Political Power: Overview from Different Personalities

Many states seek to increase their political power-their ability to influence populations’ behavior through policy-and territorial-decisions. Explore these by analyzing examples of power, geography, and territoriality.

Political Power & the State

When you think of the word ”politics” or ”political”, what comes to mind? Like most of us, you might think of a leading political figure, such as the President of the United States. You might also recall intense competition and rivalry between politicians. It’s a word that carries a negative connotation in many respects that the word ”politics” has become.

However, in its most general sense, the concept of politics is much broader. In general, politics refers to the state of affairs and the activities that surround acquiring or exercising power. Power is central to politics, as we shall see. So what exactly is political power? Political power is the ability to influence the behavior of people through the passage, approval, and implementation of laws and regulations.

Let’s look at an example in transportation safety. Legislation and regulations are passed by those in power that determine how the rest of us drive and use other modes of transportation. These laws determine speed limits, road schemes, traffic signs, etc. The definition of political power can, however, be expanded to encompass the ability to influence the outcome of events.

In addition to political power, many kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and other government leaders possessed influence as well. In general, we think of kings as not having a lot of political power, and this is mostly true. However, consider the power that King George III of England or King Louis XVI of France held (well, in Louis’ case, at least until the masses stripped him of his political power and cut off his head). The Queen of England may not have actual political power to change laws. While her experience with various prime ministers over 60 years gives her credibility and influence with them. People or groups with political power are able to control the policies, functions, and culture of society. Those who hold political power control (to varying degrees) the way the masses (the people) live.

We should understand that political power is not necessarily evil or a bad thing: sometimes we tend to think that it is, but it’s necessary for the well-being of society that political power structures exist. Laws would not exist without political power, and society would disintegrate. Thus, political power is much more than just the power of the president, or the congressmen and congresswomen.

Politicians and sociologists who have studied government and geopolitics have developed a wide range of theories about political power and the state. One popular view is called the Organic Theory of the State. The state is perceived as a natural organism in which the individual is an integral part. According to this view, the state is constantly changing as allegiances, borders, and other geopolitical factors are constantly in flux. The Organic Theory of State isn’t a new idea. This view was espoused by numerous thinkers throughout history.

In many ways, the politics of power is the most complex way to understand politics, as power itself is intangible – we cannot touch or see it, but we can feel its effects. Yet to say that power does not exist because we cannot see it or touch it would be absurd. Hence, we must try to understand it through different conceptualisations.

You will find six different definitions of power. I have provided the authors’ key text for each of the definitions for the purpose of exploring their conceptualisation further. Think about whether each definition is a suitable definition of power before reading the further detail below each quotation. You can use this to understand the concept of power and to revise the topic. Answers to this question are neither right nor wrong, only more or less persuasive arguments.

Thomas Hobbes – ‘power over’

  • power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another

Understanding Politics

Hobbes, T. (1969) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic. Cass, London.

  • This is a highly intuitive definition of power, akin to the power someone could demonstrate by hammering a nail. As the instructor of this course, you may have thought I had power over you, the student. However, you took this course on your own volition. For which I am responsible, I have designed the course according to a number of learning objectives. A complaints procedure is also in place. Perhaps you still think that I have power over you as a learner, or even that you have power over me, but how might we measure this? Would this imbalance change in a different context, such as if we met each other in the supermarket?

Max Weber

  • The probability that one actor in a social relationship will be able to carry out his or her will despite opposition

Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society. University of California Press, Berkeley.

  • Weber’s contribution to the discussion of power is the recognition that it exists only within a relationship: there are different types of relationships, and the type of power exhibited depends on the type of relationship.
  • Weber explains Hobbes’ shortcoming by pointing out that we have a relationship to each other as learners and educators that differs from what we might have if we met at the supermarket. However, the definition implies that resistance is always negative. But is it?

Robert Dahl – ‘intuitive idea’

  • A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something he otherwise wouldn’t do.

Dahl, R.A. (1957) The Concept of Power. Behavioural Science, 2, 201-215.

  • A definition of power from the American political theorist Robert Dahl. This again seems fairly straightforward. Again, power in this understanding is repressive, not constructive.
  • A second problem with the definition is that it is highly gendered: While some might argue that the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in place of ‘they’ is merely an archaic writing convention, does it not nonetheless suggest an overt focus on men in the public sphere?

Hannah Arendt

  • Power is ‘the ability not just to act, but to act in concert’

Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence. Harvest Books, Orlando and London.

  • Arendt was a Jewish German political philosopher who wrote extensively on the Nazi war crime tribunals. She was famous for contrasting violence with power: violence, as the Nazis demonstrated, was something you did alone to get what you wanted from others, whereas power came from working together as a group to achieve a shared goal.
  • Although this conceptualization places power firmly in the individual, we lose the idea of social relationship that Weber emphasized.

Talcott Parsons

  • The concept of power can be defined as a ‘mechanism operating to bring about change in social interaction’

Parsons, T. (1963) On the Concept of Political Power. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107, 232-262.

  • Parsons was a functionalist sociologist who wrote about the role of the family in the 1950s and 1960s. He provides a clear conceptualisation of power through his work, which suggests that the idea of the family emerges as a result of changes in society.
  • Is it possible here, however, that we have gone too far in recognising the importance of structure and have forgotten about agency? Where is the individual in this account? Can an individual ever be powerful?


  • As such, power does not exist; rather, it should be understood as a productive network that runs through the whole social body.

Foucault, M. (1982) The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8, 777-795.

  • Foucault’s concept of power is by far his most complex; he understands power to be implicit in every thought and action, whether these are human actions or not. In the sense that everything affects everything else, regardless of how imperceptible the effect may be, everything is powerful.
  • A political analyst’s task is then to recognize and understand the various ways in which different actions can affect other individuals, groups, and their actions.

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