12.2.0: Principles of Power

In this section, we address five principles of power: power is a both a perception and fact, is relative and contextual, is influenced by dependence and investment, is prerogative, and generates privilege.


12.2.1: Power is Both a Perception and a Fact

Power is a perception in the sense that we may think we have power over another person or that they have power over us, when we or they do not. For example, if you were the lead on a project at work, you may think that particular position gives  you control and/or influence over the other group members. However, if they don’t perceive you to have any power over them and don’t listen to what you tell them to do and you have no way to enforce consequences, then you really don’t. In addition, if we admire, respect or love others, we may give them power over us they otherwise wouldn’t have. Conversely, power is also a fact, as there are individuals, groups, and social structures—such as institutions—who can and do direct and control our actions. For example, police officers have the authority to physically restrain people and the legal system has the power to incarcerate.

12.2.2: Power is Relative and Contextual

Power exists in all relationships, both personal and professional. How much power we have in comparison to another person may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. In some relationships we may have more, while in others we may have less. For example, you may have equal power in your romantic relationship, more power over your child, but less power at your job. Power can increase and decrease, based on context, and over time. For example, the physical context can influence how much power we have in a particular location. We may have more power in our homes, but less power in other locations, such as a classroom. Culture and co-culture also influence power, as some groups hold more power than others. Since culture and coculture play an important role in power dynamics, this subject is addressed more in-depth in section 12.4.2: Contextual Communication: Culture, Co-culture, and Power.

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Power is relative and contextual, meaning that amount of power we have can be equal or unequal in some relationships and can increase and decrease based on the context. For example, you may have relatively equal power in an intimate relationship, but have less (or more) power than others in your workplace.


12.2.3: Power is Influenced by Dependence and Investment

Power is influenced by our level of dependence and investment in a particular relationship, position, or resource. Generally speaking, those who have more dependence or investment are less powerful, while those with less dependence or investment have greater power. For example, someone who is economically dependent on their job but disagrees with a co-worker would be less likely to confront them out of fear of the consequences. As another example, if someone has more emotional investment in a romantic relationship than the other has, then they will have less relational power.

12.2.4: Power is Prerogative

The prerogative principle states that the person with more power can make and break the rules. Powerful people can violate norms, break relational rules, and manage interactions without as much penalty as powerless people. These actions may reinforce the dependence power someone holds over another. In addition, the more powerful person has the prerogative to manage both verbal and nonverbal interactions. They can initiate conversations, change topics, interrupt others, initiate touch, and end discussions more easily than less powerful people.

12.2.5: Power Generates Privilege

Power, whether it is held by an individual or group, grants certain privileges. Often those with privilege do not realize they hold it because it seems normal and natural, and people usually only focus on the way in which they are disadvantaged. For example, someone who is white but of lower-socioeconomic status may not recognize the privileges they have based on skin color and instead focus on the ways in which they are disadvantaged due to social class. It is also important to note that because of our unique positionalities and intersecting identities we are often simultaneously privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others.

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