Power, Theories of

Shane Thye
SubjectGender Studies Sociology » Sociological and Social Theory Key-Topicspower DOI:10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x


In contemporary sociology, the term power is used in two distinct but interrelated ways. In the broadest usage, power refers to a structural capacity for an actor A to cause any change in the behavior of another actor B (Weber 1968). This meaning of power captures the potential for power to be exercised or not in social interaction. The second meaning refers to a concrete event in which one individual benefits at the expense of another. Modern theorists refer to such events as power use or power

exercise. Importantly, both meanings imply that power is a relational phenomenon.
Thus, theories of power take as their focus the relationship between two or more actors, and not the characteristics of actors themselves. Although the terms are sometimes conflated, power is theoretically distinct from other relational concepts such as influence (which is voluntarily accepted), force (wherein the target has no choice but to comply), andauthority (which involves a request from a legitimate social position). French and Raven (1968) recognized these distinctions over four decades ago, and they remain useful today. Theories of power cross many ideological and epistemological lines. As a result, this literature has seen many debates. Theorists have contemplated whether power is best conceptualized as (1) a potential or something that must be used; (2) ―forward looking‖ calculated actions or ―backward looking‖ responses to reward and punishment; (3) intentional or unintentional behavior; (4) benefit or control, and so on. These early debates generated much heat, but very little light. They did, however, stimulate efforts to develop more formal theory. The majority of this work occurred within behavioral psychology and the exchange tradition of sociology. Perhaps the first formal theory of power was proposed by Thibaut and Kelley (1959). They asserted that individuals evaluate their current relationship against some standard, or comparison level (CL). The theory also claims that actors assess the attractiveness of a relationship by comparing their focal relationship to benefits expected from others (CLALT). The power of actor A over B is defined as ―A's ability to affect the quality of outcomes attained by B.‖ There are two ways that this can occur. Fate control exists when actor A affects actor B's outcome by changing her or his own behavior, independent of B's action. For example, if regardless of what B does, B receives $1 when A chooses behavior 1 and $10 when A chooses behavior 2, then A has fate control over B. Behavior control exists when the rewards obtained by B are a

Emerson cast power processes in broader terms. Bargaining tactics. which is based on classical understandings of power from Marx and Weber. he asserted it is important to consider its broader connection to other dyads – the larger network in which it is embedded. summarized by the equation PAB = DBA. then A is more dependent on B: (DAB > DBA). B is dependent on A for rewards and thus A has a source of power over B. She finds punishment-based power is used less often than reward-based power. The theory identifies . as with previous theories. dependence is a function of two key factors: the availability of alternative exchange relations and the extent to which the actors value those relations. An alternative approach to power is found in David Willer's elementary theory. When auto parts are not widely available from other suppliers. Dependence is the centerpiece of the theory. are theorized to mediate power exercise in negotiations. 1972b). but auto builders are in high supply. the theory predicts B has power over A. while behavior 2 yields $4 for B). Elementary theory opposes the notion of satiation as the basis for power. A negative connection exists when interaction in one dyad reduces interaction in another. in analyzing a dyad. due to the potential cost it entails. A major theoretical shift occurred in the early 1970s with the development of Richard Emerson's Power Dependence Theory (Emerson 1972a. whether A has fate control or behavior control. In either case. imagine an auto builder (A) who must purchase specialized parts from a supply dealer (B). in turn. due to availability. The attention to dyadic connectedness gave Emerson's theorizing a decidedly structural theme: his were network-embedded dyads. and affirm the importance of dependence in generating power. The implication. then A can control the behavior of B. then A is more dependent on B than B is on A. For instance. Since the original formulation. when A can make rewards obtained by B contingent on B's actions (A dictates that behavior 1 yields $2 for B. In turn. To illustrate. As such. Molm (1990) has expanded the power dependence framework to include both reward-based power and punishment-based power. Emerson considered two kinds of connection. A positive connection exists when interaction in one dyad promotes interaction in another. Both lines of work extend the basic power dependence framework. Thus. The theory asserts that the power of actor A over actor B is equal to the dependence of B on A. This work shows how structures of interdependence can promote either punitive or conciliatory bargaining tactics. He put forth the notion that relations between actors are part of a larger set of potential exchange relations (i.e. Lawler (1992) has developed a theory of power that includes both dependence-based power and punitive-based power. When the auto maker values parts more than the supplier values customers. (DAB> DBA). To illustrate. power dependence theory has given rise to numerous other branches of theory. Other power theories that emerged during that same timeframe echoed the importance of dependence.function of both A and B's behavior. The theory claims that power emerges because individuals in different network locations are satiated at different rates. is that some individuals are more dependent than others for the exchange of valued goods. Unlike previous theorists. Power dependence theory is anchored in operant psychology and relies heavily on the principle of satiation. and instead anchors power in the ability of some actors to exclude others from valued goods.. an exchange network).

Coercion occurs when a negative sanction is transmitted for a positive sanction (e. and in 1992 an entire issue of Social Networks was devoted to comparing and contrasting these approaches. In weak power networks no position is necessarily excluded. modern theorists have identified numerous links between power and emotion.. when two countries engage in bombing). The denominator represents the benefit of consummating exchange relative to no exchange at all. game theory (i. The theory predicts that when two actors i and jexchange. I mow the yard. The ability to predict powerful positions in exchange networks was an important methodological issue that occupied the attention of theorists during the late 1980s and early 1990s.e. in which B can date A or C but not both on any given night (A—B—C). For instance. utility theory (i. an expected value model).. The simplest weak power structure is the 4-actor line (A—B—C—D).. Each index offered unique predictions for power. such as dyads or triangles.. A sanction is any action transmitted from one individual and received by another. and network exchange theory (i. Lovaglia finds . defined by the kinds of sanctions found in each. Tests find that the resistance model predicts power exercise in a range of settings. the core). cohesion. Note that when B and C exchange. vulnerability). A and D are excluded. Within exchange. a graph theoretic power index). Strong power structures are those that only contain two kinds of positions: high-power positions that can never be excluded and two or more low-power positions. the significance of this competition was to promote rapid theory growth. Perhaps spurred by these advancements. PA represents the payoff if the exchange is complete. the theory identifies three kinds of power structures. That is. they do so at the point of equi-resistance.g. but some may be.g. B is powerful because B is always guaranteed a partner. An actor i's resistance to exchange is defined using the following equation: Pi max represents i's best hope from the exchange. The classic example is the 3-person dating network. and PA con represents the payoff when exchange is not complete. and the discovery of new phenomena.. The majority of research has centered on power in exchange. increased formalization. Exchange occurs when A and B mutually transmit positive sanctions (e..g. Conflict exists when A and B each transmit negative sanctions (e. In retrospect. you do the dishes).three kinds of social relations. as when a mugger threatens ―your money or your life‖). and status. The model assumes that actors balance these motives when negotiating exchange..e.e. one of which must always be excluded. Strong power networks promote extreme power exercise. At the heart of the theory is a resistance model that relates the distribution of profit when two actors exchange to the benefits lost when they do not. Equal power networks contain only one set of structurally identical positions. Competing solutions were offered from power dependence theory (i. while either A or C must be excluded. exchange is predicted when the resistance is mutually balanced for i and j. Studies find that this produces a slight power advantage for the positions who need not be excluded. The numerator captures how far away the current offer is from one's best hope.e.

Macmillan. Social Influence Emerson.). R. Thibaut. pp.. Wiley. (Ed. M. Berkeley.). but in the culturally valued status characteristics that individuals possess. (2) . (Eds. Part II: Exchange Relations and Networks. J. & Anderson. not in the structural conditions of networks. (2000) A Status Value Theory of Power in Exchange Relations. R.e. pp. & Kelley. Status. University of California Press. & Anderson. Molm. Emerson Richard M. Action. Sociological Theories in Progress. J. positive emotion. (1968 [1918]) Economy and Society. (1972b) Exchange Theory. That is. B. French.that power exercise often produces negative emotional reactions. (1990) Structure. F. In: Berger. (2) .). 38–57. L. London. J. Part I: A Psychological Basis for Social Exchange. Lawler and associates have identified conditions under which equal power networks promote high exchange frequency.. American Sociological Review (65) : 407–32. Harper & Row. P... In: Cartwright. (1992) Interpersonal Power. New York.). the low-status individuals) are at a power disadvantage. H. (1992) Power Processes in Bargaining. Zelditch. & Raven. American Sociological Review (55) : 427–47. and a sense of relational cohesion. (1968) The Bases of Social Power. As with virtually all theories of power. M.) (1999) Network Exchange Theory. New York. H. (1972a) Exchange Theory. Boston.. L. 259–69. B. Lawler. Boston. W. Vol. and Power. S.. and Outcomes: The Dynamics of Power in Social Exchange. D. Sociological Theories in Progress. E. SEE ALSO: Class. Houghton-Mifflin. Willer. B. (Eds. pp. In contrast. Thye. In: Borgatta. M. Praeger. goods relevant to low-status actors become less valued. Tests find that high-status actors have a power advantage over lower-status actors. pp. Zelditch. Elementary Theory. Houghton-Mifflin. Zelditch. Weber. A. & Zander. and that status value plays a crucial role. E. the theory predicts that actors who possess less-valued goods (i. Power-Dependence Theory. (Eds. (1959) The Social Psychology of Groups. . Emerson. Thye (2000) offers a status value theory of power that anchors power. (Eds. J. 994–1001. R. New York. In: Berger. Group Dynamics: Research and Theory. Exchange Network Theory. Encyclopedia of Sociology. R. The theory claims that when exchangeable goods are relevant to the status (high or low) of actors. Sociological Quarterly (33) : 17–34. J. Vol. those goods acquire the same status value. goods relevant to high-status actors become more valued than they otherwise would be. D. M. 58–87. M. & Borgatta.