What is Power? What is a Power Structure?

To define a power structure, we must first define power.

Power has many definitions:

  • Scott (2001: 1): “In its most general sense, power is the production of causal effects.”
  • Lukes (1968: 634): “…the bringing about of consequences…”
  • Wrong (1979: 1): “…an actor’s general ability to produce successful performances…”

Power is a relationship

We must understand that power is a relationship. Power as a social relationship has two main “agents:” the principal and the subaltern.

In this relationship the principal wields power that affects the subaltern. Akin to the power interdependency approach of Piven and Cloward (2005), Scott (2001: 2) argues that the subaltern can wield a counterforce that they choose and that impacts the principal. Thus, the power relationship has some choice between the two agents.

But at root, power is a causal chain, in which there is a purpose and intent.

The intent of the principal is to restrict the choices of the subaltern.

Difference between Having Power and Wielding Power

We should distinguish between the exercise of power and the holding of it (Scott 2001: 4).

The exercise of power is an intention to produce a specific effect. Power is also a capacity, something that the principal holds but does not have to exercise in every interaction. Power infers conflict, though the conflict may not be overt, or even consciously known to the two agents. The principal can wield power without action. This occurs when the subaltern does not act, or even think to act, against the principal. The subaltern can anticipate the exercise of power of the principal, even if the anticipation is not grounded in reality. This subjective sense of the other’s power is a source (or capacity) of the principal (Scott 2001: 5).

Power can thus be wielded without being exercised: “…a powerful person who does not exercise power is like a miser who hoards a fortune but lives as a pauper” (Scott 2001: 5).

Max Weber and Power

Max Weber had a famous notion of power that has been frequently invoked and that Scott (2001: 6) paraphrases: “Weber saw power as manifested in the chances that an actor’s will can be imposed on the other participants in a social relationship, even against their resistance (Weber 1914: 942).” Power is asymmetrical and hierarchical, and a zero sum game (where one’s win is the other’s loss).

In Weber’s view, there is a distribution of power (this has implications for how power, and political equality and inequality, is measured). Indeed, power is mainly studied in terms of its episodic use. The frequent example is nation-states and includes such topics as economic power. “A key area of research has been the relationship between economic power and political power, as explored in elitist and Marxist theories of ruling classes and power elites” (Scott 2001: 6).

Thus, political power, and it’s supposed “distribution,” has become a preoccupation of power researchers interested in the connection between economic and political inequality.

The notion of power as a zero sum affair has led, in part by Weber and in part by political theorists who followed him, to the idea of power as intrinsic to a rational choice perspective, and even market metaphors, such as a “political market” (Scott 2001: 7).

The power of the principal can change the cost-benefit calculus of the subaltern.

The Two Faces of Power

But power is not merely over decision-making; it has a “second face” that is behind-the-scenes: power lies in the capacity to set the agenda.

The Two Faces of Power

Bachrach and Baratz (1962) termed this, “nondecision-making.”

“For Bachrach and Baratz, a principal has power over a subaltern to the extent that he or she can prevent the subaltern from doing something that they would otherwise do or that they would like to see happen. This can be achieved, for example, by preventing an issue from coming to the point of decision, thereby excluding the subaltern from any effective say about it” (Scott 2011: 8).

Lukes’ (1974) critique is that the principal does not have to force the subaltern; rather, “the power of the principal can be manifest in the ability to make a subaltern believe that their interest lies in doing something that is, in fact, harmful to them or contrary to their deeper interests” (Scott 2001: 7)

This has implications for understanding interests, and the consciousness of one’s interests. There is “false consciousness,” for example. The idea that a social group votes against their own interests and thus exhibits a false consciousness is a debate over what that social group’s interests are and what policies their vote can bring about.

A second stream of power research, led in part by Gramsci, Althusser, Arendt, Foucault, and Habermas, sees power as a diffused throughout society and wielded for the betterment of all groups: not in repression, but in mutual production (Scott 2011: 9 – 12). The non-zero-sum-game power wielders build schools, churches, hospitals, places of employment and other social things that secure the position of the powerful much better than repression would otherwise bring.

Akin to Lukes’s view, people can be persuaded, and persuade others, of the reasons to act in a particular way.

This may be an optimistic view.

Scott’s Elementary Forms of Social Power

Scott (2001: 12 – 16) synthesizes the mainstream and second stream into what he called elementary forms of social power, which are corrective influence (sanctions and force) and persuasive influence (“offering and acceptance of reasons for acting in one way rather than another” (13)). The persuasive influence as a source of social power can include personality and attractiveness, and at root depends on a set of shared value commitments and cognitive meanings (we think similarly and agree on what things mean) that are the groundwork for persuasion.

In the end, the elementary forms of power are force, manipulation, signification, and legitimation. In force, the subaltern has few real alternatives.

Manipulation is much like persuasion: “manipulation occurs where a principal alters the bases on which a subaltern calculates among action alternatives, ensuring that the subaltern’s rational choices lead him or her to act in ways that the principal desires” (Scott 2001: 14). Key knowledge is missing from the interaction and the subaltern is tricked, in a way.

Shared value commitments are the stuff of legitimation. Shared cognitive meanings, embodied in symbols, are the stuff of signification.

What Are Power Structures?

We then arrive at power structures. A power structure is to be understood as a social structure, which is an enduring pattern of behavior that sets limits on thought and action and cannot be changed by individual will.

A power structure is thus an enduring thing; institutionalized, as some might call it. Scott (2001: 16 – 25) called it a structure of domination. The elements of social power are enduring patterns.

Power is a relationship. Power is the ability to do what you want despite the resistance of others. A structure of power is a structure in which some groups consistently get what they want, despite resistance. But power is also manifested when there is no overt resistance – when people don’t try, power is at play (Bachrach and Baratz 1962). When people feel powerless, power is at play. We can’t observe it, but power is there. As Collins (2015) argues, “the interconnectedness of race, class, gender, and sexuality” are themselves “systems of power” (9).

Contexts are not necessarily power structures. Power lies behind context, but it can be indirect. Is economic inequality a power structure? Is GDP a power structure? Is the level of democracy a power structure? Is adopting a policy to improve the lives of women a power structure? All of these are contexts and power relations are there, but these are not direct power relationships. It would stretch the term “power structure” to unrecognizable dimensions.


Scott, John. 2001. Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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