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University of Connecticut Social Psychology Intergroup Relations

Comparison of Conceptions of Power


Power Basis Theory :: Description :: Researching Power :: Findings :: Teaching Resources :: Collaborators :: Bibliography

Different theories of or about power emphasize different properties of power. The table below enumerates these properties and explains how Power Basis Theory addresses each feature.


Properties of Power


Important Sources

Power Basis Theory’s view

Freedom of choice: Power to

Interdependence theory states that the more powerful party in a relation is the one with the best alternatives to the relationship (e.g.,  freedom to exit, can fulfill desires elsewhere).

A person whose job skills are in demand is more free to leave any particular job.


A person with family commitments in an area with few employers has restricted job options.

Thibault & Kelly (1959)


Keltner, Gruenfeld, Anderson (2003)

PBT incorporates the important insight that alternatives are essential to understanding power. However, PBT argues that one could be empowered because of one’s relation to one’s environment, without dominating another party.


Power over


One party has power over another by controlling the other’s outcomes.

Supervisor influences whether a subordinate gets fired or receives opportunities for advancement.

  A classmate can praise or humiliate another classmate.

French & Raven (1958) identified several interpersonal influence tactics, now termed soft (positive) & harsh (negative).

Fiske & Berdahl’s (2007) review centers on this definition.

PBT asserts that relational power is not the only kind of social power (see above). PBT argues that power is social because of the property below.

Transformable: Liquidity

Kinds of power can be fungible with other kinds (i.e., can be transformed into another) and can be transferred without loss from one party to another.

Colonizers use wealth to “buy” weapons and armies, which enable their access to other people’s resources.


An endorsement from an expert confers legitimacy on a novice.

Russell (1938)


Cartwright (1959)


Wilson (1973)

Yes—Power Basis Theory argues that different kinds of power are fungible (depending on social context), which is why they are rightly called “power.” Power is often social because social interaction is necessary for fungibility.

Potential: Power enables possibilities.

Coercion works because one anticipates the possibility another may cause harm. Flattery may be appealing because one anticipates it may produce a desired outcome. 

Lewin (1951)

Yes—PBT argues that an important way people gauge their ecologies is anticipate what they can do and what others can do. This is why subjective judgments are an important part of the psychology of power.

Power as position:

Power is associated with position in a social structural, or with authority.

People whose gender or ethnic group is favored in employment is likely to have more power in several ways; readier access to resources, to valuable associations with other people, to safety, to social legitimacy or prestige.

Parsons (1952);


Sidanius & Pratto (1999) Social Dominance Theory states that a group who has better access to any socially-desired thing than another group has more power.

PBT acknowledges the fact of structural power. Unlike structural approaches, PBT extends these approaches by identifying a different motivation for power (survival), and suggesting how power distributions are created and can change because of fungibility.

Operationalizing and measuring all these sorts of power produces challenges.

But we invented new methods for operationalizing and measuring power with these features.