Sources and Limits of Power

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Boris HOLZER, University of Konstanz, Germany
Christian HILGERT, University of Konstanz, Germany
Sociological theories regard power as an attribute of social relationships, not of individual (or corporate) actors. Following Weber power is conceived as a capacity or “chance” to assert and carry out “one’s will even against resistance.” This kind of definition of power does not specify on what the “chance” is based. It may be physical dominance but also charisma, wealth or persuasiveness. The likelihood that power actually works does not hinge on objective criteria but on how the one subjected to the demands of power perceives and estimates the power relation. The exercise of power therefore is a matter of interpretation and communication: A threat can be a vehicle of power if and when it is considered credible and potentially harmful.

Based on relational and communicative concepts of power (e.g. Blau 1964; Luhmann 1979) this paper distinguishes several sources of power and analyses the dynamics of threat and evasion. Power may for instance flow from dependence relationships, information asymmetries or, of course, physical violence. The efficacy of threats based on those options is dependent on how the consequences of opposition are evaluated. For instance, alternative ways to either obtain withdrawn resources or to decrease the harm imposed by sanctions may diminished the perceived threat. By comparing different power settings (e.g. face-to-face situations and formal organizations) and the way in which power sources work or fail the paper will not only provide a more systematic account of forms of power but also explain the paramount importance of physical violence as a source of power.


Blau, Peter M. (1964): Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley.

Luhmann, Niklas (1979): Trust and Power. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.