Power Definitions and Examples in Sociology

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Power is a key sociological concept with several meanings and considerable disagreement surrounding them.

Lord Acton famously noted, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While many in power have, indeed, become corrupted and even despotic, others have used their influence to fight for injustice and to aid the oppressed. As some definitions of power show, society as a whole may be the true holders of power.

Weber's Definition

The most common definition comes from Max Weber, who defined it as the ability to control others, events, or resources; to make happen what one wants to happen in spite of obstacles, resistance, or opposition.

Power is a thing that is held, coveted, seized, taken away, lost, or stolen, and it is used in what are essentially adversarial relationships involving conflict between those with power and those without.

Weber laid out three types of authority from which power is derived:

  • Traditional
  • Charismatic
  • Legal/Rational

Britain's Queen Elizabeth would be an example of traditional authority. She holds power because the monarchy has done so for centuries, and she inherited her title.

A charismatic authority would be someone who gets their power through their personal abilities to sway people. Such a person can vary widely from a spiritual or ethical leader like Jesus Christ, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. all the way to a tyrant like Adolf Hitler.

A legal/rational authority is the type put in place by democratic governments or even what might be seen on a smaller level in the workplace in a relationship between a supervisor and subordinate.

Marx's Definition

In contrast, Karl Marx used the concept of power in relation to social classes and social systems rather than individuals. He argued that power rests in a social class’s position in the relations of production.

Power does not lie in the relationship between individuals, but in domination and subordination of social classes based on the relations of production.

According to Marx, only one person or group at a time can have power—the working class or the ruling class.

In capitalism, according to Marx, the ruling class wields power over the working class, with the ruling class owning the means of production. Capitalist values, therefore, spill down throughout society.

Parsons' Definition

A third definition comes from Talcott Parsons who argued that power is not a matter of social coercion and domination. Instead, he said, power flows from a social system’s potential to coordinate human activity and resources to accomplish goals.

Parsons' view is sometimes called the "variable-sum" approach, as opposed to other views, which are seen as a constant-sum. In Parsons' view, power is not constant or fixed but capable of increasing or decreasing.

This is best seen in democracies where voters can give power to a politician in one election, then take it away again in the next. Parsons compares voters in this way to depositors at a bank, who can deposit their money but are free to remove it as well.

To Parsons, then, power resides in society as a whole, not with a single individual or small group of the powerful elite.