5 Power and authority
How we understand social structures and individual agency closely relates to the way we think that power operates in society. Stephen Lukes’ (1974) theory of power is one of the best known. He examined political power and argued that there are three dimensions or faces to the exercise and understanding of power:
- a one-dimensional view, where power is explicitly evident in decision-making, for example where votes can be counted for and against a decision
- a two-dimensional view, where power is visible and also invisible to some of the community, for example decision-making and agenda setting undertaken by small elite groups
- a third dimension, where power is largely invisible and shapes agendas, perceptions and preferences, for example the power of advertising or the media more generally.
Lukes’ dimensions deal with the application of power by individuals, but power is also closely tied to the notion of authority, particularly for people with leadership positions.
Max Weber (1956) distinguished between power and authority. For Weber, power is obtained and exercised through coercion, and typically without the consent of those on whom it is being exercised. Power (in this sense) is then not perceived or experienced as legitimate by those on whom it is exercised. On the other hand, according to Weber (1956), authority is exercised through consent, and the exercise of this authority is therefore seen as legitimate by those who are subordinate to this authority. Therefore, those in formal leadership positions have the authority to make decisions and set agendas, which corresponds with Lukes’ ( 2005) definition of the exercise of power.
In thinking about power, it is important to move away from the notions of power characterised as negative and held by individuals, and to think of power as a process existing within society. For example, hegemonic power is built into the structures of society through a long-term historical and political process of consent and coercion. This results in ‘normative’ expectations of ways that people should behave. ‘Normative’ describes what should and should not be done in particular sorts of practical circumstances, and why. When people depart from normative expectations they are usually asked to explain or justify their actions. These expectations are supported by hierarchical structures in society, such as legal systems, religious and educational organisations. Normative expectations of the place in society of particular groups of people, for example women, those from a particular ethnic background, or those from a particular caste, can lead to systematic disadvantage for individuals belonging to these groups. Change can occur when individuals and groups challenge these normative expectations, but penalties and punishment can also result from challenges to those in positions of power.