MARCH 6, 2017


In this article we examine power and try to define it, looking at different kinds of power and how they appear in our lives. Different sources of power are also discussed, and we explore how power relates to people in conflict with each other, especially concerning the imbalance of power. Obviously, those who have greater power have the ability to affect those with lesser power; however, as we will see in this chapter, everyone has power to a certain extent, and the ability to make their power felt. We analyze the different ways power can be put to dangerous uses, as well as its positive aspects, and try to look internally at our own lives and situations to see what our relationship to power is.                    

What is Power?                    

Power has been defined by many different people in many different ways. Generally, power can be defined as the capacity to bring about change or effects, in yourself, in your immediate surroundings, and in others.1 This means that the primary characteristic of power is the capacity to do things, to make things happen. Within the scope of this definition, power can be further divided into opposing but related subcategories. These subcategories are: Potential versus Kinetic, Identive versus Assertive, and Social versus Physical. We will also look at Spiritual power, and how it can affect our lives. It is important to remember that each of these different types of power is fluid and flows into each other, not sharply divided. Also, all of us make use of these different types of power everyday, sometimes simultaneously.

Potential vs. Kinetic                    

Power can be defined, as it is in physics, as both potential and kinetic.2 Potential power is power that exists, but has not necessarily been expressed in any physical way. The potential it contains, however, has the capacity to bring about change, so it has to be considered a type of power. Kinetic power, on the other hand, is the actual expression of power by doing something, changing something or making something happen. The difference can best be demonstrated by an example. If you are driving a car and you indicate with your blinker that you intend to switch to the left lane, causing the car behind you to slow down in reaction, you are using potential power. If you merely switch to the left lane, without using your blinker and the car behind you slows down in response, you are using kinetic power. In both cases the result is the same, the car behind you to slow down in response to you, but the methods were different. This distinction is important to make because usually when people think of power they are only thinking about kinetic power, the kind we can measure and see. But it is important to be aware of potential power as well, as it has a very strong influence over us. We are influenced by the potential power of others, and our own potential power can affect others even if we are not aware of it.                  

Identive vs. Assertive                    

The second set of subcategories for power are identive and assertive. Identive power refers to power which derives from who you are, from your identity as an individual. Assertive power refers to power that is intentional, when you assert yourself to bring about a change you desire.

Identive power is related to potential power in the sense that it can exist without any tangible physical expression. The difference is that identive power is usually unintentional, whereas potential power can be intentional, as we have seen. Identive power is the power that comes from a person’s mere existence, which causes others “to take notice, to take him into account, to compensate for him.” A person walking down the street can unintentionally express identive power, “If he is well dressed, young, and handsome, he has the power to attract admiring glances. If he is also tall and muscular, he may cause some especially timid souls to be careful they do not bump into him.” This has obvious relevance for people who are in a conflict situation. When we see someone from the other side, their presence has the power to influence us just because of who they are, and usually it is a negative influence.

Assertive power is different from identive power in that it is intentional, purposeful and focused. “We transform assertive power into a means towards the accomplishment of some goal, the gratification of some need, the satisfaction of some interest.” This kind of assertive power is related to kinetic power, in that it is expressed physically in a way that can be seen in ourselves, our environment or in others. Assertive power differs from kinetic power in that it is always intentional, whereas kinetic power can be intentional but can also be unintentional. Assertive power is power which is projected outward, and this projected power can be expressed in a number of ways.

Social vs. Physical

Assertive power, when it is directed towards another person or persons can also be broken down into a number of different categories, depending on the method which is used. Assertive power that is directed towards another’s self, meaning their psychological field, their    perceptions, motivations, interests and intentions can be categorized as Social power. This is opposed to Physical power which is directed towards the physical body of another person or persons. The difference between these two types of powers can be illustrated by the difference between medical doctors and psychoanalysts. While both medical doctors and psychoanalysts are concerned with healing their patients, the former deals exclusively with the body, while the later focuses on the self. Since our focus in this curriculum is on reconciliation in the context of conflict, we will talk about both the social and physical aspects of power, however we will have more to say on social power.

Physical power, especially in the context of conflict, is expressed mainly through Force, which is intentionally and physically making a person do something contrary to his or her will. The emphasis here is on the use of the physical power to overcome the resistance of another’s will. By this definition, someone who tells you to give them all your money or they will kill you is not using force, but using coercion (something we will discuss more later). If, however, you resist and this same person hits you on the head and takes your money, in spite of your willful opposition, this is the use of force. Similarly, “If a prisoner walks before a firing squad, he does it willfully. But if he is dragged screaming and fighting to the stake to be tied against his efforts, then he is being forced.” This distinction, especially given the examples, may seem unfair. Usually we think of the use of threatening language and menacing behavior as force. But it is an important distinction to make, for “Everyone can be forced against their will. They can be tied up, knocked unconscious, carried off to jail, regardless of their will’s opposition. But no one can be forced to do something against his will. He can only be coerced.” This is important to remember. We alone are responsible for our actions, and everyone, no matter how powerless they may seem, has the power to resist control by others.

In contrast to physical power, social power encompasses the many other forms of assertive power which do not involve force. While physical power is usually linked to conflict, we will see how social power can help bring about reconciliation. It is social in that it is about the relationship and interactions between people. There is, however, one form of social power which is closely linked to physical power, specifically Coercive power which is often mistaken for a form of force.

Coercive power is the capability to threaten a person into choosing one undesirable behavior over another. This can be done by making it impossible for the person to avoid choosing, and letting them know clearly what the consequences of their choice will be. Physical force and coercion are the most visible expressions of power, and are often the only thing people think about when they consider power, and therefore our view of power is usually negative. It is no wonder that a focus on coercion has tended to emphasize the coercive basis of the state and state relations, to the neglect of the other basis of power such as competence, altruism, love, and rewards; that love and power have been seen as opposites, rather than essentially entwined; and that justice has been seen as ideally independent of such power, rather than as based on effective power.

Bargaining power involves two people having wants or needs they can exchange. Both of them have to be willing to forgo the gratification of one want or need in exchange for the other. This is a form of power where both sides have different, even opposing wants, however it is positive in the sense that it brings both sides together and a compromise is negotiated. While it may not be ideal, it is better than resorting to force or coercion, and for this reason is related to reconciliation.

The next form of social power is Intellectual power. This is the capacity to persuade a person into believing or doing something. This is a form of power that is also connected to reconciliation because it involves dialogue between people. No coercion or force is needed. Instead, an appeal to the person’s intellect is used. Some of the uses of intellectual power include advertising, propagandizing, converting, proselytizing, and convincing.

Authoritative power is a form of social power that has to do with legitimacy. If a policeman orders us to do something, we recognize that they have legitimate authority over us, not because of who they are as an individual, but because of their position and what they represent. This is a result of psychological and cultural conditioning. Each culture endows certain people or positions with legitimate authority (in some cultures seeing someone wearing a uniform, or sitting behind a desk, for other cultures its someone who is elderly), and we feel an obligation to obey them and respect their authority.

Another type of social power which we do not usually associate with power at all is Altruistic power. Altruistic power is the capacity to use love to induce a person into doing something. But this is not the same as manipulative power, which we will see. It is because of genuine love. For, “when someone you love asks you to do something, you do so not because of persuasion or legitimacy or bargaining or coercion, but because your loved one asks.”                    

The final form of social power is Manipulative power, which is the capability to control the situation and opportunities of a person to cause him to do something. This includes control over the perceptions that this person is subjected to, which can be seen in its extreme form in totalitarian governments, where access to information is censored and there is very tight control over the media and education (among other things). A less sinister example would be parents who do not allow their children to watch a scary movie. In any case, it is controlling a person by manipulating and managing what they perceive.                                

Spiritual Power         

The effect of spiritual power on people’s lives is very significant. This represents the power of God, or the power people have through God. There are different understandings of what spiritual power is for different people.

Imbalance of Power                    

Any discussion of power, especially in the context of conflict and reconciliation, must include a look at power imbalance and the dynamics of power between conflicting groups. Power does not occur in a vacuum. All relationships between individuals and between groups of people are affected by power relations, from child/parent relationships to citizen/state relationships. In conflict, two groups are struggling to assert their power over each other, often using force, but also making use of the other forms of power we have seen in this chapter so far. Often, in a conflict both sides will portray themselves as the weaker party, and paint their enemy as the stronger party, but there are actual indicators which can help measure concretely which side has more power. Social psychologists identify minorities as those who have restricted access to resources, and who are the losing side of social justice issues. For example, restricted access to resources could be basic elements such as food or water, but it could also be education and employment opportunities. When we speak about minorities, we do not mean only those who are numerically smaller, but also those who have a reduced access to resources and who suffer discrimination. A good example of this is the grouping of men and women. Social psychologists group women as a minority in many societies because of their social status and access to resources, even though numerically they are not a minority (and are in many cases a majority). It is important to remember that because of the imbalance of power between minorities and majorities, the group that is weaker (the minorities) thinks about the dynamics of the relationship they have with the majority group more often than the majority group does. They have to think about it every day because they are constantly faced with the fact of their powerless position when compared to the majority. Therefore, “relative to majority members, minority members are more likely to be mindful of the intergroup dimensions of their life space.” For minorities, the question of power is inescapable. “Conversely, majority members can be more mindless in this respect, at least as long as they don’t feel threatened by an assertive minority.”               

The reason the majority members feel threatened by an assertive minority is because, as we have seen, the seemingly ‘powerless’ minority group actually has great power. This is especially true in a situation of conflict, where any concession to the other side is seen as a loss to your own side. Thus, “Those who oppose these actions feel threatened by the possibility of resource redistribution because they see society as a zero-sum game and because any change in the way resources are distributed threatens their group interests and their group position.”             

The Effects of the Imbalance of Power on the Conflict                    

The social divide between the minority group and the majority group can have a huge effect on both groups when they are in conflict. This divide can be expressed in a number of ways. First, through Individual Discrimination, second through Institutional Discrimination, and third through Behavioral Asymmetry.

Individual Discrimination: At this level, the power hierarchy is seen only through individuals. This can be defined as “the simple, daily, and sometimes quite inconspicuous individual acts of discrimination by one individual against another.” This can be seen in a number of different ways, for example, if a woman is passed over for a job or job promotion because the boss does not feel comfortable with having a woman in a position of leadership.

Institutional Discrimination: Contrary to individual discrimination, institutional discrimination is widespread. It can be identified as institutional decisions which negatively impact minority groups, either through unfair allocation of resources or through unjust treatment. In its extreme form, institutional discrimination is “the public and legally sanctioned violence and threat of violence perpetrated by organs of the state and disproportionately directed toward members of subordinate groups.” An example of this would be legally sanctioned enslavement of Africans in the United States. Behavioral Asymmetry: While individual discrimination and institutional discrimination both refer to the actions of the stronger party (the majority), behavioral asymmetry refers to the actions of the weaker, oppressed. Their behavior is asymmetrical because they do not act consistently, and their behavior will vary depending on the situation they find themselves in. They may say one thing when among their own group members, complaining bitterly about their treatment by the majority group, but when they are with members of the majority group, they will censor their own words. The result of this behavior, which is usually influenced by fear and feelings of inferiority, are that “subordinates actively participate in and contribute to their own subordination.” This relates to what we saw before with institutional discrimination and collective punishment. People want to avoid punishment so they will do all they can to appease their oppressors. Generally speaking, most people tend “to copy the behavior of the people around them.” This makes it more difficult to be the one who will step out of line, and risk being labeled a trouble-maker.

Consequences of Power Abuse                    

As we have seen in this chapter, the abuse of power can be very dangerous, and can lead to horrific things, especially in conflict situations where violence, hate, and even genocide can occur.

Many people wonder, how could this happen? How can people treat each other with such cruelty? Unfortunately, research has also demonstrated that “Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent,” are often “seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance,” of the way the situation is explained to them. Consequently, “A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.”

While this is true, it is important to remember that power, in and of itself, is not an evil thing. In fact, it is needed in order for us to be able to do anything. Remember our definition of power: the capacity to bring about change or effects, in yourself, in your immediate surroundings, and in others. Martin Buber wrote, “Power is intrinsically guiltless; it is the precondition for the actions of man. The problematic element is the will-to-power, greedy to seize and establish power,” which is not concerned with power for the sake of action, but with power for the sake of control. Therefore, “Not power but power hysteria is evil.” We cannot live without power, but we have to be cautious with power, aware of how it is being used by both others and ourselves.                    

If we observe abuse of power, something which always occurs in conflict, we need to stand against it if reconciliation is our goal. True reconciliation can never take place in the presence of oppression and injustice.

There are different strategies for resisting the abuse of power, one of the most effective, especially if you are the one being abused, is non-violent resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are inspirational examples of this type of resistance, because even though they were seemingly powerless, they were able to show that through their conviction and courage to withstand oppression, they held enormous power.

Overall, the most important principle to keep in mind is to be aware. Be aware of power being used around you. Be aware of others using power, and be aware of your own power and how you use it.                    


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