Understanding Social Power – Part 1
May 28, 2015 10:37 am / Leave a comment
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Part 1 – What is “social Power”
Social power is the force that directs and coordinates human action. It’s that simple, and yet that complex. The non-random acts of others that benefit you in some way is the active form of social power. It is the power to get things done or to stop others from doing things. It is the power to influence the behavior of others to suit your interests.
On a grand scale, social power is the force that makes, grows, sells, protects and transports things. It is the force that gets done all the work it takes for people to live together and thrive. Whenever people collaborate or coordinate, or whenever people act to block the coordination or cooperation of others, these actions are examples of social power at work.
Actions by another can benefit you directly, such as when a volunteer helps you get elected to the school board or when an employee puts in a day’s work at your store. On an personal scale, your social power becomes manifest when a friend drops by to help build your deck or students you teach line up in the hall at your command. The tangible benefits of social power can also be indirect, like when the town paves the road in front of your house or your local grade school wins an academic award thereby raising property values in your community.
Just like energy and power in the field of Physics, social power has both the active state described above and a potential state. Social power is fungible and can be accumulated (stored), traded, transferred to others or spent in exchange for human action. In its potential form, and in certain social contexts, it may rightly be referred to as social capital. At each level of social complexity, social capital takes many forms, each with its own set of symbols and rules.
Think for a moment about all the ways you can influence loved ones, or your peers, the people where you work or play, your customers, the people you meet and so forth. On an interpersonal level you have bonds of love and friendship, personal charm and charisma, verbal skills, maybe an attractive appearance, intelligence, collaborative skills and so on. On a larger scale you have natural abilities, acquired skills, knowledge, wisdom, social connections, organizational position or authority, fame, prestige and your personal accumulation of wealth, to name a few examples.
Wealth is an interesting aspect of social power because it can be more easily quantified. This sets it apart from fame, skill or most other sources of social power. It is easy to transfer or spend. Wealth is as much a medium for the exchange of social power as it is a medium for the exchanges of goods and services, yet wealth as a form of social power is often overlooked. It is studied extensively in the field of Micro and Macro Economics but it is not well integrated into the larger social economy. (More on this topic in part 2 at a later date.)
On a still larger scale, there is great social power in our big human organizations and institutions of government and commerce and religion. There is the coercive social power of great armies and law enforcement agencies. There is immense power organized around ideologies and religions that greatly influence the social behavior of millions of people. There is the power in our great institutions of learning and enormously influential multi-national corporations.
Every organization and every individual has some social capital to influence the behavior of others. A fewer number of groups and individuals have vastly more social capital than most of us. We recognize these powerful people when we are in their presence and it alters our own behavior. Powerful people are able to turn everything to their advantage, which is why they are both feared and respected.
The sum of all actions or potential actions on your behalf, if it could be calculated, would be a measure of your own social power. Most of us have more than we think and all of us could use it to better advantage if we understood it better. But no matter how you calculate your social power, it cannot be precisely measured. There is a perceptual dynamic to it that defies attempts to measure it.
These examples illustrate that social power can be accumulate, converted to other forms, transferred to other people or can be used to coordinate the physical actions of others. These operations are essential to an understanding of social power. But the important starting point is understanding that social power is the force that directs and coordinates human actions.
In the next parts of this discussion I will discuss:
– How social power operates at various scales of social complexity
– How it is accrued, converted for other forms, transferred between people and communicated or spent to bring direct coordinated actions.
Please see the Introduction to this series at: http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/04/understanding-social-power.html