“His power level is over 9000!”
What is power?* Sociologists and other social scientists have spilled a lot of ink on the subject. On some level, the question of power is tightly connected to the basic insight of sociology, phrased variously as “we are not alone”, “our actions are not determined solely by internal features”, “society exists”, “structures constrain agency”, etc. Some recent theoretical moves have emphasized power acting on smaller and smaller scales, such as the move to conceptualize “everyday” forms of resistance – e.g. Scott’s work on Malaysian peasants, or Ewick and Silbey’s work on narratives as resistance to the law. Another tradition, in dialog with the previous and drawing strength from folks like Gramsci, looks for power in the diffuse ways that society has a hold over us – hegemony, ideology, discourse, relations of power, etc.
My point here is not to exhaustively catalog different traditions or definitions of power.** I want to instead characterize the most basic definition of power, the one we often fall back on in a pinch, and the one that comes from the granddaddy of Sociological definition, Max Weber himself. Weber defined power, in Economy and Society as: “the probability that one actor in a social relationship will get be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.” (53) In other words, Triangle Man has more power than Particle Man because when they get in a fight, odds are, Triangle Man wins.*** Stephen Lukes, in a fantastic essay refers to this as type 1 power, contrasting it with more subtle forms of power like choosing the ground on which battles are fought, or being able to alter the interests of the other party.
Rather than simply referring to this model of power by the dry label “type 1”, I propose we call it something sillier: the Dragon Ball Z model of power. In this model, power is something possessed (an actor has power), quantifiable (a “probability”), and fairly generic. So, in the above clip, we can see that Goku has a power level over 9000, a clearly impressive amount of power. I think by naming this model, and associating it with some hilarious images, we can begin to more easily catalog its assumptions and weaknesses. For example, the context of DBZ power is very straightforward – two individuals battling physically. But what happens when outcomes, parties, and means are more uncertain? In many interactions, multiple parties with multiple relationships and multiple, often conflicting, goals are interacting. What does power mean in that context? Etc. More basically, what happens when we relax the assumption that interests are straightforward, unchanging, and fixed in advance?
But for the moment, I just want us to acknowledge what we mean when we talk about power. And most of the time, we mean simply that someone is better able to get what they want than someone else – in other words, that their power level is over 9000!
* The snarky high-school physics student in me says, “Work over time, duh!” You should have seen me laughing reading about how Bourdieu defines fields and thinking about abstract algebra (hint: Bourdieu does not need an additive identity…).
** Lukes, who I will discuss below, does the best job of this so far, that I know of. Go read the first chapter! Though, and this is not clear, I would argue that Lukes’ scheme still can’t encompass Foucauldian diffuse power as acting on other people’s actions, etc.
*** I am being a little unfair to Weber. A more subtle reading of this definition would allow for more of the nuances that Lukes discusses. But I think the way we usually use Weber’s definition is the way I am talking about – the judge is more powerful than the defendant, because the judge can make sure he gets what he wants most of the time, etc.