Bases of social power and their application in politics and society

Power could arise from a number of sources. French and Raven (1959) provided a widely used model of bases of power and their manifestations in the society (as cited in Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003, p.385). According to their model, an individual derives power from any of the six sources namely; reward, expertise, coercion, referent power, information and legitimate authority (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). An individual gains reward power when one is capable of providing desired outcomes to another individual (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). Such rewards could either be tangible such as money or intangible e.g. affection. Although the compliance needed for reward could be direct such as when a teacher buying a student a present for his performance, the transaction is often implied but not directly stated. In politics and governance reward power can be demonstrated by the award of aid to various countries based on conditions such as reduction of corruption levels and establishment of a democratic rule. The second source of power, coercion, arises out of the power bearer’s ability to provide undesired outcomes to the recipient (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). Just as is the case for rewards, coercion could either involve tangible outcomes e.g. use of physical force or involve intangible outcomes e.g. loss of affection following a particular action. In international relations, such a coercive form of power is exemplified by threats of attack or sanctions (e.g. UN sanctions) for a country’s pursuit of certain goals or failure to abide by stipulated actions (Barnett & Duvall 2005). The above two sources thus revolve on providing rewards (positive outcomes) or punishment (negative outcomes) following the performance of a particular action.

When an individual is perceived to possess superior skills or knowledge with regard to the object of power, then the power that results derives from expertise – the principle that knowledge is power. Such (expert) power often occurs when the target does not have personal knowledge on the subject he seeks assistance from the expert (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). For instance, expert power exists in a doctor-patient relationship since the latter has limited knowledge on the disease condition he sought help for; thus, the patient complies with dosage directions though he has little knowledge on the way the dosage achieves its effect. In politics, experts include individuals offering advice on aspects such as economic policy e.g. the chairperson of Fed reserve. A related source of power is that of information – information is power principle. Information power though related to expert power is not governed by the expertise of the power bearer (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). An example of this form of power arises when one accidentally encounters some form of information (e.g. gossip) that may be useful in controlling behavior of another person. Such source of power in politics may for instance rest with individuals who have encountered leaked information on previously secret operations or state of affairs of a certain office. Reporters who for instance unearthed the Walter Reed scandal experienced such type of power.

Another type of power could arise out of an individual’s possession of certain characteristics thus make him appeal to another individual. This type of power – referent power – could arise out of respect or admiration for such individual (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). A sports personality for instance draws power from his fans though rarely would these fans fall into his footsteps. The means through which referent power works is by pull factors rather than direct request hence the power bearer may be unaware of the influence he has on the recipient (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003). An individual who aspires to be a dancer could for instance emulate the dancing style of an established dancer though such adulation is lost on the expert. In politics, an aspirant could be charmed into a candidate’s ways of campaigning out of his winning credentials. By seeking endorsements from celebrities and former leaders, candidates for instance establish this form of power in the individuals they sought endorsement from.

A final way through which an individual acquires power is by the legitimacy conferred through the roles he occupies (Nowak, Vallacher & Miller 2003).  A police officer who directs traffic at junctions for instance does not bear any expertise in pointing the direction to which cars should proceed, but due to the mandate conferred on him by his position drivers are subject to his authority. A principal characteristic of legitimate power is its limitation in scope; that a police officer wielding enough power in directing traffic would lose that power when ushering the same individuals into worship venues, unless when referent power applies. A reigning president for instance can issue a decree that is adhered to by the citizens not out of punitive outcomes but for the authority bestowed upon such an individual. Similarly, a priest commands the respect of the congregation due to his priesthood duties. Go to part 4 here.

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