‘Power’ names a set of relations that pertain in a given situation. Social power is the set of relations that pertain between persons or groups of persons. It
… is usually a reciprocal process among all participants, and is rarely determined by a single actor no matter how unequal the situation might appear (Olsen 1970, p. 3).
That is, each individual within the relation contributes to the eventual power differential. The differential that results may be affected by external factors such as social conditioning, economic resources and physical strength.
A group may be considered dominant if that group is advantaged in their ease of access to power and thus in their opportunity to exercise power. This allows the members of that group greater opportunity in the development of their individual and collective potential. In a patriarchy it is predominantly men who are advantaged in these ways while women are systematically disallowed opportunities which would enable them easy access to and exercise of many of the forms of power, and to the effective forms of power.
Power relations vary in intensity, stability and effectiveness according to the nature of the relations between the persons involved and the context in which it occurs. When the relations are between men and women, men have the greater chance of success because they have access to more effective forms of power. Power relations are almost always weighted in the man’s favour and so relations between men and women may be said to be power-based relations. Relations between persons where the power is not consistently weighted in one person’s favour are not power-based relations. This is not to deny that there is a relation of power between the persons, but it means that the relation is not based on one person consistently having power over the other based on their sex.
In order to spell out the ways in which sex-power relations may vary according to the nature of the persons involved—and the context—and to show how it is that women generally have access to and exercise of a limited range of power, but generally only to the least effective forms, I use the classification of seven forms of power identified by de Crespigny (1970).
My use of the letters A and B may be taken to refer to individuals or groupings of individuals.
Exercising coercive power requires using or threatening to use one’s access to power that allows the exercise of power which leads to agent B complying with agent A to meet A’s desired end. For coercion to be successful A’s opportunity of access to forms of power must be greater than B’s or B must believe they are
greater, and further B must have complied with A. B may comply without coercion actually being exercised if B believes A’s access to power to be greater and the reason that she will be better off by complying than by resisting. This belief may be based on past experience or on a rational judgement of the chance of successful resistance (or weighing up the consequences).
Coercion does not always involve physical force. Instead B may be deprived of access to social, economic or emotional support thereby diminishing B’s chances of successful resistance to A.
Coercive power must be intended at some time by A, but neither A nor B needs to know it is being exercised at a particular time. This is because included within its scope are threats of coercion as well as actual instances of coercion.
In the case of relations between men and women, the following is an example of an actual instance of the exercise of coercive power, as well as its exercise and expectation of further instances of its exercise.
We all know stories about husbands beating up their wives after the party when they have reached the privacy of their home. Many of us have experienced at least a few blows from husbands or lovers when we refuse to submit to them. It is difficult to assess the frequency of physical attacks within so-called love relationships, because women rarely tell even one another when they have taken place. By developing a complicated ethic of loyalty (described above in terms of privacy) men have protected themselves from such reports leaking out and becoming public information. Having already been punched for stepping out of the role, the woman is more than a little reluctant to tell anyone of the punishment because it would
violate the loyalty code which is an even worse infraction of the rules and most likely would result in further and perhaps more severe punishment (Gillespie citing O’Connor 1975, p. 78).
Each time the man is successful in his exercise of power, his access to further instances of this exercise is increased. He thus becomes cumulatively more effective in his exercise and gains more access to other forms of power. The woman’s access to and exercise of power on the other hand is diminished and she is rendered cumulatively less effective.
He may gain, for instance, by increasing his access to inducive power. Inducive power is exercised when B complies with A’s wishes because she believes that she will benefit by complying. Inducements may take the form of rewards and/or withdrawal of threats and/or instances of deprivation. B may act in compliance with A given the inducements, when she might not have in the event that they were not offered.
Social conflict is absent when inducive power is exercised. If conflict is present then it is an instance of coercive power by threat or belief of threat. Inducive power entails gains for B or the belief of gains for B. B may not in fact gain by complying but believes she will. Thus inducive power, though apparently beneficial to B is inconsistent with B’s autonomy, but not necessarily with B’s liberty in the negative sense. Apologists of inducive power will argue that B made a decision to comply.
For example, the security of marriage is an inducement offered to most people, particularly women. It is an inducement
because women can improve their social status by marrying a man of higher status (but even when this is not the case a bad marriage might be considered better than no marriage). Marriage is a goal aspired to by many women because they believe they will benefit in some way.
The inducements are not always empty. Some women do benefit in the short term by marrying: this may be by acquiring a modicum of security and/or social respect.
However, marriage is inconsistent with women’s autonomy in the long term. Take for example the naming convention, unchallenged until recently,6
applied to married women. A woman who marries Jim Brown becomes Mrs Jim Brown—without reference to the woman herself, only to the man to whom she is married. She relinquishes her autonomy and her identity in this sphere.
Power of this sort is an activity intended, though not all the attendant implications need be intended.
There are forms of power which do not rely on intentions to affect individual behaviour but which do affect behaviour because of the way in which person B reacts to A because of her beliefs about A and because B believes that she will benefit in some way by acting in accordance with her belief.
It applies also to institutions, especially where B is a subordinate of A and refrains from certain activities because of the effect it may have on her chances of promotion.
An exercise of reactional power occurs unknown to A, particularly when B’s beliefs about A’s reactions lead him [her] to abstain from what [she] he would otherwise have done (de Crespigny 1970, pp. 47–8).
Reactional power ‘… is a function of B’s beliefs about A’s reactions’ (de Crespigny 1970, p. 47).
… unlike the previous forms of power [the] effects are always prospective. Where harmful effects are feared they may be such as to deprive B or another of something [she] he has or of something [she] he expects to have (de Crespigny 1970, p. 47).
An example of reactional power is heterosexuality. Most people in our society are, or claim to be, heterosexual. The society tends not to see this as problematic, partly because the body politic assumes that it is ‘natural’. Moreover, homosexual members of the society are systematically subjected to the findings of certain psychologists and psychiatrists and the like in their endeavours to ‘cure’ non-heterosexual people. Further, many countries still retain legislation which prohibits certain sexual activities which lie outside the domain of male-female relationships. This results in some non-heterosexual people acting in accordance with the heterosexual norm publicly because they believe that the reactions of heterosexual people could deprive them of their freedom to otherwise associate with whom they choose.7
Reactional power can on occasion become impedimental power, as would be the case in the above example if a person is not promoted because of their sexual preference. Impedimental power differs from reactional power because the latter is B centred. B decides, according to the available information, what she thinks A’s reaction will be and on that basis behaves accordingly. Impedimental power, by contrast, is A centred, A makes the decisions.
Impedimental power is a deliberate manipulation of obstacles by A in order to prevent B from attaining some desired goal. It is closely related to coercive power because it is deliberate on A’s part, and limits B’s autonomy. It differs from coercive power in that B may not realise she has been hindered in achieving her goal.
If a woman decides to enter the workforce she may be met with impedimental power. In the first instance if a woman applies for a job for which she is qualified, but is unsuccessful in securing it. She is given as a reason from her potential employer that her qualifications were not sufficiently high. This could very likely be a case of impedimental power being exercised in a formal situation while the employer in reality did not want to employ a woman. She might not realise that she has been hindered in securing the job. A change in the laws can sometimes reduce the effectiveness of impedimental power.
The ERA—Equal Rights Amendment (1972)—in the US makes the above example illegal on the grounds that it is discrimination on the basis of sex.8
The woman in such a case would have the right of appeal which, if successful, would enable her to take up the position. She would first of all have to believe she had been impeded. The employer in this case would have to give way to the decision because of its legitimacy.
Legitimate power (or authority) ‘… is the right to command and correlatively, the right to be obeyed’ (Wolff 1970, p. 4).
The above is an example of a particular type of legitimate power viz. rational authority (to use Weberian terminology). The employer obeys the decision because it has a particular source. Conflict is normally absent even when B disagrees with A’s orders, commands, or decision but nevertheless obeys A because of a belief in the legitimacy of the order.
Legitimate power is most common in institutions but it can and does also occur in informal social situations for exactly the same reasons.
A form of power used almost continually in social relationships, though usually much diluted, is attrahent power. This is power that results from B wanting to be like A or be liked by A. A stronger
form results when B is devoted to or loves A. This is similar to legitimate power in that B complies with A’s wishes just because they are A’s wishes, that is because of their source, not because of any official or traditional power vested in A.
On an individual level, which is where the exercise of this form of power is most effective, romantic love affords us an ideal example. If a woman loves a man then she might comply with his wishes just because they are his wishes. She might do things for him that she would not do for others. This may apply in any situation where one person loves another. It is not always a destructive form of power or one that implies conflict.
Lastly there is persuasive power which de Crespigny divides into two classes:
The first is rational persuasive power which is ‘… exerted only when the reasons produced in favour of some action are such as would be said to constitute the premises of a (good) argument’ (de Crespigny 1970, p. 51).
There is no deception or withholding of information involved in the use of this sort of power, and it is of an advisory nature based on good intentions and reasonable argument.
De Crespigny does not state what he thinks would constitute the second non-rational persuasive power except negatively by saying that it would be rational if the reasons were good. Thus it seems that non-rational power could be based on misinformation, deliberate deception, emotive arguments or
bad reasoning. Sales and advertising techniques and the tricks used by con men and fraudsters could be included.9
Rational persuasive power implies absence of conflict and allows liberty in the ‘negative’ sense for B, but is consistent with B’s autonomy if choices are avail...