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Understanding Social Power

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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW


What does it really mean when we say, “that person is very powerful.” Or what is it about an organization or corporation that makes us think of it as being powerful. The word “power” has clear meaning when we are talking about a car motor, or water crashing down a cliff side. Yet when we apply the word to people or organizations it is more difficult to pin point just what we mean. The power we are speaking of is social power, and why a person has it and how it operates often seems mysterious.

My purpose here is to describe in brief my understanding of social power, what it is and how it operates. I have read books and articles on the subject but have not been very satisfied. I found the language of these works to be somewhat inaccessible or ambiguous. Also, the focus is often too narrow for such a broad topic.

I have no special credentials to bring to this task beyond a lifetime of observation as a social worker in the fields of mental health and child welfare. I consider myself privileged to have observe people on many different levels from the intimacy of their homes to the halls of government power. This discussion, then, is intended more as a personal reflection than a scholarly pursuit and a hopeful effort to raise a productive discourse on this topic.

While each of us understands social power and responds to it in our daily lives, it remains difficult to define. This is partially because it is so pervasive and takes so many forms. It operates on every level of human interactions from the intimate to the geopolitical. For social beings, social power is our atmosphere. It surrounds us like an ocean, is essential for our survival and yet as invisible and ever changing as the wind.

Social power is often expressed in symbols. We all recognize obvious symbols of social power, like an American flag or a corporate logos. We bestow social power on our politicians when we elect them to govern. We ascribe power to people who attain “powerful position” in their company or organization. There are also very clear status symbols of power, such as a police uniform, or a Gucci handbags or the Armani suits worn by successful business people. We recognize social power when we see the skyline of great cities or the grandeur of beautiful cathedrals and synagogues. Social power is often very evident in religion. It is seen in religious symbols of worship. The special attire of priests, ministers or rabbis confer a measure of social power in the form of respect or prestige. The ornate garments of the Catholic pope during a high mass still invoke the power of ancient Roman.

But the absence of power is just as evident. We see it in the beggar or the homeless woman on the street. We sense the absence of power in the ghettos or in the desolation of small, redundant rural towns in far flung places. We sense it in young children or in the elderly living out their lives in a nursing home. We even sense it in our pets.

We all recognize and respond to social power every day. We know there is a certain pecking order in our families, among our friends or among our colleagues at work. We often exercise or respond to social power without giving it much thought. We acquiesce to authority figures such as a parent, a teacher, a rabbi, a boss or a judge. We often accede to the requests of a trusted friend or a loved one and expect the same in return. Conversely, we are very aware of social power when it is imposed on us or we are imposing it on others.

Aware of it or not, in big ways and small, we are constantly exercising or responding to social power. How we experience it goes by many names; respect, duty, obligation, intimidation, pressure, fear, expectation, demand, request. We also experience our own social power as internal feelings. We might feel empowered, entitled, privileged, respected, or even feared. On the other hand, we feel weak, vulnerable, shamed or disempowered when we are ignored, rebuked, humiliated or abused. Suffice it to say, we are a massively social species. We have evolved keen social instincts and most of us develop significant social skills throughout our lifetime.

In future installments I will define social power and trace its many forms over the spectrum of human activity. At every stage, after each post, I hope that you, the reader, will provide your reactions, insights and ideas to help improve this project. No contribution is too small or too grand, so please take the time to comment and share your thoughts and ideas. Thank you.


  1. avwalters says:

    We are pack animals and, as such, we need to have social norms that support hierarchy. We are tribal and, as such we need to distinguish between “we” and “they.”

    New psychological studies are demonstrating that, within these basic structures, we are also “brain-oriented” differently, and that this distinction divides us almost in half. Half of the world self-defines in terms of authority, efficiency and fear-based decision making. One can easily see how this proffers a survival advantage. The other half’s brains are oriented towards individualism, reality-based decision-making and critical thinking. These folks might not do well in a pack, but from a survival perspective, they engage in outlying behaviors that have their own survival advantages.

    What’s frightening is how modern psychology, marketing and politics has learned to manipulate these basic types–to direct power to the American Almighty–dollar value.

    Where do you fall on the scale?

  2. TamrahJo says:

    Dear DataHeart – 🙂
    You know how I love your posts and way of being, so forgive me if by taking you up on your offer to respond, I inadvertently offend – 🙂 It is not intended to be slight towards you or your thoughts so eloquently expressed!

    Yes – we are a social animal and we have learned, through years of evolution to find safety within the ‘herd’ –

    Yes – we all learn at a very early age how to get our needs met in both good and not-so-good ways and given success or social approval for our ways of getting what we want/need, we will continue behaving in the same manner –

    I believe that we as a species, have built a series of systems that thrive off blind acceptance, conformity and conflict as means to garner support, rather than anything that can survive the test of scrutiny, transparency, cooperation –

    It takes a great deal of courage to be willing to sacrifice yourself – your family, those who depend upon you for their daily bread, in order to stand up to the wrong thinking of the ‘majority’ of the current ‘social power’ – unless you are already backed into a corner and having nothing left to lose –
    I think this is why as various areas of the world better the median standard of living, the worse it gets, overall –

    As the means of exerting social power become ever more complex and nuanced, so to must our ability to evade the path of ‘going along’ – It is not an easy subject to tackle and appreciate your willingness to –

    🙂 As always, love your detailed and thought-provoking posts –
    Submitted opinion with all due respect to you –
    Tamrah Jo

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