Notes on Power


Power in physics refers to the rate at which force is exerted through work or energy. Force, and the rate of its application, is a defining feature of power in the physical world. Similarly, power in the social world occurs when individuals or groups exert ‘work’ by applying force, that is, people organize social and physical resources to create change. People use resources to create force. Resources may be physical in form, such as human bodies, guns, bullets, and buildings. Resources may be social and nonmaterial. Nonmaterial social resources, such as personal charisma, shared beliefs, ideas, information, and laws, can be used to apply force on people and society. Social power is the human ability to apply personal and collective force on the social or physical world. Social power always involves both physical and nonmaterial resources to create force. What kind of forces do people create?


There are several ways that people can exert force in society and history: they may bargain; they may threaten with violence; bribe or withhold desired services or goods; they may join together to pursue a common good; or they may use combinations of all of these strategies. If someone really cares about stopping child abuse, for example, and they decide to do something about it, they will try to mobilize some kind of social power. More than likely, this person will begin by asking others to join them toward that common goal. To engage in social action, power is needed; and the first place to begin is with others. Kenneth Boulding in his book, The Three Faces of Power offers a simplified framework for thinking about force and power in human society (see also Michael Mann). According to Boulding, three general sources of social power commonly work in society. Each of these forms of social power will be discussed below.


(H3) Forms of Social Power: Coercive, Exchange, and Integrative


The first and most commonly understood form of power is coercive power which employs behaviors and structures that use the force of threat – “you do this or else I/we will do something you don’t like.” This type of power is employed at all levels of human society and human interaction: from parents trying to get their kids to clean their rooms, to nations trying to persuade other nations to comply with their interests, coercive power is pervasive in modern society. Coercive power may also rely on bribery where one group (or person) may withhold something from another group, knowing that it is valued by that group – “do X if you want Y.” In either case of bribery or threat, the root of coercive power rests on one group threatening to keep something of value from another group (or person). Of course, in order for coercive power to be effective, one must control destructive resources – guns, missiles, or financial assets – to back-up the threat (or one must control access to certain desired goods and services if bribery is to be effective).


For coercive power to work the threat must be credible; there must be a real or believed ability to carry out the threat. For example, a government employs coercive power when it threatens military actions against another government; but it must have some ability to carry out that threat or the other government must believe that it has the capacity to carry out the threat. These types of coercive strategies are not limited to international relations; groups, gangs, and family members may employ coercive power as well. In fact, a great deal of everyday life is implicitly governed by the force of threat. Think about why you might feel some anxiety when driving 15 mph above the speed limit as you pass a police car. Like the other forms of power discussed below, coercive power can be used to protect or dominate. But because this type of power requires one group controlling valued resources and while another group remains vulnerable to fear of not accessing those resources, domination is the most common expression of this type of power.


Fear that others will kill, hurt, fine, or shame you if you do not comply reinforces the belief systems that keep people in a subordinate relationship. Fear is the underlying basis for coercive power. Because a threat, especially when backed by credible force, ignites fear in human beings, coercive power can be viewed as “power over” others. Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, described the kind of obedience that stems from fear as the psychological mechanism that links individuals to systems of social domination.  For this reason, coercive power easily becomes the basis for domination structures in society. Domination structures combine ideologies with organizational hierarchies to gain compliance from large numbers of people. A sweatshop employing thousands of workers, a family that conforms to every wish of an abusive father/husband, a taxation system that usurps wealth, or a military system that conquers a nation all relies on masses of people obeying authorities – because they fear punishment, identify with dominant ideologies, or both. Obedience is rewarded while disobedience is punished. Belief systems and ideologies normalize the arrangement, promoting views like: this is how things have always been, or, just doing my job, or, we’re bringing civilization, or, it is the law to do as they say, and so on.


Challenging coercive power must involve relinquishing the belief that the authority is legitimate. Sociologist Douglas McAdam refers to this process as a “cognitive liberation.” Cognitive liberation is accompanied by a growing recognition that things can be different and that by acting together, society can be changed. People oppressed under domination structures, whether it is a system as vast as slavery or an abusive domestic arrangement, remain oppressed until they stop identifying with the ideology associated with the domination structures. This is what Mohandas Gandhi meant when he explained why the British controlled India: “The sword is entirely useless for holding India. We alone keep them.” Gandhi recognized the belief systems that kept a vastly larger population subordinate to a relatively small, occupying military. It was not swords that would liberate them, but independence first involved unraveling and relinquishing the beliefs that kept so many people fearful of the sword. As this cognitive liberation occurs, people must then create alternative forms of social power to challenge (or exit) the domination structures. Liberating millions of people from slavery and its continued legacy in America involved over three centuries of challenges to the system of violence, segregation, and racist belief systems. Those struggles created alternative forms of social power that do not bend to fear, expressed in the tens of thousands of activists that risked their personal safety in the Civil Rights movement. Challenging coercive power, where authorities invariably respond with threat and violence, requires the creation of other forms of social power.


Another form of social power Boulding outlines is exchange power. This form of power arises from behaviors and structures that use the force of mutual gain – “you do this for me/us and I’ll/we’ll do this for you.” Going to a grocery store and exchanging money for bread, milk, and broccoli is one example. No threats are made, no bribes, and no gifts are freely given. The force behind exchange power relies on trust and the belief that the exchange is balanced and fair. Under ideal situations where neither party suffers a resource disadvantage, exchange power often produces mutual benefit. Exchange is not always conducted on equal terms though. As Boulding points out, possession of property for one party and the absence of resources for another party may create a significant disparity. Where inequalities are great, the system of exchange power evolves into domination relations that look more and more like coercive power (do this or else starve to death – or don’t feed your children, etc.). Debt bondage, sharecropping, or sweatshops are examples where imbalances in resources make trade and exchange between workers and owners a basis for exploitation. Exchange power, where resource disparities are great, morphs into domination structures. For example, when American revolutionaries defined the tea tax as unjust in 1773 (“No taxation without Representation”), it was no longer seen as a basis for mutual benefit. Instead a new belief stressed how unjust taxes reflected Imperial domination of the British Crown over the American colonies – dumping tea in Boston harbor expressed this new belief. Revolution was just around the corner as colonists created a new kind of power that would eventually give rise to a new nation.


It was not the coercive or exchange power of American revolutionaries that won against the British military force, but “power with” each other (which we’ll call integrative power below). That is why the British attempted repeatedly to divide the colonies and their emerging constitutional governments. American revolutionaries, like so many others, wielded “power with” for a common good; a force that, when mobilized, challenges even the greatest militaries. This was true for India’s independence movement and for many more, large and small, challenges to authority: like those waged by las Madres de la Plaza (The Mothers of the Plaza) whose defiant challenge to Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1977 exposed the government’s role in the “disappearance” of thousands and whose persistence helped usher in a democratic movement for that country.  


Integrative power is associated with cooperative force, where people join together toward a common, collectively defined good. The sentiment that motivates integrative power is found in people’s shared identification with a moral or cultural objective – “we do this because we care about X.” This type of power relies on the force of community altruism. Altruism involves devotion to the welfare or good of others. It does not necessarily mean devotion to the welfare of all of humanity or all life, though it certainly may for some causes; but usually, it is more restricted to some group or common value. This sentiment can be found in the sacrifice a soldier makes for others soldiers in combat. It was the power created when African American activists stepped into “white only” lunch counters, buses, and bathrooms, revealing the intolerant and violent reaction of coercive power that held up the system of Southern segregation. This is the power behind democracy, behind nationalism in its benign and imperial forms; it is the power that people create when they sacrifice personal benefits toward a common defense, toward social justice, or toward a revolution. It is also the force that enables militarily weak, but morally and socially integrated guerilla armies to thwart superior military forces. Integrative power is people-power. Now, this does not mean it is always “benign.” The Nazis succeeded in fomenting a belligerent nationalism, a passion of the people that merely strengthened the coercive power behind German fascism. Integrative power generates a horizontal solidarity, ties among people who commit to a common goal – though that goal may not be beneficial to people outside their group, as in fascism or imperialism.


All three forms of power may be used in combinations. Take the example of a boycott. Think about what is involved in a successful boycott.  At first glance, it appears that the only source of power used in a boycott is exchange power – “we’ll stop buying from you until you do X.”  Beneath this, however is integrative power, a group of people organized toward shared objectives who collectively agree to act toward the boycott. Economic boycotts have been used to confront many social problems in many different cultures and times: from international sanctions pressuring the government of South Africa to end apartheid; to the Lysistrata action of Iroquois women boycotting love-making and childrearing in 1600, demanding the men to include them in decisions about war and peace; or to the consumer boycotts during the Memphis sanitation workers strike, a struggle that culminated in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Behind boycotts, integrative power, and sometimes coercive power, is likely to be found. Likewise, coercive power often requires consenting masses, large numbers of people who believe in the authorities and who will back their actions: that is integrative power. As you can see, social power is complex, involving layers of human organization, beliefs, and actions.  Understanding social power will aid our exploration of nonviolence.




What motive distinguishes integrative power from coercive power? What types of social consequences are likely to follow from the use of either? Why do some activists consider coercive power as “power over” and integrative and exchange power as “power with”? Discuss their significance in terms of meeting human needs.