Exercising power over others is a common human experience. Children override the better judgment of their parents, displaying temper tantrums or simply nagging them to exhaustion. Parents in turn control their children using reason mixed with bribes and brute force, or the threat of it. In seemingly equal relationships such as that between spouses, people nonetheless influence or cajole their peers to have their own way. The exercise of power relies partly on strategic communication, and even seemingly powerless individuals may triumph over the more powerful. Just as individuals exercise power over others, they also have the experience of being overpowered by others.
The examples cited above have one common theme – they all involve a person (the agent) exercising power over another person directly (the target) – with three contextual dimensions: interpersonal (in contrast to intergroup), direct (versus indirect), and power over (instead of power to, e.g., power to do good common to both the agent and the target). Ng in The social psychology of power (1980) has provided an overall analysis of the contextual dimensions. Presently, only the interpersonal–intergroup dimension will concern us, with the emphasis on power in intergroup settings seen from the perspectives of social psychological and cognate academic disciplines such as language and communication.
The Nature Of Power
Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1938, 35) defines “power as the production of intended effects.” This elegantly worded generic definition is echoed in Heider’s The psychology of interpersonal relations (1958). According to Heider, a person’s action is constrained by the environment but is also a function of personal factors, which include the person’s power, intention, and how hard he or she is exerting him- or herself. Power is what a person can cause. From this generic definition, Heider differentiates between personal and social power, referring respectively to personal capabilities and social positions.
Both Russell and Heider align power with its effects. On this important but controversial point, Lewin and his fellow field theorists take a different approach. In Field theory in social science (1952), Lewin separates power from its effects and restricts it to mean the possibility of inducing force to overcome resistance. When force exceeds resistance, power is in action as influence, otherwise it remains dormant as potential influence. The agent’s influence is seen from the target’s perspective: the latter’s dependence is the former’s power to influence. Specifically, the target’s dependence on the agent as a guide to reality, for uncertainty reduction and similar other cognitive needs, provides the agent with a base for exercising informational social influence. By the same token, the target’s dependence on the agent for social approval, social validation, and similar other social motivational needs gives the agent a basis for exercising normative social influence. According to Raven (2001), most forms of social influence stem from six power bases: reward, coercion, legitimacy, referent, expert, and information power. The power bases are not rigid entities, but can be reframed to reduce resistance, minimize cost, and amplify influence. For example, coercive power can be reframed into informational and referent power using strategic communication.
Social exchange theory views power in the context of the ongoing exchange of outcomes between interdependent individuals. Thibaut & Kelley in The social psychology of groups (1959) argue that as long as the target has no better alternative for satisfying his or her expected outcome other than from the agent, he or she is dependent relationally on the agent, and consequently places him- or herself under the latter’s contact control. Within this (trapped) relationship, the agent’s power over the target varies with the range of the target’s outcomes that is under the agent’s control. For example, although a mother who always rewards her child but never uses punishment may be able to retain contact control, she has less behavior control than she would have if she withholds reward or supplements reward with punishment.
The classic definitions reviewed above serve to indicate the range of power definitions still current in social psychology. By and large, they are concerned with social behavior in interpersonal contexts, and up till the late 1960s the study of intergroup behavior was conspicuous by its absence. Burgeoning intergroup research since has been successful in filling the lacuna.
Interpersonal And Intergroup Settings
There are occasions where we think, feel, and act in terms of our unique personal self and treat others as individuals rather than as representatives of particular groups. There are other occasions where group membership and identification take control of our consciousness and induce us to treat others as either “one of us” or “one of them,” rather than as unique individuals in their own right. These two contexts – the interpersonal and the intergroup – correspond to our dual existence as unique persons and as members of social groups. The more the social context shifts toward intergroup, the less interpersonal relations and interaction occur between groups.
An insight from intergroup research is that seemingly interpersonal encounters are in fact intergroup. For example, when we greet a woman in a wheelchair, the one who is in our minds is not a person but a member of a disability group, a disabled “other,” and we show this by addressing not her, but the person pushing the wheelchair (Fox & Giles 1996). Another insight is the ease with which discrimination against “them” (the outgroup) can be triggered in the absence of historical rivalry and even at personal cost to the discriminator, simply by dividing people into (cognitive) groups. By contrast, it is notoriously difficult to reduce or eliminate intergroup discrimination, as reviewed by Gaertner & Dovidio in Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model (2000). World history of peace and war is a constant reminder of this fundamental asymmetry. A third insight is the discovery of a discontinuity between interindividual and intergroup interactions. Intergroup interactions are generally more competitive than interpersonal interactions, suggesting greater “fear and greed” in the former than in the latter situation (Wildschut et al. 2003).
Collectively the three interrelated insights summarized above serve to establish the prevalence of intergroup contexts and their powerful effects on practical issues such as stereotyping, discrimination, competition, and conflict. These insights and other advance in intergroup research provide a basis for understanding power in intergroup settings. As the topic of power in intergroup settings is broad, the discussion below is necessarily selective and only two aspects will be highlighted. The first is a comparison of high- and low-power groups with respect to the perceptual and behavioral correlates of power. Here power is treated as a given and the question is what flows from it. The second aspect does not take power as a given but instead constitutes it as the subject of inquiry. Here the concern is with the formation and change of power relations with respect to leader emergence and the politicization of collective identities in intergroup settings.
High- And Low-Power Groups
Intergroup research in the main has treated power as a given variable to see its effects or correlates. An informative overview of the findings can be found in Brauer & Bourhis (2006), who also summarize a number of intergroup power theories. They lump together intergroup and interpersonal power, but only the former will concern us here. Compared to members of low-power groups, members of high-power groups are more inclined to evaluate outgroups negatively, perceive them as more homogeneous, and prefer group-based over individuated information processing. In turn, they receive more positive and fewer negative evaluations. The specific combinations of positive and negative traits suggest that power is associated with mixed stereotypes: competent but cold for groups of high power, and incompetent but warm and pitiable for low-power groups. Regardless of trait valence, within-group variability is overestimated for high- and underestimated for lowpower groups. On the basis of these and other correlates of high- and low-power groups, Brauer & Bourhis (2006) conclude that high-power groups are less susceptible to stereotyping than low-power groups.
The connection between high power and freedom from stereotyping extends Fiske’s (1993) power analysis of stereotyping. She makes the insightful observation that stereotyping not only serves cognitive functions, but also controls people who are subjected to it. This enables her to argue from the power-as-control perspective that stereotyping is a tool for power. A corollary of this would be that high-power groups are better able to protect themselves from being stereotyped. In this sense, the empirical connection found between high power and freedom from stereotyping completes the logic of the dual relationships between stereotyping and power (control). The intriguing question is: how does high power free its holders from stereotyping and control?
The answer is complex and implicates ideology and social representations. At the social interactional level of analysis, the answer can be gleaned from what high- and low-power group members actually do. Individuals in powerful positions (including membership in high-power groups) are less inhibited and show this in their more open display of a wider range of emotions, greater risk-taking, and more readiness to act (Keltner et al. 2003). Their stronger power bases also enable them to act according to their individual wishes and in their idiosyncratic ways (Brauer & Bourhis 2006). Behavioral disinhibition and inner-directedness combine to produce individuals acting freely and differently from each other, maximizing variability and thus minimizing the objective base of being stereotyped as homogeneous. Low-power individuals, as shown by Mulder in The daily power game (1977), tend to orient toward, attend to more, and know more about high-power individuals in their attempt to reduce their power distance from the powerful. As a result, low-power individuals have an objective base to individuate rather than stereotype powerful others, thereby relinquishing their (potential) control via stereotyping over them.
It should be apparent by now that power is never static. One may view it as a given in a particular context at a particular point in time, and see what may flow from it. Yet what flows from it is rarely automatic or straightforward, but is caught up in dynamical processes of influence and control. Conversely, as we shall discuss next, power is created or mobilized in and through processes of influence and control, often mediated by what human beings are best at, namely, using language to influence and control (Ng & Bradac 1993).
Leader Emergence And Politicization
Any intergroup setting must by definition presuppose the existence of two (or more) groups although the groups may vary in their “groupness.” At the very least, a sense of shared identity, however shallow, is required for a collection of individuals to become a group. If nothing more, the group remains as a cognitive group without a power hierarchy among members. To understand how power relations are formed in groups, one has to extend the study beyond cognitive groups to real groups that involve members interacting with and talking to each other.
When previously unacquainted individuals interact, typically a power hierarchy emerges. The leader who has emerged does not require pre-existing high status, because even groups composed of similar individuals also form power hierarchies, as documented by Bales in Personality and interpersonal behavior (1970). Rather, members talk their way to power through active communication participation as shown by volume of talk or, more effective still, a high rate of speaking turns. The ability to penetrate the web of conversational turn-taking to obtain speaking turns holds the key to becoming leader, and this is facilitated by enacting (constructive) interruptions worded in assertive “proactive speech acts” and not in conciliatory “reactive speech acts” (Ng et al. 1995). With speaking turns in hand, the speaker is in a position to create conversational control by drawing attention to self, maintaining or changing the conversational agenda, and allocating the next turn to a preferred person.
The studies cited above and similar others were carried out with groups in isolation rather than in interaction. In these intra-group contexts, conversational influence and control among unacquainted strangers lead to power. Does the same hold in intergroup contexts? Later studies show that conversational influence and control through speaking turns remain important, but the intergroup context now generates social identification processes that selectively determine what behavior counts as important for the ingroup and the outgroup. Crucially, as shown by Reid & Ng (2000), verbal utterances that represent or exemplify the ingroup position and are directed successfully at the outgroup correlate strongly with leader emergence. These outgroupdirected prototypical utterances mobilize the ingroup and advocate for the ingroup position (and hence enhance group identity) in the face of outgroup competition, for which the speaker is accorded leadership.
The discussion above portrays leader emergence as the outcome of cumulative conversational influence and control mediated by social identificational processes. Influence and control are assumed to merely culminate into power. This is a superficial view of what is in fact a sequential and collective process of power creation. A more nuanced discussion can be gleaned from Berger et al.’s Expectation states theory: A theoretical research paradigm (1974). The insight from EST is that when enough conversational influence and control culminate to give evidence of an incipient power hierarchy at the early state of group interaction, group members develop expectations of who is and will be leading the group. Acting on these expectations, group members collectively shape the behavior of each other to fall in line with the expectations, for example, to look up and give preferential right to incipient leaders to speak and thereby to amplify their influence and control. There are some preliminary results supporting the role of expectations in intergroup contexts (Reid & Ng 2006), but more fine-grained and longer-range observation and data analysis are required to test it.
Still on the theme of power creation, our final discussion takes us beyond small group research to research dealing with large groups and large-scale social movements. The big question is: how may power be generated to bring about social change, including a change in existing unequal power relations? A small answer can be found in the politicization of collective identity.
In their triangular model of politicized collective identity, Simon & Klandermans (2001, 319) postulate that people “evince politicized collective identity to the extent that they engage as self-conscious group members in a power struggle on behalf of their group knowing that it is the wider, more inclusive societal context in which this struggle has to be fought out.” For this to happen, members need to become aware of shared grievance, then attribute the cause of their grievance to the adversary outgroup, and finally triangulate the power struggle by getting a third party (e.g., society at large) on their side.
Throughout the process and its extension, language and communication play a number of crucial roles. They provide an inclusive rhetoric to connect the group in question with other local identities into a collective identity to mobilize collective action. A collective identity, though powerful, carries the risk of submerging the group’s distinctiveness and consequently diluting its claim to leadership. Hence the group must reinvent itself as the prototype among the collective identity to advance and lead the cause. Here again, language plays a critical role in providing a world vision that creates the necessary system of categorization for identifying different targets for influence (Chryssochoou & Volpato 2004). Collective action is sustained in and through the construction and promulgation of narratives to politicize culture into a (symbolic) resource for power, by undermining the legitimacy of the status quo and envisioning a better future. These complex and dynamical relationships, where language and communication are heavily and critically implicated, make for interesting study across disciplines.
- Bales, R. F. (1970). Personality and interpersonal behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Berger, J., Connor, T. L., & Fisek, M. H. (1974). Expectation states theory: A theoretical research program. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.
- Brauer, M., & Bourhis, R. Y. (2006). Social power. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 601– 616.
- Chryssochoou, X., & Volpato, C. (2004). Social influence and the power of minorities: An analysis of the Communist Manifesto. Social Justice Research, 17, 357–388.
- Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621–628.
- Fox, S. A., & Giles, H. (1996). “Let the wheelchair through!” An intergroup approach to interability communication. In W. P. Robinson (ed.), Social groups and identities: Developing the legacy of Henri Tajfel. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 215–248.
- Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
- Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley.
- Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265–284.
- Lewin, K. (1952). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper and Row.
- Mulder, M. (1977). The daily power game. Leiden: Martin Nijhoff.
- Ng, S. H. (1980). The social psychology of power. London: Academic Press.
- Ng, S. H., & Bradac, J. J. (1993). Power in language: Verbal communication and social influence. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Ng, S. H., Brooke, M., & Dunne, M. (1995). Interruption and influence in discussion groups. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 14, 369–381.
- Raven, B. H. (2001). Power/interaction and interpersonal influence: Experimental investigations and case studies. In A. Y. Lee-Chai & J. A. Bargh (eds.), The use and abuse of power: Multiple perspectives on the causes of corruption. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, pp. 217–240.
- Reid, S. A., & Ng, S. H. (2000). Conversation as a resource for influence: Evidence for prototypical arguments and social identification processes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 83–100.
- Reid, S. A., & Ng, S. H. (2006). The dynamics of intragroup differentiation in an intergroup social context. Human Communication Research, 32, 504–525.
- Russell, B. (1938). Power: A new social analysis. London: George Allen and Unwin.
- Simon, B., & Klandermans, B. (2001). Politicized collective identity: A social psychological analysis. American Psychologist, 56, 319–331.
- Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. New York: John Wiley.
- Wildschut, T., Pinter, B., Vevea, J. L., Insko, C. A., & Schopler, J. (2003). Beyond the group mind: A quantitative review of the interindividual-intergroup discontinuity effect. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 698–722.