Rational Choice Framework
Game theory, with its foundations in the theory of Rational Choice, is increasingly used in various disciplines to help analyse power relationships. One rational choice definition of power is given by Keith Dowding in his book Power.
In rational choice theory, human individuals or groups can be modelled as 'actors' who choose from a 'choice set' of possible actions in order to try and achieve desired outcomes. An actor's 'incentive structure' comprises (its beliefs about) the costs associated with different actions in the choice set and the likelihoods that different actions will lead to desired outcomes. In this setting we can differentiate between:
1. Outcome power : The ability of an actor to bring about or help bring about outcomes.
2. Social power : The ability of an actor to change the incentive structures of other actors in order to bring about outcomes.
This framework can be used to model a wide range of social interactions where actors have the ability to exert power over others. For example a 'powerful' actor can take options away from another's choice set; can change the relative costs of actions; can change the likelihood that a given action will lead to a given outcome; or might simply change the other's beliefs about its incentive structure.
As with other models of power, this framework is neutral as to the use of 'coercion'. For example: a threat of violence can change the likely costs and benefits of different actions; so can a financial penalty in a 'voluntarily agreed' contract, or indeed a friendly offer.
Power by Order
In ordered groups, such as school classrooms and military groups, the leader's power over an individual is amplified by the virtual power gained from having the other group members already obeying the leader's order. For example, if a school student gets out of her seat, she can be identified easily if all the other students are already sitting in their seats. Each disobedient student is thus easily identified and can expect to be confronted by the teacher.
In the Marxist tradition, the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci elaborated the role of cultural hegemony in ideology as a means of bolstering the power of capitalism and of the nation-state. Drawing on Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince and trying to understand why there had been no Communist revolution in Western Europe, whilst there had been in Russia, Gramsci conceptualised this hegemony as a centaur, consisting of two halves. The back end, the beast, represented the more classic, material image of power, power through coercion, through brute force, be it physical or economic. But the capitalist hegemony, he argued, depended even more strongly on the front end, the human face, which projected power through 'consent'. In Russia, this power was lacking, allowing for a revolution. However, in Western Europe, specifically in Italy, capitalism had succeeded in exercising consensual power, convincing the working classes that their interests were the same as those of capitalists. In this way revolution had been avoided.
Like Gramsci stresses the significance of ideology in powerstructures, Marxistfeminist writers like Michele Barrett stress the role of ideologies in extolling the virtues of family life. The classic argument to illustrate this point of view is the use of women as a 'reserve army of labour'. In wartime it's accepted that women perform masculine tasks, while after the war the roles are easily reversed. Therefore, according to Barrett, the destruction of capitalist economic relations is necessary but not sufficient for the liberation of women.
One of the broader modern views of the importance of power in human activity comes from the work of Michel Foucault, who has said, "Power is everywhere... because it comes from everywhere."
Foucault's analysis of power is founded on his concept "technologies of power". Discipline is a complex bundle of power technologies developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as Foucault demonstrated in Discipline and Punish. For Foucault power is exercised with intention. Instead of analysing the difficult problem of who has which intentions, he focused on what is intersubjectively accepted knowledge about how to exercise power. For Foucault, power is actions upon others' actions in order to interfere with them. Foucault does not recur to violence, but says 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. One way of doing this is by threatening with violence. However, suggesting how happy people will become if they buy an off-roader is an exercise of power as well; marketing provides a large body of knowledge on techniques for how to (try to) produce such behavior.
Foucault's works analyze the link between power and knowledge. He outlines a form of covert power that works through people rather than only on them. Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge (hegemony). Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable "truths", come to define a particular way of seeing the world and the particular way of life associated with such "truths" becomes normalized. This subtle form of power lacks rigidity and other discourses can contest it. Indeed, power itself lacks any concrete form, occurring as a locus of struggle. Resistance, through defiance, defines power and hence becomes possible through power. Without resistance, power is absent, but it would be a mistake, some recent writers insist, to attribute to Foucault an oppositional power-resistance schema as is found in many older, foundationalist theoreticians. This view 'grants' individuality to people and other agencies, even if it is assumed a given agency is part of what power works in or upon. Still, in practice Foucault often seems to deny individuals this agency, which is contrasted with sovereignty (the old model of power as efficacious and rigid).
"Domination" is not "that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over others, or one group over another, but the manifold forms of domination that can be exercised within society."
"One should try to locate power at the extreme of its exercise, where it is always less legal in character."
"The analysis (of power) should not attempt to consider power from its internal point of view and...should refrain from posing the labyrinthine and unanswerable question: 'Who then has power and what has he in mind? What is the aim of someone who possesses power?' Instead, it is a case of studying power at the point where its intention, if it has one, is completely invested in its real and effective practices."
"Let us ask...how things work at the level of on-going subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviours, etc....we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects." (ibid, p. 97)