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In a general sense, power gives an individual (or an entity) the authority to control the behaviors of other people or influence the environment to suit ones need. Power has often been perceived in a number of ways but legitimately, it has often been referred to as authority (Greiner 1988, p. 4). The exercise of power in the society can be either beneficial or retrogressive to the society, depending on how it is applied.
For example, in the business environment, power can be either perceived as top-down or bottom-up (Greiner 1988). Either way, control is exerted on the subordinates or the leaders. For example, in the top-bottom approach, power is exerted on the subordinates but on the bottom-up approach, power is exerted on the leaders.
Often, power is confused with coercion and arm-twisting of peoples’ will towards the advantage of an individual or entity (however, this need not be the case at all times). On one hand, power is normally referred to as influence (in the European society), and often, the two terms are used interchangeably; but practically, it refers to different things (Moore 1990, p. 1).
Nonetheless, in political and social circles, power has often been analyzed in the context by which it enables individuals to do something. Many researchers and philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Niccolò Machiavelli have in the past tried to expose the existing dimensions of power but evidently, power is witnessed in almost all forms of human actions (Moore 1990, p. 1).
Comprehensively, it can be analyzed that power is the distinctive tool that makes most human actions possible and in the words of Michel Foucault (a French philosopher) (cited in Moore 1990, p. 1), power is “a complex strategic situation in a given society social setting”.
These definitions abound, this study seeks to analyze the concepts of power and how it dictates the social and political landscape of the society. Emphasis will be made on how power influences the setting of agendas and how it determines structural and disciplinary practices. These factors will develop a conceptual understanding of power after which this study will analyze the sources of power and how it can be created.
Agenda setting is basically a political process which involves very competitive players who normally have conflicting points of view regarding a number of political, social or economic issues (Sanchez 2002, p. 1). When power is in play, the agenda setting process is normally contingent on competing entries on policy agendas; but most importantly, power influences the behavior of groups in the entire process.
This means that the position and views of policy makers can be directed in a pre-determined manner, upon the exercise of power. For example, if a decision maker is the custodian of power, a lot of the interest groups can tailor their decisions towards the decision maker’s point of view.
In a different light, there are many issues that affect the society, and a number of them require immediate spotlight during the process of agenda setting. Power is a tool that is normally exercised to elevate certain issues to become matters of priority, with some of them being accorded high or highest attention, depending on the amount of power that may be exercised (Puentes-Markides 2007, p. 1).
This analysis exposes the fact that power can be exercised to spotlight certain issues to reach the highest platform in political agenda setting through capturing the attention of the government, media or the public. In fact, the agenda setting process is normally very competitive, such that, even the most important issues may fail to be highlighted.
A clear example of how power play takes centre stage in the agenda setting process can be evidenced from the recent healthcare debate in the United States. Puentes-Markides (2007, p. 5) explains that this kind of example is a political process where the numbers of people who support a given bill are categorized on one side and those who oppose are categorized on another.
He points out that the power-play going on in this kind of situation is based on the power to mobilize players and an assessment of the strength of all supporters in the agenda setting process. More emphasis is made on the political feasibility of a given process, based on the powers and strengths of the players in the process. The powers and strengths of players can either be categorized as low, medium or high.
Structural and Disciplinary Practices
The structural concept of power can be easily determined through power structures that influence how long one can be influenced by control and who ultimately holds the realms of power in any given situation (Strange 1996, p. 54). The structural aspect of power can be equated to democratic processes where the structures in place (electoral structures) are set to determine who holds power and for how long.
Through the structures of power, the relationship between power and the people is redefined. For example, dictators like Adolf Hitler (and the likes) assumed a lot of authoritative power because the people let go off their power in the first place. This kind of scenario affirms the point of view that power does not exists in a vacuum because often, it is people or leaders who exercise it, therefore birthing it.
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When deeply analyzing power structures, the relationship between the actors or players in a power game is exposed because their relationship is defined by power structures.
Power structures however vary from one geographical region to the other. For example, the power structures in the rural and urban communities are different because of the nature of homogenous communities in the rural areas and the disintegrated communities in the urban settlements (Moore 1990, p. 7).
In the field of social science, power structures are normally perceived as static, but in the real life situation, the structures of power change and shift due to changing coalitions brought about by conflicting interests on various issues (Moore 1990).
For instance, in the modern society, where power is more complex than the rural areas, the structures of power are normally sophisticated and an evident focus on specialization of skill and knowledge is often evidenced.
This kind of situation can be represented in a manner whereby in a community, a certain individual can have knowledge and skills about how to deal with the community’s issues; meaning that they would be a source of power (as pertains to matters regarding the particular community).
The power structures existent in any given community does not exist in vacuum because a number of external forces are normally in play. For instance, there is the issue of government influence that normally influences the power structures in the community, or the issue of external financers who sponsor the work of different communities (Moore 1990, p. 11).
Power structures are normally evidenced in a number of ways. For instance, there is a power structure that gives control and influence to a single individual who makes most of the decisions within a community. This type of power structure is quite rare in today’s society (even when studied in rural community settings) and can be equated to the pyramidal power structure where excessive control and influence is entrusted on a single family, industry or any other entity (Moore 1990, p. 10).
Secondly, there are clique power groups that can wield so much power, as to control the activities of a given group. This implies that a group of individuals with common interests come together and pool their influence to create a centre of power. Thirdly, there is the opposite of the clique power group which concentrates power on two different communities (Moore 1990).
This can be generally assumed to be a split-community power structure where power is concentrated on two separate centers of power. Normally such situations are evidenced when there is competition between two opposing groups or when there is a force of change working, where one group opposes change and the other supports it.
Thirdly, there can be a power pool structure that concentrates power to different centers which are formed by a clique of people who are aware of each other’s existence, but do not partake in each other’s decisions (Moore 1990, p. 11). Finally, there are amorphous power structures where new communities develop but no strong power structure exists. Such sort of situations can be evidenced in mobile home parks, apartment complexes or other similar environments.
In the area of disciplinary practice, power can be exercised to affect virtually all types of disciplinary practices. First in the formulation of disciplinary practices, power can be used to determine the type of disciplinary measures to be undertaken in any given social setting.
In most traditional societies where power was heavily vested on an individual; the individual could use his position to determine the type of disciplinary measure to be carried out in a given situation. For instance, if a person committed the crime of robbery, the power wielder could determine the type of disciplinary measure to be given to the offender.
However, in today’s world, power has been focused on the law and the constitution, such that, disciplinary practices are essentially defined by the law. Courts are the official custodians of the law and they execute what is written down as the law of the land. In a general sense, this means that power is vested in the law and the courts in particular.
However, the exercise of power can surpass the laid down disciplinary practices and structures as identified in this study. Again, the type of power structures evidenced in a given community is the determinant for excessive control that power gives people or institutions.
For instance, there have been many situations in a number of countries where power is excessively exercised by an incumbent president, such that, the laid down laws and disciplinary practices in a given community are subordinate to his or her control.
For example, if an offender is arrested by the government for committing a certain offence and sentenced to life imprisonment; in some societies, the president (who is vested with immense power) can pardon the given offender. This kind of excessive control is even evidenced in the Western society.
How Power is Created
Power is normally created in a number of ways. However, before we understand how power is created, it is important to reiterate that power does not exist in a vacuum but rather in relationships between two or more parties (Mann 1993). In this manner, we can deduce the fact that power is not constant but can shift from one party to the other.
The first way through which power is created is through coercive means where power is vested on an individual, out of the basis of fear or an unimagined force (Moore 1990). For instance, the power God has over people, or the power religion has over its followers can be largely termed as coercive power because it is largely based on an unimagined force and fear.
However, this power is still wielded in the real world where people give power to an individual, out of the pretext of fear or of escaping hurt or unfair treatment from the central source of power. This is one way through which dictators, the world over, have used to exercise authority over their fearful subjects.
Some of them have perfected the art in such a way that they reinforce the belief that a contravention of the will of the person in power can tremendously affect the life of the subordinates. Some use threats, extortion, death and such like tact to instill fear on their subjects so that they rule. If people cave in to such fears and coercive tact, then they give the mastermind of such tact, the power to rule not only over them, but their consciouses as well.
The above power relationship can be evidenced through the power wielder and the subjects. In other words, the subjects give away their power to the power wielder by acting in a given manner that suits the power wielder (in order to avoid being hurt). This kind of power creation method is not as common today as it used to be in the past because in most societies, democracy is quickly taking root and more freedom is being evidenced through unrelenting global, political and social pressures to do away with coercive forces.
Secondly, power is created through legitimate or positional means whereby an officeholder enjoys immense powers attributed or entrusted to a given office (Mann 1993). For instance, the office of the British prime minister is an example of an office that has immense powers on national politics and the office holder enjoys premiered powers attributed to the office.
Often, the higher the status of the office, the more compliance one is able to enjoy; as can be seen through certain high offices like the president’s, dean’s, directors’ and the likes (because such officeholders can practically determine what happens in their spheres of control and be assured that whatever they order will be carried out) (Moore 1990, p. 14). Usually, such sort of power is uncontested because it is legitimate and positional; meaning that people acknowledge its existence and decide to let it prevail over them.
The relationship evidenced in this type of power-play is almost similar to the coercive type; only that the will of the people is normally respected in the positional type of power. For instance, in the election of the president of America, or any other democratic country, a democratic electoral process is normally undertaken where people vote to entrust a certain individual with the power to lead.
The biggest distinction between coercive and positional power is that no coercion actually takes place in the creation of positional power and people vest power to a given individual, purely on their own prerogative. However, instances where democratic processes have been infiltrated by malpractices such as voter bribery, voter coercion (and the likes) are isolated cases. Nonetheless, the kind of relationship depicted in positional power can be evidenced between the voters and the officeholders, where voters give authority to a given individual to wield power.
Thirdly, power can be created through the possession of knowledge or expert skills needed in a given social, economic or political environment (Moore 1990, p. 14).
However, such powers cannot be created until the followers or subjects acknowledge that the skills, talents or expertise possessed are needed (and they respect the custodians of such expertise) (Moore 1990, p. 14). Examples of expert power can be manifested through doctors, lawyers, college instructors and similar professionals and where subjects respect the expertise brought by these individuals.
Giving rewards is also another way through which power is created among individuals and institutions. In the socio-political discipline, this type of power is normally referred to as reward power. It is created out of the ability of an individual or institution to give gifts, promotions, recognitions or such like rewards (to the subordinates).
In this manner, subordinates are bound to reciprocate through acknowledgement and respect, which ultimately gives an individual immense power. The organizational setting is a good platform to explain this kind of power because certain individuals hold reward power over others.
For example, a managing director is normally entrusted with the power of acknowledging or recommending certain employees for promotion or bonuses. His or her ability to do so automatically elevates him or her to some level of power within the organization, where he or she can determine the fate of an employee in the given organization (with regards to career progression or monetary reward).
This kind of ability gives one the power over subordinates because many would not cross such power wielders, just so they get a given reward. In organizations or setups where the stakes are too high; the power of individuals who wield the reward power is also likely to be increased in the same manner. The opposite is also true whereby if the stakes are low, the power wielded by an individual may equally be low.
Power can also be created on the basis of an individual’s traits and characteristics (Moore 1990, p. 15). This can be evidenced when a leader possess charm, charisma, sensitivity or creativity in a given field of excellence, where other players in the same field recognize him or her as the power wielder.
These types of powers are normally intangible and it becomes increasingly difficult to quantify them, but when well exercised, an individual can command a lot of loyalty, respect and awe in his or her peer circles. This kind of situation can be evidenced in the political scene where leaders who possess charisma, charm or such like attributes command a huge following.
In fact, the possession of such traits normally increases the popularity level of such leaders and therefore other political players in the scene can easily acknowledge the potential of such kind of power in changing the political scene (because with it comes a huge following of people).
The ability to possess information is also another way through which power can be created (Moore 1990, p. 16). This kind of power exercise can be evidenced in the ability of certain individuals to disseminate or withhold information in the society. The same power is also evidenced in the ability of an individual to get hold of information.
The power of an individual increases if the kind of information withheld by a given institution or person is of utmost relevance to someone else, organization or a given community. This means that many people would go out of their way to get hold of a given piece of information if they cannot do without it. The person who holds such kind of information is therefore the power wielder.
People who have been synonymous to such powers have effectively used information power to channel and withhold information to suit various interests in the organization or community (Moore 1990, p. 16). This sort of strategy has been observed to be an effective way to control human actions because people act in a correct or incorrect way, depending on the kind of information they have.
The ability of an individual to know someone who holds power is also another way through which power is created (Moore 1990, p. 17). This kind of power is often referred to as relational power. It is interesting to note that this centre of power normally differs with information power because its proponents are normally motivated by the assumption that “it does not matter what you know but who you know” (Moore 1990, p. 18).
The ability to develop strong networks between individuals is therefore very essential to the creation of relational power, but more importantly, such networks should be proved beneficial to the community, individuals or a given organization. For instance, people who have stayed within a given social setting for a long time are likely to develop relational power because they are more likely to have developed strong social networks as opposed to those who have stayed within a community for a short time.
Power in social science can be a useful piece of study, as this study points out, because power affects most functional areas of life. Understanding power structures (as this study identifies) can be a useful tool to induce change within a given society and in understanding past and current political systems.
In the political setting, we can see that power significantly affects agenda setting where comprehensively, this process determines what issues are to be dealt with in the society.
We can also see that power significantly affects, or surpasses disciplinary practices in the society. This is majorly evidenced in the social context. From the understanding of power-play in the society, it is therefore easy to understand how power is created. This is the ultimate step through which individuals can learn how power affects the society. Comprehensively, these factors determine power in social science.
Greiner, E. (1988) Power and Organization Development: Mobilizing Power to Implement Change (Addison-Wesley Od Series). Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall.
Mann, M. (1993) The Sources of Social Power: The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760 – 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, E. (1990) Understanding Community Power Structures. (Online) Web.
Puentes-Markides, C. (2007) Policy Analysis and Decision Making. Bridgetown: Barbados.
Sanchez, M. (2002) Agenda Setting. (Online) Available at: http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~johnca/spch100/7-4-agenda.htm .
Strange, S. (1996) The Retreat Of The State: The Diffusion Of Power In The World Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.