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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
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.