Re: power (long)

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Wed, 6 Mar 1996 10:37:40 -0500

On Tue, 5 Mar 1996, Holly Swyers asked a perennial question (slightly out
of order):

> 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?

Instead of Ralph H's somewhat negative definition: power as the ability to
*prevent* someone from doing something, a wider view would have it as the
ability to influence the actions of others, both positively and negatively.

>From there we can look for the bases of power. On the one hand we can
distinguish force, simple physical strength, from other culturally defined
sources. That dichotomy closely parallels (but not always) the dichotomy
between illegitmate and legitimate uses of force in social/political
relations. Richard N Adams distinguishes "skill authority"--the assignment
of influence on the basis of a perceived knowledge or skill in the matter
at hand--versus "power authority"--the assignment of influence on some
other basis. While I like his distinction between influence based on
perceptions of skill and other kinds of influence, I do not really like
the term "power authority". To my mind authority is a particular kind of
power, based on a linkage with ideological premises, with what Rappaport
called Ultimate Sacred Propositions. That is, authority is "legitimate",
but not all power is legitimate:

power (influence)
/ \
force authority __________________
/ \ | |
illegitimate legitimate = "power authority" skill authority

Having said that it should be obvious that different cultural systems
recognize different bases for authority, different definitions of
legitimate uses of power. Among other things that also includes different
definitions of what is public and political and what is private and
domestic, [as well as debates about whether a particular situation is
public and political or private and domestic.]