The Definition of Social Power and Its Different Types

Sometimes, we take social power and the fact that certain people exercise their influence and control over us for granted. Therefore, understanding what it's based on will help us avoid it and not exploit it.
The Definition of Social Power and Its Different Types

Last update: 14 January, 2022

Teachers have power over their students. Parents have it over their children and bosses over their employees. Politicians have it and often abuse it. In fact, social power is present in all areas of life and certain professions have greater social power than others. However, what exactly is power?

Power is the ability to exercise hegemonic dominance over one or several individuals. It’s also the ability to influence one or several individuals and to indicate the recognized supreme authority in a society. In fact, the definition of power is as broad as it’s long. Indeed, throughout history, there have been different definitions, theories, and typologies of power. Therefore, to understand it, it’s useful to know some of the most accepted of these.

One of the first to speak about power was Friedrich NietzscheHe understood the will to power as an ambition. Almost at the same time, Max Weber defined it as the opportunity or possibility existing in a social relationship that allows an individual to fulfill their own will.

Later, from the perspective of Marxism, several authors studied the concept of power. Then, more recently, a French philosopher, Michel Foucault, produced one of the most comprehensive analyzes of power.

Although more authors have addressed the subject, these have been some of the most relevant. However. we shouldn’t forget the works on social power that have emerged from the field of psychology.

“He who lets himself in for politics …contracts with diabolical powers.”

-Max Weber-

Large key exerting power over small keys

Social power and Max Weber

Social power and its impact in different contexts is a factor that’s long been of interest to the scientific community. In fact, Leonard Pickman conducted an interesting study on this subject. It was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

In this study, Pickman discovered that individuals saw some people as having more legitimate powers than others. He suggested that this assumption already exists within us. Hence, some figures are seen as having the right to exert greater influence and control over others.

Max Weber was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and the first to address this issue. Although his field of study is varied, his works in the area of ​​power are undoubtedly the most outstanding.

For Weber, social power means “the probability of imposing one’s own will, within a relationship, even against all resistance and whatever the basis of that probability may be” (Weber, 2005).

Power and domination

Power implies the potential ability to impose one’s will on others. It can be manifested in different ways. However, domination, understood as a form of command-obedience, is the most successful way of expressing power.

There are different types of domination. One of the most important is legitimacy. This is the belief in the validity of an order or a specific social relationship. There are three forms of legitimacy in domination (Weber, 2007).

  • Legal authority. “Is based on the belief in the legality of the established order and the right to give orders by those who have the competence to exercise domination according to that order”.
  • Traditional authority. “Is based on the usual belief in the sacredness of traditions that have always existed and in the legitimacy of the components to exercise authority by virtue of those traditions”.
  • Charismatic authority. “Is based on the extraordinary delivery of sanctity, heroism, or exemplary qualities of a person and the order created or revealed by that person.”
Chess pieces as an example of social power


According to Karl Marx, “The political movement of the working class has as its final objective the seizure of political power (letter to Bolte, November 292, 1871)”. Therefore, he saw the political class struggle as the basis of power.

Social power is above other forms of class struggle such as economic or ideological. Although according to Marx, changes in the economic base can influence the seizure of power, political practices will have greater weight (Sánchez Vázquez, 2014).

  • However, Marx didn’t develop a theory of power. Nevertheless, he did imply that “Political power, properly speaking, is the organized violence of one class for the oppression of another (Marx and Engels, 2011)”.
  • For this reason, later Marxists delved further into the theories of social power. For example, for Antonio Gramsci (1977) the power of the ruling classes over the proletariat and all the classes subject to the capitalist production model wasn’t simply given by the control of the repressive state apparatuses.
  • In fact, he believed that his power was fundamentally given by the cultural ‘hegemony’ that the dominant classes exercised over the subject classes. This is done through the control of the educational system, religious institutions, and the media.

Michel Foucault

Foucault argued that power is everywhere because it doesn’t come from anywhere. Therefore, he believed that power isn’t located in an institution or state. For this reason, the Marxist idea of ​​taking power wouldn’t be possible because power is a relationship of forces that occurs in a society at a certain time.

Therefore, he suggested that power, being the result of power relations, is everywhere. Consequently, subjects can’t be considered to be independent of these relationships.

Foucault, turning the previous conceptions of power upside down, asked how can power relations produce rules of law that in turn produce discourses of truth?  He claimed that, although power, law, and truth feed off each other, power always maintains a certain preponderant influence over law and truth.

Cameras recording girls

Although Foucault analyzed power in various contexts and times, one of the most important conceptions is that of biopower (Foucault, 2000). Biopower is a practice of modern states by which they control the population.

Modern power, according to Foucault’s analysis, is encoded in social practices and human behavior. This theory claimed that the subject gradually accepts the subtle regulations and expectations of the social order.

Biopower gives way to a biological regularization of life. A classic example is found in psychiatric hospitals and prisons and courts. They define the norms by which a part of the population withdraws from society (Foucault, 2002).

Social power in psychology

Within social psychology, John French and Bertram Raven (1959) proposed five forms of power. They claimed that resources on which those who exercise power rely are based on these five forms. They’re as follows:

  • Legitimate power. Power of an individual or group thanks to the relative position and obligations of the boss within an organization or society. The legitimated power confers on whoever exercises it a delegated formal authority.
  • Referent power. The ability of certain individuals to persuade or influence others. It’s based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the individual in power. Here, the person subjected to power takes as a model the bearer of power and tries to act like them.
  • Expert power. Derived from the skills or expertise of some people and the needs that the organization or society have for these skills. Unlike the other categories, this type of power is usually extremely specific. Furthermore, it’s limited to the particular area in which the expert is qualified.
  • Reward Power. This power depends on the leader’s ability to bestow material rewards. It refers to how the individual can give others as a reward certain types of benefits. For example, free time, gifts, promotions, increases in salary, or responsibility.
  • Coercive power. It’s based on the ability to impose punishments by whoever holds it. Hence, it concerns the ability to eliminate or not give rewards. It has its source in the desire of those who submit to it to obtain rewards with value, but also their fear of losing them. That fear is what ultimately ensures the effectiveness of this kind of power.
Hand cutting off the domino effect

Psychological research on social power

The issue of power has also been addressed within the field of experimental psychology. Among the most outstanding discoveries has been the trend that the more power an individual or group has, the less the perspective of others is considered. This implies that the powerful possess less empathy.

Furthermore, it’s been demonstrated that powerful people are also more likely to act. For example, they’re more likely to remove any annoying stimulus from the environment compared to less powerful people. Other research has documented the bystander effect. This reflects that powerful people are three times more likely to offer help to a stranger in distress.

Another study suggested that powerful people generate creative ideas that are less influenced by outstanding examples. In fact, they express attitudes that are less in line with opinions expressed by others. Furthermore, they’re more influenced by their own social value orientation in relation to the reputation of a bargaining opponent.


As we’ve seen, there are diverse conceptions of social power. These have tended to be pertinent to the time period of their conception. In fact, the idea of power has moved from domination over a person to a complex network of relationships.

This more current conception of power indicates that we’re constantly involved in power relations. Indeed, every interaction we have is characterized by the existing differences in power. Therefore, being aware of social power can be the first step to reducing its influence and its exploitation.

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