by Nick Hopkins & Karen Douglas,
Power is everywhere. And Social Psychologists routinely refer to it: the power of labels; the power of majority groups; the power of crowds and collective action, and so on. Yet, we rarely reflect on the concept itself. Moreover, because we invoke the concept in order to explain something else (the thing that really interests us) what we have to say on power is distributed across many topics. All this means that it is hard to talk of a social psychology of power. Just look in the index of most social psychology textbooks. You’ll find whole chapters devoted to stereotypes, attitude change, social influence, dyadic interaction, etc. But you will be hard pushed to find a chapter on power. And when you do read across the various domains in which the concept is invoked, you’d find the term used in very varied and often rather contradictory ways.
These issues are highlighted in conceptual critique of our thinking on power by Felicia Pratto (University of Connecticut) published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. Pratto argues that power is typically conceptualised in terms of relational power (where one party has power over another) and that this is fundamentally limiting. As an alternative, she offers a non-relational conceptualisation which focuses on that which allows the goals of an individual to be fulfilled. This capacity does not simply reside in the individual concerned but also depends on the degree to which the environment allows the individual to use that capacity to attain those goals. The significance of this non-relational account is that it allows us to approach old questions in new ways and indeed ask new questions.
Pratto’s formulation is bold and controversial and in a commentary Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews) responds with a spirited defence of a relational conception of power. For example, he argues that a social relational dynamic is central to the constitution of social actors and that this process of constitution is itself key to understanding how power is created and modified. Yet, if he takes Pratto to task for failing to ask how subjects are constituted in the first place, Reicher willingly acknowledges that her analysis made him think and clarify his position. As he explains it is an issue that matters and this conversation about the nature of power matters….
Every Tuesday in June a new blog post will be published on power in social psychology:
The first commentary piece in this power series was from Ana Guinote (UCL) titled: What is Power and How does it Affect People?
The second commentary was from Christine Griffin (University of Bath, UK) titled: “Something is happening”: Psychological approaches to understanding the performance of power”. This post was published on Tuesday 14th June 2016.
The third commentary was from David Harper (UEL) titled: Taking power seriously. This post was published on Tuesday 21th June.
To conclude the power series, we invite you to join us for a Twitter chat using #spschat on Tuesday 5th July at 8pm.