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What Is Power in Politics? 6 Different Definitions from Authors

In this article, we explore the definition of power in politics by looking at 6 different quotes from different authors.
Politics of power is, for many, the most complex understanding of politics because power itself is intangible — we cannot touch or see it — we can only feel its effects. And yet to say that power does not exist because we cannot touch or see it would clearly be wrong, and so we are left trying to understand it through different conceptualisations.
You will find six different definitions of power below. For each of the definition I have given the author’s key text for the purposes of exploring their conceptualisation further. Consider if you think each definition is a suitable definition of power, before reading the further detail below each quotation. This will help you both understand the concept of power and revise the topic. There are no right or wrong answers for this, only more or less convincing arguments.

Thomas Hobbes – ‘power over’

  • power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another
Hobbes, T. (1969) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic. Cass, London.
  • 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?

Max Weber

  • Power is ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistances’
Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • 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’
Dahl, R.A. (1957) The Concept of Power. Behavioural Science, 2, 201-215.
  • 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?

Hannah Arendt

  • Power is ‘the ability not just to act, but to act in concert’
Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence. Harvest Books, Orlando and London.
  • 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.

Talcott Parsons

  • Power is a ‘mechanism operating to bring about changes… in the process of social interaction’
Parsons, T. (1963) On the Concept of Political Power. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107, 232-262.
  • 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?

Foucault

  • ‘Power as such does not exist’ but power ‘needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body’

4.6

5 Reviews
Foucault, M. (1982) The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8, 777-795.
  • 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.
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