What Is Power in Politics? 6 Different Definitions from Authors
Thomas Hobbes – ‘power over’
- ‘power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another’
- A highly intuitive definition of power, this would be akin to the power someone might be able to demonstrate over a nail by hammering it. If your immediate thought was that as the educator on this course I have power over you, the learner, bear in mind that you take this course voluntarily, I have designed the course according to a number of learning objectives and quality assurance processes for which I am accountable and there is also a complaints procedure. Perhaps you still think that I have power over you as a learner, or even that you have power over me, but how might we measure this? Would this imbalance change in a different context, such as if we met each other in the supermarket?
- Power is ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistances’
- Weber’s contribution to the discussion of power is the recognition that it exists only within a relationship: that relationship can be defined in different ways and, therefore, the type of power exhibited depends upon the type of relationship.
- For example, the relationship that we have as learner and educator is different to the relationship we might have if we met each other in the supermarket, so Weber accounts for a shortcoming in Hobbes’ definition. Nevertheless, the definition implies that resistance is always negative. But is it?
Robert Dahl – ‘intuitive idea’
- ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’
- Another intuitive definition of power from the American political theorist Robert Dahl, this again seems fairly straightforward. However, again, power in this understanding is only repressive, it is not constructive.
- A second problem with the definition is that it is highly gendered: although some might argue that using the word ‘he’ in place of ‘they’ is simply an archaic writing convention, does it not nevertheless belay a focus on men in the public sphere of debate?
- Power is ‘the ability not just to act, but to act in concert’
- Arendt was a Jewish, German political philosopher who wrote a number of prolific works on the Nazi war crime tribunals. She was famous for contrasting violence with power: violence was something you used by yourself to get what you wanted from others, as the Nazi’s demonstrated, whereas power is the ability to come together as a group in order to reach shared goals.
- One problem with this conceptualisation however is that it very specifically locates power in the individual, and we lose the idea of social relationship that we had in Weber.
- Power is a ‘mechanism operating to bring about changes… in the process of social interaction’
- Parsons was a famous functionalist sociologist who wrote in the 1950s and 60s about the role of the family. His conceptualisation of power clearly emerges from his work, which suggests that the idea of the family emerges as a result of changes in society.
- Perhaps here, however, we have gone too far in recognising the importance of structure and we have lost an account of agency? Where is the individual in this account? Can the individual ever be powerful?
- ‘Power as such does not exist’ but power ‘needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body’
Want to keep
The University of Kent online course,
- By far away the most complicated conceptualisation of power, Foucault understands power to be implicated in every thought and action that takes place, whether this be human action or otherwise. Everything is powerful to the extent that everything has an affect on everything else, no matter how imperceptible this effect might be.
- The task of political analysis then is to highlight and understand the different ways in which different actions can affect other individuals, groups and their actions.
Our purpose is to transform access to education.
We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.
We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.