Understanding Power

By Rafael Khachaturian

At the root of every political relationship is a relationship of power. Even models where coercion is visibly absent, such as the liberal-democratic conception of the political as the realm of deliberation, do not sidestep the question of power; once we critically examine the makeup of the body politic in question, its decision-making process, and the binding implications it has on those who are affected, power relations once again emerge as existing side by side with the political. And yet despite the strong interest in the concept of power shown by academics in recent decades, tracing power relations remains an elusive task because of the variety of (often incompatible) views on what exactly constitutes such phenomena. Power has been alternatively seen as something that can only be wielded or can only be exercised; as something involving a clear distinction between oppressors and oppressed, or as something fluid and dispersed through the social body. Power might be something that presupposes a set of consciously known interests or as that which creates subjectivity itself. As a result of theses many alternative definitions, theories range from Foucault’s notion of a complex network of delocalized functions that pass through individuals to the diametrically opposed behavioral model of Robert Dahl, who argues that the exertion of power is a relational phenomenon of coercion made against one’s consciously known interests.i

Neither of these models is entirely satisfactory. A Foucaultian genealogy of power is illustrative in tracing the origins and nature of power relations in modern society, but its emphasis on the diffusion of power risks homogenizing it into a uniform category equally accessible to all parties involved. Dahl’s account, on the other hand, proposes a rigid definition with little sensitivity to context. To avoid both of these drawbacks, I believe that four primary criteria drawn from the existing literature can be used to understand and determine relations of power. First, we must acknowledge the concerns raised by opponents of Dahl’s one-dimensional modelii —specifically, it is clear that a crucial function of power is its ability to shape the desires and interests of the oppressed. Second, we must provide a satisfactory account of the way in which power operates not only in a coercive capacity, but also in a productive one (as ‘power to,’ not just ‘power over.’) Third, relations of power in society must not be seen entirely through a structural determinism, to the point that the possibility of spontaneous human agency is obscured. Lastly, power relations must be viewed through their historical, political, economic, and social contexts, allowing for dissimilarities between instances, even if this complicates the creation of a single theory or formula.

Non-coercive measures, where the wants and interests of the oppressed are covertly influenced or shaped by the oppressors, constitute one of the key features of power relations. This is in line with Steven Lukes’s characterization of power as at least partially institutional and non-observable. Institutions play a key part in the promotion of socially and culturally dominant values that reinforce existing power structures, although these are not necessarily reducible to economic relations.iii An account that admits power’s capacity to mask open conflict through institutional and ideological coercion, and its ability to delimit political and social boundaries of what is acceptable, means an explicit move away from the rigid behavioral model. Whereas Dahl and the behaviorists would argue that only observable conflict points to the emergence of power, by broadening our understanding of the concept so that it encompasses instances of suppression, domination, and the limiting of alternatives, we can more faithfully describe and understand how power is exerted in everyday situations.

While power relations are most commonly seen as being of a negative character—in other words, with those who have power imposing limits and constraints on those who do not—this is not the full extent of their effects. Alongside this limiting capacity is also a productive one where those who wield it can apply power with the purpose of shaping their desired outcomes. This understanding of ‘power to’ does not necessarily conflict with the notion of ‘power over,’ as Hannah Arendt argued when she wrote that power is always “a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength.”iv By affirming the transient and fragile nature of power as linked to the potentiality of human action, Arendt minimized the extent to which this potentiality could be manifested at the expense of those who could not share in its exercising. Contrary to this interpretation, I believe that power, as an analytic concept, must ultimately address forms of conflict—whether explicit or covert. However, the capacities of power relations to shape individuals’ wants and interests would not be addressed properly unless we also consider them precisely as a form of ‘power to,’ alongside being an expression of ‘power over.’ When the oppressors, through ideologies, discourses, and institutions, shape the interests of the oppressed, they are appropriating the structural means available to them. This is the utilization of a form of ‘power to.’ To speak of one group having ‘power over’ another implies that the dominant group possesses certain options, in the form of ‘power to do X,’ that the other group does not.

It would be inaccurate to conclude from this that structural relations of power clearly divide the powerful from the powerless, in a form of static opposition. On the contrary, this is contested territory with a shifting dynamic, and these oppositions are always potentially temporary and subject to change. The exertion of ‘power to’ by the dominant group may expose fissures in the relations of power that can give the powerless an upper hand, thus shifting the balance away from them and toward a new structural framework. As Jeffrey Isaac argues, ‘power to’ consists of “routinely performed and purposeful activities. The possession of these powers in the performance of social activities is necessary to these activities, but the successful exercise of these powers is contingent.”v Power is distributed through these social relations and often struggled over by various agents, but the acquiring and exercise of it does not guarantee its successful retention.

A conception of agency must therefore be maintained when discussing power relations. It is true that a group or individual capable of exercising power over others is itself constrained by the structural relationships that come to define it; to that extent, its power is not arbitrary but determined by the means it possesses to exercise its influence. A more radical critique of agency would challenge not only the agent’s ability to possess power, but also one’s ability to impose one’s interests on others, since power relations would themselves be the source of individual subjectivity. I agree that the wants and interests of both the powerful and the powerless are indeed shaped through mutual interaction between with the other and with their surroundings, and to that extent are themselves instances of power at work. Yet although this formulation hits upon this crucial point, taking it to its logical conclusion will lead to a reified conception of ‘Power’ that appears as omnipresent, and so ultimately hinders the epistemological foundations upon which any normative critique of society can be possible. Individual agency must therefore be qualified by the context of its mutual relationships, but not abolished altogether.

Furthermore, power relations inherited from the past clearly limit possible routes of action that agents may take. As Marx wrote, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”vi Just as people involved in power struggles must remain conscious of their own circumstances within this scope, so must social scientists studying power relations be sensitive to the proper contexts that have contributed to shaping the phenomena they are attempting to understand. A positivistic formulation, for example Dahl’s definition of power strictly as a conflictual and observable interaction between two agents, does not account for the various contexts in which it appears. Theories of power must always pay heed to the specific circumstances out of which the relations emerge, rather than proposing an a priori definition of the concept, applying it indiscriminately, and dismissing those instances where the results do not match. Discrepancies are important, for they point to the fact that in this particular case a more nuanced understanding is needed—a conceptualization that leaves open the possibility that different social and historical circumstances produce different relations of power, in the way it is constructed, possessed, and exerted.

Works Cited

i See Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-76, Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, eds., David Macey, trans., (London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 29. Dahl’s influential definition was expressed in the model “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (‘The Concept of Power,’ Behavioral Science, 2:3 [1957: July], p. 202-3.)

ii This includes not only Peter Bachrach’s and Morton Baratz’s ‘second face of power’ critique (see Bachrach and Baratz, ‘Two Faces of Power,’ The American Political Science Review, Vol. 6, No. 4, [Dec., 1962] p. 947-52), but also that of Steven Lukes’s ‘third face of power’ (see Power: A Radical View, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.)

iii As C. Wright Mills pointed out in The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 298-324), social prestige and political prominence are two other reasons that the elite, as a relatively small and protean group, manipulate existing institutional and state structures to their own benefit. This includes using the mass media to shape public opinion and perception.

iv Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 200.

v Jeffrey C. Isaac, ‘Beyond the Three Faces of Power: A Realist Critique,’ Polity, Vol. 20, No. 1, (Autumn, 1987), p. 4-31, p. 22.

vi Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,’ in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.)


Rafael Khachaturian is graduating in Spring ’09 with an MA degree in Political Science. He currently lives in Brooklyn, studies political theory, and has moments of existential angst about being objectified in the form of a short bio.