The basic idea is that the social science concept of power simply continues the one we use in daily Western life, which is fundamentally Weber’s (because that was where he got his definition!), that power is an individual’s ability to get his way in the face of resistance. Then there are the problems that everyone who gives it a moment’s thought has seen, that we have no actual object to measure, and no units of measurement, and so can only note after the fact of a struggle that someone more or less got his way and someone else did not, which might more or less help or hurt either side over the longer term. And so from there, we can see all the subtle ways social arrangements do favor some people more than, and often at the expense of, others, without being able to see an overt struggle (for example from Krugman’s column today, we can see class relations clearly in the unwillingness of central bankers to raise inflation even a couple of points, which would help workers and the unemployed a lot but might not help bond holders even tho it might not hurt them, and even tho over a longer run with high unemployment and low interest rates, everyone will suffer from producing well below the optimum/maximum.) And then from there, we can get all sorts of strange constructions and formulations such as “the powers of the powerless,” “empowerment,” “the realpower holder,” “powerless language,” and so on. OK, so why in the world would anyone with any sense think the use of this concept would help them understand anything, and why would an editor ever publish a paper that used this concept? Clearly it would be nice to have a concept for social action where there is resistance, a concept parallel to money in relations of mutual agreement, as in markets. It is too bad that power doesn’t fill the bill. Well, once you reach a paradox, at least you’ve got a chance to get somewhere.
All this arises from methodological individualism, the foundation of our own culture’s daily life. If we take relationships as our basic unit of observation, matters can look very different in three directions. In one direction we can see that this concept is part of our culture’s symbolism, a figurative use of language that lets us see human social interaction as the same as interacting with nature, as a way we explain social action after the fact, by supposing we can manipulate other people the way we manipulate nature, that if we know what to do and have the strength and desire, we just do what we want to. Give me a level and a fulcrum and I will move the moon. Give me a carrot and a stick and a god, and I’ll get these people to build a pyramid. So if we don’t get our way, either our knowledge or our capacity or our will were evidently insufficient, any or all came up short of requirements. And since successful social action is so rare, we would really like to be able to account for it when we see it and then figure out how to reproduce it if at all possible. Analogic thinking can be helpful to people with a practical problem.
In a second direction, we use this symbolism as ideology to reinforce hierarchy , that the king commands and everyone carries out his commands. This often works, more or less, in human life, or at least it seems to enough to ascribe the ability to get his way to the king. Everybody does something and then the successful result is ascribed to the power of the ruler. From the bottom up, unemployed people today might lack the desire to seek employment, might lack the knowledge they need for today’s advancing job market, or might even be unable (physically or mentally) to do the work that needs done today; they might even lack all three! Ideology usually finds a way to ascribe success to the top and failure to the bottom. And thinking about this reflexively, it may be that people often do not resist more because they are buffaloed by the idea that the ruler has power, which means he has the will and capacity and knowledge to defeat their initiatives. Others, tho, have noted that you have to strike while the iron is hot, take the bull by the horns, not to miss your tide. Audacity and conviction and maybe Zen will make your usual waffling unstoppable. You can’t stop men who want to be free. We use power figuratively a lot, but I do not see any way social scientists can use it literally to discuss or explain human social interaction. This much is typical anthropological demystification and the continuing effort to discover our own unconscious ethnocentrism.
The third direction is what I think might be my own contribution to all this, that we can use methodological relationalism to get power and the increasingly popular concept of agency sorted out relative to each other in a way that helps us understand agency as well. The path is thru game theory and the concepts in game theory of 1) strategy and 2) uncertainty (as distinct from risk). Everyone seems to use agency to mean an individual’s capacity to act on the basis of choice, which oddly enough is constructed in much the same way as our concept of power, and might be interpreted as the opposite of power as it is always used, that sufficient agency might be the antidote to applications of power. I have never heard this said in the literature, however, but I wouldn’t be surprised to turn it up. Latour used agency at his talk Friday to mean subject/objects whose actions affect us even when those actors lack intentionality, and he worked his analysis then over to the idea of relationships in which we might be interested in what can exist in a way that made “object/subject” one relationship that could be treated as a unit of analysis. His list of relationships that could be units of observation was open ended.
As an alternative to having to think of power as a one sort of relationship between people, as Foucault pushes us to do, rather than as a property of individuals, we can think of power as a symbol in a strategic relationship in which what you get is a result not only of what you do, but what Alter does too, and no one can determine (in either senses of “know in advance” or “make happen”) what the other will do because this is a relationship of uncertainty as modelled in a poker game or prisoners dilemma. In this way, agency ceases to be a property of individuals with longer or shorter list of possible choices on which to base their action (and of course the putative power-move of limiting other’s choices even down to zero), and also ceases to be only the subordinate in an agent-principal relationship, but becomes a fundamental property of human social relations, that in our human social relations we always have choice and cannot not always have choice, the definition of uncertainty from the point of view of Ego.
Creativity can always enter here in trying to figure out what to do next. And it can help us think about how we do use the concept power in everyday life, eg, each presidential election brings novelty to campaign practices, and then one side wins. But we never say that this victory at the polls gives the winner power over the loser, even on a party basis. The winner wins office, the reins of government. Karl Popper once observed that the greatest accomplishment of democracy is that it can change office holders without the current one having to die. Social scientists win by becoming able to finally confine power to a folk-explanation as figurative speech, while coming to understand human social interaction accurately as a strategic relationship always already characterized by agency, the permanent presence of choice from the point of view of the acting individual. And from here the task begins afresh of understanding how people get things done socially beyond the figure of speech that somebody makes somebody else do things. And as well, the concept of strategy frees us from necessarily characterizing individuals’ motives, especially as always self-serving. Enduring strategic social relations might be cooperative, competitive and hierarchical, even modulating among these possibilities thru time and within enduring social formations.
This different way of looking at both power and agency can possibly help clear various situations up, such as torture and slavery at the one end, and the fall of the USSR and the economic reforms of PRC at the other end. And overall, the argument goes in Latour’s direction, that what we always need to do is figure out both the basis for human social action and how we represent the world in which we act (and the feedback loop between them). But what I do not have is any ethnography or systematic data that I can now explain with this alternative conception. Of course, the old way never explained anything, but I don’t want to look like I’m in the same boat too….