There were quite a lot of questions about (and some disagreements with) my tweet about the four sources of social power. As Twitter is not a great platform for thoughtful commentary, I thought that I would expand on it in this blog. What follows is a somewhat modified version of Michael Mann’s theory explained in his Sources of Social Power. This basic framework, with a few modifications, have gained a lot of acceptance among sociologists of power, for example, Bill Domhoff.
First, what is social power (as distinct from physical power measured in watts)? Simply put, it’s ability to influence other people’s behavior. Some theorists add “against their resistance” or something like that, but I am against adding this qualifier, because it eliminates one of the most effective forms of soft power—persuasion. If you are persuaded, you do it of your own volition.
Next, then, what are the main forms of social power? My approach is very much that of a natural scientist. I like to connect society-level dynamics of power to “atomic” or “elementary particle” interactions. The atom of power is a dyadic interaction between an influencer and the influenced. There are four general ways one person can affect the behavior of another, ranging from the crudest to the most subtle ones.
Coercion: I can force somebody to do my will, either physically or by threats. Mann calls this form of power “military,” but that’s too restrictive, because coercion is wielded by, yes, the military, but also by the courts and the police, as well as by gangsters. Also, coercion, or punishment, can be not only physical injury, but take other forms, such as a prison term, or imposing a fine, or threatening to take your house away.
Economic power: I can pay you to do something (or to avoid doing something). This is less crude than coercion, but still quite direct and easily understandable. Economic power is wielded, quite obviously, by wealth-holders.
Administrative power: I can order you to do something by virtue of being your boss, a superior in an organization. Mann calls this “political power” but, in my view, politicians (especially if we think about politicians in democracies or republics) start by wielding persuasion (the last form of social power), and only once they are elected exercise administrative power. In its pure form (but see below) administrative power is exercised without coercion or material pay-offs. We (or most humans) are simply used to following routines, and one of them is to follow the direction from the boss. Administrative power is the one that has the greatest effect on behavior of people living in complex societies organized as states (which means, most of us), because it regulates our day-to-day behavior—when we get up in the morning, drive to work (following traffic rules), perform our jobs, etc.
Persuasion, or ideological power: this is the most subtle, but extremely effective (when it works) form of power. It is especially effective because it is often not appreciated enough, or even not considered as a form of power. After all you end up doing what I want because you want it, right? Persuasion is exercised by aspiring politicians, orators, religious figures, thought leaders, and opinion influencers working for the traditional media or, more recently, on social media. It is also wielded by those who have a lot of “prestige,” such as popular actors and actresses and other celebrities. Uber wealthy also acquire prestige, and can influence how other people think or behave even without paying them.
One important caveat: this is a model, which breaks down complex reality in simple terms. In real life, in most situations several kinds of power are often mixed together. The most “promiscuous” one is probably the administrative type, because when your boss orders you to do something, the specters of other kinds of power often stand in the back. You can get punished (fired) or, alternatively, rewarded by a pay increase; and persuasive, charismatic bosses are more effective than those that rely merely on carrot and stick.
Understanding the sources of social power is very important if we want to understand how our societies operate, and why they sometimes step on the path of political disintegration. The key question is who are those who concentrate social power in their hands and how they cohere in networks of power. But that’s a topic for another time.