power <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 17:47:19 +0900

It could, I suggest, be useful to consider our various
understandings of power in light of classic legal issues:
opportunity, means, and motive--to which we have added

Cohen and Kavanagh are right to point out that the
opportunity to exercise power is, in most societies,
unequally distributed as a function of class and status

My own first thrust in this effort was focused on means:
values/ideology, wealth and physical force, all of which may
be brought into play to support the exercise of power.

Cahill has focused on motivation. The powerful, he says,
see and respond to the world differently from other people,
being more concerned with aligning interests and achieving
instrumental goals than in ideals, which they see as
irrelevant or naive, useful only as levers in obtaining what
they want.

To all of the above, we have now added skill, or more
precisely two sets of skills: (1) casuistry and (2) the social
skills required to get people with different interests,
personalities, etc., to work together. Kavanagh's reference
to F.G. Bailey suggests that we look at humbuggery and
manipulation. Here it seems to me that what we have is
alternative (and more pejorative) names for (1)
humbuggery=casuistry and (2) manipulation=social skills,
and that Geiger has provided a lovely case in which both
are clearly at work.

What is clear to me at this point is that in their attempts to
claim and exercise power, human beings exhibit a wide
range of variation in opportunity, in means, in motive, and
in skill: in all of these dimensions. Which leads to three
critical questions:

First, is there any important dimension that we've missed?

Second, are we ready yet to present or develop research
that will lead beyond discussion to theories of how these
dimensions interact?

Third, returning to where I started several days ago, are we
ready to see power in anything but negative terms? Are the
powerful always villains or fools? Have saints and heroes
become unthinkable? How, then, as anthropologists, do we
understand those who imagine saints and heroes to bring
meaning into their lives?

John McCreery
March 11, 1996