The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: In just less than 1900 words, this entry emphasizes the difficulties inherent in defining power, briefly outlines the concept's many facets, introduces four basic perspectives on power, and offers some guidelines for critiquing definitions of power.
Power is generally understood as "concerned with the bringing about of consequences." Beyond this broad definition, however, there are many disagreements among scholars about which aspects of the concept should be emphasized. For example, some conceptions emphasize different bases of power, some emphasize different forms of power, and some emphasize different uses of power. The entry concisely discusses power's many facets, and reviews different theoretical perspectives from the power-elite theories of the 1950s to Foucault's post-structuralism.
The entry next identifies two elements that contribute to the difficulty of defining power: intentionality and the significance of effects. These same two elements, however, also provide a useful framework for identifying four basic views of power. The first view assumes that power is an unavoidable feature of all social relations, but makes no judgment about how or to what extent agency is significant. The second view focuses on identifying the victims of power rather than its agents. The third is a view of power concerned with the agent's ability to achieve desired consequences or effects. Finally, a fourth view of power incorporates both intentional action and significant effects. Each of these views has strengths and weaknesses, which the entry discusses in its concluding section. Also emphasized is the need for constant attention to power's conceptual complexities.