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French and Raven's Forms of Power

 

Explanations > Power > French and Raven's Forms of Power

Coercive | Reward | Legitimate | Referent | Expert | So what?

 

The most common description of power is French and Raven (1960). This divides power into five different forms. Raven (1965) added informational power, and Raven (2008) summarized the subsequent canon of work in this subject.

Social influence is defined as 'change in the belief, attitude, or behavior of a person (the target of influence), which results from the action of another person (an influencing agent)', and social power as the potential for such influence.

Coercive power

This is the power to force someone to do something against their will. It is often physical although other threats may be used. It is the power of dictators, despots and bullies. Coercion can result in physical harm, although its principal goal is compliance. Demonstrations of harm are often used to illustrate what will happen if compliance is not gained.

Coercion is also the ultimate power of all governments. Although it is often seen as negative, it is also used to keep the peace. Parents coerce young children who know no better. A person holds back their friend who is about to step out in front of a car.

Other forms of power can also be used in coercive ways, such as when a reward or expertise is withheld or referent power is used to threaten social exclusion.

Reward power

One of the main reasons we work is for the money we need to conduct our lives. There are many more forms of reward -- in fact anything we find desirable can be a reward, from a million dollar yacht to a pat on the back.

Reward power is thus the ability to give other people what they want, and hence ask them to do things for you in exchange.

Rewards can also be used to punish, such as when they are withheld. The promise is essentially the same: do this and you will get that.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power is that which is invested in a role. Kings, policemen and managers all have legitimate power. The legitimacy may come from a higher power, often one with coercive power. Legitimate power can often thus be the acceptable face of raw power.

A common trap that people in such roles can fall into is to forget that people are obeying the position, not them. When they either fall from power or move onto other things, it can be a puzzling surprise that people who used to fawn at your feet no long do so.

More broadly, legitimate power is that based on social rules and can be have several different forms and not just be based on position:

  • Legitimate position power: The social norm of obeying people in a superior position.
  • Legitimate power of reciprocity: The norm that we should repay those who help us.
  • Legitimate power of equity: The norm of fair play and due compensation.
  • Legitimate power of responsibility: The norm of social responsibility in helping others (the 'power of the powerless').

Referent power

This is the power from another person liking you or wanting to be like you. It is the power of charisma and fame and is wielded by all celebrities (by definition) as well as more local social leaders. In wanting to be like these people, we stand near them, hoping some of the charisma will rub off onto us.

Those with referent power can also use it for coercion. One of the things we fear most is social exclusion, and all it takes is a word from a social leader for us to be shunned by others in the group.

Expert power

When I have knowledge and skill that someone else requires, then I have Expert power. This is a very common form of power and is the basis for a very large proportion of human collaboration, including most companies where the principle of specialization allows large and complex enterprises to be undertaken.

Expert power is that which is used by Trades Unions when they encourage their members to strike for better pay or working conditions. It is also the power of the specialist R&D Engineer when they threaten to leave unless they get an exorbitant pay rise or a seat by the window.

And Informational power

Raven (1965) added a sixth source: informational power. This is providing information to a person that results in them thinking/acting in a different way.

Information by itself may not be enough for this and may hence be supported by an argument as to why the information should be believed. If the information is accepted then 'socially independent change' occurs as the person continues to believe this information to be true and acts accordingly.

So what?

So use these categories as a checklist to determine what forms of power you and others have available. It is a common negotiating mistake to assume you are powerless or have less power than the other person.

References

French and Raven (1960), Raven (1965), Raven (2008)

 

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