What is power?

Ten years ago, I left the biotech industry to become a university instructor. The transition to post-secondary education is a bit weird. You get the job, they assign you a class, and that’s about it. There’s no training. One day, you wake up, wander in front of a classroom, and start talking. 

As you might imagine, imposter syndrome was my constant companion that first semester. Due to my insecurities, it struck me as odd I could tell a class of twenty-year-olds to write a thirty-page report, and they would do it. I could form them into teams they did not want to work with, and I could make them stand in front of the class to give presentations despite their dread of public speaking. It was like I had this magic wand that allowed me to make people do things they hated and then thank me for it at the end of the semester. 

It’s interesting how we fall into roles so easily. My doctor tells me to lose weight, and I starve myself. I tell my students I want a research report by Friday, and they lose sleep to finish it. Yet, our capacity to fall into these roles so quickly is the foundation of society. It’s what makes things tick. It’s how we build hospitals and create supply chains moving food from farms into cities. 

This is what power is. 

We are not used to thinking of power in favourable terms. Power is a source of oppression. Power is how other people get me to do things I don’t want to do. Power is how society institutionalizes inequity. 

All of that is true. It is equally valid, however, that we create universities through acts of power. By exercising power, we build roads, houses, rocket ships, indoor plumbing, and everything else in our society. Power is a force of creation. Society and all its gifts are collective acts of power. 

Understanding power

A legion of researchers has devoted their careers to understanding power. I will briefly present a framework developed by Steven Lukes in his book, Power: A Radical View. This is a popular framework, and it is straightforward. He categorizes power across three dimensions. 

Power’s first dimension is what we typically expect when we discuss power. This is the power to get people to do things, like work on the weekend or pay taxes. We see this power enacted when there is a conflict of interests, and each stakeholder seeks to modify the behaviour of the other. 

Power’s second dimension is more subtle. It is the power to avoid conflict. It achieves this by limiting the scope of discussion to safe issues. I know several parents who use this tactic with their children. They may want their son to wear a tie to an event so they will ask, “Do you want to wear your blue tie or your red one?” The child chooses from the two. Note, though, that they did not give the child the option to go tie-free. The discussion was framed in a way so that the parent was satisfied whatever the child’s choice, and the child never even considered other alternatives.

Under the second dimension, there still exists a conflict of interests. Instead of forcing someone to comply, however, people use their power to limit the scope of what can be debated to ensure an outcome they favour. 

The third dimension of power is more subtle still.  It is the power to avoid conflict by shaping what it is that people want. You want a job because, through the act of being socialized into society, you see that as the natural order of things. It’s what good people do, and you want to be a good person, don’t you?

Once you have a job, you then want to get a promotion because that is what people are supposed to want. You want to work on the weekend because that is what people do to get promotions. Rather than resolve conflicts of interest through coercion or avoiding conflict, the third dimension eliminates conflicts of interests by shaping your interests. 

Other researchers have expanded these three dimensions of power to include a fourth. The fourth dimension of power asks questions like: How is it that our society comes to have the concept of jobs, and bosses, and promotions? How does our society come to have events where children in attendance are expected to wear ties? And, pertinent to my early experiences as an educator, how does society come to have universities where teachers ask students to write thirty-page reports and the students do it? 

Those are heady questions. Their answers are fascinating and worthy of a post of their own. 

When I look at these frameworks of power, I see the first three dimensions as explanations for how we get people to do things. The fourth dimension seeks to explore how societies create themselves. 

Creating a society worth living in

My research showed people do not exercise power for the sake of exercising power. Instead, they apply it in pursuit of their values. The nature of the values we use power to achieve creates the character of our society. We all have some form of power. The next time you use your power, consider what values that use of power achieve. Do your actions create the world in which you want to live? 

How have you seen people use their power to create something beneficial? I’d love to read your stories in the comments.

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