Power Play or Power Display

Power has always fascinated people, some would die for it, some die because of it. Why and how is it that power has such an influence in social human life?


Illustrasjon: Simen Østad

I’ve got the power…

According to Weber, the relation of power is being observed when an individual achieves (or refrain from achieving) a given task provided by another individual, therefore an action which he wouldn’t have achieved spontaneously. Furthermore, Weber defines power as «any chance to make its own will, among social relations, to triumph, despite obstacles; no matter on what the chance lies».

Such a thought involves a methodological problem: If power is imperceptible to the present, how can some theorists gain insight about it? Importantly, however, is that it may lead to the concept of power losing its critical dimension. For it is only interesting to study power relations when one understands that the conditions could be different than what they are. And that any identifiable individuals must take responsibility for the given conditions in a given context.

It is possible to account for two types of power: injunction and influence. The notion of the power of injunction lies upon coercion, also constraint, and somehow implies the possible use of force. While the power of influence lies upon the consent of the governed. It is the capacity to offer material gratifications (salary, reward) or symbolical (self-esteem) in exchange for a suggested behavior.

Power to Authority

The entertainment industry in many tv series or movies present power in various aspects. From the Netflix series House of Cards, where one ambitious man will stop at nothing for his gain of what he considers to be the absolute power. To the equally successful, Game of Thrones, where people from different factions are ruthless and ready to sacrifice it all for seizing the ruling of a continent.

We can differentiate two aspects of this power display: open use of power and hidden use of power. The first is clear in the relationship towards others, either by language or physical demeanor. The second, on the other hand, is more subtle, and might require social and psychological manipulation. Abiding to power without a clear consent. Therefore another question rises, does disciplinary power constitute a form of legitimate power?

For instance, as to when a hierarchy is in place and the rank or grade grants a form of free card to authority. The military is a prime example. And for that matter, every structural organization with an integrated hierarchy can provide a given person a form of power.

For Foucault, there is a correlation between power and knowledge, «Power and knowledge directly imply one another», slightly apart from his traditional work on structuralism or discourse. At still another level, Foucault sees the Panopticon as the base of «a whole type of society», the disciplinary society.

The Panopticon is a structure that gives enabled official authorities the possibility to exercise a complete surveillance of criminals. Actually, authorities do not even need to be present; the simple existence of the structure and the fear criminals feel that they might be watched by authorities make them refrain from committing crimes. «The Panopticon is a tremendous source of power for prison officials because it gives them the possibility of total surveillance». There is a clear link here between knowledge, technology, and power.

Following Nietzche and Foucault, among others, postmodernists have come to question such foundations, believing that they tend to privilege some groups and downgrade the significance of others, give some groups power and render other groups powerless.

Power exist as elements in most – perhaps nearly all – social conditions. But that does not mean that «everything is power» or that the whole society is governed by specific groups of people in power. For the concept of power to be useful, it must be delimited by something else that is not power or infected by power.

Yet, power is constantly being represented and witnessed in its various applications: legislative, legal, economical, political, institutional and organizational. Therefore, one might wonder the extension and ramifications of actions that were influenced by power. Many times during our lives, we hear people say «there is no such thing as selflessness, just a little less selfish»; one good deed probably has ulterior motives even if it does not appear so. Some would call this perspective cynical, but isn’t every social action motivated by a subjective perception of reality?

Reality as we define it, being a multitude of emotions, experiences and knowledge all tainted by a sense of self. It is the same sense of self that leads us through life to either seek or submit to the various forms of power, making us chose to engage in this play for power. This play is not always about seizing it, but rather the choice to either wield it or surrender it.

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