ABSTRACT

Power has been conceptualized in various ways, and famous definitions have typically encountered criticism and invoked debate. The term has therefore not only been called an ‘essentially messy concept’, but also an ‘essentially contested’ one, implying that it would be inherently impossible for people of different ideological persuasions to agree on one definition (e.g. Connolly [1974] 1983; Lukes 1974:26; Gray 1983; Ball 1988:80).1 Such contestability, or at least lack of consensus, is evident in the large number of cross-disciplinary anthologies on the subject (e.g. Bell et al. 1969; Lukes 1986; Wartenberg 1992; Scott 1994), and from the numerous distinctions over which scholars have argued:

Is power a property or a relationship? Is it potential or actual, a capacity or the exercise of a capacity? By whom, or what, is it possessed or exercised: by agents (individuals or collective?) or by structures or systems? Over whom or upon what is it exercised: agents (individual or collective?) or structures or systems? Is it, by definition, intentional, or can its exercise be partly intended or unintended? Must it be (wholly or partly) effective? What kinds of outcomes does it produce: does it modify interests, options, preferences, policies, or behaviour? Is it a relation which is reflexive or irreflexive, transitive or intransitive, complete or incomplete? Is it asymmetrical? Does exercising power by some reduce the power of others? (Is it a zero-sum concept?) Or can its exercise maintain or increase the total of power? Is it demonic or benign? Must it rest on or employ force or coercion, or the threat of sanctions or deprivations? (And, if so, what balance of costs and rewards must there be between the parties for power to exist?) Does the concept only apply where there is conflict of some kind, or resistance? If so, must the conflict be manifest, or may it be latent: must it be between revealed preferences or can it involve real interests (however defined)? Is it a behavioural concept, and, if so, in what sense? Is it a causal concept?