Power <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 6 Mar 1996 08:49:53 +0900

Holly Swyers asks,

"What is power, and who decides?

Is it possible for us as anthropologists to separate our notions of power
from those that might exist in another culture - or to recognize a different
definition/explanation of power?

Is power different in public life vs. private life, and if so, which is the
more valid indicator of what a culture values?"

What makes these issues hard to deal with is, I suspect, the close
association these days between "power" and "critique," the result
being that discussions of power almost inevitably take on an
accusatory tone. I have wondered if this is not, perhaps, a
consequence of individualism and multiculturalism pushed to
extremes at which any exercise of power by individual or group
vis-a-vis another is seen as, ipso facto, illicit.

Be that as it may, it also seems to me that the now common
practice of seeing power as a reflex of symbolic relationships in
religions, ideologies, scholarly writings, etc. distracts attention
from the mechanisms by which power is constituted and
exercised. A flaw in scholarly argument, this line becomes pure
idiocy in those who also aspire to have some effect on the world.

What, then, is power? To me it is simply this--the ability to
overcome resistance. As Amatai Etzioni reminds us, overcoming
resistance may be achieved in several ways. Mao (and Hawk and
Justice Holmes) are right that power grows from the barrel of a
gun. But force is crude and without other supports only effective
in one on one battles (a parent versus a child, a schoolyard bully
versus his victim). As soon as force is organized, other elements
enter in. Shared perceptions and values are, indeed, important. If
the queen is recognized as queen by most of those around her, it
is likely that her authority will carry the day in disputes with her
subjects. But so is wealth. It is not for nothing that a good deal of
political history is a running series of battles over who gets to
collect and distribute it. (Those budgets Mike Cahill was talking

Could power be conceived in other ways? Is there a fourth term
besides force, the appeal to shared values, or buying support?
Two loose ends for me are "influence" and "charisma." Perhaps
someone else could comment on this.

John McCreery
March 6, 1996