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  Power (Old English, derived from the Latin for ‘to be able’) is conventionally defined as the ability to effect results in an individual or group despite resistance. Methods employed to do so may range from persuasion to physical force. Max Weber (1864 - 1920) distinguished this concept of power from authority, which he defined as the social sanction taking various forms, either on a worldly or spiritual basis, that allowed the individual to control the action or decisions of others in particular situations. These two concepts were further distinguished from coercion which described the application of brute force to overcome resistance.

Marxist approaches use power to describe political and economic dominance as manifest in class structures, gender relations, and the imposition of the dominant class\'s ideas and value systems in society at large. This perspective has been criticized for being too simplistic, neglecting the symbolic or non-material aspects of power relationships. For example, in the Polynesian and Melanesian concept of mana, it is the spiritual energies immanent in natural phenomena, places, objects and persons that characterize notions of power.

Recently, anthropologists have concentrated on the many different types of power both within and compared to other societies. For instance, the power of a shaman or priest is quite different from the power of a king over his serfs, which again is quite different from the power of the media. Power is not just seen as an ability or attribute of a person, but arising from the kinds of relations and processes between the members. In a democratic nation, the power of politicians is in large part controlled and determined by the people that they represent. Power may therefore be conceived as permeating all kinds of social interactions and relationships.

The theorist particularly associated with this diffuse view of power, , Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984), rejects the view that power is something which can be possessed and used in the interests of a particular individual or group. Foucault argues that power is an invisible force; it is exercised, rather than possessed, it is not the privilege of a ruling class, nobody has power—power simply exists. Foucault stresses the importance of surveillance in many of our social institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, etc.) and the intricate links of power with knowledge.

The fact that power is one of the most disputed concepts in the political and social sciences should not lead us to believe that it is ‘an essentially contested concept’, something so value-laden as to be beyond general consensus. The political scientist Keith Dowding helpfully distinguishes ‘outcome power’ from ‘social power’. Outcome power is the ability of an agent to bring about or help to bring about outcomes, whereas social power is the ability of an agent deliberately to change the incentive structures facing another agent (or agents) in order to bring about or help bring about outcomes. Social power is therefore a subset of the more general concept of outcome power.

Debates about the normative question ‘Who should have (or exercise) social power?’ and the empirical question ‘Who actually has (or exercises) decisive social power?’ are amenable to empirical testing and evaluation so long as authors can agree on the definition and measurement of power itself. So far, however, such agreement has proven elusive. Three fallacies which frequently accompany the discussion of political power appear to block the prospects of intelligent investigation. The first is the ‘blame fallacy’. It asserts that the fact that an agent, call her x, is powerless to bring about an outcome, call it o, implies that there is another agent, call him y, who is exercising power to prevent x achieving o. However, even if y has this potential power it does not follow that y is to blame. In other words, some people fail to distinguish between the ability of one agent to bring about an outcome, and the ability of some other agent to stop them.

The second fallacy, particularly common among sociologists, is to assume that social structures have power. However, describing the distribution of power in society by the structures or relations between people cannot mean that those structures or relations are themselves powerful. One reason why this fallacy is misleading is that the concept of power necessarily implies that power-holders are free to choose to use their power, but there is no way in which we can meaningfully say of structures that they choose or choose not to wield power. One should not confuse ‘structures’, which are relationships, with institutions which contain agents who can indeed wield power, though it is a much more complex question to address whether or not ‘ideas’ as opposed to ‘structures’ have power.

Finally, as Brian Barry (see below) has pointed out, it is common to confuse being lucky with being powerful, that is, to confuse the question of ‘Who benefits?’ with the question ‘Who has power?’. It is true that some people may be more systematically lucky than others, but that does not mean that they are necessarily powerful or responsible for making a state and society the way it is. You can be lucky and powerless, powerful and unlucky, lucky and powerful, and powerless and unlucky. DA RK BO\'L

See also bourgeoisie; capital; charisma; collective action; conflict theory; discourse; dominant ideology; élite theory; hegemony; ideology; pluralism; political science; rational choice; social closure; social control; social movement; social stratification; sociology of knowledge; state; structure-agency debate.Further reading B. Barry, Democracy, Power and Justice: Essays in Political Theory; , K. Dowding, Rational Choice and Political Power; , A. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory; , S. Lukes, Power: a Radical View.



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