Issue 2 -  2001/02

 ISSN 1311-8978


Modern Concept of power as a social and economic category

Emil N. Kocev

University of Rousse

8 Studentska St, Rousse, Bulgaria

 Received 10.04.2002; Cited 23.05.2002



The paper tries to differentiate the power from similar terms like influence, dominance, authority, force and compulsion. On the basis of a critical analysis of existing views, the power is defined as an asymmetric relation of dependency between the object and the subject of power. Thus, the author sees the power as a social phenomenon, which concerns the distribution of values between different social groups and individuals upon evident or obscure dependency between them.

A special attention is drawn to the power potential of managers. It is defined as cumulative resources and conditions, which provide a possibility for one subject to influence another. Concerning the necessity of the manager to exercise power the paper also discusses the problem of power sufficiency. The analysis of this problem focuses the attention to the power potential of inferior managers. A conclusion is drawn that lower level managers under certain circumstances could reduce the power of higher level managers.

Key words: power, power potential, influence, dominance, authority, force, managers


Positioning power as a single category

The problem of power concerns people’s minds since Plato and Aristotle, and maybe even before them. However, since the last several decades it has been given special attention and the efforts of sociologists, psychologists, economists and political scientists have been directed towards its solving. 

The aim of the present paper is to clarify some debatable points, concerning the power and its distribution within the organisation by trying to differentiate it from other similar terms and to identify the factors, that influence the manager’s power potential.

The scientists agree in the necessity of power. Some of them view the power as an inevitable component of all people’s relations, which affects everything – from our sex relations to the work we do, the cars we drive, the TV we watch, the dreams we follow (Toffler, p. 13). Others agree with this statement, emphasizing that the exercising of power, the submission of some people to other people’s will is a social inevitability and nothing could be done without it (Galbraith, p. 18). The solidarity of the authors finishes with their agreement concerning the inevitability of power in social relations. Scholars from different spheres of science interpret it from all possible angles. In everyday speech the word power is used as a synonym of influence, domination, authority, compulsion, force and control.

Often, when the object of analysis are widely spread categories that have been assumed contradictorily by people, there could occur certain misfit with some of the opinions. For example, the elitists will not agree with some of the ideas presented in this paper, because they think that only small amount of chosen people have the right to make decisions concerning global problems and to govern the politically shapeless society. The pluralists will not agree either – according to them, small groups with different interests play the major role in social and economic events. Other potential opponents of the ideas presented in the paper could be expected among socially active individuals, who could propagandize her/his own view of power. Moreover, we must not forget that the adopted social norms influence the formation of individual’s views – it has already been proved that there are some cultural issues in the way people perceive power (Hofstede, pp. 29-64). Therefore, the confrontation with different statements is inevitable, but, in order also to be constructive, a stable, generalizing the rest of the views fundament is needed.

Such fundament could be the definition of Max Webber who views it as the possibility that an actor in a social relation will be in the position to exercise his will despite the resistance, nevertheless the background of this possibility (Webber, p. 152). Some present definitions sound also general enough (and therefore acceptable for the followers of different theories) – e.g., according to Kotter, the power is a possibility to influence other people and events, while MacCall characterizes it as a possibility to direct human, material and informational resources in certain activity.[YD1] 

A more specific definition of the category power needs its clear distinction from other similar terms like influence, authority, compulsion and force. This group does not include domination and bondage, because of its obvious difference from power – the objects of domination and bondage do not have any choice of behaviour, while the object of power has got at least two alternatives: to submit or not to submit.

In social and economic aspect it will be interesting to present the view of Bierstedt. According to him the power differs from the influence by its subject – influence concerns idea, doctrine or credo and it is localized in the ideological sphere, while power goes with personality, group or association (Bierstedt, p. 157). The same author claims that the influence is convincing and the power is compulsive. So, we voluntarily submit to influence. The idealism, which could be seen in Bierstedts definition with the separation between the ideas and their creators, does not allow us to adopt it faithfully. It seems that Abell makes a more exact differentiation between the two terms. He says that the power changes the behaviour of the object, not her/his opinion, while changes by influence concern both, consciousness and behaviour. (Abell, p. 5-6). For example, a manager could have the power to change the behaviour of her/his subordinates, but she/he could miss the influence of the informal leader to act upon their consciousness. This leads to the conclusion that the influence is a more general term, which contains power – a statement that has a lot of followers in Bulgaria (Ilieva, p. 150). However, this conclusion seems to be a little hasty, because it gives no attention to the fact that the object of influence could weigh the advantages and disadvantages and may not fall under the influence. (Abell’s definition is also not strict enough – he does not expect the possibility that the influence may not change consciousness and behaviour)

Similar to influence is authority. Some authors view it as a personality, others – as a relation. With this word Easton describes every person, who some people submit to (Easton, p. 179), while Wrong claims that all commanding relations between people are examples of authority (Wrong, p. 35). Wrong is wrong, because he does not consider the character of these relations, i.e. whether the submission is compulsive or voluntarily, whether it is a consequence of fear or inner conviction. For example, it is possible that a manager, who has enough power to overcome any resistance by her/his subordinates, to lack enough authority to manage the social processes within the organisation (management, that needs full appreciation by the subordinates and strong commitment to their aims). In contrast to influence (where the object of influence thinks carefully upon the arguments “for” and “against”), when authority is concerned other people’s will is perceived with no critique. This makes the authority more effective and economic from the point of view of the input of the subject of impact (energy, time and money).

In contrast to authority, compulsion and force lead to the results, expected by the subject of impact, despite the will of the object. However, the two terms are not equivalent. According to Dimitar Ivanov the compulsion is a limitation of the action alternatives for the object minimum to two with the possibility for him to choose, while force (in social sense) is a liquidation of the action alternatives for the object and her/his disfranchisement (Ivanov, p. 115). Therefore, compulsion could be seen as a means of power, and force – as a means of domination (of course, if it is not voluntarily accepted by the object of domination). As far as power and compulsion are concerned, one of the parties in the relation obtains the submission of the other, while in the situation, involving force, goals have to be met, if they will be met at all, in the face of disobedience (Bachrach, p. 636).  If A is a formal leader, who assigns an unpleasant task to his subordinate B and it involves staying at work till night, B has the right to decide whether to stay at work or to go home. Acting by compulsion, A does not deprive B of her/his physical ability to leave. But if A locks B in the office, stipulating that she/he will not let her/him go before the execution of the task, B will not have any choice (a situation, that is seen in practice more often than expected). Even if B does not obey and does not fulfil the task, she/he will not be able to leave the office.

As far as it is known, till now there has been no attempt for graphical schematization of the connections between the pointed terms – the boundaries between them seem to be not clear enough. However here, although under some conditions, the position of power among the other categories is presented in fig. 1. The power and its related terms are arranged according to the level of misbalance in the dependence relations between the objects and subjects of impact. The forms of dependence, corresponding to each kind of impact, are shown as well arranged according to the level of voluntarily acceptance of the dependence by the object of impact.

As it is seen in the figure, with the increase of the misbalance in the dependence relation, the voluntary character of the interaction decreases. This means that if the interaction is accomplished through equal abilities to impact the other side (i.e. there is balance in the dependence), it has to be accepted voluntarily by both parties – otherwise no one will prevail. Another conclusion sounds logically too: if one of the two parties has much more ability to influence the other one (in other words, there is a great misbalance in the dependence), the interaction could be accomplished even without being accepted by the weaker party.


Kinds of power and sources of power in management

Some authors successfully combine the different kinds of impact with the term power. They prefer to view power in a more complex way, which allow them to distinguish several kinds of power. For example, French and Raven suggest five kinds of power – remunerative, coercive, expert, legitimate and referent (French, Raven, pp. 150-167). Although, the borders between the terms power, influence and authority in this classification are not enough clarified, by positioning the sources of power in the centre of the attention could be seen as a contribution to the present understandings of power.

Later Etzioni classifies power according to the involvement (degree of commitment) developed by the members of the organisation (alienative, calculative and moral) and identifies coercive, remunerative and normative power (Etzioni, p. 58-61). He groups the organisations according to the degree of commitment of their members. In the first group he puts organisations in which coercive power prevail – concentration camps, prisons, detention camps, hospitals for mental diseases, prisoners of war camps. In another group he puts business and administrative organisations, where remunerative power prevails, while normative power is the common feature of the organisations in the third group – religious systems and sects, political parties and charity associations, universities and schools.

Although under different shape, Etzioni’s ideas put a great deal of impact upon the views of present researchers. Toffler synthesizes them by defining the power as usage of coercion, wealth and knowledge in order people to be forced to act in a certain way. Toffler stresses the trend not to resort to coercion but to resort to knowledge as a source of power in the present social and economic systems. (Toffler, pp. 26-29).

The sources of power are used as a basic criterion for differentiation between the different kinds of power in these classifications. They could be various: authority, force, knowledge, skills, etc. Toffler gathers them, saying that everything, that could fulfil another person’s dream is a potential source of power (Toffler, p. 24). Apparently, if A can satisfy the needs of B, A could lay down conditions to B, that would satisfy her/his/their own needs. Thus the two sides go into an exchange relation. This relation could be called power relation, if there is misbalance (asymmetry) between given and received by each of the parties. In other words, power could be described as an asymmetrical dependence relation between the object and the subject of impact. This asymmetry comes out through the circumstance that one of the sides wins more from the relation, because its position allows it to explore the weakness, the needs and the vulnerability of the other (Barry, p. 92). In the same direction is the statement of Emerson, who claims that the power to control or influence the other lies in the control of things that are valuable for her/him. (Emerson, p. 31).

Therefore, the power as a social phenomenon concerns the distribution of values between different social groups and individuals under overt or hidden asymmetrical dependence between them.

On the basis of this definition, the power in business management could be linked with the distribution of economic values between organisational members, under overt or hidden asymmetrical dependence between them. The term “economic values” combines all the results from the business activity that are valuable for the individual or the group. They could be material or symbolic, as well as positive or negative. Positive material result is the receiving of a reward, and negative – various kinds of material sanctions, for example deduction of salary. As examples for a positive symbolic result could be given the rising in the hierarchy, assignment of more interesting tasks and praise, while some negative symbolic results could be reduction in rank, assignment of routine and monotonous tasks, caustic remark..


Power potential of managers

The power relation involves interaction of two subjects and one of them gets the upper hand over the other not because of her/his natural superiority, but because of the inequity in the resources the two parties possess (Ivanov, p. 127).  To make this statement more complete, it is necessary to consider the importance of the conditions under which these resources are used. In different situations these conditions could be more or less favourable. For example, a manager would have more favourable opportunities to enjoin obedience by direct contact with her/his subordinates than by transmitting her/his order by a third party. That’s why the manager has to decide preliminarily whether his power potential would be enough to exercise the impact he wants to.

Power potential could be described as a combination of resources and conditions, which make it possible for a subject to influence another subject. It is vital the manager to possess good knowledge in resources and conditions that allow to be managed.

According to Martin, the importance of resources evolves from the fact that one possesses the resources that the other wants in order to meet her/his objectives and the only way to get them is by executing an outer directed act, such as submission to other’s behaviour (Martin, p. 50). In this case the term resource is mixed with the term store. As opposed to Martin’s statement, power resources are not something that the manager could give to her/his subordinates, whenever they want it. Taken alone, they are not a reason, much less a cause, for obedience. However, if the subject of power possesses them, she/he can work out this obedience. For instance, subordinates implement manager’s decisions, because she/he holds a higher post, not because she/he will give them a little of this post.

Power resources could be internal and external (Benton, p. 35). Internal resources are the abilities of the subject of power (skills, techniques, energy, etc.), while among the external could be material subjects or social relations (ownership, control, access, position, etc.), including these material subjects. In their aspiration to acquire more control over external resources, a lot of managers underestimate the importance of internal resources or overestimate the degree to which they possess such resources. Thus, their managerial functions could be questioned.

Management of activities in every company needs exercising of power. According to Asenov, using power potential is actually exercising of power – statement, that is not exactly right and the author himself is the first to oppose it several sentences after. Really, managers’ power potential gives them the possibility to exercise power, but when managers use their power potential without getting expected results, in fact there is no exercising of power. (Kamenov and others, p. 239) In this case, the asymmetry of dependence, evolving from the power potential, apparently is not enough to overcome the resistance of the dependent side.

There is an opinion that company management exercises three types of power – deep, but narrow (resources tend to maximum, but the responsibilities are limited), shallow, but wide (resources incline towards minimum, but responsibilities involve stages from the beginning till the end of the managerial process), and absolute power (maximum deep and wide). This classification could include fourth type of power – minimum shallow and narrow, when the manager works upon specific managerial tasks, insignificant part of the whole managerial process, with minimum resources. This situation could be often observed in bureaucratic organisations and when upper managers are with authoritarian style. From the point of view of power effectiveness, it is a more favourable situation than exercising shallow and wide power. Favourability evolves from the fact that there is a correspondence between the two characteristics (limited power potential corresponds to limited by scale managerial tasks). In other words, the power potential is enough to follow the objectives and to execute certain managerial functions.

Besides the nature of tasks and objectives, the problem of sufficiency of managers’ power potential concerns the power potential of the subordinate. Kamen Kamenov has the right to say that “if a concentration of power exists at the higher levels, it would be at the expense of power at lower levels of management and vise versa – more power at the lower levels decreases the quantity of power in the central management body” (Kamenov and others, p. 255). This means that besides the higher positions, the lower positions have certain possibilities for impact. And even more – Kamenov supposes the possibility the power of upper managers to be decreased by lower managers.

The power potential of lower managers depends on the resources that they possess, and on the conditions, they are displayed in. However, practicing managers have to remember that both, resources and conditions, are variable quantities. Their direction is often unpredictable and therefore, the power potential changes are difficult to predict. For example, even such widely spread conviction as the statement that with the rising within the organisational hierarchy manager’s power potential increases, could be questioned. Usually the upper movement accelerates the contact with external environment and the manager is forced to consider more interests – especially, if her/his rising in position is a result of preliminary made agreements and engagements. Therefore, in order to have a reliable notion about her/his real power, the manager has to accept her/his dependence on resources and conditions and to understand the possibilities to influence through obedience.

In conclusion it may be stated that power is a dynamic quantity and its characteristics change together with the changes in the asymmetrical dependence between the object and the subject of impact. Under certain circumstances this asymmetry could grow, under others – it could even change its direction. Sometimes it is difficult for the subject of impact to realize this and she/he tends to perceive power as a permanent attribute. This is the main reason why today’s leaders and managers underestimate the possibility tomorrow to be displaced by their followers and subordinates, and usually, when this becomes a fact, they are not enough prepared for the new dislocation of forces.



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