Social Power

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Social power cannot be bottled.

The word “power” is derived from the Latin potere, which means able to. It can be used to describe a thing, or label, and used as a mathematical or statistical term, as a description of a source of energy or creating that energy, or the magnifying power of a microscope in the physical world, or having authority, the ability to move things, or having a quality giving control in the social world. It’s also used to describe the act of transferring power physically or socially, or as a word modifying a thing suggesting it has some sort of strength.

The language we use to describe things determines how we experience and act toward it, and what one can see from these descriptions is a world existing in three dimensions that can be measured and controlled. In other words, a clockwork perspective of reality.

Power in the social world is something different. For example, if you attack me, I respond to that. It can be by defending myself, attacking you now or in the future, begging for mercy, etc., much like a biological stimulus response. Since there is not just one way to respond, what we call power emerges from our relationships and interactions, and the outcome varies depending on the situation and response. It doesn’t end there, you respond to my responses, to which I respond, etc., hence the power interaction is ongoing and constantly evolving, i.e., shows the hallmarks of complexity.

There’s a very large number of publications about social power, most of which take one of two approaches. The first is mechanistic, which means someone can be instilled with power, like plugging into a battery, and use that power to move things. Or something inherently containing more of this energy, which is needed to move other things, like a brain or manager. The second takes a social approach, like the one I described above but not of a pure stimulus-response kind based on a biological metaphor. I look at social power as emergent from complex interrelationships and interactions, which turns it into something cloud-like that is difficult to describe and constantly on the move.

Power relationships are part and parcel of human interaction. In Churchman’s simplified model of human interaction, there is a client with expectations which it can’t realize without help, and with a measure for knowing when those expectations are met. The client can be a person or many people with shared expectations either organized or not, and geographically close or dispersed.

There is also a resource owner with some of the resources needed to meet the client’s expectations and the means to do so. Again, this can be one person or entity, or many. Churchman didn’t say so, but resource owners are also clients with expectations about benefiting from using their resources, but a different measure of satisfaction. If many different resources are needed for the outcome, there can be many resource owners with different expectations of the outcome. Required resources can be physical, like money, land, equipment, etc., symbolic, like knowledge, etc., or social, such as support, connections, etc.

Churchman described a third role, namely a mediator whose aim is to bring the client and resource owner to work out a resolution, with some sort of plan or approach likely to end in success. The mediator can be one or many people.

At this point one can see multiple permutations in the interaction with many different and sometimes conflicting expectations, and an unpredictable outcome.

The initial negotiation is between client and resource owner, or power of the first kind, when the client knows its expectations will remain unsatisfied without the cooperation of the resource owner. When client and resource owner are different and involve many people, things become very complex. There is always a power gap between the two and what happens depends on how big that gap is.

If there is not a too significant gap, it can be resolved via dialogue and negotiating a win-win situation in which both parties benefit and meet their expectations. Neither party is strong enough to force the issue. When the gap is big, coercion comes into play. The client can take the required resource by force or theft, or the resource owner can simply refuse to use it without penalty. That happens when either party is much stronger than the other, and the endpoint is a zero-sum game. No method exists for overcoming political games. But that’s not the end of it, the weaker or loser will wait for an opportunity to get payback, hence the power game is ongoing although sometimes dormant.

The resource owner can change the future by using its resources. The ability to do so is power of the second kind, which involves decision making. In essence it involves two choices; will I use my resources, or is it worth my while, and is it the right thing to do? The answers are often in conflict, involves multiple considerations, and therefore at times can be extraordinarily difficult to make.

The complexity of the situation increases manifold if there is one resource owner but many clients with different expectations, if there is one client but many different resource owners with conflicting expectations, many clients with different expectations and many different resource owners creating chaotic conditions, and if clients are unaware they are clients or have no voice to be heard, which opens up the ethical question of who acts as witness for those who will live the consequences of change?

Power gaps exist because the maldistribution of resources and means is a reality of nature. We don’t all start life in the same place; nature is unfair in its distribution. The issue then becomes if you are a beneficiary of this game, how do you act towards those who missed out? The problem, as Churchman pointed out, is as humans we never have enough of anything, we always want one more, which is a reinforcing feedback loop and destructive. From that perspective power interactions act as a balancing loop; wolves are necessary for keeping deer healthy.

The way we view the world determines how we organize its complexity and give meaning to experience. If you see the world as a machine, you believe you can control everything in it, if you see it as an organism, you believe you control it on behalf of all its parts, but if you believe it is complex, you cannot control it and stability emerges spontaneously from the interconnections and interactions of its parts. For social systems it means people voluntary participate expecting to meet their goals.

We fight, flee from, or try to negotiate when confronted with power interactions. If you cannot flee, people often respond with passive flight; depression and or disengagement. As Scott pointed out, coerced people often fight back in small ways, even if it’s just a middle finger raised behind your back. That’s why most change initiatives fail; employees are coerced into them, and employees kill it with death by a thousand cuts.

Which cycles back to the question of ethical decision making and the ethical use of a power advantage. If decisions are made as if our world works like a machine or organism, little progress is possible. We must consider our world’s complexity and specifically social complexity, which includes a conversation about power and ethics.

We live in a social world dominated by Neo-liberal economic theory based on in a mechanistic perspective of reality and embedded in politics, encouraging competition for means and resources at the expense on cooperation. It is a power wedge keeping elevator doors open, which keeps it from moving up or down. Removing that wedge won’t be easy, but it is necessary.