Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Thu, 7 Mar 1996 10:05:18 -0500

Concerning power: this is the term of the decade, and one that is
possibly the most overused, and most emotionally loaded of any term
in our technical lexicon.

John McCreery's comment that there is a " close association these
days between "power" and "critique," the result being that
discussions of power almost inevitably take on an accusatory tone" is
significant, but reflects, I think the special use that feminist
theory has made of the term `power' as an aspect of relations between
persons that are characterised by different genders. This is, I
think, entirely different from the notion of power that were used by,
for instance Marx or Weber.

It is worth recalling that Weber refused to define power. Instead he
shifts the question to the issue of `domination' (in English
translation) or Herrschaft in German. Perceptive readers will note
that the issue of gender is already embedded in these terms, since
both could be usefully translated into a third term: `(over)lord-
ship' or `mastery', since the English word is derived from the Latin
word for `lord' or `master', as is the German word. Both words
entail a concept of unequal personal relations in which one person
has some `power' over the other. Since Weber is unable to define
power, he resorts to what is essentially a personalised image of
command and obeying a command. He then generalises this formulation
to all instances of power with which he was concerned. Nevertheless,
Weber's understanding of power was still personalised notion of
power, and relies on the image of a fundamentally gendered
relationship between a lord or master - that is a _Herr_ or domine -
who was, in its classical and etymological sense, a senior male.
Here are some definitions from Max Weber:


Power (Macht) is the probability that one actor within a social
relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will
despite resistance, regardless of the bases on which this
probability rests.

Domination (Herrschaft) is the probability that a command with a
given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons
. . . ... (1) ... the concept of power is sociologically
amorphous. All conceivable qualities of a person and all
conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a
position to impose his will in a given situation. The
sociological concept of combination must hence be more precise
and can only mean the probability that a command will be obeyed .
. . (p.53, Economy and Society)

There are a number of related terms that are relevant to Weber's
understanding of power, namely Action, Political action, Political
organisation, the bases of legitimacy, and the State:


`We shall speak of `action' insofar as the acting individual
attaches a subjective meaning to his behaviour. ... Action is
`social' insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the
behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course.' (4)

Political Action

(1) Politics means conflict (1399) [`A social
relationship will be refereed to a `conflict' (Kampf) insofar as
action is oriented intentionally to carrying out the actor's own
will against the resistance of the other party or parties. The
term `peaceful' conflict will be applied to cases in which actual
physical violence is not employed. (P.38)].

(2) Political action
uses coercion or threat of force.

(3) Every political action is
economically oriented. (66) [Economic action is `peaceful
exercise of an actor's control over resources which is in its
main impulse oriented toward economic ends, that is `satisfaction
of desires for utility.' ]

The Bases of Legitimacy

(1) traditional
_ `that which has always been'

(2) affectual, especially
emotional, faith

(3) value-rational , that which has been deduced
as an absolute.' (p. 36)

Political organisation

`A ruling
organisation will be called `political' insofar as its existence
and order is continuously safeguarded within a given territorial
area by the threat of and application of physical force on the
part of administrative staff.' `. . .

[a political organisation ]
will be called a `state' insofar as its administrative staff
successfully uphold the claim to monopoly of the legitimate use
of physical force in the enforcement of its order.' (p. 54)

I think it is pointless to conduct a discussion about power without
having these fundamental definitions o the table.

They do not go far enough, but let's not invent the wheel again,
folks. As an exercise, everyone interested in this thread should go
to library or on-line library search engine and run a search using
the term 'power'. You will see how terrifically varied the notion of
power truly is: for the power of hair and shampoo to, yes, the power
growing out of the barrel of guns (which I think tells no more about
power than the phrases about the Power of detergents in TV ads).

Machiavelli's discussion of power is one of the most enlightening I
have read, but it is not immediately accessible to the 'modern' mind.
Much of what we discuss under the rubric of power, for instnace,
Machiavelli called 'virtu'. There is a fascinating literature on
what Machiavelli meant by 'virtue', and this I think is more useful
in a discussion of what power *really* is than anything written by
the Marxists, Feminists, Capitalist or Warmongers (like Mao).


===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
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South Africa
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