Whether we are talking about societies, cultures, economies, organizations or inter-personal relationships, the dynamics of social power receive a great deal of attention. Our interest in social power is not surprising. Since human existence is largely and perhaps even essentially social in nature, our power to influence each other’s behavior has significant implications for all of us. When talking about social power we often have strong positions or beliefs, but we don’t always share a common set of assumptions or even a lexicon to support critical thinking or inquiry. Given the high stakes of social power, our attempts to explain it can easily devolve into finger-pointing, polemics or even ad hominem attacks. These discussions can be very satisfying as a form of release of stress, but they don’t always provide us with much in the way of practical insight.
In the middle of the 20th century, social psychologists attempted to create a constructive, scientific framework to bring discussions of social power into the realm of social science. Active between the 1930s and the 1960s, Kurt Lewin and his colleagues attempted to build models of social interaction and power that met the standards of scientific objectivity required for clinical research in the field of social psychology. Two scholars associated with the Lewinian school of social psychology, John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, created a typology that could be used to bring rigor and consistency to analysis and discussions of social power. Whether or not French and Raven’s typology of social power meets the standards of scientific inquiry to which they aspired, it certainly serves as a handy framework for organizing discussions and research on how we influence each other.
Perspectives on social power: from Weber’s bureaucratic, political authority, to Kotter’s managerial influence to Cialdini’s inter-personal persuasion
It should come as no surprise that French, Raven and their Lewinian school colleagues are not the only scholars who have proposed typologies of social power. Early in the 20th century, when social scientists often wrote with broad strokes in attempts to explain the evolution of the political economy, Max Weber broke down political authority into three basic categories: legal authority, traditional authority, and charismatic authority. In the latter half of the 20th century, as intellectual interest shifted from politics to economics and from the state to private enterprise, John Kotter proposed that managers influence their teams through four types of managerial power. Kotter claimed that a manager’s power is derived from the subordinate’s: sense of obligation to the manager, belief in the manager’s expertise, identification with the manager, and perceived dependence on the manager. While Kotter focused on social power within organizational hierarchies, Robert Cialdini developed a typology of influence – couched as persuasion – that is more personal and tactical, but also more broadly applicable than either Weber’s typology of political authority or Kotter’s typology of managerial power. Based on field research with a particular focus on the mechanisms of persuasion underlying successful influence in the context of sales and marketing, Cialdini proposed that we gain influence over others through seven influence shortcuts. They include: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, liking and consensus (or social proof) and unity (added in 2021).
How did French and Raven define power, leadership and related terms?
To start a coherent discussion of anything, you need to agree on what terms you will use in the discussion and what those terms mean. The word power has many nuances that make us uncomfortable, so it is tempting to describe positive forms of power with alternative terms, such as influence. French and Raven did not see the need for this sort of distinction. They treated leadership, power and influence as all meaning more or less the same thing. They also found a place for authority within their typology, but their use of the term authority is less broad than their use of power, leadership and influence.
For French and Raven, power is the potential of one party to exert influence over another. Their definition of power is identical to that of leadership and can be paraphrased as follows: Power is the potential influence of one member of a group over another member or members of the group. Their conception of leadership and power can be traced through the work of a number of scholars associated with the Lewinian school.
Let’s start with how they defined leadership. In an article in Studies in Social Power, French together with Richard Snyder defined leadership as follows:
“We propose a restricted definition of leadership in terms of power: Leadership is the potential social influence of one part of the group over another. If one member has some degree of influence over another, then he has some degree of leadership.“
For the sake of simplicity, I reword their definition as follows:
“Leadership is the potential influence of one member of the group over another member or members of the group.”
Depending on the framing of the relationship we are examining, the phrase “member of a group” can mean a single individual or a group of individuals we are treating as having a shared identity. One can imagine situations in which one individual (manager) has influence over other members (subordinates) within a group (Finance Department) at the same time that this group (Finance Department) has influence over other groups (Marketing and R&D Departments). The flexibility to shift the “relationship frame” allows for a robust, if complicated, discussion of the social power dynamics that we encounter in the real world.
Having settled upon this definition of leadership, we can set the definitions of leader and follower by rearranging the components of the definition of leadership:
“A leader is a member of the group who has the potential to exercise influence over another member or members of the group.“
“A follower is a member of the group who is potentially subject to the influence of another member or members of the group.”
This leaves power to be defined. Another article in Studies in Social Power provides a succinct definition of what power meant in the Lewinian school:
“Power is the potential ability of one person, O, to induce forces upon another person, P, toward (or against) movement or change in a given direction, within a given behavior region, at a given time.“
Simply put, power is the potential of one person (or group of persons) to exert influence over another. Thus, the definition of power is identical to that of leadership:
“Power is the potential influence of one member of a group over another member or members of the group.“
Where does the follower fit in?
Some might worry that equating leadership with power entails an excessive focus on the role or behavior of leaders, while ignoring the role and behavior of followers within a relationship. Still, it is difficult to entirely disassociate leadership from power. More importantly, it is actually followers who play the key role in this formulation of leadership. It is, after all, the followers’ responses to the leader’s attempt to exert power that serve as the most important indicator of how much and what kind of power that leader has. By framing the definitions of their power bases in terms of the response of the follower, French, Raven seem to find a suitable place for the follower in the power dynamics of leadership. The magnitude and range of a leader’s power is a function of the perceptions and reactions of the follower to the leader.
For French and Raven, power is not determined by the traits or actions of a leader considered in isolation of other people or contextual factors. Power exists as a potentiality, and that potentiality is mediated through five power bases. The five bases of social power proposed by French and Raven are: reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power, and expert power.
Power dynamics emerge in many contexts, so we need a lexicon that can be applied broadly and flexibly
In our lives, we influence and are influenced by many different kinds of people: team members, colleagues, customers, friends, fellow citizens, and so on and so forth. French and Raven’s typology of social power can be applied more flexibly than those suggested by Weber, Kotter or Cialdini. Since French and Raven were not writing for a specific context such as government or business, they were able to create a model that can be applied across a broad range of contexts.
French and Raven’s power bases can be used to categorize and assess social power in any context in which one party seeks to influence another party. The fact that French and Raven do not specify what kinds of relationship involve social power makes it easier to consider the kinds of strategies one individual might use to influence different categories of potential followers. The parties could be individuals or groups and those groups could be connected through virtually any kind of formal or informal relationship. Even in the same situation, not all categories of followers will necessarily be influenced in the a uniform way. To analyze a leader’s power in a complex environment, we need a typology that enables us to consider how that leader gained influence across contexts and follower categories. French and Raven’s typology allows for this sort of analysis.
As a graduate student, I used their typology to examine the types and range of power exercised by the Hōjō family in the aftermath of the establishment of the first Bakufu government of Japan in the 13th century. As a family that rose from relatively humble origins, the Hōjō did not have the luxury of just issuing edicts to the Court, courtiers or even to other warrior families. They had to maintain their central position by influencing a wide range of stakeholders through a diverse set of strategies. In the process, they transformed the political landscape and set many precedents as the first of a series of warrior families that controlled the Japanese polity for the next 600 years. I used French and Raven’s typology of social power to categorize and interpret what the the Hōjō did that enabled them to 1) maintain their position at the center of the Japanese for polity for over 130 years, and 2) initiate a process that enabled the warriors to add influence as legitimate bureaucrats to their influence as pugilists.
Their typology can also be used as a framework for examining social power in a wide range of contexts, including but not limited to the following:
- the power of individual leaders to influence stakeholders in modern organizations and markets,
- the power political leaders to influence other politicians and citizens,
- the power of social entrepreneurs and thought leaders to influence various stakeholders,
- a business organization’s power to influence the behavior and mindsets of its employees and/or other organizations,
- a political organization’s power to influence voters, politicians and companies, and
- an individual’s power to influence others within the context of personal relationships.
Here’s a summary of French and Raven’s five bases of social power.
Reward power – A leader’s reward power is defined as power based on the follower’s assessment of the leader’s ability to provide rewards. Simply put, a leader has reward power to the degree that the follower(s) believes that the leader is able to provide something that the follower would like to have. Those rewards can be financial, social or even spiritual in nature, and might even in some cases include the decision not to leverage a punishment upon the follower. The leader can only make use of reward power if the follower believes that the leader will have the ability to provide the reward in the future, and that the leader will only provide that reward to followers who demonstrate a willingness to do what the leader wants them to do.
Coercive power – A leader’s coercive power is defined as power based on the follower’s assessment of the leader’s ability to impose punishments. A leader has coercive power if the follower believes that he or she will be punished for not conforming to the wishes of the leader. Like rewards, punishments can come in a range of forms, and might in some cases include the withholding of something that the follower might see as a reward. As with reward power, a leader can only make use of coercive power if the follower believes that the leader will have the ability to impose the punishment in the future, and that the leader will impose that punishment on followers who do not demonstrate a willingness to do what the leader wants them to do.
Legitimate power – A leader’s legitimate power is defined as power based on the follower’s assessment of the legitimacy of the leader’s right to influence them and their own obligation to accept this influence. Legitimate power is derived from the values system of the follower. French and Raven discuss various conditions that can give rise to legitimate power. They include traditional cultural values such as respect for the aged, acceptance of social structure, social or political office, and designation by a legitimizing agent. Role relations are an example of legitimate power; a follower may judge that the influence of someone with higher status in a hierarchy is legitimate. Legitimate power can also be based on the values or beliefs of the follower. A follower may accept the influence of a leader simply based on belief in the legitimacy of meeting a previous commitment to accept the influence of that leader. A follower might also accept the influence of a leader based on the belief that accepting that influence is morally or ethically “correct.”
Expert power – A leader’s expert power is defined as power based on the follower’s assessment of the expertise of the leader. The strength of the leader’s expert power varies with the extent to which the follower attributes special knowledge or judgment to that leader in a specific domain. Simply put, the follower submits to the influence of the leader based on a belief that the leader has superior knowledge or skill. French and Raven assume that a leader’s expert power is domain-specific rather than generalized, though they grant that some halo effect might occur. The expert power base can generally only be used by a leader when he or she is attempting to influence the follower in relation to an issue that is relevant to a domain in which the follower judges the leader to have expertise. A leader who attempts to use expert power to influence a follower in an unrelated domain may lose expert power even within the realm of the original domain of expertise.
Referent power – A leader’s referent power is defined as power based on the follower’s belief that he or she is identified with the leader or the desire by the follower to be identified with the leader. Of all the power bases, the most intriguing and hardest to explain may be referent power. If a follower feels a desire to be like or close to the leader, then the leader has referent power over the follower. By identification, French and Raven mean a feeling of oneness or closeness of the follower to the leader, or a desire for such a feeling. If the leader is a person toward whom the follower is highly attracted, the follower will feel an urge to take action to become more closely associated with the leader. If the leader is an attractive group, the follower will feel like a member of that group or a desire to join it. If the follower is already closely associated with the leader or group, he or she will feel an urge to take action to maintain this association.
The Relative Merits of the Power Bases
French and Raven conclude their article by laying out a number of hypotheses about the characteristics of the five types of power.
The use of coercive and reward power does not tend to lead to self-sustaining changes in the attitudes or behaviors of followers because the changes are contingent upon continuing expectation of reward or threat of punishment. In order to maintain the follower’s expectations of future rewards or punishments, the leader must observe whether or not the follower is in fact conforming with his or her wishes. The ongoing investments required to maintain reward and coercive power can serve as a constraint on the utility of these power bases, especially if a leader needs to influence a large number of followers.
In contrast, when a leader exerts influence based on referent, legitimate or expert power, the conformity by the follower starts off as dependent upon the presence and actions of the leader, but it may tend to become self-sustaining over time as the follower internalizes basic beliefs about the leader’s attractiveness, expertise or legitimacy. French and Raven propose that in general a strong referent power base provides the leader with the broadest, most resilient influence over followers. Since a leader’s referent power is based upon the follower’s attraction or feeling of affiliation with that leader as a person, the follower is likely to be influenced by the leader in a generalized way rather than in relation to a specific task or knowledge field.
It is desirable for a leader to build strong legitimate, referent and expert power bases rather than to become involved in relationships with followers based exclusively on reward or coercive power. The use of rewards can, however, enhance the leader’s referent power base, thereby reducing the degree to which ongoing expectations of rewards are required to maintain influence. The power base requiring the most attention and maintenance on the part of the leader is the coercive power base. The utility of this power base is also mitigated by the fact that when subjected to coercion, followers often search for a way to escape entirely from the field of influence of the leader. It is difficult to maintain influence predicated exclusively upon coercive power.
Social Power, Transactional Leadership and the formula for Sustainable Transformation
In this post, I have discussed how French and Raven’s typology of social power provides a framework that can be used for discussions of social power in a wide range of contexts. In future posts, I’ll take a look at some applications of French and Raven’s bases of social power in specific contexts. I’ll also introduce scholarship on how French and Raven’s bases of social power have been used in discussions of transformational leadership. Often contrasted with transactional leadership, transformational leadership is seen by many as the most powerful and desirable form of leadership. Many organizations invest significant resources in building up their transformational leadership capabilities as a part of a strategy for success in a world that requires constant adjustment and change. Embedding French and Raven’s bases of social power into models for transformational and transactional leadership reveals that while a series of transactions may not be sufficient to drive transformation, it is still important to keep an eye on transactions even when you are working toward a transformation.
References and Resources:
Cogan, Dana. POWER, PERSONAL BONDS AND TRANSFORMATION IN THIRTEENTH CENTURY JAPANESE WARRIOR LEADERSHIP, 2001 (available through ProQuest academic publishing @ proquest.com as well as at libraries at academic institutions around the world as listed on Worldcat @ worldcat.org)
French, John R. P. Jr., and Bertram Raven. “The Bases of Social Power.” In Studies in Social Power, edited by Dorwin Cartwright, pp. 150-167. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1959.
French, John R. P. Jr., and Richard Snyder. “Leadership and Interpersonal Power.” In Studies in Social Power, edited by Dorwin Cartwright, pp. 118-149. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1959.
Kotter, John P. “Power, Dependence, and Effective Management.” In Harvard Business Review – On Human Relations. pp. 359-374. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review, 1979.
Kuhnert Karl W., and Philip Lewis. “Transactional and Transformational Leadership: A Constructive/Developmental Analysis.” Academy of Management Review 12 (1987): 648-657.
Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economy Organization, translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1947.
For more on, Cialdini’s typology of influence, listen to: Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Cialdini interview on Freakonomics Radio, episode 463)
For an exploration of the related topic of social status, see Cecelia Ridgeway’s Status: Why is Everywhere? Why does it matter? You can get a summary of her research by listening to an interview with Ridgeway on the Ezra Klein Show on September 13, 2022 at nyt.com. If the link doesn’t work, you can find the interview by searching for the title at net.com: “We Build Civilizations on Status. But We Barely Understand It.”
© Dana Cogan, 2022, all rights reserved.