What Are Power Relations and Who Is Affected by Them?

Ryan Basilio/CC-BY 2.0

Power relations are the interactions between different groups in a society. Power relations are the ability of one group or a person to control others, and they exist at all levels of society.

Power relations exist in societies around the world. Power relations take place in interpersonal relationships, among members of a community and on larger scales. They can be associated with gender, socioeconomic status, political status and more. In places where different groups live together, one is more likely to exert control over the others. However, the power that a group exerts over others can be expressed in various ways. Sometimes, a group exerts power in an ambiguous manner and does not express a clear dominance over a subordinate group or groups. An example of this is the dominance of men in movies. The prominent role of men is apparent, but it is not expressly stated or enforced. Other times, a group’s position of authority is made clear. An example of such expressed power is slavery.

Defining Power

Power is defined in many ways. It can mean that one group has control over something, which is called dominant or sovereign power, or that a group has the power to do something, which is called productive power. In its broadest sense, power is defined as the ability of a person, or a group of people, to carry out their will despite resistance from others. This is seen in many ordinary instances, such as a person being followed by a police officer. When the officer begins pursuing a vehicle, the driver of that car does whatever he or she can to obey the law. If the police officer stops the vehicle, the driver usually follows all orders and does whatever he or she can to comply with the officer’s requests. In this case, the police officer is in a position of power over the driver. Power relations also appear within families. Teenagers, for instance, are aware that they must meet their parents’ curfew standards, or they risk consequences for their behavior.

Power Relations in Society

Sociologists debate the specifics of power relationships in the real world, and they have difficulty giving the term “power relations” a concrete definition. While some take a post-modern approach to the term, others take a post-structural approach. Sociologists have agreed on some common ground for the wide, all-encompassing definition of power relations, but they have not yet agreed upon a standard, overarching definition. The concept of power relations was shaped largely in part during the 20th and 21st centuries. Events that gave rise to the term included the civil rights movement, which incorporated elements of power and race. Feminism, which also arose during that time, was another significant factor in defining power relations. Sociologists studied feminism primarily in its relationship to society as a whole, specifically the role of women in patriarchal societies. Writers and speakers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have also played a key role in shaping sociologists’ perspective of gender in the context of power relations. In a given society, power often goes hand-in-hand with authority. Authority comes in three main forms, which are traditional, legal-rational and charismatic. In time, iconic leaders have emerged in all three categories and demonstrated their power to persuade people. One such leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gained a large following based on his likable personality and charismatic authority.