, the choice of weapon and mark; and, when he himself is matched with some other antagonist, his own shafts fly well and hit. 'Tis a question of stomach and constitution. The second man is as good as the first, — perhaps better; but has not stoutness or stomach, as the first has, and so his wit seems over-fine or under-fine.

Health is good, — power, life, that resists disease, poison, and all enemies, and is conservative, as well as creative. Here is question, every spring, whether to graft with wax, or whether with clay; whether to whitewash or to potash, or to prune; but the one point is the thrifty tree. A good tree, that agrees with the soil, will grow in spite of blight , or bug, or pruning, or neglect, by night and by day, in all weathers and all treatments. Vivacity, leadership, must be had, and we are not allowed to be nice in choosing. We must fetch the pump with dirty water, if clean cannot be had. If we will make bread, we must have contagion, yeast, emptyings, or what not, to induce fermentation into the dough: as the torpid artist seeks inspiration at any cost, by virtue or by vice, by friend or by fiend, by prayer or by wine. And we have a certain instinct, that where is great amount of life, though gross and peccant, it has its own checks and purifications, and will be found at last in harmony with moral laws.

We watch in children with pathetic interest, the degree in which they possess recuperative force. When they are hurt by us, or by each other, or go to the bottom of the class, or miss the annual prizes, or are beaten in the game, — if they lose heart, and remember the mischance in their chamber at home, they have a serious check. But if they have the buoyancy and resistance that preoccupies them with new interest in the new moment, — the wounds cicatrize, and the fibre is the tougher for the hurt.

One comes to value this plus health, when he sees that all difficulties vanish before it. A timid man listening to the alarmists in Congress, and in the newspapers, and observing the profligacy of party, — sectional interests urged with a fury which shuts its eyes to consequences, with a mind made up to desperate extremities, ballot in one hand, and rifle in the other, — might easily believe that he and his country have seen their best days, and he hardens himself the best he can against the coming ruin. But, after this has been foretold with equal confidence fifty times, and government six per cents have not declined a quarter of a mill, he discovers that the enormous elements of strength which are here in play, make our politics unimportant. Personal power, freedom, and the resources of nature strain every faculty of every citizen. We prosper with such vigor, that, like thrifty trees, which grow in spite of ice, lice, mice, and borers, so we do not suffer from the profligate swarms that fatten on the national treasury. The huge animals nourish huge parasites, and the rancor of the disease attests the strength of the constitution. The same energy in the Greek Demos drew the remark, that the evils of popular government appear greater than they are; there is compensation for them in the spirit and energy it awakens. The rough and ready style which belongs to a people of sailors, foresters, farmers, and mechanics, has its advantages. Power educates the potentate. As long as our people quote English standards they dwarf their own proportions. A Western lawyer of eminence said to me he wished it were a penal offence to bring an English law-book into a court in this country, so pernicious had he found in his experience our deference to English precedent. The very word 'commerce' has only an English meaning, and is pinched to the cramp exigencies of English experience. The commerce of rivers, the commerce of railroads, and who knows but the commerce of air-balloons, must add an American extension to the pond-hole of admiralty. As long as our people quote English standards, they will miss the sovereignty of power; but let these rough riders, — legislators in shirt-sleeves, — Hoosier, Sucker, Wolverine, Badger, — or whatever hard head Arkansas, Oregon, or Utah sends, half orator, half assassin, to represent its wrath and cupidity at Washington, — let these drive as they may; and the disposition of territories and public lands, the necessity of balancing and keeping at bay the snarling majorities of German, Irish, and of native millions, will bestow promptness, address, and reason, at last, on our buffalo-hunter, and authority and majesty of manners . The instinct of the people is right. Men expect from good whigs, put into office by the respectability of the country, much less skill to deal with Mexico, Spain, Britain, or with our own malcontent members, than from some strong transgressor, like Jefferson, or Jackson, who first conquers his own government, and then uses the same genius to conquer the foreigner. The senators who dissented from Mr. Polk's Mexican war, were not those who knew better, but those who, from political position, could afford it; not Webster, but Benton and Calhoun.

This power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin. 'Tis the power of Lynch law, of soldiers and pirates; and it bullies the peaceable and loyal. But it brings its own antidote; and here is my point, — that all kinds of power usually emerge at the same time; good energy, and bad; power of mind, with physical health; the ecstasies of devotion, with the exasperations of debauchery. The same elements are always present, only sometimes these conspicuous, and sometimes those; what was yesterday foreground, being to-day background, — what was surface, playing now a not less effective part as basis. The longer the drought lasts, the more is the atmosphere surcharged with water. The faster the ball falls to the sun, the force to fly off is by so much augmented. And, in morals, wild liberty breeds iron conscience; natures with great impulses have great resources, and return from far. In politics, the sons of democrats will be whigs; whilst red republicanism, in the father, is a spasm of nature to engender an intolerable tyrant in the next age. On the other hand, conservatism, ever more timorous and narrow, disgusts the children, and drives them for a mouthful of fresh air into radicalism.

Those who have most of this coarse energy, — the 'bruisers,' who have run the gauntlet of caucus and tavern through the county or the state, have their own vices, but they have the good nature of strength and courage. Fierce and unscrupulous, they are usually frank and direct, and above falsehood. Our politics fall into bad hands, and churchmen and men of refinement, it seems agreed, are not fit persons to send to Congress. Politics is a deleterious profession, like some poisonous handicrafts. Men in power have no opinions, but may be had cheap for any opinion, for any purpose, — and if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last. These Hoosiers and Suckers are really better than the snivelling opposition. Their wrath is at least of a bold and manly cast. They see, against the unanimous declarations of the people, how much crime the people will bear; they proceed from step to step, and they have calculated but too justly upon their Excellencies, the New England governors, and upon their Honors, the New England legislators. The messages of the governors and the resolutions of the legislatures, are a proverb for expressing a sham virtuous indignation, which, in the course of events, is sure to be belied.

In trade, also, this energy usually carries a trace of ferocity. Philanthropic and religious bodies do not commonly make their executive officers out of saints. The communities hitherto founded by Socialists, — the Jesuits, the Port-Royalists, the American communities at New Harmony, at Brook Farm, at Zoar, are only possible, by installing Judas as steward. The rest of the offices may be filled by good burgesses. The pious and charitable proprietor has a foreman not quite so pious and charitable. The most amiable of country gentlemen has a certain pleasure in the teeth of the bull-dog which guards his orchard. Of the Shaker society, it was formerly a sort of proverb in the country, that they always sent the devil to market. And in representations of the Deity, painting, poetry, and popular religion have ever drawn the wrath from Hell. It is an esoteric doctrine of society, that a little wickedness is good to make muscle; as if conscience were not good for hands and legs, as if poor decayed formalists of law and order cannot run like wild goats, wolves, and conies; that, as there is a use in medicine for poisons, so the world cannot move without rogues; that public spirit and the ready hand are as well found among the malignants. 'Tis not very rare, the coincidence of sharp private and political practice, with public spirit, and good neighborhood.

I knew a burly Boniface who for many years kept a public-house in one of our rural capitals. He was a knave whom the town could ill spare. He was a social, vascular creature, grasping and selfish. There was no crime which he did not or could not commit. But he made good friends of the selectmen, served them with his best chop, when they supped at his house, and also with his honor the Judge, he was very cordial, grasping his hand. He introduced all the fiends, male and female, into the town, and united in his person the functions of bully, incendiary, swindler, barkeeper, and burglar. He girdled the trees, and cut off the horses' tails of the temperance people, in the night. He led the 'rummies' and radicals in town-meeting with a speech. Meantime, he was civil, fat, and easy, in his house, and precisely the most public-spirited citizen. He was active in getting the roads repaired and planted with shade-trees; he subscribed for the fountains, the gas, and the telegraph; he introduced the new horse-rake, the new scraper, the baby-jumper, and what not, that Connecticut sends to the admiring citizens. He did this the easier, that the peddler stopped at his house, and paid his keeping, by setting up his new trap on the landlord's premises.

Whilst thus the energy for originating and executing work, deforms itself by excess, and so our axe chops off our own fingers, — this evil is not without remedy. All the elements whose aid man calls in, will sometimes become his masters, especially those of most subtle force. Shall he, then, renounce steam, fire, and electricity, or, shall he learn to deal with them? The rule for this whole class of agencies is, — all plus is good; only put it in the right place.

Men of this surcharge of arterial blood cannot live on nuts, herb-tea, and elegies; cannot read novels, and play whist; cannot satisfy all their wants at the Thursday Lecture, or the Boston Athenaeum. They pine for adventure, and must go to Pike's Peak; had rather die by the hatchet of a Pawnee, than sit all day and every day at a counting-room desk. They are made for war, for the sea, for mining, hunting, and clearing; for hair-breadth adventures, huge risks, and the joy of eventful living. Some men cannot endure an hour of calm at sea. I remember a poor Malay cook, on board a Liverpool packet, who, when the wind blew a gale, could not contain his joy; "Blow!" he cried, "me do tell you, blow!" Their friends and governors must see that some vent for their explosive complexion is provided. The roisters who are destined for infamy at home, if sent to Mexico, will "cover you with glory," and come back heroes and generals. There are Oregons, Californias, and Exploring Expeditions enough appertaining to America, to find them in files to gnaw, and in crocodiles to eat. The young English are fine animals, full of blood, and when they have no wars to breathe their riotous valors in, they seek for travels as dangerous as war, diving into Maelstroms; swimming Hellesponts; wading up the snowy Himmaleh; hunting lion, rhinoceros, elephant, in South Africa; gypsying with Borrow in Spain and Algiers; riding alligators in South America with Waterton; utilizing Bedouin, Sheik, and Pacha, with Layard; yachting among the icebergs of Lancaster Sound; peeping into craters on the equator; or running on the creases of Malays in Borneo.

The excess of virility has the same importance in general history, as in private and industrial life. Strong race or strong individual rests at last on natural forces, which are best in the savage, who, like the beasts around him, is still in reception of the milk from the teats of Nature. Cut off the connection between any of our works, and this aboriginal source, and the work is shallow. The people lean on this, and the mob is not quite so bad an argument as we sometimes say, for it has this good side. "March without the people," said a French deputy from the tribune, "and you march into night: their instincts are a finger-pointing of Providence, always turned toward real benefit. But when you espouse an Orleans party, or a Bourbon, or a Montalembert party, or any other but an organic party, though you mean well, you have a personality instead of a principle, which will inevitably drag you into a corner."

The best anecdotes of this force are to be had from savage life, in explorers, soldiers, and buccaneers. But who cares for fallings-out of assassins, and fights of bears, or grindings of icebergs? Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else. Snow in snow-banks, fire in volcanoes and solfataras is cheap. The luxury of ice is in tropical countries, and midsummer days. The luxury of fire is, to have a little on our hearth: and of electricity, not volleys of the charged cloud, but the manageable stream on the battery-wires. So of spirit, or energy; the rests or remains of it in the civil and moral man, are worth all the cannibals in the Pacific.

In history, the great moment is, when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage, with all his hairy Pelasgic strength directed on his opening sense of beauty: — and you have Pericles and Phidias, — not yet passed over into the Corinthian civility. Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity.

The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war.

We say that success is constitutional; depends on a plus condition of mind and body, on power of work, on courage; that it is of main efficacy in carrying on the world, and, though rarely found in the right state for an article of commerce, but oftener in the supersaturate or excess, which makes it dangerous and destructive, yet it cannot be spared, and must be had in that form, and absorbents provided to take off its edge.

The affirmative class monopolize the homage of mankind. They originate and execute all the great feats. What a force was coiled up in the skull of Napoleon! Of the sixty thousand men making his army at Eylau, it seems some thirty thousand were thieves and burglars. The men whom, in peaceful communities, we hold if we can, with iron at their legs, in prisons, under the muskets of sentinels, this man dealt with, hand to hand, dragged them to their duty, and won his victories by their bayonets.

This aboriginal might gives a surprising pleasure when it appears under conditions of supreme refinement, as in the proficients in high art. When Michel Angelo was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel in fresco, of which art he knew nothing, he went down into the Pope's gardens behind the Vatican, and with a shovel dug out ochres, red and yellow, mixed them with glue and water with his own hands, and having, after many trials, at last suited himself, climbed his ladders, and painted away, week after week, month after month, the sibyls and prophets. He surpassed his successors in rough vigor, as much as in purity of intellect and refinement. He was not crushed by his one picture left unfinished at last. Michel was wont to draw his figures first in skeleton, then to clothe them with flesh, and lastly to drape them. "Ah!" said a brave painter to me, thinking on these things, "if a man has failed, you will find he has dreamed instead of working. There is no way to success in our art, but to take off your coat, grind paint, and work like a digger on the railroad, all day and every day."

Success goes thus invariably with a certain plus or positive power: an ounce of power must balance an ounce of weight. And, though a man cannot return into his mother's womb, and be born with new amounts of vivacity, yet there are two economies, which are the best succedanea which the case admits. The first is, the stopping off decisively our miscellaneous activity, and concentrating our force on one or a few points; as the gardener, by severe pruning, forces the sap of the tree into one or two vigorous limbs, instead of suffering it to spindle into a sheaf of twigs.

"Enlarge not thy destiny," said the oracle: "endeavor not to do more than is given thee in charge." The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine; property and its cares, friends, and a social habit, or politics, or music, or feasting. Everything is good which takes away one plaything and delusion more, and drives us home to add one stroke of faithful work. Friends, books, pictures, lower duties, talents, flatteries, hopes, — all are distractions which cause oscillations in our giddy balloon, and make a good poise and a straight course impossible. You must elect your work; you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest. Only so, can that amount of vital force accumulate, which can make the step from knowing to doing. No matter how much faculty of idle seeing a man has, the step from knowing to doing is rarely taken. 'Tis a step out of a chalk circle of imbecility into fruitfulness. Many an artist lacking this, lacks all: he sees the masculine Angelo or Cellini with despair. He, too, is up to Nature and the First Cause in his thought. But the spasm to collect and swing his whole being into one act, he has not. The poet Campbell said, that "a man accustomed to work was equal to any achievement he resolved on, and, that, for himself, necessity not inspiration was the prompter of his muse."

Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short, in all management of human affairs. One of the high anecdotes of the world is the reply of Newton to the inquiry, "how he had been able to achieve his discoveries?" — "By always intending my mind." Or if you will have a text from politics, take this from Plutarch: "There was, in the whole city, but one street in which Pericles was ever seen, the street which led to the market-place and the council house. He declined all invitations to banquets, and all gay assemblies and company. During the whole period of his administration, he never dined at the table of a friend." Or if we seek an example from trade, — "I hope," said a good man to Rothyschild, "your children are not too fond of money and business: I am sure you would not wish that." — "I am sure I should wish that: I wish them to give mind, soul, heart, and body to business, — that is the way to be happy. It requires a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution, to make a great fortune, and when you have got it, it requires ten times as much wit to keep it. If I were to listen to all the projects proposed to me, I should ruin myself very soon. Stick to one business, young man. Stick to your brewery, (he said this to young Buxton,) and you will be the great brewer of London. Be brewer, and banker, and merchant, and manufacturer, and you will soon be in the Gazette."

Many men are knowing, many are apprehensive and tenacious, but they do not rush to a decision. But in our flowing affairs a decision must be made, — the best, if you can; but any is better than none. There are twenty ways of going to a point, and one is the shortest; but set out at once on one. A man who has that presence of mind which can bring to him on the instant all he knows, is worth for action a dozen men who know as much, but can only bring it to light slowly. The good Speaker in the House is not the man who knows the theory of parliamentary tactics, but the man who decides off-hand. The good judge is not he who does hair-splitting justice to every allegation, but who, aiming at substantial justice, rules something intelligible for the guidance of suitors. The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily, that he can get you out of a scrape. Dr. Johnson said, in one of his flowing sentences, "Miserable beyond all names of wretchedness is that unhappy pair, who are doomed to reduce beforehand to the principles of abstract reason all the details of each domestic day. There are cases where little can be said, and much must be done."

The second substitute for temperament is drill, the power of use and routine. The hack is a better roadster than the Arab barb. In chemistry, the galvanic stream, slow, but continuous, is equal in power to the electric spark, and is, in our arts, a better agent. So in human action, against the spasm of energy, we offset the continuity of drill. We spread the same amount of force over much time, instead of condensing it into a moment. 'Tis the same ounce of gold here in a ball, and there in a leaf. At West Point, Col. Buford, the chief engineer, pounded with a hammer on the trunnions of a cannon, until he broke them off. He fired a piece of ordnance some hundred times in swift succession, until it burst. Now which stroke broke the trunnion? Every stroke. Which blast burst the piece? Every blast. "Diligence passe sens," Henry VIII. was wont to say, or, great is drill. John Kemble said, that the worst provincial company of actors would go through a play better than the best amateur company. Basil Hall likes to show that the worst regular troops will beat the best volunteers. Practice is nine tenths. A course of mobs is good practice for orators. All the great speakers were bad speakers at first. Stumping it through England for seven years, made Cobden a consummate debater. Stumping it through New England for twice seven, trained Wendell Phillips. The way to learn German, is, to read the same dozen pages over and over a hundred times, till you know every word and particle in them, and can pronounce and repeat them by heart. No genius can recite a ballad at first reading, so well as mediocrity can at the fifteenth or twentieth readying. The rule for hospitality and Irish 'help,' is, to have the same dinner every day throughout the year. At last, Mrs. O'Shaughnessy learns to cook it to a nicety, the host learns to carve it, and the guests are well served. A humorous friend of mine thinks, that the reason why Nature is so perfect in her art, and gets up such inconceivably fine sunsets, is, that she has learned how, at last, by dint of doing the same thing so very often. Cannot one converse better on a topic on which he has experience, than on one which is new? Men whose opinion is valued on 'Change, are only such as have a special experience, and off that ground their opinion is not valuable. "More are made good by exercitation, than by nature," said Democritus. The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. Hence the use of drill, and the worthlessness of amateurs to cope with practitioners. Six hours every day at the piano, only to give facility of touch; six hours a day at painting, only to give command of the odious materials, oil, ochres, and brushes. The masters say, that they know a master in music, only by seeing the pose of the hands on the keys; — so difficult and vital an act is the command of the instrument. To have learned the use of the tools, by thousands of manipulations; to have learned the arts of reckoning, by endless adding and dividing, is the power of the mechanic and the clerk.

I remarked in England, in confirmation of a frequent experience at home, that, in literary circles, the men of trust and consideration, bookmakers, editors, university deans and professors, bishops, too, were by no means men of the largest literary talent, but usually of a low and ordinary intellectuality, with a sort of mercantile activity and working talent. Indifferent hacks and mediocrities tower, by pushing their forces to a lucrative point, or by working power, over multitudes of superior men, in Old as in New England.

I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. But this force or spirit, being the means relied on by Nature for bringing the work of the day about, — as far as we attach importance to household life, and the prizes of the world, we must respect that. And I hold, that an economy may be applied to it; it is as much a subject of exact law and arithmetic as fluids and gases are; it may be husbanded, or wasted; every man is efficient only as he is a container or vessel of this force, and never was any signal act or achievement in history, but by this expenditure. This is not gold, but the gold-maker; not the fame, but the exploit.

If these forces and this husbandry are within reach of our will, and the laws of them can be read, we infer that all success, and all conceivable benefit for man, is also, first or last, within his reach, and has its own sublime economies by which it may be attained. The world is mathematical, and has no casualty, in all its vast and flowing curve. Success has no more eccentricity, than the gingham and muslin we weave in our mills. I know no more affecting lesson to our busy, plotting New England brains, than to go into one of the factories with which we have lined all the watercourses in the States. A man hardly knows how much he is a machine, until he begins to make telegraph, loom, press, and locomotive, in his own image. But in these, he is forced to leave out his follies and hindrances, so that when we go to the mill, the machine is more moral than we. Let a man dare go to a loom, and see if he be equal to it. Let machine confront machine, and see how they come out. The world-mill is more complex than the calico-mill, and the architect stooped less. In the gingham-mill, a broken thread or a shred spoils the web through a piece of a hundred yards, and is traced back to the girl that wove it, and lessens her wages. The stockholder, on being shown this, rubs his hands with delight. Are you so cunning, Mr. Profitloss, and do you expect to swindle your master and employer, in the web you weave? A day is a more magnificent cloth than any muslin, the mechanism that makes it is infinitely cunninger, and you shall not conceal the sleezy, fraudulent, rotten hours you have slipped into the piece, nor fear that any honest thread, or straighter steel, or more inflexible shaft, will not testify in the web.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures. More About Emerson

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Feminist Perspectives on Power

Although any general definition of feminism would no doubt be controversial, it seems undeniable that much work in feminist theory is devoted to the tasks of critiquing gender subordination, analyzing its intersections with other forms of subordination such as racism, heterosexism, and class oppression, and envisioning prospects for individual and collective resistance and emancipation. Insofar as the concept of power is central to each of these theoretical tasks, power is clearly a central concept for feminist theory as well. And yet, curiously, it is one that is not often explicitly thematized in feminist work (exceptions include Allen 1998, 1999, Caputi 2013, Hartsock 1983 and 1996, Yeatmann 1997, and Young 1992). Indeed, Wendy Brown contends that “Power is one of those things we cannot approach head-on or in isolation from other subjects if we are to speak about it intelligently” (Brown 1988, 207). This poses a unique challenge for assessing feminist perspectives on power, as those perspectives must first be reconstructed from discussions of other topics. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify three main ways in which feminists have conceptualized power: as a resource to be (re)distributed, as domination, and as empowerment. After a brief discussion of the power debates in social and political theory, this entry will survey each of these feminist conceptions.

1. Defining power

2. power as resource: liberal feminist approaches, 3.1 phenomenological feminist approaches, 3.2 radical feminist approaches, 3.3 socialist feminist approaches, 3.4 intersectional approaches, 3.5 poststructuralist feminist approaches, 3.6 postcolonial and decolonial feminist approaches, 3.7 analytic feminist approaches, 4. power as empowerment, 5. concluding thoughts, other internet resources, related entries.

In social and political theory, power is often regarded as an essentially contested concept (see Lukes 1974 and 2005, and Connolly 1983). Although this claim is itself contested (see Haugaard 2010 and 2020, 4–10; Morriss 2002, 199–206 and Wartenberg 1990, 12–17), there is no doubt that the literature on power is marked by deep, widespread, and seemingly intractable disagreements over how the term should be understood.

One such disagreement pits those who define power as getting someone else to do what you want them to do, that is, as an exercise of power-over others, against those who define it as an ability or a capacity to act, that is, as a power-to do something. The classic formulation of the former definition is offered by Max Weber, who defines power as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance…” (1978, 53). Similarly, Robert Dahl offers what he calls an “intuitive idea of power” according to which “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (1957, 202–03). Dahl’s discussion of power sparked a vigorous debate that continued until the mid-1970s, but even his sharpest critics seemed to concede his definition of power as an exercise of power-over others (see Bachrach and Baratz 1962 and Lukes 1974). As Steven Lukes notes, Dahl’s one-dimensional view of power, Bachrach and Baratz’s two-dimensional view, and his own three-dimensional view are all variations of “the same underlying conception of power, according to which A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests” (1974, 30). Similarly, but from a very different theoretical background, Michel Foucault’s highly influential analysis implicitly presupposes that power is a kind of power-over; and he puts it, “if we speak of the structures or the mechanisms of power, it is only insofar as we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others” (1983, 217). Notice that there are two salient features of this definition of power: power is understood in terms of power-over relations, and it is defined in terms of its actual exercise.

Classic articulations of power understood as power-to have been offered by Thomas Hobbes – power is a person’s “present means…to obtain some future apparent Good” (Hobbes 1985 (1641), 150) – and Hannah Arendt – power is “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert” (1970, 44). Arguing in favor of this way of conceptualizing power, Hanna Pitkin notes that the word “power” is related etymologically to the French pouvoir and the Latin potere , both of which mean to be able. “That suggests,” she writes, “that power is a something – anything – which makes or renders somebody able to do, capable of doing something. Power is capacity, potential, ability, or wherewithal” (1972, 276). Similarly, Peter Morriss (2002) and Lukes (2005) define power as a dispositional concept, meaning, as Lukes puts it, that power “is a potentiality, not an actuality – indeed a potentiality that may never be actualized” (2005, 69). (Note that this statement amounts to a significant revision of Lukes’s earlier analysis of power, in which he argued against defining power as power-to on the grounds that such a definition obscures “the conflictual aspect of power – the fact that it is exercised over people” and thus fails to address what we care about most when we decide to study power (1974, 31). For helpful discussion of whether Lukes’s embrace of the dispositional conception of power is compatible with his other theoretical commitments, see Haugaard (2010)). Some of the theorists who analyze power as power-to leave power-over entirely out of their analysis. For example, Arendt distinguishes power sharply from authority, strength, force, and violence, and offers a normative account in which power is understood as an end in itself (1970). As Jürgen Habermas has argued, this has the effect of screening any and all strategic understandings of power (where power is understood in the Weberian sense as imposing one’s will on another) out of her analysis (Habermas 1994). (Although Arendt defines power as a capacity, she also maintains that “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse” (1958, 200); hence, it is not clear whether she fully accepts a dispositional view of power). Others suggest that both aspects of power are important, but then focus their attention on either power-over (e.g., Connolly 1993) or power-to (e.g., Morriss 2002). Still others define power-over as a particular type of capacity, namely, the capacity to impose one’s will on others; on this view, power-over is a derivative form of power-to (Allen 1999, Lukes 2005). However, others have argued power-over and power-to refer to fundamentally different concepts and that it is a mistake to try to develop an account of power that integrates them (Pitkin 1972, Wartenberg 1990).

Another way of carving up the power literature is to distinguish between action-theoretical conceptions – that is, those that define power in terms of either the actions or the dispositional abilities of individual actors – and broader systemic or constitutive conceptions – that is, those that view power as systematically structuring possibilities for action, or, more strongly, as constitutive of social actors and the social world in which they act. On this way of distinguishing various conceptions of power, Hobbes and Weber are on the same side, since both of them understand power in primarily instrumentalist, individualist, and action-theoretical terms (Saar 2010, 10). The systemic conception, by contrast, views power as “the ways in which given social systems confer differentials of dispositional power on agents, thus structuring their possibilities for action” (Haugaard 2010, 425; see Clegg 1989). The systemic conception thus highlights the ways in which broad historical, political, economic, cultural, and social forces enable some individuals to exercise power over others, or inculcate certain abilities and dispositions in some actors but not in others. Saar argues, however, that the systemic conception of power should be understood not as an alternative to the action-theoretical conception of power, but rather as a more complex and sophisticated variant of that model. For, as he says, its “basic scenario remains individualistic at the methodological level: power operates on individuals as individuals, in the form of a ‘bringing to action’ or external determination” (Saar 2010, 14).

The constitutive conception of power pushes the insight of the systemic conception further by focusing on the constitutive relationships between power, individuals, and the social worlds they inhabit. The roots of this constitutive conception can be traced back to Spinoza (2002a and 2002b; Saar 2013), but variants of this view are also found in the work of more contemporary theorists such as Arendt and Foucault. Here it is important to note that Foucault’s work on power contains both action-theoretical and constitutive strands. The former strand is evident in his claim, cited above, that “if we speak of the structures or the mechanisms of power, it is only insofar as we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others” (Foucault 1983, 217), whereas the latter strand is evident in his definition of power as “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the processes which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them;…thus forming a chain or system” (Foucault 1979, 92).

What accounts for the highly contested nature of the concept of power? One explanation is that how we conceptualize power is shaped by the political and theoretical interests that we bring to our study of it (Lukes 1986, Said 1986). For example, democratic theorists are interested in different things when they study power than are social movement theorists or critical race theorists or postcolonial theorists, and so on. Thus, a specific conceptualization of power could be more or less useful depending on the specific disciplinary or theoretical context in which it is deployed, where usefulness is evaluated in terms of how well it “accomplishes the task the theorists set for themselves” (Haugaard 2010, 426). On this view, if we suppose that feminists who are interested in power are interested in understanding and critiquing gender-based relations of domination and subordination as these intersect with other axes of oppression and thinking about how such relations can be transformed through individual and collective resistance, then we would conclude that specific conceptions of power should be evaluated in terms of how well they enable feminists to fulfill those aims.

Lukes suggests another, more radical, explanation for the essentially contested nature of the concept of power: our conceptions of power are, according to him, themselves shaped by power relations. As he puts it, “how we think about power may serve to reproduce and reinforce power structures and relations, or alternatively it may challenge and subvert them. It may contribute to their continued functioning, or it may unmask their principles of operation, whose effectiveness is increased by their being hidden from view. To the extent that this is so, conceptual and methodological questions are inescapably political and so what ‘power’ means is ‘essentially contested’…” (Lukes 2005, 63). The thought that conceptions of power are themselves shaped by power relations is behind the claim, made by many feminists, that the influential conception of power as power-over is itself a product of patriarchal domination (for further discussion, see section 4 below).

Those who conceptualize power as a resource understand it as a positive social good that is currently unequally distributed. For feminists who understand power in this way, the goal is to redistribute this resource so that women will have power equal to men. Implicit in this view is the assumption that power is, as Iris Marion Young puts it, “a kind of stuff that can be possessed by individuals in greater or lesser amounts” (Young 1990, 31).

The conception of power as a resource is arguably implicit in the work of some liberal feminists (Mill 1970, Okin 1989). For example, in Justice, Gender, and the Family , Susan Moller Okin argues that the modern gender-structured family unjustly distributes the benefits and burdens of familial life amongst husbands and wives. Okin includes power on her list of the benefits, which she calls “critical social goods.” As she puts it, “when we look seriously at the distribution between husbands and wives of such critical social goods as work (paid and unpaid), power, prestige, self-esteem, opportunities for self-development, and both physical and economic security, we find socially constructed inequalities between them, right down the list” (Okin, 1989, 136). Here, Okin seems to presuppose that power is a resource that is unequally and unjustly distributed between men and women; hence, one of the goals of feminism would be to redistribute this resource in more equitable ways.

Although she doesn’t discuss Okin’s work explicitly, Young offers a compelling critique of this view, which she calls the distributive model of power. First, Young maintains that it is wrong to think of power as a kind of stuff that can be possessed; on her view, power is a relation, not a thing that can be distributed or redistributed. Second, she claims that the distributive model tends to presuppose a dyadic, atomistic understanding of power; as a result, it fails to illuminate the broader social, institutional and structural contexts that shape individual relations of power. According to Young, this makes the distributive model unhelpful for understanding the structural features of domination. Third, the distributive model conceives of power statically, as a pattern of distribution, whereas Young, following Foucault (1980), claims that power exists only in action, and thus must be understood dynamically, as existing in ongoing processes or interactions. Finally, Young argues that the distributive model of power tends to view domination as the concentration of power in the hands of a few. According to Young, although this model might be appropriate for some forms of domination, it is not appropriate for the forms that domination takes in contemporary industrial societies such as the United States (Young 1990a, 31–33). On her view, in contemporary industrial societies, power is “widely dispersed and diffused” and yet it is nonetheless true that “social relations are tightly defined by domination and oppression” (Young 1990a, 32–33).

3. Power as Domination

Young’s critique of the distributive model points toward an alternative way of conceptualizing power, one that understands power not as a resource or critical social good, but instead views it as a relation of domination. Although feminists have often used a variety of terms to refer to this kind of relation – including “oppression,” “patriarchy,” “subjection,” and so forth –the common thread in these analyses is an understanding of power as an unjust or illegitimate power-over relation. In the remainder of this entry, I use the term “domination” simply to refer to unjust or oppressive power-over relations. In this section, I discuss the specific ways in which feminists with different political and philosophical commitments – influenced by phenomenology, radical feminism, Marxist socialism, intersectionality theory, post-structuralism, postcolonial and decolonial theory, and analytic philosophy – have conceptualized domination.

The locus classicus of feminist phenomenological approaches to theorizing male domination is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex . Beauvoir’s text provides a brilliant analysis of the situation of women: the social, cultural, historical, and economic conditions that define their existence. Her diagnosis of women’s situation relies on the distinction between being for-itself – self-conscious subjectivity that is capable of freedom and transcendence – and being in-itself – the un-self-conscious things that are incapable of freedom and mired in immanence. Beauvoir argues that whereas men have assumed the status of the transcendent subject, women have been relegated to the status of the immanent Other. As she puts it in a famous passage from the Introduction to The Second Sex : “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” (Beauvoir, xxii). This distinction – between man as Subject and woman as Other – is the key to Beauvoir’s understanding of domination or oppression. She writes, “every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the ‘en-soi’ – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and liberty into constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil” (Beauvoir, xxxv). Although Beauvoir suggests that women are partly responsible for submitting to the status of the Other in order to avoid the anguish of authentic existence (hence, they are in bad faith) (see Beauvoir xxvii), she maintains that women are oppressed because they are compelled to assume the status of the Other, doomed to immanence (xxxv). Women’s situation is thus marked by a basic tension between transcendence and immanence; as self-conscious human beings, they are capable of transcendence, but they are compelled into immanence by cultural and social conditions that deny them that transcendence (see Beauvoir, chapter 21).

Some feminists have criticized Beauvoir's conception of oppression for its reliance on a problematic analogy between race and gender (see, for example, her claim that “there are deep similarities between the situation of woman and that of the Negro,” (Beauvoir, xxix)). Beauvoir's frequent use of such analogies, critics contend, erases the experience of Black women by implicitly coding all women as white and all Blacks as male (Gines (Belle) 2010 and 2017, Collins 2019, 194–198, and Simons 2002). As Kathryn T. Gines (now Kathryn Sophia Belle) argues further, Beauvoir's analysis deploys “comparative and competing frameworks of oppression” (Gines (Belle) 2014a). At times, Beauvoir treats not just sexism and racism but also antisemitism, colonialism, and class oppression comparatively, arguing that they rest of similar dynamics of Othering. Her comparative analysis of race and gender is most problematic in her frequent analogy between the situation of women and that of the slave. As Belle argues, this analogy not only obscures the experiences of Black female slaves, it also leads Beauvior to “engage in an appropriation of Black suffering in the form of slavery to advance her philosophical discussion of woman's situation” (265). At other times, Beauvoir treats racism, sexism, antisemitism, colonialism, and class oppression as competing frameworks and argues that gender subordination is the most significant and constitutive form of oppression. Both moves are problematic, according to Belle, the former for its erasure of the oppression of Black women and the latter for its privileging of gender oppression over other forms of oppression.

Feminist phenomenologists have engaged critically with Beauvoir's work while extending her insights into power. For example, Young argues that Beauvoir pays relatively little attention to the role that female embodiment plays in women’s oppression (Young 1990b, 142–3). Although Beauvoir does discuss women’s bodies in relation to their status as immanent Other, she tends to focus on women’s physiology and how physiological features such as menstruation and pregnancy tie women more closely to nature, thus, to immanence. In her essay, “Throwing Like a Girl,” Young draws on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological analysis of the lived body to analyze “the situatedness of the woman’s actual bodily movement and orientation to its surroundings and its world” (Young 1990b, 143). She notes that girls and women often fail to use fully the spatial potential of their bodies (for example, they throw “like girls”), they try not to take up too much space, and they tend to approach physical activity tentatively and uncertainly (Young 1990b, 145–147). Young argues that feminine bodily comportment, movement, and spatial orientation exhibit the same tension between transcendence and immanence that Beauvoir diagnoses in The Second Sex . “At the root of those modalities,” Young writes, “is the fact that the woman lives her body as object as well as subject. The source of this is that patriarchal society defines woman as object, as a mere body, and that in sexist society women are in fact frequently regarded by others as objects and mere bodies” (Young 1990b, 155). And yet women are also subjects, and, thus, cannot think of themselves as mere bodily objects. As a result, woman “cannot be in unity with herself” (Young 1990b, 155). Young explores the tension between transcendence and immanence and the lack of unity characteristic of feminine subjectivity in more detail in several other essays that explore pregnant embodiment, women’s experience with their clothes, and breasted experience (See Young 1990b, chapters 9–11).

Much important work in feminist phenomenology follows Young in drawing inspiration from Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of embodiment and intercorporeality (see Heinamaa 2003, Weiss 1999); like Young, these authors use a Merleau-Pontyian approach to phenomenology to explore the fundamental modalities of female embodiment or feminine bodily comportment. Feminists have also mined the work of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, for useful resources for feminist phenomenology (Al-Saji 2010 and Oksala 2016).

More generally, Oksala defends the importance of feminist phenomenology as an exploration of gendered experience against poststructuralist critics who find such a project hopelessly essentialist. While Oksala acknowledges that essentialism is a danger found in some work in feminist phenomenology – for example, she is critical of Sonia Kruks (2001) for “considering ‘female experience’ as an irreducible given grounded in a female body” (Oksala 2016, 72) – she also insists that a phenomenological analysis of experience is crucial for feminism. As she puts it, “it is my contention that feminist theory must ‘retrieve experience’, but this cannot mean returning to a pre discursive female experience grounded in the commonalities of women’s embodiment” (40). On her view, experience is always constructed in such a way that it “reflects oppressive discourses and power relations” (43); and yet, experience and thought or discourse are not co-extensive. This means that there is always a gap between our personal experience and the linguistic representations that we employ to make sense of that experience, and it is this gap that provides the space for contestation and critique. Thus, Oksala concludes, “experiences can contest discourses even if, or precisely because, they are conceptual through and through” (50). For Oksala, experience plays a crucial role in reinforcing and reproducing oppressive power relations, but radical reflection on our experience opens up a space for individual and collective resistance to and transformation of those power relations.

The concept of experience is also central to Mariana Ortega's analysis of Latina feminist phenomenology (Ortega 2016). Ortega reads the prominent Latina feminists Gloria Anzaldúa and María Lugones as phenomenologists “whose writings are deeply informed by their lived experience, specifically by their experience of marginalization and oppression as well as their experience of resistance” (7). By highlighting the experience of marginalized and oppressed selves who live their lives at the borderlands or in a state of in-betweenness, Latina feminist phenomenology, as Ortega reads it, offers an important corrective to and expansion of the critique of modern subjectivity in the European phenomenological tradition.

For other influential feminist-phenomenological analyses of domination see Bartky 1990, 2002, Bordo 1993, and Kruks 2001. For helpful overviews of feminist phenomenology, see Fisher and Embree 2000, and Heinamaa and Rodemeyer 2010. For a highly influential articulation of queer phenomenology, drawing on the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Fanon, see Ahmed (2006). For a compelling phenomenological analysis of transgender experience, see Salamon (2010).

Unlike liberal feminists, who view power as a positive social resource that ought to be fairly distributed, and feminist phenomenologists, who understand domination in terms of a tension between transcendence and immanence, radical feminists tend to understand power in terms of dyadic relations of dominance/subordination, often understood on analogy with the relationship between master and slave.

For example, in the work of legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, domination is closely bound up with her understanding of gender difference. According to MacKinnon, gender difference is simply the reified effect of domination. As she puts it, “difference is the velvet glove on the iron fist of domination. The problem is not that differences are not valued; the problem is that they are defined by power” (MacKinnon 1989, 219). If gender difference is itself a function of domination, then the implication is that men are powerful and women are powerless by definition. As MacKinnon puts it, “women/men is a distinction not just of difference, but of power and powerlessness….Power/powerlessness is the sex difference” (MacKinnon 1987, 123). (In this passage, MacKinnon glosses over the distinction, articulated by many second-wave feminists, between sex – the biologically rooted traits that make one male or female, traits that are often presumed to be natural and immutable – and gender – the socially and culturally rooted, hence contingent and mutable, traits, characteristics, dispositions, and practices that make one a woman or a man. This passage suggests that MacKinnon, like Judith Butler (1990) and other critics of the sex/gender distinction, thinks that sex difference, no less than gender difference, is socially constructed and shaped by relations of power.) If men are powerful and women powerless as such, then male domination is, on this view, pervasive. Indeed, MacKinnon claims that it is a basic “fact of male supremacy” that “no woman escapes the meaning of being a woman within a gendered social system, and sex inequality is not only pervasive but may be universal (in the sense of never having not been in some form” (MacKinnon 1989, 104–05). For MacKinnon, heterosexual intercourse is the paradigm of male domination; as she puts it, “the social relation between the sexes is organized so that men may dominate and women must submit and this relation is sexual – in fact, is sex” (MacKinnon 1987, 3). As a result, she tends to presuppose a dyadic conception of domination, according to which individual women are subject to the will of individual men. If male domination is pervasive and women are powerless by definition, then it follows that female power is “a contradiction in terms, socially speaking” (MacKinnon 1987, 53). The claim that female power is a contradiction in terms has led many feminists to criticize MacKinnon on the grounds that she denies women’s political agency and presents them as helpless victims (for exemplary versions of this criticism, see Brown 1995 and Butler 1997a).

Marilyn Frye likewise offers a radical feminist analysis of power that seems to presuppose a dyadic model of domination. Frye identifies several faces of power, one of the most important of which is access. As Frye puts it, “total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible. The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access” (Frye 1983, 103). If access is one of the most important faces of power, then feminist separatism, insofar as it is a way of denying access to women’s bodies, emotional support, domestic labor, and so forth, represents a profound challenge to male power. For this reason, Frye maintains that all feminism that is worth the name entails some form of separatism. She also suggests that this is the real reason that men get so upset by acts of separatism: “if you are doing something that is so strictly forbidden by the patriarchs, you must be doing something right” (Frye 1983, 98). Frye frequently compares male domination to a master/slave relationship (see, for example, 1983, 103–105), and she defines oppression as “a system of interrelated barriers and forces which reduce, immobilize, and mold people who belong to a certain group, and effect their subordination to another group (individually to individuals of the other group, and as a group, to that group)” (Frye 1983, 33). In addition to access, Frye discusses definition as another, related, face of power. Frye claims that “the powerful normally determine what is said and sayable” (105). For example, “when the Secretary of Defense calls something a peace negotiation…then whatever it is that he called a peace negotiation is an instance of negotiating peace” (105). Under conditions of subordination, women typically do not have the power to define the terms of their situation, but by controlling access, Frye argues, they can begin to assert control over their own self-definition. Both of these – controlling access and definition – are ways of taking power. Although she does not go so far as MacKinnon does in claiming that female power is a contradiction in terms, Frye does claim that “if there is one thing women are queasy about it is actually taking power” (Frye 1983, 107).

A similar dyadic conception of male domination can arguably be found in Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) (although Pateman's work is heavily influenced by socialist feminism, her account of power is closer to radical feminism). Like MacKinnon, Pateman claims that gender difference is constituted by domination; as she puts it, “the patriarchal construction of the difference between masculinity and femininity is the political difference between freedom and subjection” (Pateman 1988, 207). She also claims that male domination is pervasive, and she explicitly appeals to a master/subject model to understand it; as she puts it, “in modern civil society all men are deemed good enough to be women’s masters” (Pateman 1988, 219). In Pateman’s view, the social contract that initiates civil society and provides for the legitimate exercise of political rights is also a sexual contract that establishes what she calls “the law of male sex-right,” securing male sexual access to and dominance over women (1988, 182). As Nancy Fraser has argued, on Pateman’s view, the sexual contract “institutes a series of male/female master/subject dyads” (Fraser 1993, 173). Fraser is highly critical of Pateman’s analysis, which she terms the “master/subject model,” a model that presents women’s subordination “first and foremost as the condition of being subject to the direct command of an individual man” (1993, 173). The problem with this dyadic account of women’s subordination, according to Fraser, is that “gender inequality is today being transformed by a shift from dyadic relations of mastery and subjection to more impersonal structural mechanisms that are lived through more fluid cultural forms” (1993, 180). Fraser suggests that, in order to understand women’s subordination in contemporary Western societies, feminists will have to move beyond the master/subject model to analyze how women’s subordination is secured through cultural norms, social practices, and other impersonal structural mechanisms. (For Pateman’s response to Fraser’s criticism, see Pateman and Mills (2007, 205–06)).

Although feminists such as Fraser, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown have been highly critical of the radical feminist account of domination, analytic feminists have found this account more productive. For example, Rae Langton (2009) has used speech act theory to defend MacKinnon's claims that pornography both causes and constitutes women's subordination. More generally, Langton (2009) and Sally Haslanger (2012) have drawn on MacKinnon's work to develop an account of sexual objectification and to explore the ways that objectification is often obscured by claims to objectivity (for further discussion of Haslanger's work, see section 3.7 below).

According to the traditional Marxist account of power, domination is understood on the model of class exploitation; domination results from the capitalist appropriation of the surplus value that is produced by the workers. As many second wave feminist critics of Marx have pointed out, however, Marx’s categories are gender-blind (see, for example, Firestone 1970, Hartmann 1980, Hartsock 1983, Rubin 1976). Marx ignores the ways in which class exploitation and gender subordination are intertwined; because he focuses solely on economic production, Marx overlooks women’s reproductive labor in the home and the exploitation of this labor in capitalist modes of production. As a result of this gender-blindness, second wave Marxist or socialist feminists argued that Marx’s analysis of class domination must be supplemented with a radical feminist critique of patriarchy in order to yield a satisfactory account of women’s oppression; the resulting theory is referred to as dual systems theory (see, for example, Eisenstein 1979, Hartmann 1980). As Young describes it, “dual systems theory says that women’s oppression arises from two distinct and relatively autonomous systems. The system of male domination, most often called ‘patriarchy’, produces the specific gender oppression of women; the system of the mode of production and class relations produces the class oppression and work alienation of most women” (Young 1990b, 21). Although Young agrees with the aim of theorizing class and gender domination in a single theory, she is critical of dual systems theory on the grounds that “it allows Marxism to retain in basically unchanged form its theory of economic and social relations, on to which it merely grafts a theory of gender relations” (Young 1990b, 24). Young calls instead for a more unified theory, a truly feminist historical materialism that would offer a critique of the social totality.

In a later essay, Young offers a more systematic analysis of oppression, an analysis that is grounded in her earlier call for a comprehensive socialist feminism. Young identifies five faces of oppression: economic exploitation, socio-economic marginalization, lack of power or autonomy over one’s work, cultural imperialism, and systematic violence (Young 1992, 183–193). The first three faces of oppression in this list expand on the Marxist account of economic exploitation, and the last two go beyond that account, bringing out other aspects of oppression that are not well explained in economic terms. According to Young, being subject to any one of these forms of power is sufficient to call a group oppressed, but most oppressed groups in the United States experience more than one of these forms of power, and some experience all five (Young 1992, 194). She also claims that this list is comprehensive, both in the sense that “covers all the groups said by new left social movements to be oppressed” and that it “covers all the ways they are oppressed” (Young 1992, 181; for critical discussion, see Allen 2008b).

Nancy Hartsock offers a different vision of feminist historical materialism in her book Money, Sex, and Power : Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (1983). In this book, Hartsock is concerned with “(1) how relations of domination along lines of gender are constructed and maintained and (2) whether social understandings of domination itself have been distorted by men’s domination of women” (Hartsock 1983, 1). Following Marx’s conception of ideology, Hartsock maintains that the prevailing ideas and theories of a time period are rooted in the material, economic relations of that society. This applies, in her view, to theories of power as well. Thus, she criticizes theories of power in mainstream political science for presupposing a market model of economic relations – a model that understands the economy primarily in terms of exchange, which is how it appears from the perspective of the ruling class rather than in terms of production, which is how it appears from the perspective of the worker. She also argues that power and domination have consistently been associated with masculinity. Because power has been understood from the position of the socially dominant – the ruling class and men – the feminist task, according to Hartsock, is to reconceptualize power from a specifically feminist standpoint, one that is rooted in women’s life experience, specifically, their role in reproduction. Conceptualizing power from this standpoint can, according to Hartsock, “point beyond understandings of power as power over others” (Hartsock 1983, 12). (We’ll come back to this point in section 4).

Socialist feminism fell largely out of fashion during the latter part of the 20th century, fueled in part by the rise of poststructuralism, the prominence of identity and recognition based politics, and the emergence of a neoliberal consensus (for a trenchant critique of these developments, see Fraser 1996 and 2013). However, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, socialist feminism, now often referred to as Social Reproduction Theory (SRT), has made a comeback. SRT has a long history, with important early contributions by Silvia Federici (1975) and Maria Mies (1986) and connections to the Italian wages for housework campaign that began in the 1970s; for more recent discussions, see Tithi Bhattacharya (2017), Federici (2014 and 2019), and Alessandra Mezzadri (2019). SRT is a Marxist feminist project that orients itself to a question that remains implicit in Marx's theory of value: how is labor power, which is the source of value and thus of exploitation in Marx's account, itself produced, reproduced, and maintained? SRT maintains that labor power is produced and reproduced outside of the official economy, largely through women's unpaid labor within the family or domestic sphere. For social reproduction theorists, the production of goods and services is thus possible only on the basis of (largely) unpaid social reproduction, which includes childbirth, domestic work, caring for children, the elderly and others who cannot work for wages, and so on. For Federici, this represents an ongoing process of expropriation akin to Marx's notion of primitive accumulation (Federici 2014). Social reproduction theorists understand production and reproduction as parts of an integrated system; indeed, they view the distinction between the two as ultimately misleading inasmuch as it obscures the ways in which social reproduction is itself productive of value (Mezzadri 2019). For a related attempt to understand capitalism as a social totality whose relations of production are made possible by the expropriation of socially reproductive labor, environmental resources, and the labor of dispossessed and colonized peoples, see Fraser in Fraser and Jaeggi (2018).

Theories of intersectionality highlight the complex, interconnected, and cross-cutting relationships between diverse modes of domination, including (but not limited to) sexism, racism, class oppression, and heterosexism. The project of intersectional feminism grew out of Black feminism, which, as scholars have recently noted, has a long tradition of examining the interconnections between racism and sexism, stretching back to the writing and activism of late 19th and early 20th century black feminists such as Maria W. Stewart, Ida. B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Sojourner Truth (see Gines 2014b and Cooper 2016). Because these thinkers and activists did not use the term intersectionality, Gines (now Belle) characterizes their work as proto-intersectional, which she defines as follows: “identifying and combating racism and sexism – through activist organizing and campaigning – not only as separate categories impacting identity and oppression, but also as systems of oppression that work together and mutually reinforce one another, presenting unique problems for black women who experience both, simultaneously and differently than white women and/or black men” (Gines 2014b, 14). Other important antecedents to contemporary intersectionality theory include the Combahee River Collective’s notion of “interlocking systems of oppression” (CRC 1977), Deborah King’s analysis of multiple jeopardy and multiple consciousness (King 1988), and the work from the 1980s of Black feminists such as Audre Lorde (1984), Angela Davis (1984), and bell hooks (1981). As Mariana Ortega has argued (2016), there are also important conceptions of intersectionality developed in Latina feminism, particularly in Anzaldúa's account of the borderlands and mestiza consciusness (Anzaldúa 1987) and Lugones's account of the intermeshedness of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and class (Lugones 2003).

In other words, the concept of intersectionality has a long history and a complex genealogy (for discussions, see Cooper 2016, Collins 2011 and 2019, 123–126, and Nash 2019). Still, it is widely acknowledged that the contemporary discussion and use of the term intersectionality was sparked by the work of legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw (Crenshaw 1991a and 1991b), specifically, by her critique of single-axis frameworks for understanding domination in the context of legal discrimination. A single-axis framework treats race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience. In so doing, such a framework implicitly privileges the perspective of the most privileged members of oppressed groups – sex or class-privileged Blacks in race discrimination cases; race or class-privileged women in sex discrimination cases. Thus, a single-axis framework distorts the experiences of Black women, who are simultaneously subject to multiple and intersecting forms of subordination. As Crenshaw explains, “the intersection of racism and sexism factors into Black women’s lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately” (Crenshaw 1991b, 1244).

In the thirty years since the publication of Crenshaw’s essays on intersectionality, this framework has become extraordinarily influential in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Indeed, it has been called “the most important contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with other fields, has made so far” (McCall 2005, 1771). However, feminist philosophers have noted that this influence has yet to be felt within the mainstream of the discipline of philosophy, where “intersectionality is largely ignored as a philosophical theme or framework” (Goswami, O’Donovan and Yount 2014, 6). Moreover, intersectionality is not without its feminist critics.

Some sympathetic critics of intersectionality have suggested that the concept is limited in that it focuses primarily on the action-theoretical level. A full analysis of the intertwining of racial, gender, and class-based subordination also requires, on this view, a systemic or macro-level concept that corresponds to the concept of intersectionality. Echoing the Combahee River Collective (CRC 1977), Patricia Hill Collins proposes the term “interlocking systems of oppression” to fulfill this role. As she explains, “the notion of interlocking oppressions refers to the macro-level connections linking systems of oppression such as race, class, and gender. This is the model describing the social structures that create social positions. Second, the notion of intersectionality describes micro-level processes – namely, how each individual and group occupies a social position within interlocking structures of oppression described by the metaphor of intersectionality. Together they shape oppression” (Collins et al . 2002, 82).

Others have worried that discussions of intersectionality tend to focus too much on relations and sites of oppression and subordination, without also taking into account relations of privilege and dominance. As Jennifer Nash has argued, this has led to “the question of whether all identities are intersectional or whether only multiply marginalized subjects have an intersectional identity” (Nash 2008, 9). Although some feminist scholars claim that intersectionality encompasses all subject positions, not just those that are marginalized or oppressed, Nash notes that “the overwhelming majority of intersectional scholarship has centred on the particular positions of multiply marginalized subjects” (Nash 2008, 9–10). The over-emphasis on oppression in theories of intersectionality leads theorists “to ignore the intimate connections between privilege and oppression,” for example, by “ignor[ing] the ways in which subjects might be both victimized by patriarchy and privileged by race” (Nash 2008, 12). In response to this concern, philosophers such as Ann Garry have offered a broader, more inclusive conception of intersectionality that emphasizes both oppression and privilege (see Garry 2011).

Rather than supplementing the notion of intersectionality with a macro-level concept of interlocking systems of oppression or broadening it to include relations of oppression and privilege, Naomi Zack argues that feminists should move beyond it. Zack maintains that intersectionality undermines its own goal of making feminism more inclusive. It does this, on Zack’s view, by dividing women into smaller and smaller groups, formed by specific intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. As Zack puts it, “as a theory of women’s identity, intersectionality is not inclusive insofar as members of specific intersections of race and class create only their own feminisms” (Zack 2005, 2). Because it tends toward “the reification of intersections as incommensurable identities,” Zack maintains that “intersectionality has not borne impressive political fruit” (Zack 2005, 18).

From a very different perspective, queer theorists such as Lynne Huffer and Jasbir Puar have also criticized intersectionality as a theory of identity. Unlike Zack, however, their concern is not with the proliferation of incommensurable identities but rather with the ways in which the notion of intersectionality remains, as Puar says, “primarily trapped within the logic of identity” (Puar 2012, 60). As Huffer puts the point: “the institutionalization of intersectionality as the only approach to gender and sexuality that takes difference seriously masks intersectionality’s investment in a subject-making form of power-knowledge that runs the risk of perpetuating precisely the problems intersectionality had hoped to alleviate” (Huffer 2013, 18). Puar argues further that the primary concepts of intersectionality, including gender, race, class, and sexuality, are themselves the product of Eurocentric, modernist, and colonial discourses and practices and, as such, are problematic from the point of view of postcolonial and transnational feminism (Puar 2012).

Finally, Anna Carastathis has argued that the problem with intersectionality theory lies in its very success (Carastathis 2013 and 2014). Intersectionality has been, on her view, too easily appropriated by white-dominated feminist theory, cut off from its roots in Black and women of color feminism, and incorporated into a self-congratulatory progressivist narrative according to which “intersectionality is celebrated as a methodological triumph over ‘previous’ essentialist and exclusionary approaches to theorizing identity and power relations” (Carastathis 2014, 59; for related critiques, see Nash 2008 and 2019 and Puar 2012). Carastathis cites Kimberle Crenshaw’s lament that intersectionality’s reach is wide but not very deep, and suggests that this may be the result of aversive racism – that is, a desire to assert or establish racial innocence, but without really coming to terms with their own internalized racism – on the part of white feminists (Carastathis, 2014, 68–69).

In response to these sorts of criticisms of intersectionality, some scholars have attempted to reformulate the concept by understanding it as a family resemblance concept (Garry 2011) or by highlighting its provisionality (Carastathis, 2014). Others have argued for an expansion of the intersectional framework to better account for the experiences of diasporic subjects (Sheth 2014) or for a rethinking of this framework in relation to a Deleuzian notion of assemblage (Puar 2007 and 2012). Collins (2019) has proposed the development of intersectionality as a critical social theory through a reflection on its genealogy, epistemology, and methodology.

Most of the work on power done by post-structuralist feminists has been inspired by Foucault. In his middle period works (Foucault 1977, 1978, and 1980), Foucault analyzes modern power as a mobile and constantly shifting set of force relations that emerge from every social interaction and thus pervade the social body. As he puts it, “power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (1978, 93). Foucault endeavors to offer a “micro-physics” of modern power (1977, 26), an analysis that focuses not on the concentration of power in the hands of the sovereign or the state, but instead on how power flows through the capillaries of the social body. Foucault criticizes previous analyses of power (primarily Marxist and Freudian) for assuming that power is fundamentally repressive, a belief that he terms the “repressive hypothesis” (1978, 17–49). Although Foucault does not deny that power sometimes functions repressively (see 1978, 12), he maintains that it is primarily productive; as he puts it, “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (1977, 194). It also, according to Foucault, produces subjects. As he puts it, “the individual is not the vis-à-vis of power; it is, I believe, one of its prime effects” (1980, 98). According to Foucault, modern power subjects individuals, in both senses of the term; it simultaneously creates them as subjects by subjecting them to power. As we will see in a moment, Foucault’s account of subjection and his account of power more generally have been extremely fruitful, but also quite controversial, for feminists interested in analyzing domination.

It should come as no surprise that so many feminists have drawn on Foucault’s analysis of power. Foucault’s analysis of power has arguably been the most influential discussion of the topic over the last forty years; even those theorists of power who are highly critical of Foucault’s work acknowledge this influence (Lukes 2005 and, in a somewhat backhanded way, Morriss 2002). Moreover, Foucault’s focus on the local and capillary nature of modern power clearly resonates with feminist efforts to redefine the scope and bounds of the political, efforts that are summed up by the slogan “the personal is political.” At this point, the feminist work that has been inspired by Foucault’s analysis of power is so extensive and varied that it defies summarization (see, for example, Allen 1999 and 2008a, Bartky 1990, Bordo 2003, Butler 1990, 1993, 1997, Diamond and Quinby (eds) 1988, Fraser 1989, Hekman (ed) 1996, Heyes 2007, McLaren 2002, McNay 1992, McWhorter 1999, Sawicki 1990, and Young 1990). I will concentrate on highlighting a few central issues from this rich and diverse body of scholarship.

Several of the most prominent Foucaultian-feminist analyses of power draw on his account of disciplinary power in order to critically analyze normative femininity. In Discipline and Punish , Foucault analyzes the disciplinary practices that were developed in prisons, schools, and factories in the 18th century – including minute regulations of bodily movements, obsessively detailed time schedules, and surveillance techniques – and how these practices shape the bodies of prisoners, students and workers into docile bodies (1977, 135–169). In a highly influential essay, Sandra Bartky criticizes Foucault for failing to notice that disciplinary practices are gendered and that, through such gendered discipline, women’s bodies are rendered more docile than the bodies of men (1990, 65). Drawing on and extending Foucault’s account of disciplinary power, Bartky analyzes the disciplinary practices that engender specifically feminine docile bodies – including dieting practices, limitations on gestures and mobility, and bodily ornamentation. She also expands Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s design for the ideal prison, a building whose spatial arrangement was designed to compel the inmate to surveil himself, thus becoming, as Foucault famously put it, “the principle of his own subjection” (1977, 203). With respect to gendered disciplinary practices such as dieting, restricting one’s movement so as to avoid taking up too much space, and keeping one’s body properly hairless, attired, ornamented and made up, Bartky observes “it is women themselves who practice this discipline on and against their own bodies….The woman who checks her make-up half a dozen times a day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara run, who worries that the wind or rain may spoil her hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stocking have bagged at the ankle, or who, feeling fat, monitors everything she eats, has become, just as surely as the inmate in the Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self committed to relentless self-surveillance. This self-surveillance is a form of obedience to patriarchy” (1990, 80).

As Susan Bordo points out, this model of self-surveillance does not adequately illuminate all forms of female subordination – all too often women are actually compelled into submission by means of physical force, economic coercion, or emotional manipulation. Nevertheless, Bordo agrees with Bartky that “when it comes to the politics of appearance, such ideas are apt and illuminating” (1993, 27). Bordo explains that, in her own work, Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power has been “extremely helpful both to my analysis of the contemporary disciplines of diet and exercise and to my understanding of eating disorders as arising out of and reproducing normative feminine practices of our culture, practices which train the female body in docility and obedience to cultural demands while at the same time being experienced in terms of power and control” (ibid). Bordo also highlights and makes use of Foucault’s understanding of power relations as inherently unstable, as always accompanied by, even generating, resistance (see Foucault 1983). “So, for example, the woman who goes into a rigorous weight-training program in order to achieve the currently stylish look may discover that her new muscles give her the self-confidence that enables her to assert herself more forcefully at work” (1993, 28).

Whereas Bartky and Bordo focus on Foucault’s account of disciplinary power, Judith Butler draws primarily on his analysis of subjection. For example, in her early and massively influential book, Gender Trouble (1990), Butler notes that “Foucault points out that juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent. Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms…..But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures” (1990, 2). The implication of this for feminists is, according to Butler, that “feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of ‘women’, the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought” (1990, 2). This Foucaultian insight into the nature of subjection – into the ways in which becoming a subject means at the same time being subjected to power relations – thus forms the basis for Butler’s trenchant critique of the category of women, and for her call for a subversive performance of the gender norms that govern the production of gender identity. In Bodies that Matter (1993), Butler extends this analysis to consider the impact of subjection on the bodily materiality of the subject. As she puts is, “power operates for Foucault in the constitution of the very materiality of the subject, in the principle which simultaneously forms and regulates the ‘subject’ of subjectivation” (1993, 34). Thus, for Butler, power understood as subjection is implicated in the process of determining which bodies come to matter, whose lives are livable and whose deaths grievable. In The Psychic Life of Power (1997b), Butler expands further on the Foucaultian notion of subjection, bringing it into dialogue with a Freudian account of the psyche. In the introduction to that text, Butler notes that subjection is a paradoxical form of power. It has an element of domination and subordination, to be sure, but, she writes, “if, following Foucault, we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our existence and what we harbor and preserve in the beings that we are” (1997b, 2). Although Butler credits Foucault with recognizing the fundamentally ambivalent character of subjection, she also argues that he does not offer an account of the specific mechanisms by which the subjected subject is formed. For this, Butler maintains, we need an analysis of the psychic form that power takes, for only such an analysis can illuminate the passionate attachment to power that is characteristic of subjection.

Although many feminists have found Foucault’s analysis of power extremely fruitful and productive, Foucault has also had his share of feminist critics. In a very influential early assessment, Nancy Fraser argues that, although Foucault’s work offers some interesting empirical insights into the functioning of modern power, it is “normatively confused” (Fraser 1989, 31). In his writings on power, Foucault seems to eschew normative categories, preferring instead to describe the way that power functions in local practices and to argue for the appropriate methodology for studying power. He even seems to suggest that such normative notions as autonomy, legitimacy, sovereignty, and so forth, are themselves effects of modern power (this point has been contested recently in the literature on Foucault; see Allen 2008a and Oksala 2005). Fraser claims that this attempt to remain normatively neutral or even critical of normativity is incompatible with the politically engaged character of Foucault’s writings. Thus, for example, although Foucault claims that power is always accompanied by resistance, Fraser argues that he cannot explain why domination ought to be resisted. As she puts it, “only with the introduction of normative notions of some kind could Foucault begin to answer such questions. Only with the introduction of normative notions could he begin to tell us what is wrong with the modern power/knowledge regime and why we ought to oppose it” (1989, 29). Other feminists have criticized the Foucaultian claim that the subject is an effect of power. According to feminists such as Linda Martín Alcoff and Seyla Benhabib, such a claim implies a denial of agency that is incompatible with the demands of feminism as an emancipatory social movement (Alcoff 1990, Benhabib 1992, and Benhabib et al. 1995; for a reply to this line of criticism, see Allen 2008a chs. 2 and 3). Finally, Nancy Hartsock (1990 and 1996) calls into question the usefulness of Foucault’s work as an analytical tool. Hartsock makes two related arguments against Foucault. First, she argues that his analysis of power is not a theory for women because it does not examine power from the epistemological point of view of the subordinated; in her view, Foucault analyzes power from the perspective of the colonizer, rather than the colonized (1990). Second, Foucault’s analysis of power fails to adequately theorize structural relations of inequality and domination that undergird women’s subordination; this is related to the first argument because “domination, viewed from above, is more likely to look like equality”(1996, 39; for a response to this critique, see Allen 1996 and 1999).

Despite these and other trenchant feminist critiques of Foucault (see, for example, Hekman, ed. 1996 and Ramazanoglu, ed. 1993), his analysis of power continues to be an extremely useful resource for feminist conceptions of domination. For recent important feminist work that draws on Foucault’s genealogical method to offer an intersectional analysis of racism and gender or sexual oppression see Feder (2007) and McWhorter (2009).

Postcolonial and decolonial theory offer overlapping critiques of historical and contemporary practices and discourses of imperial and colonial domination. Yet they also have distinct lineages, theoretical commitments, and implications (for helpful discussion, see Bhambra 2014 and Ramamurthy and Tambe 2017). Postcolonial theory rose to prominence in the late 20th century, in association with the groundbreaking work of Edward Said (1979) and the Subaltern Studies Collective, and has been most influential in literary and cultural studies. Taking as its primary point of reference the northern European colonization of Southeast Asia and focusing primarily on the discursive and cultural effects of colonialism, postcolonial theory is deeply (though not uncritically) influenced by poststruturalism, particularly the work of Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Decolonial theory emerged somewhat later, in the early 2000s, in association with the Latin American and Carribean scholars in the Modernity/Coloniality group. Its primary point of reference is the colonization of the Americas that began in 1492. Heavily influenced by Latin American Marxism, world systems theory, and indigenous political struggles, decolonial theory focuses on the connections between capitalism, colonialism, and racial hierarchies. Although these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, decolonial theory is often viewed as the more radical of the two, due to its broader historical range and its calls for epistemic decolonization and delinking from capitalist modernity/coloniality (Ruíz 2021).

Gayatri Spivak's “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) is widely viewed as the watershed text in postcolonial feminism. Spivak's essay opens with a critical discussion of an exchange betweeen Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, in which they reject the idea of speaking for the oppressed, insisting instead that the oppressed should speak for themselves. The first part of her essay is devoted to a critique of this claim and of the myriad ways in which Foucault and Deleuze ignore the epistemic violence of imperialism. It is Foucault and Deleuze’s insistence that the oppressed “can speak and know their conditions” that leads Spivak to formulate her famous question, “can the subaltern speak?” (78). If, as Spivak goes on to suggest, the subaltern can not speak, then the “subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (83). Drawing on the example of the British banning the practice of sati in colonial India, Spivak suggests that the subaltern cannot speak because she is caught between imperialist discourse and patriarchal traditionalism, neither of which enables her to voice her experience: “Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization” (102). In other words, there is no space from which the subaltern as female can speak and no way she can be heard or read.

Another emblematic text in postcolonial feminism is Chandra Talpade Mohanty's “Under Western Eyes” (1988). Mohanty's essay is framed as a critique of Western feminist analyses of “Third World Women” for their reductive and overly simplistic understandings of power and oppression. In such discourses, as Mohanty explains, “power is automatically defined in binary terms: people who have it (read: men) and people who do not (read: women). Men exploit, women are exploited. Such simplistic formulations are historically reductive; they are also ineffectual in designing strategies to combat oppressions” (73). By contrast, Mohanty calls for an intersectional understanding of power that refuses to homogenize or falsely universalize women's experience: “the…homogenization of class, race, religion, and daily material practices of women in the Third World can create a false sense of the commonality of oppressions, interests, and struggles between and among women globally. Beyond sisterhood there are still racism, colonialism, and imperialism” (77). Furthermore, by representing “Third World Women” as mere passive objects or victims of oppression, Western feminists implicitly position themselves as active subjects of resistance and revolutionary agents – which Mohanty calls “the colonialist move” (79).

Much of the agenda for decolonial feminism was set by Lugones in a pair of essays published in Hypatia (2007 and 2010). Building on the work of Anibal Quijano (2000), who argued that racialization is rooted in the structure of colonial capitalism, Lugones contends that gender itself is “a colonial concept and mode of organization of relations of production, property relations, of cosmologies and ways of knowing” (2007, 186). Seeing gender as a colonial concept enables feminists to break out of the ahistorical framework of patriarchy. As she explains: “To understand the relation of the birth of the colonial/modern gender system to the birth of global colonial capitalism–with the centrality of the coloniality of power to that system of global power–is to understand our present organization of life anew” (2007, 187). Lugones's decolonial feminist framework combines the insights of intersectionality theory with Quijano’s understanding of the coloniality of power (2007, 187–88). This brings into focus what Lugones calls the “modern/colonial gender system” (2007, 189), a system that is characterized by strict sexual dimorphism and presumed correspondence between biological sex and gender. In the later essay, Lugones simplifies her formulation somewhat: “I call the analysis of racialized, capitalist, gender oppression ”the coloniality of gender.“ I call the possibility of overcoming the coloniality of gender ”decolonial feminism“” (2010, 747).

Although most of the approaches to dominaiton discussed above have been informed by the Continental philosophical tradition, analytic feminists have made important contributions to the feminist literature on domination as well. For example, Ann Cudd (2006) draws on the framework of rational choice theory to analyze oppression (for related work on rational choice theory and power, see Dowding 2001 and 2009; for critical discussion, see Allen 2008c).

Cudd defines oppression in terms of four conditions: 1) the group condition, which states that individuals are subjected to unjust treatment because of their membership (or ascribed membership) in certain social groups (Cudd 2006, 21); 2) the harm condition, which stipulates that individuals are systematically and unfairly harmed as a result of such membership (Cudd 2006, 21); 3) the coercion condition, which specifies that the harms that those individuals suffer are brought about through unjustified coercion (Cudd 2006, 22); and 4) the privilege condition, which states that such coercive, group-based harms count as oppression only when there exist other social groups who derive a reciprocal privilege or benefit from that unjust harm (Cudd 2006, 22–23). Cudd then defines oppression as “an objective social phenomenon” characterized by these four conditions (Cudd 2006, 23).

As Cudd sees it, the most difficult and interesting question that an analysis of oppression must confront is the “endurance question: how does oppression endure over time in spite of humans’ rough natural equality?” (Cudd 2006, 25). Any satisfactory answer to this question must draw on a combination of empirical, social-scientific research and normative philosophical theorizing, inasmuch as a theory of oppression is an explanatory theory of a normative concept (Cudd 2006, 26). (That oppression is a normative – rather than a purely descriptive – concept is evident from the fact that it is defined as an unjust or unfair set of power relations). Cudd argues that social-theoretical frameworks such as functionalism, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary psychology are inadequate for theorizing oppression (Cudd 2006, 39–45). Structural rational choice theory, in her view, best meets reasonable criteria of explanatory adequacy and therefore provides the best social-theoretical framework for analyzing oppression. By appealing to a structural theory of rational choice, Cudd’s analysis of oppression avoids relying on assumptions about the psychology of individual agents. Rather, as Cudd puts it, “the structural theory of rational choice assesses the objective social rewards and penalties that are consequent on” the interactions and social status of specific group members and “uses these assessments to impute preferences and beliefs to individuals based purely on their social group memberships” (Cudd 2006, 45). But, as a structural theory of rational choice , the framework assumes “that agents behave rationally in the sense that they choose actions that maximize their (induced) expected utilities” (Cudd 2006, 46). In other words, structural rational choice theory models human actions as “(basically instrumentally rational) individual choice constrained within socially structured payoffs” (Cudd 2006, 37). When utilized to analyze oppression, structural rational choice theory suggests that the key to answering the endurance question lies in the fact that “the oppressed are co-opted through their own short-run rational choices to reinforce the long-run oppression of their social group” (Cudd 2006, 21–22).

Sally Haslanger’s work on gender and racial oppression, like Cudd’s, is heavily informed by the tools of analytic philosophy, though Haslanger also situates her work within the tradition of Critical Theory (see Haslanger 2012, 22–30). Haslanger distinguishes between two kinds of cases of oppression: agent oppression, in which “a person or persons (the oppressor(s)) inflicts harm upon another (the oppressed) wrongfully or unjustly” (314) and structural oppression, in which “the oppression is not an individual wrong but a social/political wrong; that is, it is a problem lying in our collective arrangements, an injustice in our practices or institutions” (314). Having made this distinction, Haslanger then argues for a mixed analysis of oppression that does not attempt to reduce agent oppression to structural oppression or vice versa. The danger of reducing structural oppression to agent oppression – what Haslanger calls the individualistic approach to oppression – is that doing so fails to acknowledge that “sometimes structures themselves, not individuals are the problem” (320). The danger of reducing agent oppression to structural oppression – what Haslanger calls the institutionalist approach – is that such an approach “fails to distinguish those who abuse their power to do wrong and those who are privileged but do not exploit their power” (320). Haslanger’s mixed approach, by contrast, is “attentive simultaneously [and, we might add, non-reductively] to both agents and structures” (11).

Haslanger also connects her account of structural domination and oppression to her analysis of gender. Haslanger offers what she calls a “focal analysis” of gender, according to which the core of gender is “the pattern of social relations that constitute the social classes of men as dominant and women as subordinate” (228). Other things – such as norms, identities, symbols, etc – are then gendered in relation to those social relations. On her analysis, gender categories are defined in terms of how one is socially positioned with respect to a broad complex of oppressive relations between groups that are distinguished from one another by means of sexual difference (see 229–230). As Haslanger explains, the “background idea” informing this account of gender is “that women are oppressed , and that they are oppressed as women ” (231).

By claiming that women are oppressed as women, Haslanger reiterates an earlier claim made by radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon (see, for example, MacKinnon 1987, 56–57). Indeed, Haslanger’s analysis is heavily indebted to MacKinnon’s work (see Haslanger 2012, 35–82), though she does not endorse MacKinnon’s strong claims about the link between objectivity and masculinity, nor does she adopt a dyadic (or, to use Haslanger’s terminology, reductively agent focused) understanding of oppression. But, like MacKinnon, Haslanger believes that “gender categories are defined relationally – one is a woman (or a man) by virtue of one’s position in a system of social relations” (58). This means that “one’s gender is an extrinsic property, and…it is not necessary that we each have the gender we now have, or that we have any gender at all” (58). Since the social relations in terms of which gender categories are defined are relations of hierarchical domination and structural oppression, “gender is, by definition, hierarchical: Those who function socially as men have power over those who function socially as women” (61). As Haslanger admits, referencing the sex/gender distinction, this does not mean that all males have power over all females – but it does mean that females who are not subordinated by males are not, strictly speaking, women, and vice versa. Moreover, as Haslanger notes, “MacKinnon’s account of gender, like others that define gender hierarchically, has the consequence that feminism aims to undermine the very distinction it depends upon. If feminism is successful, there will no longer be a gender distinction as such” because the complex of social relations of domination and structural oppression that give gender its meaning will no longer exist (62). While endorsing MacKinnon’s radical conclusion with respect to the currently existing gender categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, Haslanger’s own account offers a somewhat more nuanced view that allows for the future possibility of a kind of gender difference that would not be predicted on gender dominance: “gender can be fruitfully understood as a higher order genus that includes not only the hierarchical social positions of man and woman, but potentially other non-hierarchical social positions defined in part by reference to reproductive function. I believe gender as we know it takes hierarchical forms as men and women; but the theoretical move of treating men and women as only two kinds of gender provides resources for thinking about other (actual) genders, and the political possibility of constructing non-hierarchical genders” (235)

Up to this point, this entry has focused on power understood in terms of an oppressive or unjust power-over relationship. I have used the term “domination” to refer to such relationships, though some of the theorists discussed above prefer the terms “oppression” or “subjection,” and others refer to this phenomenon simply as “power.” However, a significant strand of feminist theorizing of power starts with the contention that the conception of power as power-over, domination, or control is implicitly masculinist. In order to avoid such masculinist connotations, many feminists from a variety of theoretical backgrounds have argued for a reconceptualization of power as a capacity or ability, specifically, the capacity to empower or transform oneself and others. Thus, these feminists have tended to understood power not as power-over but as power-to. Wartenberg (1990) argues that this feminist understanding of power, which he calls transformative power, is actually a type of power-over, albeit one that is distinct from domination because it aims at empowering those over whom it is exercised. However, most of the feminists who embrace this transformative or empowerment-based conception of power explicitly define it as an ability or capacity and present it as an alternative to putatively masculine notions of power-over. Thus, in what follows, I will follow their usage rather than Wartenberg’s.

For example, Jean Baker Miller claims that “women’s examination of power…can bring new understanding to the whole concept of power” (Miller 1992, 241). Miller rejects the definition of power as domination; instead, she defines it as “the capacity to produce a change – that is, to move anything from point A or state A to point B or state B” (Miller 1992, 241). Miller suggests that power understood as domination is particularly masculine; from women’s perspective, power is understood differently: “there is enormous validity in women’s not wanting to use power as it is presently conceived and used. Rather, women may want to be powerful in ways that simultaneously enhance, rather than diminish, the power of others” (Miller 1992, 247–248).

Similarly, Virginia Held argues against the masculinist conception of power as “the power to cause others to submit to one’s will, the power that led men to seek hierarchical control and…contractual constraints” (Held 1993, 136). Held views women’s unique experiences as mothers and caregivers as the basis for new insights into power; as she puts it, “the capacity to give birth and to nurture and empower could be the basis for new and more humanly promising conceptions than the ones that now prevail of power, empowerment, and growth” (Held 1993, 137). According to Held, “the power of a mothering person to empower others, to foster transformative growth, is a different sort of power from that of a stronger sword or a dominant will” (Held 1993, 209). On Held’s view, a feminist analysis of society and politics leads to an understanding of power as the capacity to transform and empower oneself and others.

This conception of power as transformative and empowering is also a prominent theme in lesbian feminism and ecofeminism. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland is critical of the masculine conception of power with its focus on “state authority, police and armed forces, control of economic resources, control of technology, and hierarchy and chain of command” (Hoagland 1988, 114). Instead, Hoagland defines power as “power-from-within” which she understands as “the power of ability, of choice and engagement. It is creative; and hence it is an affecting and transforming power but not a controlling power” (Hoagland 1988, 118). Similarly, Starhawk claims that she is “on the side of the power that emerges from within, that is inherent in us as the power to grow is inherent in the seed” (Starhawk 1987, 8). For both Hoagland and Starhawk, power-from-within is a positive, life-affirming, and empowering force that stands in stark contrast to power understood as domination, control or imposing one’s will on another.

A similar understanding of power can also be found in the work of the prominent French feminists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. Irigaray, for example, urges feminists to question the definition of power in phallocratic cultures, for if feminists “aim simply for a change in the distribution of power, leaving intact the power structure itself, then they are resubjecting themselves, deliberately or not, to a phallocratic order” (Irigaray 1985, 81), that is, to a discursive and cultural order that privileges the masculine, represented by the phallus. If we wish to subvert the phallocratic order, according to Irigaray, we will have to reject “a definition of power of the masculine type” (Irigaray 1985, 81). Some feminists interpret Irigaray’s work on sexual difference as suggesting an alternative conception of power as transformative, a conception that is grounded in a specifically feminine economy (see Irigaray 1981 and Kuykendall 1983). Similarly, Cixous claims that “les pouvoirs de la femme” do not consist in mastering or exercising power over others, but instead are a form of “power over oneself” (Cixous 1977, 483–84).

Along similar lines, Nancy Hartsock refers to the understanding of power “as energy and competence rather than dominance” as “the feminist theory of power” (Hartsock 1983, 224). Hartsock argues that precursors of this theory can be found in the work of some women who did not consider themselves to be feminists – most notably, Hannah Arendt, whose rejection of the command-obedience model of power and definition of ‘power’ as “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert” overlaps significantly with the feminist conception of power as empowerment (1970, 44). Arendt’s definition of ‘power’ brings out another aspect of the definition of ‘power’ as empowerment because of her focus on community or collective empowerment (on the relationship between power and community, see Hartsock 1983, 1996). This aspect of empowerment is evident in Mary Parker Follett’s distinction between power-over and power-with; for Follett, power-with is a collective ability that is a function of relationships of reciprocity between members of a group (Follett 1942). Hartsock finds it significant that the theme of power as capacity or empowerment has been so prominent in the work of women who have written about power. In her view, this points in the direction of a feminist standpoint that “should allow us to understand why the masculine community constructed…power, as domination, repression, and death, and why women’s accounts of power differ in specific and systematic ways from those put forward by men….such a standpoint might allow us to put forward an understanding of power that points in more liberatory directions” (Hartsock 1983, 226).

The notion of empowerment has also been taken up widely by advocates of so-called “power feminism.” A reaction against a perceived over-emphasis on women’s victimization and oppression in feminism of the 1980s, power feminism emerged in the 1990s in the writings of feminists such as Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Naomi Wolf. Although this movement has had more influence in mainstream media and culture than in academia – indeed, in many ways it can be read as a critique of academic feminism – it has also sparked scholarly debate. As Mary Caputi argues in her book Feminism and Power: The Need for Critical Theory (2013), power feminists reject not only the excessive focus on women’s victimization but also the claim, made by earlier empowerment theorists, that women are “sensitive creatures given more to a caring, interconnected web of human relationships than to the rugged individualism espoused by men” (Caputi 2013, 4). In contrast, power feminists endorse a more individualistic, self-assertive, even aggressive conception of empowerment, one that tends to define empowerment in terms of individual choice with little concern for the contexts within which choices are made or the options from which women are able to choose. Caputi argues that power feminism relies on and mimetically reproduces a problematically masculinist conception of power, one “enthralled by the display of ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’…” (Caputi 2013, xv). As she puts it: “feminism must query the uncritical endorsement of an empowerment aligned with a masculinist will to power, and disown the tough, sassy, self-assured but unthinking ‘feminist’” (Caputi 2013, 17). Because of its tendency to mimic an individualistic, sovereign, and masculinist conception of power over, power feminism, according to Caputi, “does little, if anything, to rethink our conception of power” (Caputi 2013, 89). In order to prompt such a rethinking, Caputi turns to the resources of the early Frankfurt School of critical theory and to the work of Jacques Derrida.

Serene Khader’s Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment offers another rethinking of empowerment in feminist theory. Focusing on empowerment in the context of international development practice, Khader develops a deliberative perfectionist account of adaptive preferences. Rather than defining adaptive preferences in terms of autonomy deficits, Khader defines them as preferences “inconsistent with basic flourishing…that are formed under conditions nonconductive to basic flourishing and…that we believe people might be persuaded to transform upon normative scrutiny of their preferences and exposure to conditions more conducive to flourishing” (Khader 2011, 42). The perfectionism in her account leads her to emphasize the distinction between merely adaptive preferences – those formed through adaptation to existing social conditions – and what she calls “inappropriately adaptive preferences” (IAPs) – preferences that are adaptive to bad or oppressive social conditions and that are harmful to those who adopt them (52–53). She also insists that IAPs are most often selective rather than global self-entitlement deficits (109), which means that they impact individuals’ sense of their own worth or entitlement to certain goods not globally but rather in particular domains and contexts and in relation to certain specific individuals or groups. This allows her to acknowledge the psychological effects of oppression working through the mechanism of IAPs without denying the possibility of agency on the part of the oppressed.

Khader draws on her deliberative perfectionist account of IAPs to diagnose and move beyond certain controversies over the notion of empowerment that have emerged in feminist development practice and theorizing. As the concept of women’s empowerment has become central to international development practice, feminists have raised concerns about the ideological effects of this shift. While acknowledging that the language of empowerment in development practice can have ideological effects, Khader addresses these concerns by providing a clearer conception of empowerment than the one implicit in the development literature and emphasizing what she understands as the normative core of this concept, its relation to human flourishing. She defines empowerment as the “ process of overcoming one or many IAPs through processes that enhance some element of a person’s concept of self-entitlement and increase her capacity to pursue her own flourishing ” (Khader 2011, 176). This definition of empowerment enables her to rethink certain dilemmas of empowerment that have emerged in development theory and practices. For example, many development practitioners define empowerment in terms of choice, and then struggle to make sense of apparently self-subordinating choices. If choice equals empowerment, then does this mean that the choice to subordinate or disempower oneself is an instance of empowerment? Khader’s finely grained analysis provides an elegant way out of this dilemma by emphasizing the conditions under which choices are made and the tradeoffs among different domains or aspects of flourishing that these conditions may necessitate. Discussing a case of young women in Tanzania who chose to undergo clitoridectomy after receiving education about the practice aimed at empowering them, Khader writes: “Are the young women who choose clitoridectomy disempowered because they have few options for unambiguously pursuing their flourishing or are they empowered because they have exercised agential capacities by making a choice? My analysis of IAP allows us to say both” (187). For Khader, empowerment is a messy, complex, and incremental concept. Her analysis of empowerment enables us to see that “self-subordinating choices can have selective empowering effects under disempowering conditions” (189). But the normative core of her account, its deliberative perfectionism, insists that “a situation where one cannot seek one’s basic flourishing across multiple domains is a tragic one” (189).

The concept of power is central to a wide variety of debates in feminist philosophy. Indeed, the very centrality of this concept to feminist theorizing creates difficulties in writing an entry such as this one: since the concept of power is operative on one way or another in almost all work in feminist theory, it is extremely difficult to place limits on the relevant sources. Throughout, I have emphasized those texts and debates in which the concept of power is a central theme, even if sometimes an implicit one. I have also prioritized those authors and texts that have been most influential within feminist philosophy, as opposed to the wider terrain of feminist theory or gender studies, though I acknowledge that this distinction is difficult to maintain and perhaps not always terribly useful. Debatable as such framing choices may be, they do offer some much needed help in delimiting the range of relevant sources and providing focus and structure to the discussion.

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Power Definition in Social Sciences Essay

How can we define or identify what power is? Is it something visible or invisible? Or can power be something like a force that makes things move and or stop from being in motion? Sometimes we think of it in many different ways and due to some people do associate power as the authority that we have over others, while others believe that is a measure of material possessions the people have.

However, it may be hard to exactly define the term power under one subject to represent a universal definition of all other subjects. So, what is very crucial in searching for the definition of power as well as seeking an in-depth understanding is to look up for detailed work on the topic of power from diverse subjects including social science, politics and political science, and even engineering subjects. It should therefore be noted that the meaning of the term power cannot be confined to a particular area or subject.

Furthermore, there should be no confusion of its users under the different fields of subjects in which its multiple meaning would sometimes appear to coincide in two or subject fields, while it may greatly differ in several other fields.

In the field of social science, power is broadly dealt with or seen under many sub-units. Some of us would look up for the term power in the point of personal attributes, which are more often referred to as characteristics.

Due to the unique personal characters that we all have, another group of individuals would think of it in different ways and search for an understanding of power under the individual’s methodologies of implementing strategies for a specific task and the ability to convert the available resources into final products or services. The last cohort of the people from our community/society may also take another approach, whereby it may focus on establishing the meaning and understanding of power by looking at it through the organization of the community/society on the basis of structural society’s relationship.

Even though social scientists seem to consent to one single idea of the meaning of power, social constructionists appear to differ compared to the other fellow sociologists. Deep studies on the constructionist view of power show to some extent that they shallowly addressed the power influence, and thus the theoretical work may not be adequate to resolve some of the hidden puzzling questions of the readers. In this connection, it may be assumed that constructionism partially addresses and accounts for the impacts or rather the influence of power on the society. While it is worth noting that constructionists mention several things related to the power, their work on some major factors or element of power such as the subject of materialism embodiment is partially handled.

Graphics and social illustrations. It is important to note and understand that power could be having an intimate relationship with embodiment. This was shown by Foucault and other sociologists who carried out experiment to provide some kind of evidence of the body response toward power. For many reasons, it might be hard for us to save one’s powers from such things like materials, personal character/ behavior, which in turn builds what is termed as personal behavior.

What is within, perhaps, makes what we call a person. But it should be considered that all that is within somebody may not be known. In most cases, the power within someone would make that what he/she wants to be. However, people are described not in one distinct way in their life because there is always the power to change or room of change. We therefore use language to describe ourselves depending on the circumstances in which we are found under certain time.

The words that we use differ widely to express what we are either in the basis of gender, race, ethnicity or even during explanation of our health conditions. The issues raised above were among some of matter of deep concern of constructionists Foucault for which he appeared to support the idea that power is a major factor in the driving out of discourse. On the side of Gergen, power may be a key in expressing and giving commands as it acts a warranting voice.

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Government and Politics

74 Power and Authority

Learning objectives.

  • Define and differentiate between power and authority
  • Identify and describe the three types of authority

The White House and the fountains and gardens in front of it are shown.

Despite the differences between government systems in the Middle East and the United States, their governments play the same fundamental role: in some fashion, they exert control over the people they govern. The nature of that control—what we will define as power and authority—is an important feature of society.

Sociologists have a distinctive approach to studying governmental power and authority that differs from the perspective of political scientists. For the most part, political scientists focus on studying how power is distributed in different types of political systems. They would observe, for example, that the United States’ political system is divided into three distinct branches (legislative, executive, and judicial), and they would explore how public opinion affects political parties, elections, and the political process in general. Sociologists, however, tend to be more interested in the influences of governmental power on society and in how social conflicts arise from the distribution of power. Sociologists also examine how the use of power affects local, state, national, and global agendas, which in turn affect people differently based on status, class, and socioeconomic standing.

What Is Power?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are show riding together in a car.

For centuries, philosophers, politicians, and social scientists have explored and commented on the nature of power. Pittacus (c. 640–568 B.C.E.) opined, “The measure of a man is what he does with power,” and Lord Acton perhaps more famously asserted, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” (1887). Indeed, the concept of power can have decidedly negative connotations, and the term itself is difficult to define.

Many scholars adopt the definition developed by German sociologist Max Weber, who said that power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others (Weber 1922). Power affects more than personal relationships; it shapes larger dynamics like social groups, professional organizations, and governments. Similarly, a government’s power is not necessarily limited to control of its own citizens. A dominant nation, for instance, will often use its clout to influence or support other governments or to seize control of other nation states. Efforts by the U.S. government to wield power in other countries have included joining with other nations to form the Allied forces during World War II, entering Iraq in 2002 to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, and imposing sanctions on the government of North Korea in the hopes of constraining its development of nuclear weapons.

Endeavors to gain power and influence do not necessarily lead to violence, exploitation, or abuse. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, for example, commanded powerful movements that effected positive change without military force. Both men organized nonviolent protests to combat corruption and injustice and succeeded in inspiring major reform. They relied on a variety of nonviolent protest strategies such as rallies, sit-ins, marches, petitions, and boycotts.

Modern technology has made such forms of nonviolent reform easier to implement. Today, protesters can use cell phones and the Internet to disseminate information and plans to masses of protesters in a rapid and efficient manner. In the Arab Spring uprisings, for example, Twitter feeds and other social media helped protesters coordinate their movements, share ideas, and bolster morale, as well as gain global support for their causes. Social media was also important in getting accurate accounts of the demonstrations out to the world, in contrast to many earlier situations in which government control of the media censored news reports. Notice that in these examples, the users of power were the citizens rather than the governments. They found they had power because they were able to exercise their will over their own leaders. Thus, government power does not necessarily equate to absolute power.

A large group of people marching in protest.

British aid worker, Alan Henning, was the fourth victim of the Islamic State (known as ISIS or ISIL) to be beheaded before video cameras in a recording titled, “Another Message to America and Its Allies,” which was posted on YouTube and pro-Islamic state Twitter feeds in the fall of 2014. Henning was captured during his participation in a convoy taking medical supplies to a hospital in conflict-ravaged northern Syria. His death was publicized via social media, as were the earlier beheadings of U.S. journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines. The terrorist groups also used social media to demand an end to intervention in the Middle East by U.S., British, French, and Arab forces.

An international coalition, led by the United States, has been formed to combat ISIS in response to this series of publicized murders. France and the United Kingdom, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Belgium are seeking government approval through their respective parliaments to participate in airstrikes. The specifics of target locations are a key point, however, and they emphasize the delicate and political nature of current conflict in the region. Due to perceived national interest and geopolitical dynamics, Britain and France are more willing to be a part of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iran and likely to avoid striking targets in Syria. Several Arab nations are a part of the coalition, including Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey, another NATO member, has not announced involvement in airstrikes, presumably because ISIS is holding forty-nine Turkish citizens hostage.

U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria is controversial, and it arouses debate about the role of the United States in world affairs, as well as the practical need for, and outcome of, military action in the Middle East. Experts and the U.S. public alike are weighing the need for fighting terrorism in its current form of the Islamic State and the bigger issue of helping to restore peace in the Middle East. Some consider ISIS a direct and growing threat to the United States if left unchecked. Others believe U.S. intervention unnecessarily worsens the Middle East situation and prefer that resources be used at home rather than increasing military involvement in an area of the world where they believe the United States has intervened long enough.

Types of Authority

The protesters in Tunisia and the civil rights protesters of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day had influence apart from their position in a government. Their influence came, in part, from their ability to advocate for what many people held as important values. Government leaders might have this kind of influence as well, but they also have the advantage of wielding power associated with their position in the government. As this example indicates, there is more than one type of authority in a community.

Authority refers to accepted power—that is, power that people agree to follow. People listen to authority figures because they feel that these individuals are worthy of respect. Generally speaking, people perceive the objectives and demands of an authority figure as reasonable and beneficial, or true.

A citizen’s interaction with a police officer is a good example of how people react to authority in everyday life. For instance, a person who sees the flashing red and blue lights of a police car in his rearview mirror usually pulls to the side of the road without hesitation. Such a driver most likely assumes that the police officer behind him serves as a legitimate source of authority and has the right to pull him over. As part of her official duties, the police officer then has the power to issue a speeding ticket if the driver was driving too fast. If the same officer, however, were to command the driver to follow her home and mow her lawn, the driver would likely protest that the officer does not have the authority to make such a request.

Not all authority figures are police officers, elected officials or government authorities. Besides formal offices, authority can arise from tradition and personal qualities. Economist and sociologist Max Weber realized this when he examined individual action as it relates to authority, as well as large-scale structures of authority and how they relate to a society’s economy. Based on this work, Weber developed a classification system for authority. His three types of authority are traditional authority, charismatic authority and legal-rational authority (Weber 1922).

Traditional Authority

According to Weber, the power of traditional authority is accepted because that has traditionally been the case; its legitimacy exists because it has been accepted for a long time. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, for instance, occupies a position that she inherited based on the traditional rules of succession for the monarchy. People adhere to traditional authority because they are invested in the past and feel obligated to perpetuate it. In this type of authority, a ruler typically has no real force to carry out his will or maintain his position but depends primarily on a group’s respect.

A more modern form of traditional authority is patrimonialism , which is traditional domination facilitated by an administration and military that are purely personal instruments of the master (Eisenberg 1998). In this form of authority, all officials are personal favorites appointed by the ruler. These officials have no rights, and their privileges can be increased or withdrawn based on the caprices of the leader. The political organization of ancient Egypt typified such a system: when the royal household decreed that a pyramid be built, every Egyptian was forced to work toward its construction.

Traditional authority can be intertwined with race, class, and gender. In most societies, for instance, men are more likely to be privileged than women and thus are more likely to hold roles of authority. Similarly, members of dominant racial groups or upper-class families also win respect more readily. In the United States, the Kennedy family, which has produced many prominent politicians, exemplifies this model.

Charismatic Authority

Followers accept the power of charismatic authority because they are drawn to the leader’s personal qualities. The appeal of a charismatic leader can be extraordinary, and can inspire followers to make unusual sacrifices or to persevere in the midst of great hardship and persecution. Charismatic leaders usually emerge in times of crisis and offer innovative or radical solutions. They may even offer a vision of a new world order. Hitler’s rise to power in the postwar economic depression of Germany is an example.

Charismatic leaders tend to hold power for short durations, and according to Weber, they are just as likely to be tyrannical as they are heroic. Diverse male leaders such as Hitler, Napoleon, Jesus Christ, César Chávez, Malcolm X, and Winston Churchill are all considered charismatic leaders. Because so few women have held dynamic positions of leadership throughout history, the list of charismatic female leaders is comparatively short. Many historians consider figures such as Joan of Arc, Margaret Thatcher, and Mother Teresa to be charismatic leaders.

Rational-Legal Authority

According to Weber, power made legitimate by laws, written rules, and regulations is termed rational-legal authority . In this type of authority, power is vested in a particular rationale, system, or ideology and not necessarily in the person who implements the specifics of that doctrine. A nation that follows a constitution applies this type of authority. On a smaller scale, you might encounter rational-legal authority in the workplace via the standards set forth in the employee handbook, which provides a different type of authority than that of your boss.

Of course, ideals are seldom replicated in the real world. Few governments or leaders can be neatly categorized. Some leaders, like Mohandas Gandhi for instance, can be considered charismatic and legal-rational authority figures. Similarly, a leader or government can start out exemplifying one type of authority and gradually evolve or change into another type.

Sociologists examine government and politics in terms of their impact on individuals and larger social systems. Power is an entity or individual’s ability to control or direct others, while authority is influence that is predicated on perceived legitimacy. Max Weber studied power and authority, differentiating between the two concepts and formulating a system for classifying types of authority.

Section Quiz

Which statement best expresses the difference between power and authority?

  • Authority involves intimidation.
  • Authority is more subtle than power.
  • Authority is based on the perceived legitimacy of the individual in power.
  • Authority is inherited, but power is seized by military force.

Which of the following types of authority does not reside primarily in a leader?

  • Dictatorial
  • Traditional
  • Charismatic
  • Legal-rational

In the U.S. Senate, it is customary to assign each senator a seniority ranking based on years of government service and the population of the state he or she represents. A top ranking gives the senator priority for assignments to office space, committee chair positions, and seating on the senate floor. What type of authority does this example best illustrate?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used his public speaking abilities and magnetism to inspire African Americans to stand up against injustice in an extremely hostile environment. He is an example of a(n) __________ leader.

  • traditional
  • charismatic
  • legal-rational
  • illegitimate

Which current world figure has the least amount of political power?

  • President Barack Obama
  • Queen Elizabeth II
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un

Which statement best expresses why there have been so few charismatic female leaders throughout history?

  • Women have different leadership styles than men.
  • Women are not interested in leading at all.
  • Few women have had the opportunity to hold leadership roles over the courseof history.
  • Male historians have refused to acknowledge the contributions of female leaders in their records.

Short Answer

Explain why leaders as divergent as Hitler and Jesus Christ are both categorized as charismatic authorities.

Why do people accept traditional authority figures even though these types of leaders have limited means of enforcing their power?

Charismatic leaders are among the most fascinating figures in history. Select a charismatic leader about whom you wish to learn more and conduct online research to find out about this individual. Then write a paragraph describing the personal qualities that led to this person’s influence, considering the society in which he or she emerged.

Further Research

Want to learn more about sociologists at work in the real world? Read this blog posting to learn more about the roles sociology scholars played in the midst of the Arab Spring uprising:

Acton, Lord. 2010 [1887]. Essays on Freedom and Power. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Catrer, Chelsea, and Fantz, Ashley. 2014. “ISIS Video Shows Beheading of American Journalist Steven Sotloft.” CNN, September 9. Retrieved October 5, 2014 ( )

Eisenberg, Andrew. 1998. “Weberian Patrimonialism and Imperial Chinese History.” Theory and Society 27(1):83–102.

Hosenball, Mark, and Westall, Slyvia. 2014. “Islamic State Video Shows Second British Hostage Beheaded.” Reuters, October 4. Retrieved October 5, 2014 ( )

NPR. 2014. “Debate: Does U.S. Military Intervention in the Middle East help or Hurt?” October 7. Retrieved October 7, 2014 ( )

Mullen, Jethro. 2014. “U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS in Syria: What you need to know.” CNN, September 24. Retrieved October 5, 2014 ( )

Mullen, Jethro (2014). “U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS in Syria: Who’s in, who’s not”. CNN, October 2, 2014. Retrieved October 5, 2014 ( )

Pollock, John. 2011. “How Egyptian and Tunisian Youth Hijacked the Arab Spring.” Technology Review , September/October. Retrieved January 23, 2012 ( ).

Weber, Max. 1978 [1922]. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology . Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weber, Max. 1947 [1922]. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization . Translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Introduction to Sociology 2e Copyright © 2012 by OSCRiceUniversity (Download for free at is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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On the Concept of Power: Possibility, Necessity, Politics

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On the Concept of Power: Possibility, Necessity, Politics

2 The Meaning of Power

  • Published: May 2022
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This chapter spells out a more apt definition of power, by examining both its form (what kind of concept “power” is) and its substantive meaning. “Power” will be preliminary defined as the status, or condition, enjoyed by someone who objectively has possibilities available and subjectively perceives them as such. However, we shall see that “objective” and “subjective” are not entirely appropriate terms. This is made clear by a deeper examination of the formal type of our concept, starting from the fact that it denotes a condition and not an object, which leads us to consider Arendt’s phenomenological approach as the most appropriate for our inquiry. This will allow us to understand the aforementioned definition in the more precise, and metaphysically less onerous, terms of the possibilities represented to and by persons in the world. The semantic of power is discussed through contemporary and historical examples of linguistic usage, with particular attention to the distinction between possibility (which is the actual root of power) and potentiality (which has nearly universally been confused for being the root of power).

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Power Verbs for Essays (With Examples)

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The ProWritingAid Team

essay power verbs

Adding power verbs to your academic paper will improve your reader’s experience and bring more impact to the arguments you make.

While the arguments themselves are the most important elements of any successful academic paper, the structure of those arguments and the language that is used influence how the paper is received.

Academic papers have strict formal rules, but as long as these are followed, there is still plenty of scope to make the key points of the paper stand out through effective use of language and more specifically, the effective use of power verbs.

Power verbs are verbs that indicate action and have a more positive and confident tone. Using them brings strength and confidence to the arguments you are making, while also bringing variation to your sentences and making your writing more interesting to the reader.

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Power Verbs Boost Ideas

Examples of power verbs.

Academic papers of all disciplines are often filled with overlong and complicated sentences that are attempting to convey specific ideas and concepts. Active and powerful verbs are useful both to the reader and the author of the paper.

For the reader who is trying to tackle these ideas and concepts, the power verbs provide clarity and purpose. Compare the following sentences:

  • This paper will say that there were two reasons for the start of the civil war.
  • This paper asserts that there were two reasons for the start of the civil war.

Clearly the second sentence is more confident, direct, and authoritative because it has replaced the dull ‘says’ with ‘asserts.’ For the writer, the power verb expresses confidence in the idea being presented.

The following are examples of power verbs that are useful in academic writing, both for supporting an argument and for allowing you to vary the language you use.

Power Verbs for Analysis: appraise, define, diagnose, examine, explore, identify, interpret, investigate, observe.

Power Verbs to Introduce a Topic: investigate, outline, survey, question, feature.

Power Verbs to Agree with Existing Studies: indicate, suggest, confirm, corroborate, underline, identify, impart, maintain, substantiate, support, validate, acknowledge, affirm, assert.

Power Verbs to Disagree with Existing Studies: reject, disprove, debunk, question, challenge, invalidate, refute, deny, dismiss, disregard, object to, oppose.

Power Verbs to Infer: extract, approximate, surmise, deduce.

Power Verbs for Cause and Effect : impacts, compels, generates, incites, influences, initiates, prompts, stimulates, provokes, launches, introduces, advances.

Legal Power Verbs: sanctions, consents, endorses, disallows, outlaws, prohibits, precludes, protects, bans, licenses, authorizes.

Power Verbs that Say: convey, comment, state, establish, elaborate, identify, propose.

Power Verbs that Show: reveal, display, highlight, depict, portray, illustrate.

power essay define

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Sociology Group: Welcome to Social Sciences Blog

The Role of Power in Society: Theories and Examples

Power is a word derived from the Latin word, potere that means, “to be able”. The sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to bring about a desired outcome, even when opposed by others. This article discusses the three different sociological theories of power, followed by the importance of power in everyday life. It concludes with a section on the various political, cultural and economic uses of power.

Theories of Power

The pluralist model.

This model is based on the functionalist approach of sociology. Power is said to be held by a number of groups within society that compete with each other for control over resources and influence. This is most commonly found in democratic systems of government because no one group is able to dominate over all others due to a system of checks and balances. The political process of competition for power is supervised by the government and thus functional for society due to three main reasons. Firstly, any hostility and conflict is given a proper channel for expression through the political process. Secondly, it gives a chance to each group to fight for their ideals and achieve their goals. Finally, government supervision ensures that the outcome of the political process is in the interest of the majority of society. But there are also some downfalls of the pluralist model. It assumes that all groups have an equal chance of representation (“Power and Politics”; “Theories of Power” 2016). But this is not the case in many democracies. For example, Hinduism dominates India with almost 80% of the citizens subscribing to it. This gives political parties with a Hindutva agenda such as the Bhartiya Janata Party, an advantage when competing with other minority parties like the Indian Union Muslim League.

The Power-Elite Model

The historian Charles Wright Mills proposed this model in 1956 as a representation of non-Marxist theory regarding elites in democratic countries. Mills argued that power was concentrated among a few wealthy shareholders, namely, the government, the military and big businesses. These elites form a ruling class that circulate and co-operate with each other. (“Power and Politics”; “Theories of Power” 2016). The military requires government permission to take action and the government depends on the support of the military to enact major political decisions. For example, when the Government of India revoked the special status under Article 370 of Jammu and Kashmir last year, paramilitary security troops were recruited to enforced curfew and a communication lockdown. Here, the military could be seen serving the needs of only the ruling class comprising of large corporations with defense contracts and the government. Many prominent scholars and activists like Amartya Sen and Arundhati Roy protested against the government’s decision but the voices of the majoritarian public went unheard.

The Marxist Model

This model of power is based on the conflict perspective of sociology. It argues that political power is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie or those who control economic production within a capitalist society. There are two approaches to the Marxist model. The first is the instrumentalist approach. This approach is useful in determining who rules the society. The second is the structuralist approach . This approach is useful in showing how the ruling class is able to operate within a capitalist economy through the concentration of political, economic and ideological power. Those who control the economic modes of production in a country, end up having control over the religious, political and social aspects of a country too. (“Power and Politics”; “Theories of Power” 2016). In India, transgender persons or ‘hijras’ do not have steady sources of incomes and often resort to roadside performances or begging. This has resulted in their exclusion from society and also their oppression. The Transgender Persons Bill passed in 2019 is a suitable example of this since it does not provide any person with the right to identify their own gender. The lack of economic independence of transgender persons has led to the loss of their socio-political rights.

Types of Power in Everyday Life

The earlier section discussed the major theories related to power. But power can also be observed at the micro-level in day-to-day social interactions among people. Sociologists have studied the presence of various power bases among small groups such as families, friend circles and clubs and larger organizations like schools. The most relevant ones have been explained below:

Reward power refers to one party’s control over valued resources that can act as incentives for another party. Rewards work as a means of positive reinforcement. For example , parents may choose to provide their child with a new bicycle if they do well in school. Such gifts help the elders influence their child’s behavior in a constructive manner.

Legitimate power is enjoyed by those in traditionally superior positions in a particular culture. This leads to a feeling of obligation to perform certain tasks demanded by those belonging to higher ranks. For example , a college student interning at an organization would be required to follow all orders dutifully due to their inferior position.

Coercive power refers to one party’s ability to punish others through the withholding of resources or by inflicting harm. An authority figure is able to control other’s actions through the fear of negative consequences. For example, police officers at riots help maintain order through threats of arrests or violent consequences such as lathi charges.

Expert power is based on the perception that a person is highly qualified in a particular field. For example, a surgeon has expert power in medical matters relating to a patient. It is important to note that expert power is about the perception of knowledge rather than the actual knowledge itself. Hence, someone in an authority position may be perceived as carrying expert power, whether or not they actually possess expertise. For example, sometimes elected representatives in a political system may not be experts on matters regarding their constituencies. But they are still viewed as knowledgeable due to their superior positions. On the other hand, a person with real expertise in an area may not be recognized if they do not have the associated authority position with it.

Referent power is based on feelings of admiration and respect for another person, even if that person does not seek power. For example, a senior in high school may have influence over his juniors since they look up to him as a role model.

Informational power is possessed by those who use facts, evidence or data to argue in a rational manner. Moreover, anyone who has information vital to others can use it to control them. For example, a wife may use evidence of adultery to obtain alimony from a husband during divorce (Croteau & Hoynes 2013).

Uses of Power

Political power: making decisions.

Power can be used to influence the actions of others. On a micro-scale, parents set household rules that are expected to be followed by children. In more formal institutions like schools and universities, the administration sets rules to be followed by all students and professors. The management in workplaces determines the rules for social interaction among employees. On a macro scale, politicians set rules expected to be followed by entire countries. The legislative, executive and judiciary all make decisions regarding the actions of citizens. For example, judges are responsible for deciding the fate of criminal offenders. On the other hand, members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha aid in passing or rejecting laws concerning the welfare of Indian citizens. Thus, those in powerful political positions have the capacity to regulate the actions of those without any power (Croteau & Hoynes 2013).

Economic Power: Allocating Resources

Any individual or group in charge of economic resources such as income has power over the actions and outcomes of other groups. On a small scale, within families, the bread earner of the family wields considerable power over the rest of the members. For example, if the father is the sole individual with an income, he may decide how to use that money for his family by diving money amongst food, clothes, education etc. On a larger scale, business owners can control their employees with incentives regarding their salaries. Thus the employer is not only influencing the lives of individual employees, but also their entire families and communities. On a macro scale, governments have the power to allocate resources to different divisions through their budget. Politicians control the outcomes of different strata of society by deciding the distribution of money among public projects and social welfare schemes (Croteau & Hoynes 2013).

Cultural Power: Defining Reality

Our social reality is defined by our interactions with different people, media, religions etc. Parents influence the behavior of children from a young age by exposing them to various storybooks, certain types of formal education and a variety of forms of entertainment. Children imbibe the values and worldviews and accept them as their reality. On a larger scale, the media shapes our thoughts by selecting certain news that they think is worthy of covering. In the process, they might marginalize other important stories by failing to give them a voice. For example, the lives of celebrities may be widely covered but the issues faced by indigenous tribal communities might be ignored at their expense.   Noam Chomsky spoke widely about the powerful role that media plays in shaping our societies.

Read Here: Mass Media as a power institution

In conclusion, power is all around us and each of us possesses different types. It can be used to make both positive and negative impacts. While studying our society, it is vital to recognize the power held by certain individuals and institutions in shaping our social reality.

Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2013).  Experience sociology (1st ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Power and Politics. Retrieved from

Theories of Power and Society. (2016). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from

power essay define

Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.

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2.5 GETTING READY TO WRITE: The P.O.W.E.R. Writing Process

power essay define

You have the P.O.W.E.R.

No two people follow exactly the same writing process. However, there is a basic pattern that is useful for any student of writing. You can remember the steps by its initials: P.O.W.E.R. And it is a method that gives you — as the writer — the power to not only write faster, but also to write so that others can better understand your meaning.

P = Prewriting

Collect your information. This might mean making a list, drawing a mind map, or free-writing. However, it might also mean more formal research at the library or online. (Important: If you use information from another source such as a book or website, remember to save the details about that source so that you can tell your reader where the information came from.)

O = Organization

Now you need to take those pieces of information — the combination of your research and what you know — and create a map of your essay. This might be a formal outline. It might be a graphic organizer. It might even be a simple list of information with similar items grouped together or put in order. This is when you can check for missing information and also start to see the flow of your essay.

W = Writing

This is when you fill in the gaps. Add as many supporting details as you can: descriptions, facts, figures, reasons, explanations, definitions, etc. Write as much as you can. Don’t worry yet if it is good. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, or word count. The point of this step is to get everything from your mind to the paper so that you can work with it later.

E = Evaluate

Now is the time to stop and think more critically about what you write. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I explain everything in detail?
  • Is everyone related to my topic?
  • Does it flow well? Is everything in a logical order or sequence?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Have I cited my sources? In other words, have I told my readers where I got my information?

The best feedback comes from your readers, so share your work with your peers (classmates) and your teacher and/or visit a tutor. Get as much feedback from them as possible — and then decide which changes are necessary and which depend on your style. However, in this step, remember to focus on content and organization.

R = Revising and Editing

This step has two parts:  revising and editing.

Rewriting makes big changes — and that’s OK! You can add, delete, or move words, sentences, or even whole paragraphs! This is a natural part of the writing process.

When you think you have finished, then it’s time for editing. In this phase, you look at the little things: grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and formatting. Follow the instructions on the assignment sheet to make sure that your essay looks as good as the information it contains.

Now practice with this exercise; it is not graded, and you may repeat it as many times as you wish:


In this course, you write a series of essays. At the end of the course, you combine these individual essays into one formal research paper. But first, you need to choose a topic. The theme is technology in your career or hobby. Here are some examples from previous students:

  • How 3D Printing Could Change the Fashion Industry
  • Uses of the iPad For Pedagogical Purposes in Early Childhood Education in the U.S.
  • Benefits of Technology in the Fight against Breast Cancer
  • The Role of Contemporary Technologies in the Music Festivals Industry of the 2020s
  • If Space Travel Would Be Common, What Would Happen?
  • Cloud Accounting – Accounting of the Future

First, choose a topic that you want to write about. You will use this one topic throughout the course. Remember: Your topic will be about technology in your career or hobby.

Second, answer these questions about your topic:

  • What is the field/industry/career you want to write about?
  • What is the technology or technologies you want to write about?

Here is a sample research proposal in the form of a brief email from a student to an instructor:

Here is my proposal for a research topic for Level 8 Writing.

I am interested in writing about the fashion industry.

I want to learn more about the effects of 3D printing on fast fashion.

Please let me know if this topic works for this project.

In the example above, you can see that fashion is the career of this student, and 3D printing is the technology they want to research and write about.

Narrowing YOUR Topic

Some text has been adapted from Advanced Writing Handbook for ESOL, Fourth Edition , by John Sparks, Portland Community College

Narrowing the topic of your paper is an important skill to practice. It means making your topic more specific. And it makes your job as a writer easier, but it also makes your writing more interesting and useful for your reader. If you choose a very general subject, you might end up writing a whole book! Imagine an assignment to write about your city. There is way too much to say about Portland for a research paper of only a few pages. The result would be too vague (general and unclear) to be interesting or useful. Therefore, you must narrow your topic so that you can tell your reader as many interesting details as possible.

Example #1: My city

Step 1: Portland Step 2: Portland: downtown Step 3: Portland: downtown: waterfront park Step 4: Portland: downtown: waterfront park: summer Step 5: Portland: downtown: waterfront park: summer: during a festival Step 6: Portland: downtown: waterfront park: summer: during a festival: at night

Notice that even steps 2 and 3 are still too vague. Will your paper be about shopping? Protests and demonstrations? Homeless people? Recreation? Litter? It’s unclear. However, by step 6, you now have a more specific topic that is interesting and useful to your reader: Portland’s downtown waterfront park in summer during a festival at night.

Example #2: Technology in my career or hobby

Step 1: Teaching Step 2: Teaching English Step 3: Teaching English remotely Step 4: Using Zoom to teach English remotely Step 5: Using Zoom to teach English grammar remotely Step 6: The best ways to use Zoom to teach English grammar remotely

Do you see how Step 6 is a much more focused, useful, relevant, and interesting topic for a short essay? You know exactly the information that you need to research, and you know exactly the information that you are going to share with your readers.

Example #3: Technology in my career or hobby

Step 1: Clothing Step 2: Technology in clothing Step 3: Technology in clothing to stay healthy Step 4: Technology in clothing to measure vital signs to stay healthy Step 5: Future technology in clothing that measure vital signs to stay healthy Step 6: What are examples of future technology in clothing that measure vital signs in order to stay healthy?

Choose one of the following options to practice narrowing the topic:

Option 1: Social Media Option 2: Family Option 3: Entertainment (music, movies, books, art, etc.)

Think about the technology that you chose to write about in this course. Now use this method to narrow your topic further.

Synthesis Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Krause is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  • Knowledge is Power Essay


Essay on Knowledge is Power

Knowledge means understanding of something such as facts, information, description and skills. It is the source of power to man and this distinguishes him from other creatures of the universe. Though man is physically weaker than many animals, for he cannot see as far as an eagle, nor carry heavy loads as some animals. Nevertheless he is the most powerful creature on earth. This power basically comes to him from knowledge not from physical strength. ‘Knowledge is power’ means that a man has education and a complete control on his life by using the strength of knowledge. 

The ability to acquire knowledge, preserve and pass it on to the future generation makes man powerful. It enables him to control the forces of nature and use them for his benefit. This power of knowledge, if used wisely can bring happiness to mankind. Knowledge leads to wisdom, respect and consequently power. 

Why is Knowledge Powerful?

Knowledge does not always come with power. Knowledge is the state of awareness or understanding and learning of specific information about something and it is gained from experience or study. This means a person has the resources to express his views dynamically and make intelligent decisions based on his every day situations, awareness and understanding. 

This doesn’t make a man powerful. A man is said to be powerful when he uses his knowledge to mobilize in the right direction. When a man has the ability or capacity to act or perform effectively with his knowledge then he gains Power.

Benefits of Knowledge

Knowledge is important to shape our personality and perfect our behavior and dealings with people. 

Knowledge hones thinking skills. Knowledge is necessary in order to be able to formulate an opinion or develop a line of thought.

A person gets the power to analyze and assert situations by his knowledge. 

With knowledge, a man can master the techniques of adjusting and accommodating with changes in the surroundings and life situations. 

Knowledge helps a man to face adversities and stay balanced.

It is a key to removing the darkness of ignorance.

Knowledge helps in enhancing more options in the professional career of the individuals.

Knowledge helps in boosting confidence in individuals.

Education and knowledge together can provide better governance to the country.

A nation can have true democracy when the citizens of the country are knowledgeable about both social and economic conditions.

Prospective of Knowledge

Education is a key to success and this statement holds true as being knowledgeable can lead to a successful life. Knowledge will never diminish like any physical entities. In fact, the evolution of civilization in our society has happened due to the increase in the knowledge base of humans. Progress in the medical field has been made possible by developing rational thinking through the use of knowledge. Knowledge is the foremost tool of empowerment. It is the key to success in life. Knowledge, along with the power to think and analyze, differentiate men from animals. Knowledge teaches us to be humble and compassionate. People with very humble backgrounds have risen to power and wealth, on the strength of knowledge and skill. Only this can maintain harmony in the society.

Writing the Knowledge is Power Essay

Writing the Knowledge is Power Essay can be quite easy. Before you start the essay, collect all the details about the proverb to understand its meaning. This way, you can curate a meaningful essay with all the right facts and relevant points. Moreover, you should know the correct format for writing an essay. You can refer to the Knowledge is Power Essay available on Vedantu’s website to understand the format and learn more about the topic. Here are some tips to follow while writing your own essay on Knowledge is Power: 

Gather all the information you can from textbooks to the Internet about knowledge before you begin the essay. 

Once you have collected all the details, start your essay with an insightful introduction to the topic to give the readers an idea of what they will be learning from the essay. 

While writing the main body, do not go off-topic and write irrelevant points. Everything you write should be entirely focused on the topic i.e. Knowledge is Power. 

Add a good conclusion at the end to summarize the entire essay and give your final statement about the topic i.e. Knowledge is Power. 

Once you have completed the essay, proofread it to find mistakes and rectify them immediately. 

If you have time, revise the essay and check whether you can add more powerful points to make your writing more effective.

Points to be included in the Knowledge is Power Essay

Before you start writing your Knowledge is Power Essay, you should have a clear understanding of what points to include. This will save a lot of your time and help you finish the essay in much less time. You can gather all the information regarding the topic i.e. Knowledge is Power, and then start writing. Here are the points that you can add in the essay: 

In the introduction, write mainly about that specific proverb, i.e. Knowledge is Power, to give your reader an idea of what you are reading. 

When you come to the main body, add relevant points and explain your opinions on the topic. For example, you can write about why knowledge is considered powerful or the benefits of knowledge. 

Try adding quotes related to the topic in your essay to make it more impactful. You can use these quotes before your opening statement or support the information in the main body. 

While writing your conclusion, add a broad statement that summarizes the essay. Do not add any new ideas or information in the conclusion. You only have to sum up the entire Knowledge is Power Essay at this stage.    


FAQs on Knowledge is Power Essay

1. How Do You Define Knowledge?

Knowledge means understanding of facts, information, description and skills. It refers to awareness of something gained by education or experience. Here are the three different types of knowledge: 

Explicit Knowledge: It refers to the type of knowledge that can be easily documented, stored, curated, and accessed. For example, information available in textbooks, the internet, etc. 

Implicit Knowledge: The practical application of explicit knowledge is known as implicit knowledge. For example, how to drive a car or how to swim. 

Tacit Knowledge: Any knowledge gained from personal experiences and context is known as tacit knowledge. For example, body language, leadership, humour, etc.  

2. Why is Knowledge Considered Powerful?

Knowledge is powerful because a man can mobilize his life into the right direction. Knowledge can be both creator and destructive of our society. Through knowledge only, one can differentiate between right and wrong and make an informed decision. It also helps you plan your future and takes you on the path to success. With more knowledge, you will be able to overcome your weaknesses and gain more self-confidence. It encourages a positive attitude towards life and keeps you motivated to survive and thrive in the real world.

3. Mention Two Benefits Of Knowledge.

Knowledge is something that you gain throughout your life. It comes with an infinite number of benefits and keeps you on the right track. Knowledge encourages you to act morally and help others in any way possible. Moreover, it boosts your confidence to face any difficulty without being dependent on others. The two benefits of knowledge are:

Knowledge shapes our personality and behavior with others.

Knowledge with proper education can provide better governance to a nation.

4. Why is Less Knowledge Dangerous?

Less knowledge or half knowledge is very dangerous as it leads a man to a benighted condition for the rest of his life. He will never be able to excel in any field to the fullest. Less knowledge can mislead a person into making wrong decisions that have a negative impact on his/her life. Usually, people with less knowledge are only aware of the major aspects of a subject. They do not focus on the minor aspects, which gives them an unbalanced view of that particular subject.

5. From where can I get the Knowledge is Power Essay?

You can get the Knowledge is Power Essay from Vedantu’s official website and mobile app. Vedantu provides you with the Knowledge is Power Essay without charging you anything. You can just visit our website and search for the essay to get access to it. Moreover, we offer a huge variety of study material for the English language to help students get better at the subject. You will find various topics of grammar, letter writing, speech writing, and much more only on Use all this study material to improve your writing skills and gain more knowledge about the English language.

Home — Essay Samples — Life — Hero — Power

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Power Essays

Hook examples for power essays, anecdotal hook.

"Standing at the helm of a vast empire, wielding authority and influence, I've often pondered the intoxicating nature of power and its consequences on those who possess it."

Rhetorical Question Hook

"What does it mean to hold power, and how does it shape individuals and societies? The concept of power raises complex questions about human nature and governance."

Startling Statistic Hook

"In a recent study, it was revealed that 1% of the world's population owns more wealth than the entire bottom 99%. This staggering wealth gap forces us to confront the dynamics of power and inequality."

"'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Lord Acton's words resonate through history, reminding us of the potential dangers of unchecked authority."

Historical Hook

"From ancient rulers to modern leaders, the pursuit and exercise of power have shaped the course of civilizations. Exploring the historical context of power unveils its enduring significance."

Narrative Hook

"Enter the world of a character driven by ambition and the thirst for power, where moral boundaries blur, and choices have far-reaching consequences. This narrative unravels the complexities of power."

Contrast Hook

"In a society that values democracy and equality, how do we reconcile the existence of power disparities? Contrasting the ideals of power with its realities prompts reflection on our societal values."

Emotional Appeal Hook

"The allure of power, the fear of its abuse, and the desire for justice are deeply emotional experiences. Exploring the emotional aspects of power highlights its impact on individuals and societies."

Political Power Hook

"What role does political power play in shaping policies and governance? Delving into the dynamics of political power reveals its influence on decision-making and public life."

Social Power Hook

"From the power of social media to influence public opinion to the power of grassroots movements to effect change, the concept of social power is ever-evolving. Understanding social power dynamics is key to navigating today's world."

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A Reconceptualization of Power and Its Normative Value

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David French

The Supreme Court Just Erased Part of the Constitution

A black and white photo of the U.S. Supreme Court with a flag flying at half staff.

By David French

Opinion Columnist

As of Monday, March 4, 2024, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution is essentially a dead letter, at least as it applies to candidates for federal office. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that reversed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision striking Donald Trump from the state’s primary ballot, even insurrectionists who’ve violated their previous oath of office can hold federal office, unless and until Congress passes specific legislation to enforce Section 3.

In the aftermath of the oral argument last month, legal observers knew with near-certainty that the Supreme Court was unlikely to apply Section 3 to Trump. None of the justices seemed willing to uphold the Colorado court’s ruling, and only Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave any meaningful indication that she might dissent. The only real question remaining was the reasoning for the court’s decision. Would the ruling be broad or narrow?

A narrow ruling for Trump might have held, for example, that Colorado didn’t provide him with enough due process when it determined that Section 3 applied. Or the court could have held that Trump, as president, was not an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of the section. Such a ruling would have kept Trump on the ballot, but it would also have kept Section 3 viable to block insurrectionists from the House or Senate and from all other federal offices.

A somewhat broader ruling might have held that Trump did not engage in insurrection or rebellion or provide aid and comfort to the enemies of the Constitution. Such a ruling would have sharply limited Section 3 to apply almost exclusively to Civil War-style conflicts, an outcome at odds with the text and original public meaning of the section. It’s worth noting that, by not taking this path, the court did not exonerate Trump from participating in an insurrection.

But instead of any of these options, the court went with arguably the broadest reasoning available: that Section 3 isn’t self-executing, and thus has no force or effect in the absence of congressional action. This argument is rooted in Section 5 of the amendment, which states that “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

But Section 5, on its face, does not give Congress exclusive power to enforce the amendment. As Justices Elena Kagan, Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson pointed out in their own separate concurring opinion, “All the Reconstruction amendments (including the due process and equal protection guarantees and prohibition of slavery) ‘are self-executing,’ meaning that they do not depend on legislation.” While Congress may pass legislation to help enforce the 14th Amendment, it is not required to do so, and the 14th Amendment still binds federal, state and local governments even if Congress refuses to act.

But now Section 3 is different from other sections of the amendment. It requires federal legislation to enforce its terms, at least as applied to candidates for federal office. Through inaction alone, Congress can effectively erase part of the 14th Amendment.

It’s extremely difficult to square this ruling with the text of Section 3. The language is clearly mandatory. The first words are “No person shall be” a member of Congress or a state or federal officer if that person has engaged in insurrection or rebellion or provided aid or comfort to the enemies of the Constitution. The section then says, “But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each house, remove such disability.”

In other words, the Constitution imposes the disability, and only a supermajority of Congress can remove it. But under the Supreme Court’s reasoning, the meaning is inverted: The Constitution merely allows Congress to impose the disability, and if Congress chooses not to enact legislation enforcing the section, then the disability does not exist. The Supreme Court has effectively replaced a very high bar for allowing insurrectionists into federal office — a supermajority vote by Congress — with the lowest bar imaginable: congressional inaction.

As Kagan, Sotomayor and Jackson point out, this approach is also inconsistent with the constitutional approach to other qualifications for the presidency. We can bar individuals from holding office who are under the age limit or who don’t meet the relevant citizenship requirement without congressional enforcement legislation. We can enforce the two-term presidential term limit without congressional enforcement legislation. Section 3 now stands apart not only from the rest of the 14th Amendment, but also from the other constitutional requirements for the presidency.

In one important respect, the court’s ruling on Monday is worse and more consequential than the Senate’s decision to acquit Trump after his Jan. 6 impeachment trial in 2021. Impeachment is entirely a political process, and the actions of one Senate have no bearing on the actions of future Senates. But a Supreme Court ruling has immense precedential power. The court’s decision is now the law.

It would be clearly preferable if Congress were to pass enforcement legislation that established explicit procedures for resolving disputes under Section 3, including setting the burden of proof and creating timetables and deadlines for filing challenges and hearing appeals. Establishing a uniform process is better than living with a patchwork of state proceedings. But the fact that Congress has not acted should not effectively erase the words from the constitutional page. Chaotic enforcement of the Constitution may be suboptimal. But it’s far better than not enforcing the Constitution at all.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , X and Threads .

David French is an Opinion columnist, writing about law, culture, religion and armed conflict. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former constitutional litigator. His most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation .” You can follow him on Threads ( @davidfrenchjag ).


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