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Power and Dependency


Explanations > Power > Power and Dependency

Supply | Support | Approval | Purchase | Discussion | So what?


When I want something from you, then I am dependent on you. And if you do not need much from me, then you have power over me. This is power-dependency relationship. In fact many relationships are characterized by power and dependency, from parent-child to police officer-suspect. Below are several categories of power dependency plus a discussion of this.


The basic form of dependency is demand-and-supply. One person wants something and another can supply it. It is the basis of commerce and markets. It is also a basis of relationships, even though there may not be overt discussion of what is being exchanged or given.

All other forms of dependency can be seen as forms of supply, even though the traditional idea of market supply is of physical goods.


Children are dependent on their parents or carers for support. They are unable to support themselves, so must have somebody else provide their basic physical and emotions needs. This gives parents significant power, which hopefully they will use in raising their children to become well-adjusted and contributing citizens.

Support is also a critical aspect of societies, where people in need can depend on others to help them. There is always a price for this and social support is given on the understanding of obedience to social rules and returning support given. It is not uncommon for people to take the opportunity when others ask for help to seek something in return.

Support can also be commercial (and a highly profitable business too), where you are dependent on companies to help you when you have problems and they have the power to help you quickly and effectively or keep you hanging until they give an inadequate response. Sadly, the common occurrence of the latter shows the immature state of many support businesses.


A simple thing that we often seek is that others approve of us, believing that what we do is right and important. Children need approval from their parents and teachers, facing punishment if they do not comply. Friends have a different role as one of the purposes of having friends is that they approve of us, especially when others disapprove. Yet friends also may not approve of us, in which case we may have to seek others who will be kinder.

Approval is particularly critical in the workplace where maintaining one's job may depend on approval from one's manager. The higher level of power associated with such approval means people have to be particularly compliant, agreeing to work even when they do not want to do as they are told.


In purchase situations, the buyer typically has greater power than the seller as the seller depends on customers for their living. Much of the action of sales people is to redress this imbalance, for example by claiming product scarcity, offering discounts and otherwise using psychological and social methods that give them greater power and consequent control over the sale.


Emerson (1962) identified dependency as the very basis of power. When one person is dependent on another for something, then that second person has power over the dependent person, and Dependency Theory is an elaboration of this.

Dependency in a relationship can lead to attachment, where a person bonds their identity with that of the more powerful person, in an unconscious attempt to secure what they need and prevent the supplier from leaving. Love can be seen as nature's way of creating attachment, especially where a person is dependent for their survival on others (even in such cases as the Stockholm Syndrome). In the Dependent Personality Disorder dependence becomes dysfunctional as a person attaches themselves so strongly with others they damage themselves and the people around them.

Sometimes dependency is balanced, with each needing something of equivalent value from the other, even though what is sought may be different for each person. However, this is not always the case and power becomes unbalanced when power is asymmetrical. In other words when one person is more dependent than the other, the person with the least dependency has the greatest power.

Dependency power increases when there are no options and that you must interact with the powerful person in order to get what you need. This makes it a common act to gather power by eliminating alternatives (an extreme example is drug dealers who kill off one another). Monopolies and dictatorships work through this principle as when you have no alternative, you become more dependent.

Dependency also increases when the level of need is greater, particularly in the short term when alternatives cannot be found. Other forms of dependency can also be created, such as the addiction that results from the use of drugs.

Dependency power decreases when the dependent person finds way of reducing the dependency, either by finding alternatives of simply by deciding that they do not want what they have requested enough to debase themselves before the powerful supplier.

So what?

If you want to increase your power, seek to increase dependency, either by increasing the level of need or by reducing the alternatives the person can choose. You can do this physically or through the elegance of your words.

When you are dependent and find this to your disadvantage, then you may seek to increase the number of alternatives you can choose. This is a common activity within negotiation where you may particularly spend time developing your walk-away solution (what you will do if you cannot agree).


Social Exchange Theory, Negotiation, Attachment Theory


Emerson, R.M. (1962). Power-Dependence Relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 1, 31-4


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