“Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others,
to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.”
Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924)
In its most simplest definition, “power is the ability of one person to control or influence the choices of other persons” (Bell, 1975). In today’s modern societies, power is a complex philosophy, ranging from the authoritative power legitimately given to persons in higher tiers of the social structure and coercive power wherein force or threats of force pressure others into actions they might not otherwise chose for themselves. The range of power ranges from this forceful coercion to mild influence and is present in every social relationship between two people in one form or another. Indeed, the exercise of power is endemic to humans due to the social structures needed to organize communities of people.
In sociology, power is studied in its capacity to enable persons into action or in its constraining nature. There can be no power without a subordinate upon who the power is practiced upon. It is a social relationship that determines the balance of power and its stability or lack thereof. In relationships at home and within family members, parents tend to have the power over their children in a relatively stable manner for several years during their childhood. However, upon adolescence, many teenagers experiment with these power relationships and often challenge parents resulting in imbalances of power and the headaches of raising teenager where parent often complain that their children are “out of control,” or out of their power. Power is a process and “an aspect to an ongoing social structure,” (Bell, 1975).
The thought of Friedrich Nietzsche underlies much 20th-century analysis of power. Nietzsche disseminated ideas on the “will to power,” which he saw as the domination of other humans as much as the exercise of control over one’s environment. The French philosopher Michael Foucault offered a modern and broader perspective of power who stated that, “Power is everywhere…because it comes from everywhere,”(Dowding, 1996). For Foucault, “power is actions upon others’ actions in order to interfere with them,” (Dowding, 1996). Foucault does not recur to violence, but suggests that power presupposes freedom in the sense that, “power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done,”(Dowding, 1996). In politics power allows people in authority to reward those who conform to laws and to punish those who do not. However there are forms of power practiced in politics that are perceived as legitimate and people obey not because of coercion, but because they accept the government to be a legitimate authority whose desicions are fair.
“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”
Kenneth Blanchard (1939-present)
Because power has many ways of manifesting itself, it is easy to blur the lines between the concepts of power the ways in which power is practiced such as influence and authority. However it is important to differentiate between the three concepts and to try to understand how are practiced and manifested in contemporary society.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, influence is defined as the, “power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without and direct or apparent effort,” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2008). Influence, then is a kind of power that can be utilized to promote ideas and change opinion. It can have various extremes from a subtle swaying of thoughts to a compelling force. Influence, unlike power, does not have the ability to force people to commit to actions against their will or to reward or punish according to choice. Influence only portends that one can sway another’s opinion.
A good example of influence is the media. The media can be a very powerful entity because of its vast influence over large populations. Its hold over mass communication enables them to manipulate the thoughts of multitudes and to change the ways in which peoples think about current events and trends. Media influence is sometimes the cause that propells many events. During the American Watergate investigations during the Nixon Presidency, the Washinton Post played a central role in exposing the scandals and in making the public aware of federal activity. Media has the capabilities through mass readership, television exposure and now the internet, to spread crucial information that sways people’s ideas that create and shape public perception of leaders and events. Journalists that expose human right violations and political corruption influence movements and revolutions and paprazzi that follow prominent celebrities can impact public opinion about them and subsequently their careers in the spotlight.
Being influencial is to impact the thoughts and actions of others without them being aware of it. It is an aspect of power that can be strong in its ability to subcontiously persuade and in seeming as if it is not a present source of power. In Australia, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch is considered one of the most influential people both for his authority as a media big shot but also in his control over the media, the largest influencer of opinion in today’s society not only in Australia but worldwide (Tuccille, 2003). Murdoch is the major shareholder and chairman of News Corporation, a global news entity that presides over numerous newspapers, magazines and television stations worldwide with large stakes in the film industries and satellite television globally (Chenoweth, 2002). Murdoch’s influence is felt globally both as a person who has impacted many areas of society in business, entertainment and politics as well as through his media empire that conducts business in Australia, Britian, the United States and Asia(Tuccille, 2003). As the head of the most influential entity in the world, the media, Murdoch’s position as chairman makes him one of the most influential persons alive today, changing the way we recieve information without even being aware of it.
“Common sense is the foundation of all authorities, of the laws themselves,
and of their construction.” Thomas Jefferson, (1743-1826)
Authority differs from power because power is an ability to achieve certain ends and authority refers to the legitimacy, justification and right to excercise that power. An example to help distinguish between the two is to consider the following scenario: If a man commits a crime, a mob has the power to persecute the man and even to hang him for his crimes. However only a court of law has the authority to sentence him. Political authority and the balancing of freedom and authority are central issues in studying politics and power. Many philosophers regard authority as a formal form of power which many times it can certainly be. In the tripartite government system of the United States, the Constitution allows for a balance of power by limiting the authorities of the various branches of government and allowing each branch to have certain powers over another (Birch, 2001).
Authority can be a simple relationship such as a parent-child relationship wherein a parent has foremost authority over their child’s experiences and as parents, hold the legitimacy to discipline and teach their child as they wish. In the workplace, authority is recognized in the corporate ladder one needs to climb in order to reach positions with higher status. And in society authority most often lands in the lap of thise in government positions or in the positions that are bestowed with the power to enforce laws and demand respect and obedience.
In any nation it is debatable who the most powerful or influential people are. Because of the difference between influence and power, people considered influential may have little power over the populous while those in power often are not influential, per se but only have the authority to demand rules over the people and to change their ways of life. Time magazine has an annual list of the most influential people in the world, naming people such as Bill Gates, Ghandhi and Oprah Winfrey as some of the most influential people. However these people have relatively little power masses of people and they can not force nor demand that people make certain decisions. Indeed none of these people can even make recognized rules or regulations that can be reinforced. Being in power has a completely different aspect in that it allows one to influence as well as to change and demand things over a group of people. Many consider the President of the United States to be the most powerful person in the world, regardless of his popularity at the time, due to his ability to change and govern over the most powerful entity in the world (Birch, 2001). Following this idea, the most powerful person in Australia would be the person in the most powerful political office: the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.
The Prime Minister is always the leader of the political party with majority support in the House of Representatives (Maddox, 2001). In the capacity of Prime Minister, Rudd has the power to ratify decisions made in the Cabinet and in practice, decisions of the Cabinet will always require the support of the Prime Minister. Most of the authority of the Prime Minister is derived from their position as the head of the Cabinet.
As head of the Cabinet, Rudd has the authority to make the final decisions in matters of state politics and foreign relations (Maddox, 2001). He is the final word in matters concerning the commonwealth of Australia and the citizens and his decisions impact not only all the citizens of Australia but to a certain degree the citizens of those countries with whom he conducts international relations with. In this position, Rudd also has the authority to conduct the businesses of Australia and to issue laws and regulations as he deems necessary. To a certain extent he also holds a very influential position wherein he holds the capacity to persuade the thoughts and opinions of all Australians through his authoritative powers and his powerful position as the Prime Minister.
Power, influence and authority are all related concepts. However, they have very different implications in society. Those in power do not necessarily have a great influence on their subordinates and those who are considered influential may not have any power at all to carry out actions or demands. Both may certain authorities but the levels of power and influence they have over a group of people can greatly vary. In politics it is crucial to have the authority to rule over a nation and the power to be able to use the authority. Being influential is secondary although it is no secret that in democratic societies, being an influential leader can often have a bigger impact than ruling with power and authority alone.
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Dowding, Keith. Power (Concepts in the Social Sciences). New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 1996.
Dugteren, Theo Van. Who Gets What?: The Distribution of Wealth and Power in Australia. Rydalmere: Hodder & Stoughton General Division, 1976.
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Maddox, Graham. Australian democracy: In theory and practice. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 2001.
Murray, Georgina. Capitalist Networks And Social Power in Australia And New Zealand (Corporate Social Responsibility Series) (Corporate Social Responsibility Series). Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
“Pacific Magazine: The Region’s 10 Most Powerful People.” Pacific Magazine: Covering all of Oceania with articles on government, politics, business, social and cultural developments.. http://www.pacificmagazine.net/issue/2005/05/01/the-regions-10-most-powerful-people (accessed Apr. 9, 2008).
Tuccille, Jerome. Rupert Murdoch: Creator of a Worldwide Media Empire. Frederick: Beard Books, 2003.
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