Research Output


  The concept of power is acknowledged as one of the few steady axes around which social sciences have been revolving at least since the first half of the XX th century. In fact, very few concepts have been as pervasive and generative. Equally undisputed is the lack of a shared understanding among social scientists of what 'power' is. This situation has been clearly encapsulated by the claim of power as 'essentially contested' concept, i.e. neither empirically settled nor conceptually commonly defined. In order to reduce the complexity of the 'many faces' of power, two main limitations can be imposed. First, from a meta-theoretical viewpoint, the focus is posited on the different conceptual uses of 'power' within social sciences. Even if among these no one feature is common to all, it is still possible to realize how they are connected by a series of overlapping 'family resemblances' which simply make possible to talk of 'power' as such. Second, from a theoretical viewpoint, the reference to the concepts, practices and institution of surveillance helps to narrow down the field, guiding the selection of the many and different conceptual uses. Therefore, emphasis is placed on what we might call the modernist 'matrices' of power in social sciences, those theoretical frameworks which keep inspiring, as reference points or critical targets, scholarly reflections on power today; then on 'disciplinary' and 'post-disciplinary' theories of power, recognizing the seminal role of Michel Foucault's contribution to any discussion about power and surveillance. Modernist matrices The works of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche can be accredited as modernist 'matrices' of the main current concepts and theories of power in social sciences. Their reflections have in fact offered foundational images, metaphors and storylines on the meanings and relations between power, individual and society. Apart from their seminal role, few common threads might be identified among them. Marx and Weber seem both to endorse a conception of power which is 'causationalist' (power as cause), 'distributive' (either one has power or has not) and 'commodified' (power as object). They in fact offer agency-based (power as causal effect of a social agency) or structure-based (effect of a social, economic or political structure) accounts, conceiving of power as causal relationship between intentional individuals or groups. Moreover, power is conceptualized as a property whose gain or loss by one of the participant to the social relationship is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of power by another participant. In Nietzsche the idea of power is less systematically elaborated and much philosophically oriented. Nietzsche (like Marx) sees power linked to conflict and expressed by a set of ubiquitous relations of forces informing and homogenizing both the human and non-human realm. Marx understands power as the social function of keeping a specific arrangement of relations of productions tightly connected to and promoting class domination. This arrangement circularly makes possible the development of certain forces of production in a given historical period. In this 'systemic' perspective, power is expressed as a structure-based courses of action causally aiming to maintain the social conditions essential for developing capital accumulation. Power is concentrated in a range of legal, political, economic and social institutions which work toward the conservation of the prevailing economic system, securing the position of those who effectively own the productive resources. In this perspective power is not only a political matter. It is diffused beyond the state, in terms of the 'needs of capital', requiring legitimation and conditions for social acceptance. The concept ideology fulfils this

  • Type:

    Book Chapter

  • Date:

    01 March 2018

  • Publication Status:


  • Library of Congress:

    J Political Science

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    320 Political science


Maglione, G. (2018). Power. In B. Arrigo (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Surveillance, Security, and PrivacySAGE Publications



Power, political concept,

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