#learn power wednesdays: Power theories


Have you noticed that when we think, we like to put things into neat boxes? The level of complexity just about bearable seems to be two dimensions, which graphically translates into four fields strung between a y and an x axis – We are not happy until we have fit reality into a four-field matrix!

Below is a take to classify theories of
power accordingly. Power is assumed to be either repressive or constitutive (y axis), with theories either focusing on action or on a system (x axis). 


“Dimensions of social power”
David, “Logik der Macht”, Diss. phil., Berlin: Otto Suhr
Institut, 2006)

It sounds a bit jargon-y, but bear with me…

Let’s first have a look at (1), theories on repressive power and action: Theories of this quadrant are interested in how repressive power shapes social processes. Under this heading falls Max Weber’s definition of power in “Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft”, power as the ability to impose one’s own will, even against resistance.

Under (2), we enter the realm of repressive power operating as a system or structure. This category includes Karl Marx’s concept of ideology, but also Max Weber’s bureaucratic power. Johan Galtung termed the concept structural violence. As per Pierre Bourdieu’s symbolic violence, a rule is rendered perennial by the lingering threat of coercion. 

Quadrant (3) regroups theories that pair constitutive power and action: Here, social processes create power, as in Hannah Arendt’s concept of public power and Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action.
Communicative action can happen in a forum free of coercion, allowing
self-constitution and enhancement. For Arendt, it is individuals acting, in concert and in conflict, who create public space and thereby political power itself.

Last, but not least, we have (4), theories where power creates structure: Weighty precursors are Baruch Spinoza and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with Spinoza theorising a reciprocal relationship between state and individual, or Hegel linking the subjective spirit
of individuals and the objective spirit of public institutions. More contemporary are John Dewey’s theory of
democratic power, Gramsci’s work on hegemony, Foucault’s theory of discursive power, or Parsons’ and Luhmann’s media theory. Power flows from a social system’s potential to coordinate human activity and resources in order to accomplish goals. The distinction between the constitutive or repressive character of power as a system is sometimes obfuscated by thinkers of this category.

Johanna M

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