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Volume 2

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. The Concept of Field
3. Reality and the Intentional Field
4. Freedom and Intentional Humanism
5. Perceiving Another
6. Intentions, Attitudes, and Interests
7. Perceiving and Behaving
8. Behavior
9. Social Behavior and Interaction
10. Types of Social Interaction
11. The Equation of Social Behavior
12. The Transition to a Sociocultural Field
13. The Sociocultural Space
14. The Field of Social Forces
15. The Sociocultural Field
16. Distances
17. Status Distance
18. Status Distance and Behavior
19. The Fundamental Nature of Power
20. Social Power
22. Social Fields and Antifields
23. Groups and Antifields
24. Class
25. Social Class And the Class-Literature
26. Conflict
27. Conflict in the Sociocultural Field
28. The Elements of Social Conflict
29. The Process of Conflict
30. Social Fields and Types of Societies
31. The State and Political System
32. Societies, Politics, and Conflict
33. Societies in Empirical Perspective
34. Testing for the Existence of Exchange, Authoritative, and Coercive Societies
35. Is Conflict Manifest as Theorized?

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 21

The Family Of Power*

By R.J. Rummel

Unto one he gave five talents; to another two, and to another one; and to every man according to his several ability.
---- Matthew 25:15


As the previous chapters show, power has many bases, such as threats, promises, or love, and many forms. I have found it useful to discriminate the following.

Power: the capacity to produce effects (e.g., as does the wind).

Identive power: the capacity of one's being to produce effects (e.g., unconsciously, while walking, causing birds to take flight)

Assertive power: the capacity to produce intentionally effects on one's environment (e.g., digging a hole in the ground).

Physical power: the capacity to effect intentionally another's body (e.g., surgery).

Force: the capacity to effect intentionally another's body or interests against the other's will (e.g., knocking a person unconscious and taking their money)

Social power: a capacity to produce effects through another self (e.g., a politician getting others to vote for him).

Coercive power: a capability to threaten a person into choosing one undesirable behavior over another (e.g., "Either be tortured or confess.").

Bargaining power: a capability to use promises to entice a person into choosing one desirable behavior over another (e.g., "I'll give you $40 for the radio and no more"--implicit is the understanding that the person wants to keep his radio and would also like $40, so now must choose between these desirables).

Intellectual power: a capability to persuade a person into believing or doing something (e.g., "You're right. I should take vitamin E).

Authoritative power: a capability to use legitimacy to convince a person to do something (e.g., teacher: "Your homework assignment is . . . .").

Altruistic power: a capability to use love to induce a person into doing something (e.g., "Honey, would you do this for me?").

Manipulative power: a capability to control the situation and opportunities of a person to cause him to do (be) something (e.g., enrolling one's child in a expensive private school).

Figure 21.1 shows the similarity and differences between these forms of power.1

Figure 21.1

What about the distinction between exercising and having power? About power's resources and power's success.2 "John is powerful" or "John has power" means that he can exercise power and is likely to be successful in doing so. Our basis for this is an assessment of John's resources. He may have wealth, prestige, or a high government position. Or he may be strong in body, charming, intelligent, or have special expertise. In any case, we perceive the other as having the resources to threaten, to promise, to force, to manipulate, and so on, which, compared to others, enable him to do so successfully--to succeed in using power. Thus, to know a women is a State Governor is to know she has authoritative power. That is, she has the resources--the legitimacy of a high elected executive position--to successfully gratify her associated goals.3

Thus, the distinction between exercising and having power4 is a distinction between the capability to exercise power and the resources to be successful at it. Henceforth I will use power either in the sense of exercising or having it, and which is meant should be clear from the context. In any case, the different forms of power will be applicable. Thus I can talk of a person's coercive power as his capability for and likely success at using threats to get someone to do something they would otherwise not do. Thus, I can say a person is powerful, as meaning he has the resources for the successful use of his power.

Finally, the distinctions made so far should clarify a person's Power Equation, which interrelates his capabilities, interests, and will. Capabilities refer to resources and their likely contribution to success in manifesting one's interest. Thus, for an individual they may be wealth, prestige, family name, intelligence, and so on. Capabilities, then, are one's potentials for exercising power.

Interests have already been defined (Sections 6.3 and 19.6 of Chapter 6 and Chapter 19) and refer to the person's goals and the strength of his desire to gratify them. Interests provide the direction for a person's capability. Will is then the midwife of interests. It activates capability in an attempt to gratify particular goals (like having the will power to get out of bed after two hours sleep and go to work). Looked at from the outside, will is a person's credibility to so manifest his interests through his capability.

The Power Equation, then, is:

Equation 21.1:

Pg = Cg X Ig X Wg,

where Cg = a person's capabilities to achieve goal g, Ig = his interest in achieving g, and Wg = his will power to achieve g.

The relationship among these terms is multiplicative. If any of these three aspects of power is zero, then a person's power to achieve his goal g is zero. Consider a student whose goal is a Ph.D. Regardless if he is brilliant and really wants the degree, if he doesn't have the will power to do the required study, write his term papers, and get out of bed in the morning and attend class, then his power to achieve the degree is virtually zero. But even if has the interest and will power to diligently go beyond the required work, attend all his classes, and hand in forty-page term papers, if he simply does not have the intelligence to understand what he must learn and the skill to write and articulate it, then his power to achieve the degree is also virtually zero. Similarly with the student who does have the will and intelligence, but hardly knows what he wants--whose interest in the subject has disappeared, and as a result of being bored with the work does little of it and skips classes. Again, little power to get the degree.

But, a blind person can get a medical degree, a one-handed musician can become a great pianist, and a deaf person can write great music. A very intense interest in a goal or a will-to-achieve can overcome incapabilities; and likewise a genius can compensate for disabilities that would defeat an average person. To have the power to achieve, therefore, does not mean that capabilities, interests, and will must be in equally present, but simply that each plays a role in interaction with the others, and when one is virtually absent with regard to a goal, so is effective power.

In summary, I have defined power as a capability to produce effects and described a number of its forms. These forms depend on whether power is:

(1)intentionally directed or not;

(2)oriented towards the environment, another's body, or another self;

(3)against another's will or not (force or not);

(4)directed towards manifesting another's negative or positive interests;

(5)based on threats, promises, persuasion, love, legitimacy, or controlling the situation and opportunities.

In addition, we should distinguish between having and exercising power. The former is having the resources for the likely successful manifestation of power; the latter is the actual use of power.


In Section 19.1 of Chapter 19, I listed a number of definitions of power found in the literature. Since it is a key concept in this and in subsequent volumes an important question concerns the fit of my definition to those of others. Is what I call power what others call power? Are there significant differences? The best way to assess this is to compare each definition in turn.

(1)Power as the production of intended effects (Russell, 1938). If intentionality is omitted from this definition, it would be similar to power as a capability to produce effects. Russell's inclusion of intentionality restricts the definition to a species of power, since the genus should also include effects that are produced by nature and of one's being and activities. A bull in a china shop manifests power, although wholly unintended; a king sneezes and the vibrations are felt throughout the land; and a huge man cannot help but affect others in spite of his intentions.

(2)Power is the ability to employ force (Bierstedt, 1950). This definition confounds the difference between, in my terms, force and coercion. It also neglects power in its noncoercive forms, such as manipulative, altruistic, and bargaining power. Indeed, this emphasis on power as a disposition (ability) and on force overlooks the most important dynamic elements in social interaction: power in its noncoercive forms.

(3)Power is when one's behavior causes another's (Simon, 1957). This is a broad definition overlapping power in its various forms. As a being behaves, it affects others. Also, just by virtue of being, of existing, a person can affect others. A beautiful girl is a case in point. Moreover, one can affect another's perception, intentions, temperament, and moods without affecting his behavior (you may cause another to reassess his goals without changing them). The emphasis on cause also neglects states of mind (such as love) or control over rules (manipulation) which can manifest or channel behavior, without their being a specific behavioral cause. In sum, Simon's definition misses power's essence. It neither captures the genus or species of power, and only obliquely taps its many forms.

(4)A person i has power over another j to the extent that i can get i to do something that j would not otherwise do (Dahl, 1957). Clearly, Dahl is defining a form of power: coercion. And the definition is restricted to having as distinct from exercising coercive power. And other forms of power are ignored or unappreciated.

(5)The power of i over j with respect to a given change equals the maximum strength of the resultant force which i can set up in that direction, where strength is determined by the relative magnitudes of the forces activated by i to comply and resist (Cartwright, 1959). This definition is dispositional ("can set up") and involves intentions. It is a general definition, since it only refers to a resolution among psychological forces. These may refer to threats, love, promises, and so on. It thus encompasses having intentional social power, as I have defined it. It ignores physical power (force) and other nonintentional forms of power.

(6)Power is the ability to satisfy wants through control over preferences and/or opportunities (Kuhn, 1963). Here also power is dispositional (ability) and intentional (control), and involves both coercion and bargaining (in my terms). Ignored by the definition are force, unintentional power, and other forms of social power, including manipulative power (which works on the situation or external opportunities--Kuhn's definition restricts itself to effecting interests).

(7)Power is the processual relation between two parties modally characterized by (1) asymmetric influence, in which a perceptible probability of decision rests in one of the two parties, even over the resistance of the other party; and (2) the predominance of negative sanctions (threatened or actual) as a feature of behavior in the dominant party (Schermerhorn, 1961). This makes power something more than a disposition. It is a "processual relation," a movement towards something and thus similar to my power as a vector-towards-manifestation (see Section 19.2 of Chapter 19). In form, it is coercive, with the emphasis on negative sanctions and resistance (negative interests).

(8)Power is the process of affecting policies of others with the help of (actual or threatened) severe deprivations for nonconformity with the policies intended (Lasswell and Kaplan, 1950). As with Schermerhorn, power is active, a becoming as in my fundamental definition. But here also, only one form of power is defined: coercion. Incidentally, Lasswell and Kaplan are at pains to argue that violence is ruled out. Power as they define it does not include force (in my terms). It is pure coercion.

(9)The essence of power is command (de Jouvenal, 1962). De Jouvenal means the command that is obeyed. Power is something one has, which is actualized in being able to get others to do what is wanted. It is therefore dispositional and intentionally exercised. And it can take the form of coercion, altruism (one obeys out of love for the person or his cause), or authority. It ignores bargaining, manipulative, and intellectual powers, in which no command need be involved, as well as force and, of course, the other unintentional forms of power.

(10)Power is the ability to cause or prevent change (May, 1972). Clearly this defines power dispositionally. It is broader than Russell's definition in not restricting power to intentional dispositions, while being narrower in restricting it to causative abilities. In this regard it suffers from the same difficulty as Simon's definition. This aside, Mey encompasses a wide range of powers and he approaches the essence of power as a capability to do something.

Such are the major definitions of power in comparison to that which I offer. Power as a vector-towards-manifestation, or in more understandable terms, a capability to produce effects, does in its various forms encompass all the definitions offered, and when we extend our meaning to include having power, then these definitions provide nothing not involved in my use of power, and indeed omit much. Particularly distressing is the single-minded emphasis on one form of power: coercion. This emphasis cannot help but bias one's view of social relations. For to see the role of power only in the form of coercion, is to see hazily, if at all, the great panoply of relations, processes, and interactions involving altruism, bargaining, authority, persuasion, manipulation, and the assertive striving for self-esteem.

One final point. I have analyzed power into its forms and characteristics. But by so separating unintentional and intentional power, power oriented to the self from oriented to the body, and power based on promises, threats, and so forth, I do not imply that these act separately or independently. In analyzing a painting we factor out perspective, pigments, design, balance, and so on, but we still recognize that these elements form a unity, a gestalt, a field of expression. Similarly, power in its various forms and characteristics are united in reality, although these are analytically separable.

Concerning social interaction particularly, the various forms of power can all coexist in the same relationship, forming a balance, a power field. Thus, even in an innocuous conversation with a stranger on a plane I may simultaneously use manipulative power in steering him conversationally towards my interests, bargaining power in exchanging my small compliments and attention for his, coercion in a subtle implied threat to lose interest if he monopolizes the conversation, and intellectual power in persuading the other that he ought to read the book I was reading. Moreover, I may unintentionally affect the other through my clothes, my apparent size, or wealth. All these powers intersect in the conversation, and unite in confronting the other's interests. They lend mutual support to each other in the struggle against opposing the other's interests. The outcome, their manifestation, can seldom be ascribed to any one form of power, any more than the subjective impression a painting makes can be wholly ascribed to its pigments. Nonetheless, sometimes one power dominates and in some situations, such as torture, chess, buying a coat, or honeymoon, we can say that one form of power is supreme.

Yet all the forms of power are present and active in a unified but invisible whole. It is the over-all concrete resources of power reflecting this whole.5 which comprise power as status. On this, let me briefly consider status again.


In my discussion of status, I briefly defined power as productive of effects. Now this can be explained.

As a status, power means having power: it includes both the resources of power and their effective manifestation. Moreover, it includes all forms of power or their combination, depending upon the situation. The one with considerable identive power, as the remarkably handsome, six-foot two-inch man, has an associated status, as do those with altruistic power ("the liberator"), intellectual power (the nuclear physicist), authoritative power (the priest), or assertive power (the strong-willed, take-charge businessman).

Status is a bundle of characteristics upon which there is consensus as to their desirability, a cluster of positive-valued aspects of a person's field of expression. One such cluster is wealth, or a person's command over an abundance of desirable possessions; another is prestige, or a person's honor, respect, desirable reputation, or glamour. And power is a cluster that combines those capabilities underlying power in its various forms.

As a cluster, power is a component of social space. It locates people in social space by virtue of their over-all capabilities for exercising power in all its social and nonsocial, intentional and unintentional, and coercive and noncoercive forms. Thus, power as status is clearly a generalized component, which examined in detail would subdivide into different aspects, elements, and forms6 as previously shown in Figure 21.1.


Often in conjunction with discussions of power, the concept of influence is introduced.7 It is said that a person is influential, or that one has influence over another.

The notion of influence adds nothing new to my discussion of power. For what is often meant by influence is a noncoercive ability to produce--or the production of--an effect, as through love, persuasion, or authority. This is covered by the altruistic, intellectual, and authoritative forms of power.

Moreover, influence sometimes means exercising power in an invisible fashion, without its trappings or commands. Thus, a person may be highly influential politically, without having a position of power or the resources in wealth to be so. There are many bases of power, some concrete--visible for all to see as a medical doctor's diploma--some implicit, as in a person's speech indicating his intellectual credentials, or in the implied threat of his size. Influence as this invisible production of effects is covered also by the forms of power and their operation through mutual fields of expression. 


* Scanned from Chapter 21 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. The chapter has been extensively revised for this web site.

1. It is customary to see power as a means of blocking the goals or desires of others. What I have emphasized here is power as a gratifying of one's interests, as a satisfying of individual wants or goals. This may involve, of course, blocking others' wants, as in coercion, but also satisfying the wants of others as well, as in bargaining or altruistic power. Parsons' (1963) approach to power is similar, in that he focuses on power as gratifying wants. However, he treats it as a means, like money, where I consider power as a capability to produce effects. On Parsons' treatment of power, see de Kadt (1965, especially p. 464).

2. "To ignore the disjunction between possible power and realized power, both actual and potential, is a classic error in political analysis, one evident both in the crude 'conspiracy theories of history' propagated by demagogues and in scholarly elitist interpretations of the social order. Its essence is to attribute power to Jews, bankers, interlocking corporate directorates, bureaucrats, labor bosses, or even professors, because it can be plausibly argued that these groups could exercise great power if they were cohesive and their members shared a common political aim. The fact that this may not be the case, or that it is true to only a limited degree, is ignored or suppressed" (Wrong, 1968, p. 680).

3. In practice, an executive's commands and requests must percolate through his bureaucracy, and much of his effort will be devoted to persuading his subordinates to do what he wants. There is a field of powers within which an executive, whether president, premier or dictator, must work. For clarity, however, I am ignoring this field here to concentrate on power's essence.

4. I owe the distinction between having and exercising power to Oppenheirn (1961).

5. "Power as such is never directly observable. What can be observed are the bases of power, those resources, values, or characteristics which contribute to the capacity of the individuals or groups to better their position in respect of the available alternatives for action. They provide the means which can be, and frequently are, mobilized to achieve the desired goals, and it is by observing these bases that parties estimate the effective power of opponents and the area in which it can be applied" (de Kadt, 1965, p. 461).

Compare with Merriam (1964, p. 21): "Power withdraws from its physical externals, beyond its symbols, lurking somewhere behind its material defenses."

6. In technical terms, power as status is a higher order dimension, defining a cluster of intercorrelated basic components (forms) of power. On higher order dimensions, see Rummel (1970, Chapter 18).

7. See, for example, March (1955) and Banfield (1960).

For citations see the Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix REFERENCES

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