Concept of Power

Power is the currency of influence, an invisible force that shapes decisions and defines relationships, weaving its way through the fabric of human interactions.


In the intricate world of political science, power reigns supreme. It’s the force that shapes the destinies of nations and individuals alike, much like money’s influence on economics. Understanding power is not just a scholarly pursuit; it’s the key to comprehending the dynamics of human society.

The Meaning of Power

Power is a multifaceted concept, encompassing the ability to achieve one’s objectives and desires, sometimes involving the use of force. It’s the capacity of individuals to assert their will over others, both at the individual and national levels. In global politics, it signifies a nation’s ability to manage its affairs without external interference. Power can be seen as unjust, but its exercise is an inherent trait of human social beings.

Conventional and Non-Conventional Views

The conventional view of power portrays it as an instrument of domination, where one can get things done even against others’ wishes. Robert Dahl famously described power as a relational concept. It’s inherently coercive, seeking to influence outcomes through force or pressure.

On the other hand, non-conventional perspectives, like Hannah Arendt’s, see power as a means of empowerment rather than coercion. Steven Lukes introduced a more nuanced understanding of power, identifying three dimensions: decision-making, agenda-setting (non-decision-making), and shaping desires, often in a subtle or insidious manner.

Definitions of Power

Various scholars have defined power in diverse ways:

Hans Morgenthau described it as “the power of a man over the minds and actions of other men.”

MacIver: “Power as the capacity in any relationship to command the service or compliance of others.”

David Easton: “Power is a relationship in which one group of persons is able to determine the action of another in the direction of the former’s own end.”

Lord Acton famously warned, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Talcott Parsons highlighted that power resides in society as a whole, rather than with a single individual or a small group. 

H.V Wiseman described “power as the ability to get one’s wishes carried out despite opposition.”

Bertand Russell: “Power is the production of intended efforts.”

Stephan L. Wasby: “Power is generally thought to involve bringing about an action by someone against the will or desire of another.”

Nietzsche regarded power as the capacity to define reality.

Pittacus succinctly stated, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

Theories of Power

Understanding power requires delving into various theories:

Elitist Theory of Power

The oldest theory of power is the Elitist theory, which distinguishes between elites and the common masses. It suggests that individuals must possess specific qualities to wield power. This theory can be traced back to thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli. Aristotle and Plato believed that reason and courage were essential qualities for the ruling class, while Machiavelli emphasized the need for a leader to be both a lion and a fox. Italian scholar Pareto, in his book ‘Mind and Society,’ introduced the Elitist theory of Power, identifying two types of elites – Foxes and Lions – and proposing the ‘Theory of Circulation of Elites,’ where power circulates within a closed loop, alternating between Foxes and Lions. There is no trickle-down effect of power in this theory. Pareto even stated that “the history of mankind is nothing but a graveyard of Aristocracy.” 

Other scholars like Mosca, Michels, and C. Wright Mills also discussed the concentration of power in the hands of a small elite group, challenging the notion of true power distribution in democracies. According to them, even in democracies, power primarily resides with a select few, forming a Power Elite, as observed in the USA.

Pluralist Theory of Power

Pluralists argue that power is dispersed among multiple organizations and associations. They view the USA not as an Oligarchy but as a ‘Polyarchy.’ In his book ‘Who Governs?,’ Robert Dahl asserts that regular individuals don’t possess power individually but as members of specific associations or interest groups. He believes that power is shared among various interest groups and lobbies. Therefore, in his view, the USA is not an Oligarchy but a Polyarchy, where power is not concentrated in the hands of a few or everyone, but rather it is distributed among many.

Marxist Theory of Power

According to Marxists, power has its roots in several factors, which encompass:

  • Ownership and management of economic assets, wealth, financial influence, etc.
  • Influence over ideas, accomplished through social media and the process of socialization.
  • Command over the state apparatus. 

In Marxist ideology, those who possess control over the means of production simultaneously wield political power. In other words, political power is a consequence of economic power. As a result, power is concentrated in the hands of the owning class (Bourgeoisie), who exercise authority and exploit the working class (Proletariat). Proletarian compliance within an unjust system is maintained through a combination of coercion and ideological influence, involving the creation of ‘False Consciousness’ by the Superstructure.

Gramsci’s Theory of Power (Theory of Hegemony)

According to Gramsci, Hegemony involves the construction of consent and represents the control of a society’s intellectual life through entirely cultural methods. He believes that the dominance of a particular social class manifests in two distinct ways: through either Domination achieved by coercion or through Intellectual and moral leadership, which constitutes Hegemony. 

In essence, Hegemony is a form of supremacy that is gained through agreement rather than force. He propagated “power as cultural Hegemony”. While ‘domination’ is enforced using the coercive mechanisms of the state, ‘hegemony’ is primarily wielded within civil society. Furthermore, this ideological superiority must have a strong economic foundation. Therefore, according to Gramsci, the working class can only achieve victory by first disseminating its worldview and system of values to other social classes.

Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Power: Public Participation in Civil Affairs

Hannah Arendt, a renowned political theorist, offers a unique perspective on power, emphasizing its role in public participation in civil affairs. Hannah Arendt represents a constructive view of Power. Her approach to understanding power can be stated as phenomenological, focusing on the essence and distinctions of power:

Power vs. Strength: Arendt makes a crucial distinction between power and strength. She argues that strength is an individual characteristic, while power is associated with collectivity. Power emerges when people come together to act in concert.

Power vs. Force: In her view, force is a natural phenomenon inherent in nature, whereas power is a social phenomenon shaped by human interactions.

Power vs. Violence: Arendt draws a line between violence, which is often associated with the state and authority, and power, which she believes belongs to the people.

Arendt’s conception of power is characterized by the following features:

  • It belongs to the realm of human society, emerging when people come together.
  • Power is not the possession of an individual but arises collectively.
  • It is sui generis, appearing on its own when people act in concert.

According to Arendt, power is fundamentally about “acting in concert with each other.” She emphasizes the necessity of public participation in civic and civil affairs to prevent authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies.

Michel Foucault’s Theory of Power/Knowledge

Michel Foucault, a postmodernist thinker, provides a distinctive perspective on power and knowledge, departing from traditional notions of power. He views power as a dynamic force that permeates every aspect of society and individuals. Some key aspects of Foucault’s theory of power include:

“Knowledge is Power”: Foucault famously asserted that knowledge and power are intertwined. One’s knowledge shapes their capacity to exercise power.

Power is Everywhere: Foucault’s view is that power circulates throughout society like blood in capillaries. It is not confined to institutions or structures but exists as a complex web of relations.

Complex Web of Relations: Foucault’s conception of power goes beyond traditional structures. He sees power as a network of relations, a dense and intricate web that influences individuals.

Power Is Productive: Unlike the repressive view of power, Foucault posits that power is productive. It creates identities and subjectivities, shaping how individuals perceive themselves and others.

Foucault’s theory that ‘Knowledge is Power’ is inspired by Nietzsche. He is known as the Father of Postmodernism. According to Nietzsche, “Will for truth is never separable from the will for power”

Foucault also posited that knowledge and power are intertwined, with power and knowledge being inseparable. He maintains that power is not merely repressive, meaning it doesn’t function by preventing us from pursuing our desires; instead, it is productive. Power is instrumental in shaping identity and subjectivity.

Foucault delineates different forms of power:

  • Disciplinary Power: This is a mechanism of power that governs the conduct of individuals within society.
  • Sovereign Power: It entails obedience to the laws of a monarch or a central authority figure.
  • Bio-Power: Foucault argues that Bio-power is a technology that emerged in the late eighteenth century for the management of populations. It involves the regulation of aspects like births, deaths, reproduction, and the health of the population.

The Three Dimensions of Power: Steven Lukes

In the realm of political theory, Steven Michael Lukes, a distinguished British political theorist born in 1941, has made significant contributions that continue to shape our understanding of power dynamics. As a professor at New York University, Lukes delves into key aspects of political theory, including individualism, rationality, liberalism, and the nuanced conception of power, conflict, and politics.

At the core of Lukes’ influence lies his groundbreaking idea of the three dimensions of power, outlined in his book “Power: A Radical View.” These dimensions unravel the multifaceted nature of power and how it manifests in various forms.

  • Decision-Making Power:

The first dimension revolves around decision-making power, emphasizing policy preferences through public political action. This dimension underscores the crucial role of influencing decisions on a broad scale, shaping the political landscape through public engagement.

  • Non-Decision-Making Power:

The second dimension, non-decision-making power, takes center stage in setting the agenda and guiding debates. It sheds light on the subtle ways in which power operates, influencing discussions and shaping outcomes even before formal decisions are made.

  • Ideological Power:

Lukes introduces the third dimension—ideological power—as a critique of the first two dimensions. This dimension explores the ability to influence people’s thoughts, even when they may not consciously desire such influence. It delves into the realm of shaping perceptions and ideologies, adding a layer of complexity to the traditional understanding of power.

Overall According to Steven Lukes, “Power is a structural arrangement in which perceptions of People are shaped to perpetuated domination with any conflict.”

Three Faces of Power: Keneth Bouldings

Expanding the discourse on power, Kenneth Boulding introduces the concept of the three faces of power, offering a complementary perspective to Lukes’ dimensions.

  • Threat Power: Stick Method

Boulding’s first face of power is represented by threat power—a force symbolized by the “Stick.” This coercive power is wielded by military and police forces, embodying the authoritative and often intimidating presence of the state.

  • Economic Power: Deal Method

The second face, economic power, is characterized by exchanges or deals. Boulding explores the transformative nature of power, where one person’s behavior is influenced by another through economic transactions, illustrating the intricate dynamics of power in societal interactions.

  • Integrative Power: Kiss Method

Boulding’s third face, integrative power, focuses on obtaining power through obligations. This dimension emphasizes the capacity to inculcate loyalty, respect, and commitment, often seen in family and religious institutions through the imposition of obligations.


Power, a multifaceted and pervasive force, weaves through the fabric of human societies. It takes various forms and is distributed in different ways, from authoritarian rule to democratic participation. Theories on power, such as elitism, pluralism, Marxism, and Foucault’s insights, offer diverse lenses to comprehend its dynamics. The concept of power underscores the intricate interplay between control, consent, and knowledge. It reminds us that power isn’t monolithic; it can be coercive or consensual, repressive or productive. Understanding power is vital for navigating the complexities of governance, social structures, and human relations in an ever-evolving world.

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