Sociologists usually define power as the ability to impose one's will on others, even if those others resist in some way. The imposition need not involve coercion (force or threat of force); "power" used in the sociological sense is a separate concept from physical power or political power and in some ways is closer to what is called "influence" in everyday English.

More generally, it can be defined as the real or perceived ability or potential to bring about significant change, usually in people’s lives through the actions of others.

The exercise of power seems to be endemic to people as social and gregarious beings.

Table of contents
1 Analysis and operation of power
2 Types and sources of power
3 Theories of power

Analysis and operation of power

Power manifests itself in a relational manner: one cannot meaningfully say (pace advocates of empowerment) that a particular social actor "has power" without also specifying the other parties to the social relationship.

Power almost always operates reciprocally, but usually not equally reciprocally. To control others, one must have control over things that they desire or need, but one can rarely exercise that control without a measure of reverse control - larger, smaller, or equal - also existing. For example, an employer usually wields considerable power over his workers because he has control over wages, working conditions, hiring and firing. The workers, however, hold some reciprocal power: they may leave, work more or less diligently, group together to form a union, and so on.

Because power operates both relationally and reciprocally, sociologists speak of the balance of power between parties to a relationship: all parties to all relationships have some power: the sociological examination of power concerns itself with discovering and describing the relative strengths: equal or unequal, stable or subject to periodic change. Sociologists usually analyse relationships in which the parties have relatively equal or nearly equal power in terms of constraint rather than of power.

Even in structuralist social theory, power appears as a process, an aspect to an ongoing social relationship, not as a fixed part of social structure.

One can sometimes distinguish primary power: the direct and personal use of force for coercion; and secondary power, which may involve the threat of force or social constraint, most likely involving third-party exercisers of delegated power.

Types and sources of power

Power may be held through:

Theories of power

The thought of
Friedrich Nietzsche underlies much 20th century analysis of power. Nietzsche disseminated ideas on the "will to power", which he saw as the domination of other humans as much as the exercise of control over one's environment.

Some schools of psychology, notably that associated with Alfred Adler, place power dynamics at the core of their theory (where orthodox Freudians might place sexuality).


In the Marxist tradition, Antonio Gramsci elaborated the role of cultural hegemony in ideology as a means of bolstering the power of capitalism and of the nation-state. Power is seen as exercised in a direct, overt manner. It is the power of the bourgeois that keeps the proletariat in their place.


One of the broader modern views of the importance of power in human activity comes from the work of Michel Foucault. Feminist analysis of the patriarchy often concentrates on issues of power: note the "Rape Mantra": Rape is about power, not sex.

Foucault's work analyse the link between power and knowledge. He outlines a form of covert power that works through people rather than only on them. Foucault outlined belief systems that gain momentum the more people accept a particular view as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in church. Within such a belief system – or discourse – there is an idea of what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become un-thinkable. This is so, as a particular way to see the world, a particular way to live has become normalized. This subtle form of power is not rigid and contested by other discourses.

Deconstruction often works to reveal hidden power structures and relationships.

Unmarked Categories

The idea of unmarked categories was put forward by feminists. The theory analyses the culture of the powerful. The powerful are those people in society with easy access to resources, those who are able to exercise power without considering what they are doing. For the powerful, their culture is obvious; for the powerless, on the other hand, it is out of reach, élite and expensive.

The identifying mark of the powerful is the unmarked category. The unmarked category is the standard against which everything else is measured. The international address structure of the internet is a good example: US addresses (.edu; .gov) are unmarked.

Unmarked categories are often overlooked. Whiteness is an unmarked category that is commonly not visible to the powerful, as they themselves are within this category. The unmarked category is seen as the norm with the other categories being the deviant ones. This view on power can be applied on race, gender and disability without modification: the able body is the neutral body; the man is the normal status.


Gilles Deluze, a French theorist compared voting for political representation with being taken hostage. A representational government assumes that people can be divided into categories with distinct shared interests. The representative is regarded as embodying the interests of the group. Many social movements have been successful in gaining access to governments: the working class, women, young people and ethnic minorities are part of the government in many nation-states. However, there is no government where the government represent the population along the characteristics of the categories.

The problem of finding suitable representatives is that an individual is member of different categories at the same time. The only truly representative government for a population is the population itself. These ideas have become popular in social movements for global justice. The logic of government open to all underpins the social forums that are organized vis-à-vis forums of the powerful, such as the World Social Forum. These alternative forms are sometimes called counter-power.


This view is used in many projects of social change, but its founder Paulo Freire is largely unknown. Freire assumes that people carry archives of knowledge within them. In particular he rejects the idea that people are ignorant unless they have learned to communicate using the culture of the powerful. The person is seen as part of a culture circle with its own view of reality, based on the circumstances of everyday live.

Social change can be brought about by dialogue. This dialogues is directly opposed to the monologue of the culture of the powerful. Dialogue expands the understanding of the world rather than teaching a correct one. The process of social change starts with action on which the group then reflect. The outcome is commonly more action of some kind.

See also: