The concept of power

Power became a widespread social phenomenon with the emergence of interpersonal dominance behavior in civilized society. Power relationships exist between individuals but also between individuals and groups and between groups and other groups. The power relationship can be considered an objective need and the basis of the survival and development of human society. Without certain power to maintain, adjust, or form the basic order of society, a society will collapse. Hence, human society is a power society interwoven by various power relationship networks.

The meaning of power

Definition of power

Power can be defined in both a broad and narrow sense. Power in the narrow sense refers to the political power and the ability of an individual entrusted by a specific organization to control other individuals. German sociologist Weber (2009) defined power as the ability for an individual or individuals in a social relationship to achieve their will even in the face of opposition from others. Power is the ability or potential of individuals with certain social statues under certain social systems to specify conditions, make decisions, and take action on a series of life-threatening problems related to the survival of others.

While power in the broad sense removes the mandatory constraints of power, generally, it is the ability of an individual or a social group to affect the behavior of others from their own perspective. Power essentially refers to the ability to do something, or the capacity to generate certain results. Hobbes (1998) argues that the power of a man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good. Wrong (1979) holds that power is the capacity of some persons to initiate intended and foreseen effects on others. Any individual or group that enables others to change their own will is considered to be in a position of power. To conclude, power in the broad sense is the influence and control over others with the resources behavioral subjects have. Power is influenced and restricted by various factors such as force, wealth, knowledge and information, image and reputation, the form and size of organizations, and charisma. Based on the above analysis, power can be expressed by the mathematical symbols t = axR where

In the above expression, R: denotes the i-th resource controlled by the behavioral subjects, and «, denotes the power coefficient of the i-th resource (i = 1, 2, n).

The attributes of power


The power phenomenon in social activities emerges only if dominant behavior occurs between the subjects of power and the objects of power. If we put the relationship between subjects and objects aside, we are unable to determine which party has power over the other party. There are numerous individuals involved in societal activities, not every individual has power over others. To explain power from the perspective of a relationship is a dynamic view that emphasizes that power is only a potential state under the static state.


Only when the influence of power subjects is greater than the influence of power objects can power emerge, so power’s outward manifestation is asymmetry. When the influence of the subjects of power is equivalent to that of the objects of power, power is implicit.


From the perspective of the operation of power, once power is formed, it has a self-reinforcing property. Although people are always trying to change this trend, we see from the history of social development that it is extremely difficult to restrain the self-reinforcing property of power and quite costly to do so. If there are no constraints, the boundaries of power will continue to expand until they meet constraints.

The structure of power

At the macroscopic level, the power structure is reflected by types and quantities of power object and subject as well as their interactions. The power structure of a certain society is formed by interrelated and interacted power roles. A certain power role tends to interact with different other power roles. A power role may be the subject under a certain power relationship, while the object under another, whether it is the subject or object depends on the angle of observation. Every power role interacts with others under various power relationships and forms the power structures in society. The power structure is the basic framework of societal activities.

At the microscopic level, any type of power has four elements: (1) the subjects of power—that is, the specific affiliation of power, in other words, who will exercise the power; (2) the objects of power—that is, the objects controlled and dominated by power; (3) the contents of power—that is, the concrete forms of power, such as ownership, the right to use, management rights, and the right to lease; (4) the scope of power—that is, the permissions or boundaries of power including the scope of power in terms of space and time and organizational and institutional limitations.

The classification of power

Different types of resources determine the different nature of power and form different subjects of power. Power in modern society can be classified into the following three categories: political power, social power, and economic power. Political power is manifested as administrative power in government.

Political power is the ability of a political subject, in order to achieve certain fundamental interests, to dominate and control the political objects relying on their political resources. In a certain society, there are three types of political subjects: citizens, political organizations, and government. The three types of subjects are concerned with the interests of the social system as a whole or the interests of certain big interest groups. The subjects create and distribute these values or interests, or affect the creation and distribution of social values by various types of resources. Political power has the following characteristics: (1) public nature—political power, particularly government power, is imposed on social and public affairs; (2) legally mandatory nature—an important feature of political power, which differs from the other powers, is its mandatory nature, that is, national political power is based on violence (the apparatus of violence includes armies, police, courts, and prisons); (3) expansionary nature—the expansionary nature of political power means that political power breaks through its own scope and penetrates other areas. (The penetration ability of political power has been strengthened in modern society and is deeply embedded in the fields of economics, culture, and ideology.)

Administrative power is the exhibition and execution of political power in the management of daily affairs. The subjects of administrative power are government departments and all levels of government hierarchy. In daily economic activities, it is the administrative power that both interacts with and has influence over economic power. In a market economy, the administrative power of government is manifested as the supply of public goods, the construction of the market system, and the enactment and implementation of policies and regulations.

Social power can be defined as the ability of a social subject, in order to achieve specific purposes, to dominate and influence social objects through their social resources. Social power always emerges in non-official and nonprofit organizations, such as religions, families, and trade associations, and is generally not mandatory. The religious power of society was once in a socially dominant position in history. For certain purposes, religious subjects dominated and influenced believers, heretics, and non-believers through religious rules. Religious power is complex and extensive and includes the power relationship within the organization and the influence and domination of secular society. This type of religious hierarchy became integrated with social hierarchy in some countries. Theocratic forms of rule existed for a long time in ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and ancient India. In medieval Europe, after fierce struggles between the magisterium and the throne, the magisterium finally established its higher position and assumed supreme authority. Theocratic forms of rule still exist today in some countries in Africa and West Asia. Social power also has some influence over economic activities, such as providing a guiding role. In modern market economies, compared with political power and economic power, social power is typically weak—entities can decide whether to accept or exercise social power.

Economic power can be defined as the ability of economic subjects, in order to achieve their own purposes, to influence others (including economic objects) using economic resources at hand. The resources here refer to everything necessary for economic activities, which include physical resources such as plants, equipment, materials, funds, and organizations, and intangible resources such as physical strength, intelligence, information, and reputation. The power of economic entities to influence certain economic activities is determined by the importance, scarcity, and substitutability of the resources at their disposal. The owner’s influence on and control over other economic subjects in the bargaining process will be stronger if the resources are more important, scarce, and substitutable; hence, resource endowments determine power endowments.

In the field of economics, firms, government, and consumers all have economic power; that is, they can rely on the resources at their disposal to gain some type of influence and control over other economic subjects. For example, on the one hand, consumers have the right to determine whether or not to sell their labor by virtue of their own physical strength and intelligence. On the other hand, consumers can determine whether or not to buy goods and services depending on their gains. Firms can determine what to produce depending on the means of production at their proposal while the government can determine the areas, objects, and quantities of procurement and investment by virtue of tax revenue and budget.

The sources of power

Resources are the foundation of power. Different scholars have their own interpretations of the resources of power. Etzioni (1974) argues that mandatory assets, utilitarian assets, and normative assets correspond to the symbol of military force, material rewards, and legitimacy, respectively. Moreover, power was the social expression of this symbol. Gamson (1969) proposes a similar trichotomy: mandatory resources, induced resources, and persuasive resources. Wrong (1979) holds that the basis of power is individuals who control resources and organizations composed of individuals. He did not classify resources but refers to all the resources that can be dominated by individuals as the basis of personal power while organizations are the synthesis and tendentious use of personal resources. Analyzed from the viewpoint of the state of power in the process of social development, power resources include meta-resources, that is, the resources with which an economic agent is naturally equipped. Power resources also include derivative resources; that is, the resources that combine with meta-resources and generate power based on meta-resources.

Meta-resources are the resources owned by the human agent under normal conditions that the agent cannot be deprived of unless harmed biologically, for example, deteriorating fitness or intelligence. Meta-resources include natural endowments and the related contents obtained in the process of individual growth. They include the capacity to behave and to think, or an influential relationship. Any existing individual has a certain amount of meta-resources, but the quality and quantity of the meta-resources they own differ. Meta-resources are the guarantee of survival given to individuals by nature. Any deprivation of meta-resources might be a violation of the laws of nature. Although this concept includes certain philosophical ideas, it also contains a deeper meaning of economics. On the one hand, the agent can obtain other resources to ensure their survival in the market via the exchange of meta-resources, for example, earning a wage through labor. On the other hand, meta-resources are the baseline from which other economic agents to impose power. In a totally free competitive market, based on the concept of fairness, any deprivation of meta-resources is strictly prohibited.

Derivative resources are the resources that can affect others when combined with meta-resources and under certain forms. They include organizations, capital, and information and so on.

Organization is defined in either the broad or narrow sense. In the narrow sense, organization refers to a collective or a group that relies heavily on collaboration between people to achieve certain goals, whereas organization in the broad sense is the system that integrates elements in a certain manner. Weber (2009) argues that any organization should be based on some form of power. Moreover, organizations of all types should have a hierarchical structure, and the behavioral consistency in members, the essence hidden behind this hierarchy structure and consistency is power. In his argument, power is the essential characteristic of organization. The superior and subordinate hierarchical relationships of organizational structure contain the corresponding power relationships. There is segmentation at the same level of power hierarchy among the horizontal divisions in the organization structure. Members rely on the constraints and influence of power in this system to maintain consistency in behavior and purpose. The integration of resources by an organization is achieved by the contract on which the establishment of the organization is based. Organizations use contractual constraints to ensure that individual behavior choices are in accordance with the unified goal of the organization, which reduces the power conflicts between members. Hence, it is often believed that the behavior of individuals within the organization has consistency in goals.

The existence of organizations depends on personal resources while it is also possible to integrate personal resources tendentiously and expand personal power. The individuals and an organization are a community of interests. The greater the power of the organization, the more interests obtained from external organizations, and the more individuals will benefit from the organization. Economic individuals establish or participate in certain organizations based on rational considerations and follow the organization’s rules of conduct. Therefore, the formation of economic organizations is not to reduce the transaction costs as Coase’s theory states. The establishment of organizations reflects individual motives for the pursuit of power. Considerations of transaction costs are attempts by individuals to improve their profitability from internal resources from the perspective of thrift while the pursuit of organizational power is a type of behavioral performance by individuals in an attempt to obtain external resources.

Capital (mainly material capital) as a valuable production input is scarce. While a necessary factor of production in the production process, capital has clear attributes of property rights and certain risks inherent in its investment. The traditional economic theory of capital is based on materials, such as currency and production materials, which is consistent with social productivity of the time. In addition, existing capital theories are concerned with capital’s right to distribute the surplus value and analyze how to gain revenue by means of capital while other manifestations of capital ownership are ignored. The clear attributes of capital property rights are manifested as the claim on investment returns and the decisions before investment; that is, owners of capital have the right to determine the direction and scale of capital investment. This decision-making power directly affects the supply-demand relationship and has the capacity to adjust the equilibrium quantity; it is also an effective strategy of owners of capital to fine-tune the market. If supply and demand reflects price determination, to control and affect supply and demand by means of capital ownership is the real underlying content.

Information is the state of motion and the process of things. Information is also the knowledge regarding these states and processes or the formalized relationship perceived by subjects of behavior regarding states and patterns of the motion of things. The function of information is to strengthen the degree of certainty of things. Due to the spatiotemporal differences in the real world, the cost of information collection and transfer is relatively high; hence, information becomes a valuable scarce resource and leads to divergences between the information owned by different subjects. Information asymmetry has become the normal state of markets. The quantity of information affects the accuracy of individual decision making and the outcome of games. The party who has more information can reduce mistakes due to an information advantage and leverage market competition resulting in more benefits. The theory of information economics has proven that in market exchange, if there is information asymmetry, the outcome of a transaction is that the interest distribution is always biased toward the party with information advantage while prices become the legitimate means to obtain benefits.

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