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Question: You have been introduced to several definitions of power. How do these definitions help you to understand power as you see it exercised in the world around you? Please give examples to illustrate your answer.
At the creation of time, as per the book of Genesis in the Holy Bible, a command was given to Adam and Eve to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge. As they both did so, they became acutely aware of “right” and “wrong” and were subjected to the punishment of their Almighty, Powerful God; and so began the understanding of power. How power is used often reflects the values and beliefs of the user. As a noun, the word “Power” has numerous meanings. The Oxford Dictionary (2013) defines power as the capacity to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events. Hobbes (in Nagel, 1998) identifies power as a person’s means to obtain some future good and Heywood (2007: 456) posits that power is “the ability to influence the behaviour of others, typically through the power to reward or punish”. This essay is an attempt to enlighten the reader of the concept of power and will explore this rationale further with specific concentration on the teachings of Heywood and of Kenneth Boulding in conjunction with his book The Faces of Power, where he reveals his premise that there are three categories of power: threat power, economic power, and integrative power.
At some point in time, every person wishes to possess power in some degree. Whether that is power over a brother or sister, the ability to influence friends or work colleagues, or, perhaps, running for political office. Because power is, at its core, the ability to obtain a described outcome, at some level the objective, according to Russell (1938), of all members of an organization is to obtain power. In his book Politics, Heywood (2007:11) comments that “Power can be said to be exercised whenever A gets B to do something that B would not otherwise have done. However, A can influence B in various ways”. It is these ways or “faces of power” that Heywood (2007) describes the first face of power as that of decision making and how actions, in some shape or form, influence decisions. Decision making is an ongoing process that occurs on a daily basis. On a small scale, a local shop owner is constantly making decisions that will have a direct impact on the success or demise of his/her business. On a much larger scale, is the decisions making of a government. It is here that the teachings of Boulding (1989) have the most influence when he claims that power has three categories or faces. The first face is the power of threat—the stick—the power to destroy. Boulding goes on to state that the existence, and especially the possession, of the means of destruction, such as weapons, enhances the probability that they will be used and a very good example of the power of threat is to look at a situation in 2010 by Mexican drug cartel members on the families living in El Porvenir, Mexico. The cartels, according to an article written by Gibson and published on Examiner.com in 2010, threatened to kill every child in the border town unless the parents paid a fee for their protection or left the town. As a result of this threat, the families either paid the fee or, as a majority indeed did, fled for a neighbouring town.
Another of Boulding’s faces of power that conforms to Heywood’s theory is Economic Power—the carrot—the power to produce and exchange. Globalisation has made trade with foreign nations a much easier opportunity compared to previous decades. However, tensions can, and do, run high in businesses and governments. An illustration of economic power could be that of China. It could be said that China has an economic power over a large portion of the World in that a majority of consumer products are produced in China. If international relations between China and the U.S.A. were to take a turn for the worse and in turn China were to place an embargo on exports to the United States, one of China’s largest importers, this could have a crippling effect on the U.S. economy.
Boulding’s (1989) third face of power is that of integrative power—the hug—the power to build relationships. He explains that integrative power is when B does an act for A out of love or respect or want and not because A has the power of making B do said act. A very good case to demonstrate integrative power is that of a volunteer wishing to enlist in military service. Although there are countries where conscription is still in place, the majority of States rely on men and women volunteering to serve their country. It is improbably, but still possible, that an individual decides to dedicate X amount of years being browbeaten or vituperated to learn a trade or to achieve professional qualifications. Indeed, this could be obtained by attending university or a local trade school with much less difficulty. The individual enlists his or her service out of love or from a sense of duty to their nation.
Yet another concept of power that is introduced by Heywood (2009) in his thesis is the power of agenda setting. The media seems to be one of the major players when agenda setting is the issue. Fox news in the United States is commonly referred to as a right-wing media outlet. As Ackerman (2001) explains, “When it comes to Fox News Channel, conservatives don’t feel the need to “work the ref.” The ref is already on their side.” Alternatively, MSNBC is typically described as left-wing opinionated. An illustration of the type of coverage that is reported is the topic of Obamacare in the U.S.A. When Fox News covers the topic, the primary information that is passed along to its viewers is how much Obamacare will cost the U.S. citizens via way of taxation and that the Democratic President is trying to force unconstitutional laws on the American public. On the opposite side of the spectrum, when MSNBC reports on the subject, the argument is how the healthcare bill will benefit the poor and the individuals that presently cannot afford primary care. This, undoubtedly, swings in the favour of President Obama.
The final argument that Heywood posits is the power of thought control which he describes as influencing others in what they think, want, or need. To demonstrate this, attention is turned to television; children’s television to be more specific. Children’s television channels are consistently bombarded with commercials for the latest toys and any parent dealing with a child pleading for them to buy that latest toy knows perfectly well how influential those commercials can be. When watching these commercials, the parent is typically harassed with comments such as “Dad, I want that!” or “Mom, I NEED that!” when in reality, the product being advertised could simply be the identical doll or toy truck that the child currently owns but in a different coloured dress or paint style.
As declared by Barnes (1988:1), “Power is one of those things, like gravity and electricity, which makes its existence apparent to us through its effects, and hence it has always been found much easier to describe its consequences than to identify its nature and its basis”. It has been put forth in this essay that power, as described by Heywood and Boulding, has numerous faces and the development when these powers are enacted has positive and negative consequences. It is assumed by many that governments use and abuse their power on a continual basis. However, as it can be seen from this work, governments are not the only actor to use and occasionally abuse their power.
Ackerman, S. (2001) ‘The Most Biased Name in News’, FAIR [online], 01 July, available at: http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/the-most-biased-name-in-news/ [accessed 12 January 2013].
Barnes, B. (1988) The Nature of Power, Cambridge: Policy Press.
Boulding, K. (1989) Three Faces of Power, London: Sage Publications.
Gibson, D. (2010) “Drug cartel threatens to kill every child in Mexican border town”
Examiner [online], available at: http://www.examiner.com/article/drug-cartel-threatens-to-kill-every-child-mexican-border-town [accessed 10 January 2014].
Heywood, Andrew (2007). Politics, 3rd ed., Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nagel, J. (1975) The Descriptive Analysis of Power, London: Yale University Press.
Russell, B. (1938) Power: A new social analysis, New York: Norton.
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