The Nature of Social Power
Updated: May 20, 2019
What do people mean when they say the word “power?” We use terms like political power, electrical power, and buying power. We say phrases like, “he has power over me,” “she is a powerful leader,” or “Mike Tyson has a powerful leaping left hook.” What do we mean when we say these things? In general, when we say something is powerful, or ascribe an adjective (like electrical) to power, we mean to say that person, thing, or quality possesses the ability to alter the environment in some way. Understanding how power can affect the environment is critical to AmeriThunk’s purpose of: “addressing the challenges of America’s politics and economy by empowering the public to define the future of our cities, states, and country.”
This article will explore the nature of power in the social relationships between people. In doing so, it will explain the various types of forces that compose social power, and explain the contours of social power systems and the durability of their legitimacy. The concepts explored in this article will establish a critical part of the philosophical underpinnings for the political and economic policy designs produced by AmeriThunk.
What is Power?
In the physical sciences “power” equals work divided by time (p = w / t). “Work” in the formula equals force multiplied by that force’s effect on an object, which is called “displacement” (w = f * d). Displacement is a change in position relative to the force acting on it. “Force” is what causes displacement, and it is defined by Isaac Newton’s famous equation: force equals mass times acceleration (f = m * a).
Rockets that can launch payloads into orbit provide a good example of these elements in action. A rocket’s job is to provide the force necessary to displace a payload’s mass into orbit around the Earth. The force required to achieve this displacement multiplied by the amount of displacement required to get to orbit equals the work the rocket needs to accomplish (w = f * d). However, because the Earth’s gravitational pull draws objects back to the ground, the rocket must achieve this displacement at a high rate of speed. If displacement into orbit is not achieved fast enough, the Earth’s gravity will overcome the lifting forces applied by the rocket and cause the payload to crash. Because speed equals distance divided by time, an orbital rocket must accomplish the work of getting its payload to orbit in a relatively short amount of time. And as we know, power equals work divided by time (p = w / t); therefore, rockets are designed to produce enough “power” (or, designed to produce enough “work in a given amount of time”) to overcome Earth’s gravity and displace their payloads into orbit.
Of course, rockets don’t build themselves. The power described in Newtonian physics cannot lead NASA, the organization that designed and built the rockets that made the United States the leader in spaceflight. Nor does physical power provide the money and education to the people instrumental in designing and constructing those rockets. For the most part, physical forces aren’t applicable to building the social systems required to build an orbital rocket. Accomplishing the work of leading people, educating people, and providing the money for the labor and materials needed to construct the rockets that won the space race requires an understanding of forces outside the realm of the physical sciences.
Such questions are fit for the study of social power. I believe we can use the aforementioned concepts of force, displacement, and work to better understand the nature of social power.
What is Social Power?
If the concepts of physical power can be used as a mold to understand the contours of social power, how do terms like force, work, and displacement translate into the realm of social science? I have prepared social science definitions for each of the physical science elements of power below.
Social Science Elements of Power Defined:
Physical forces –> Influential social forces: the interactions which change the behavior of conscious animals (in our case, we are primarily concerned with humans).
Physical displacement –> Behavioral displacement: an overall change in behavior relative to an influential social force.
Physical work –> Influential work: social force multiplied by behavioral displacement.
Physical power –> Social power: influential work divided by time.
A good example of social power in action can be found in the talent searches employers use to find qualified workers capable of aiding their businesses. Let’s say a company designing a rocket for NASA requires the expertise of an aerospace engineer. To acquire and retain the engineer’s labor, the company must provide the engineer with sufficient incentives (typically in the form of money) such that he or she forgoes other job opportunities. The compensation the company must provide is akin to the thrust force a rocket must provide to escape Earth’s gravity, while gravity is akin to the pay the engineer is already receiving or could receive at other firms. All other factors being equal, to attract the engineer the company must provide more money than the “gravitational” money provided by other firms. (Of course, whether or not one accepts a job involves many more factors than money. I kept the example simple for demonstrative purposes.)
Because social forces are tangential to the physical forces, we can use the aforementioned formulas for physical power to describe the aspects of social power. If the employer successfully acquires the engineer’s labor, the employer would have used the social force of incentives to displace the behavior of the aerospace engineer. The influential work done in this scenario equals the incentive force needed to achieve this, multiplied by the displacement of the employee’s behavior. The social power equals the influential work done divided by the time it took to get the employee to change their behavior and complete the rocket design.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is difficult to predict with absolute certainty whether a given social force will be enough to sufficiently displace another person’s behavior. This is because I currently lack a unit of measure for social force, and social force’s component parts of social mass, and social acceleration. This article will not endeavor to provide units of measure for social mass, social acceleration, or social force, and consequently cannot provide units of measure for influential work, or social power. Because of this, we are merely left to estimate the social mass, acceleration, and force based upon our knowledge of the issues and people’s behavior surrounding those issues. In theory it may be possible to arrive at some estimates of those elements via polling and surveys, but defining those methods is beyond the scope of this article.
However, I will define social mass and social acceleration conceptually: Social mass can be understood to be the “weight” a social issue has within the mind of a person or group. The heavier the social issue, the more social force must be applied to displace the social issue—as it is with physical objects and physical forces. But unlike physics, the social mass of an issue is subjective and varies from person to person. Social acceleration is the rate of change in a person or group’s behavior. As previously stated, multiplying a social issue’s mass by its social acceleration will yield a measure of social force (f = m * a).
While it may seem strange to translate the concepts of physical power to social power, it is important to remember that—as far as science has observed, all social phenomena ultimately derive from physical phenomena. Social phenomena are just the large-scale (macro) results of many small-scale (micro) physical phenomena. Therefore, it is possible to roughly translate concepts that explain physical phenomena into concepts that explain social phenomena. Such micro to macro translations are regularly used to predict outcomes in many fields. For example, when a company uses a focus group to test consumer reactions to a product, they are using the small-scale focus group observations to predict large scale market reactions to the product. The thrust of this article can therefore be thought of as a prediction on the nature of social power, based on the observed and well documented nature of physical power.
The Contours of Social Forces
The ability of social forces to influence behavior are affected by three main concepts: First, issues’ social mass and the effectiveness of types of social forces varies from person to person and group to group. Second, there are five different types of social forces. And third, producing different types of social forces require different amounts of energy. Understanding these three concepts will promote more effective employment of social force to achieve goals.
Who is wielding the social force and who is the audience receiving the social force alter the effectiveness of an application of a social force. This is because the social mass that issues hold in people’s minds and people’s susceptibility to different social forces are subjective and differ from person to person. In discussing the use of social force, it is important to be clear who is projecting force to influence another’s behavior and who is receiving that influence. A force wielder is the person or group using social force to influence another’s behavior. An audience is the person or group the wielder is attempting to influence.
In 1959 the psychologists John French and Bertram Raven began the leg work of understanding how social power works by publishing their acclaimed paper, “The Bases of Social Power” (PDF link). The Bases of Social Power defined five “types of power:” (1) reward power, (2) coercive power, (3) legitimate power, (4) referent power, and (5) expert power. A sixth type of power, informational power, was added by French and Raven a few years after the publication of their original paper.
While these bases of social power are a good place to start from, I disagree with French and Raven calling these six elements “types of power.” As described above, power equals work divided by time. What French and Raven were describing are the aforementioned influential social forces that contribute to social power.
I also disagree with French and Raven’s categorization of these social forces. Because of this, I have prepared my own list of the social forces which contribute to social power:
Finally, I disagree with French and Raven’s definitions for these social forces. The definitions I provide below are inspired by—but not completely equivalent to, French and Raven’s definitions for their bases of power. If you desire more information about the French and Raven definitions, I highly suggest their 1959 article (linked above) where they lay out their own definitions in detail beyond the scope of this article.
Types of Influential Social Forces Defined:
The Fealty Force: The ability of the wielder to employ the audience’s alignment of values, appreciation for the wielder, appreciation for the wielder’s group, or appreciation for the wielder’s social/cultural system in pursuit of a goal.
The Knowledge Force: The ability to employ useful data and/or information in pursuit of a goal.
The Incentive Force: The ability to provide an audience with a desired resource in exchange for certain behaviors or acts in pursuit of a goal.
The Threat Force: The ability to persuade an audience by using the prospect of harm if they do not exhibit the desired behavior or execute a desired act in pursuit of a goal.
The Physical Forces: The ability to alter the physical environment in pursuit of a goal.
It is my belief that these five types of social forces consciously and subconsciously inform all human decision making. As physical forces interact in complex ways to shape the physical environment, social forces act with complexity to shape our social environment. Yet, despite this complexity, scientists and engineers have leveraged physics to shape our physical environment. The same is true of the social forces. The fields of psychology, politics, business, economics, law, education, and administration are all social science and social engineering exploits of social forces.
Examples of Social Forces in Practice
As shown on the chart above, the fealty force requires the least energy to execute, while the physical forces require the most energy. In-between these, the knowledge, incentive, and threat forces all rise in energy requirements. Ideally, a force wielder will want to expend the least energy possible to achieve a behavior change. The catch is this: The nature of how the social forces work in practice means that different types of forces are more or less effective depending on the situation wielders and audiences find themselves in.
For example, when a wife asks her husband to wash the dishes, the husband might (…might) be persuaded solely by the appreciation he has for his wife and their relationship. The wife has used the fealty force by employing her husband’s love for her to alter his behavior. This behavior change was accomplished with very little energy input. Beyond the energy the wife used to talk to her husband, no further energy was needed to produce the fealty force that changed the husband’s behavior.
The wife is able to use her energy so efficiently because the husband views perpetuating the mutually beneficial relationship between himself and his wife as a sufficient trade for washing the dishes. The relationship is the lubricating oil which allows the wife to influence the husband with ease. Assuming a suitable relationship exists between the force wielder and the audience, the fealty force is the ideal way to accomplish behavior changes because it requires the least energy input to produce.
The husband-wife scenario is only possible because of the pre-established relationship between the force wielder (the wife) and the audience (the husband). Other situations require the application of different forces. If a random person walking down the street was suddenly asked by a restaurateur to wash the dishes in a restaurant, the pedestrian would almost certainly refuse. However, if the restaurateur were to use the incentive force by offering the pedestrian $50 to wash the restaurant’s dishes, the lucky pedestrian might be more likely to oblige. This reveals the nature of many social relationships. When we can’t get people to do things for us out of fealty, we tend to use incentives like money to alter people’s behavior to our liking. Business is largely based on using the incentive force to align the behavior of labor audiences with the interests of corporations.
An example of the knowledge force in practice can be found in the nutrition and ingredient labeling on food and beverage products. By requiring manufacturers to provide information about what their food contains and the nutritional value it can provide, the government influences the behavior of Americans toward (hopefully) healthier choices. The USDA’s promotion of its various food guidelines is another case of the government applying the knowledge force. Many people from my generation remember having our diets influenced at least a little bit by the “food pyramid” we learned about in school.
Unfortunately, people will resort to the threat and physical forces when knowledge, incentive, and fealty forces fail to affect a needed change in behavior. When a police officer forcefully arrests a non-compliant suspect, the officer uses the physical force to accomplish a behavior change by restraining a person who doesn’t want to be restrained. When a suspect cannot be subdued, police officers use physical force to effect a change in the physical environment (i.e. wounding, or killing the suspect) that satisfactorily accomplishes the officer’s goal. The use of physical force by a wielder to accomplish a goal typically occurs with great resistance from the audience. Because of this resistance, physical force requires the most energy from wielders to employ.
In order to resolve conflicts peacefully, police officers use the threat force. When an officer says “Drop the gun or I’ll shoot!” that police officer is employing the threat force to influence the suspect’s behavior without violence. Using the threat force typically requires less energy than physically neutralizing a suspect, but is also less likely to be an effective means of altering the suspect’s behavior. Yet, the threat force still requires a substantial amount of energy to support the threat. For example, five bank robbers might be more predisposed to drop their guns and surrender if they are facing the threat of ten police officers versus the rather weak threat of only one officer. Bringing ten officers to the scene to overwhelm the five bank robbers requires greater overall energy than it does to bring one police officer against the thieves.
Durable Legitimacy and Social Power Systems
Astute readers may have noticed that there is no comparative element for French and Raven’s “legitimate power” in my chart of influential social forces. This is because I consider the concept of legitimacy to be separate from the concept of social forces and social power. Legitimacy is the extent to which people yield or align their behavior to the work of an individual or group’s social power system.
To sustain behavioral alignment, legitimacy relies on the establishment of a social power system. A social power system is the sustained expression of social power using the various social forces to achieve goals. Social power systems are what provide durability to individual and group’s legitimacy. Durability is the extent to which a social power system may persist through time or survive assault without losing legitimacy. A social power system breaks when it loses the effect of people yielding or aligning their behavior to the system. The more durable a social power system is, the less likely it is to break and the longer its legitimacy will persist into the future.
The social power system familiar to most people is the power system provided by their government. The United States’ social power system maintains legitimacy by coordinating the use of all five social forces to achieve national goals. Let’s take a look at how it works:
A brief description of The United States’ Social Power System
Fealty: The United States builds fealty within its citizens and people across the world by promoting cultural media like the national anthem, the flag, Declaration of Independence and significant cultural events like the Fourth of July. Patriotic speeches by significant leaders like the president or congresspeople also enhance the people’s fealty to the United States. All of this aligns audiences’ values with “American values,” making the audiences more likely to align themselves with the United States’ goals.
Knowledge: The United States uses the knowledge force to educate its citizens by funding schools and universities, and by providing informative services like the National Weather Service and food labeling. The knowledge provided has the effect of altering behavior by empowering people to make more informed decisions and climb the economic ladder by exchanging the valuable skills they learn at school for money.
Incentive: The United States uses the incentive force to pay government employees and contractors to work towards its ends. The United States also provides tax breaks and grants for people and corporations who perform activities the government wishes to promote.
Threat: The United States’ establishes threats of punishment for violating the legal code. These threats of punishment persuade people to adhere to U.S. law. Abroad, the United States uses the threats of sanctions and military force to keep nations broadly aligned to its desires.
Physical: The United States’ employment of physical force can easily be found whenever the FBI or the military take offensive action to subdue criminals or defeat enemies.
Americans have deep fealty to concepts like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process, and democracy. This, more than anything, keeps Americans loyal to the United States. And because that fealty is sustained by American’s existing relationship with their government (just like the relationship between a husband and wife), the U.S. needs to expend very little energy aligning most American’s behavior with the broad desires of their government.
The vast amount of knowledge possessed and projected by American society and its government also support the legitimacy of the United States. For example, the United States’ world-class colleges and universities provide Americans with valuable skills that can be exchanged for money in the job market. The prospect of acquiring these employable skills encourages Americans to study endeavors that will support the goal of improving the economy. Even people who feel little fealty toward U.S. policy goals are attracted by the prospect of accessing a good education in their own country. Further, the process of studying an appealing subject tends to temper and distract people from feelings of dissatisfaction with their government. By maintaining a high quality and (relatively) accessible higher education system, the U.S. government encourages Americans to study subjects that benefit its goal of economic growth and placates those who may disagree with American policy.
Related to education, the skills acquired by Americans in colleges are employed to fund United States’ incentive force. This is done by using the knowledge acquired via education to improve technology and processes throughout the U.S. economy. These economic improvements are then leveraged by American society (a society composed of individuals, groups, corporations, and government entities) to extract ever greater resources from America’s environment. These resources are then transformed into money when the government sells bonds to banks and the banks lend money to companies and people for the purchase of those resources.
The monetary incentives acquired from these resources supports the United States’ legitimacy by improving the lives of U.S. residents, federal workers, groups, companies, and other beneficiaries who behave according to the goals and objectives set by American society and government. Because one must generally be operating within the norms of American society to acquire money, most people do not challenge well established behaviors. While people may not agree with the norms of American society, the desire to acquire resources via money will usually keep their behavior hemmed to the broad goals of the U.S. government’s social power system.
It is left to America’s law enforcement and war-fighting entities to enforce behavior changes on those whose behavior threatens or impedes the United States’ social power system. Law enforcement officers and war-fighters shift the behavior of these threats to the system through the use of their own threats and physical force. The United States maintains the largest military on Earth, and a very large (the largest?) cadre of law enforcement officers. These assets allows the U.S. to maintain legitimacy by employing the most potent threat and physical forces the world has ever seen. A significant part of the U.S.’ durability is derived from its unrivaled ability to enforce its laws and defeat its enemies. America’s ability to correct non-compliant behavior with threats and force is so overwhelming that few on Earth elect to rise against it. One does not test the Leviathan.
The United States uses all of the influential social forces in concert to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and people around the world. The United States arguably sustains the most durable social power system on earth thanks to the deep fealty of its citizens, its robust education system, the vast cache of resources it has to provide incentives, and its unparalleled ability to back threats and employ physical force.
Unfortunately, this same durability makes the system difficult to change. People do not simply fear the Leviathan; the Leviathan has become powerful because people love and patronize it. The United States’ social power system weighs so heavily in the public’s mind that systemic change takes an enormous application of social force to displace the social mass maintained within the public consciousness.
Changing Social Power Systems
So, what is one to do if one disagrees with United States policy but lacks the power to force a systemic behavioral change upon its government? The first thing to realize is that the United States government is a representative democracy (a.k.a. a democratic-republic). Therefore, American society and the U.S. government which represents that society are largely one in the same. As President Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address: the U.S. is a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people…” Thus, a great way (though not the only way) to change the behavior of the United States government is to change the minds of the government’s constituents. This is because the politicians elected to lead the government are elected by their citizen constituents. If one can change the minds of a politician’s constituents, the behavior of the politician should change—or, the behavior of the constituents will change such that they vote the politician out.
This theory was used to great effect to achieve systemic change during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Through a series of protests and other catalyzing events, activists steadily produced enough social force to perform the work of moving the nation away from racist policies. These activists eventually overcame a significant part of the United States’ social power system, and changed the behavior of the U.S. government for the better.
Let’s examine the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama in particular. On March 7, 1965, civil rights marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as part of their route for a Selma to Montgomery march. The march was instigated by the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights protester who was killed by a police officer near Selma. The primary goal of the march was to force a meeting in Montgomery with governor George Wallace and shame him into providing some level of justice for Jackson. Bringing attention to the broader civil rights struggle occurring throughout America was only a tangential goal. However, as you will see, Selma’s reaction to the protest elevated the march to a catalyzing event for the entire country.
On the day of the march, the local government of Selma did not intend to let the marchers leave Selma. The sheriff ordered that every white male over twenty-one in Dallas County be deputized to oppose the protesters. Meeting the marchers at the bridge, the deputies ordered the marchers to go home. Though a reverend attempted to speak to the deputies, the deputies began attacking the marchers with physical force by shoving them away from the bridge, beating them with nightsticks, dispersing the crowd with tear gas, and finally charging the stunned protesters on horseback.
The brutal actions of the Dallas County deputies were captured on national television. The first three minutes and thirty seconds of the video below provide a good synopsis of what was broadcast on television back in 1965.
These images captivated the nation and largely turned public opinion against the authorities in Selma. Protests against the actions of the Selma authorities erupted in Montgomery and Washington DC. President Lyndon Johnson promised protestors in DC that he would accelerate the submission of his voting rights bill to Congress. This was done, and on March 15th president Johnson convened a joint session of Congress to quell the nation’s upset over Bloody Sunday. During the nationally televised session he outlined the voting rights bill and said:
"it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
Never before had any president so attached himself to the plight of black people.
Through this nationally televised address to the nation, president Johnson used the fealty force to call upon the public to support his civil rights bill. Johnson could use the fealty force because the public respected both him and the United States’ commitments to freedom of speech, democracy, and due process. Johnson made clear that the marchers who were attacked in Selma—and black people more broadly, were afforded none of those rights. In the speech, Johnson branded the actions in Selma—and bigotry as a whole, as un-American and thus unacceptable. Together in concert, the news media, civil rights activists, and finally Lyndon Johnson transformed the physical force used against the Selma marchers into a massive fealty force that turned the nation against segregationists. The Jim Crow components of the southern social power system had lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the American public.
The effect of this was visible at Selma, where marchers refused to give up and go home. The original number of marchers on the Bloody Sunday of March 7th was about 600. That number grew to about 2000 on March 9th, “Turnaround Tuesday.” When the actual march took place from March 21st to march 25th, about 8000 people marched from Selma to Montgomery. As shown in the second half of the video above (past the 3:30 mark), the final contingent of marchers was much larger and more diverse than those who marched on Bloody Sunday.
Upon arrival at the Alabama state capitol on March 25th, Martin Luther King delivered his speech, “How Long? Not Long.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress that August. A variety of additional acts ensuring the full rights of all Americans were passed through Congress by the mid 1970’s.
The lesson to be learned from Selma and the broader Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is this: Changing the large scale, systemic behavior of a durable social power system like that of the United States often requires a sympathetic relationship with the public. To get to the level of sympathy where Americans would be appalled by the actions at Selma took many years of civil rights activism. Just a little more than forty years earlier, Americans barely seemed to notice when the prosperous “Black Wall Street” section of Tulsa, Oklahoma was completely destroyed by white racists in 1921. The American public was shocked by Selma because civil rights activists kept imploring for America’s attention in spite of setbacks like Tulsa. Over time, Americans began to pay more and more attention, and their behavior changed in response to newer catalyzing civil rights events.
Many consider the mid-century Civil Rights Movement to have begun in response to the catalyzing effect of Emmett Till’s lynching; however, the broader civil rights movement had been fighting for equal rights since at least the birth of the country via the abolitionist movement against slavery. In effect, what happened in Selma was the culmination of over two centuries of activism. And all of the catalyzing civil rights events since Bloody Sunday (i.e. the Stonewall Riots, the Rodney King video, Trayvon Martin’s slaying, etc.) build upon the American public’s sympathetic fealty with civil rights activists who earned that sympathy at Bloody Sunday and all the catalysts that came before it.
Bigotry in the United States is much like the earth’s gravity holding our aforementioned rocket to the ground. The social mass the issue has within American’s minds collectively creates a gravitational force that holds the nation back from achieving its full potential. In the same way catalysts within a rocket add to its thrust, each of these catalyzing civil rights events adds more social thrust to the civil rights rocket attempting to escape the gravity of bigotry within America’s social power system. One day we’ll build up enough social force to “overcome” that gravity.
Whew! That is the longest article I’ve ever written. Due to the considerable amount of time you’ve spent reading this, and the extreme amount of time I’ve spent writing and re-writing this, I’m going to be brief in the conclusion.
Summary of The Nature of Social Power:
This article has attempted to describe the nature of social power. Social power is derived from and tangential to the nature of physical power. As such, Newtonian physics can be used to describe the nature of social power. There are five types of social forces which contribute to social power: The fealty force, the knowledge force, the incentive force, the threat force, and the physical force.
A social power system is the sustained expression of social power using the various social forces to achieve rational ends. Legitimacy is the extent to which people yield or align their behavior to the work of an individual or group’s social power system. Durability is the extent to which a social power system may persist through time or survive assault without losing legitimacy.
Social power systems with great durable legitimacy can be changed in representative-democracies by changing the minds of the public. The civil rights movement in the United States has made great progress in turning America’s social power system away from bigotry by applying sustained social force against racist and discriminatory policies within the social power system. Over time, this social force has moved the minds of the public and resulted in marked changes to America’s social power system and society.
The points covered in this article will be used as a strategic template for AmeriThunk to address America’s challenges. Future articles will link back to The Nature of Social Power as a reference to describe how we should work to enact changes in America’s social power system. As we think more about social power, edits will be made to the article as necessary.
Thank you for reading!