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University of Connecticut Social Psychology Intergroup Relations

Power is Fungible


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

Power can be transformed from one kind to another


Using money to buy weapons, which enable threats of violence and may protect or hamper survival.

Using knowledge about what other people expect and like to be accepted as a legitimate member of a community

Using other's people's sense of obligation toward you to ask them for resources (e.g., a loan)

Whether any kind of power becomes fungible with another kind depends on consent, which may be influenced by ethics, or desperation


Many people think it is unethical to trade access to one's sexuality for resources.

    But, given that prostitution exists, and if wealthier people are preferred as marriage partners, sexuality and resources are in fact fungible.

A few desperately poor people sell their children, which may be seen as a violation of their obligations, or, if they believe their children will get better access to resources, it may be seen as a way to fulfill their obligations.

Research that only studies one type of power cannot measure fungibility

The In Game: A new experimental method for researching power allows measurement of fungibility

Fungibility can lead to inequality

This is because some parties can have upward power spirals...

For example, U.S. history could be viewed as an upward power spiral: Colonists used violence (weapons), aided by Native Americans' sense of obligation to others and susceptibility to disease (causing massive deaths-- lack of survival) to take land and water resources. The U.S. government continued to use violence in wars against many Native tribes, rely on various ideologies to legitimize violence and their control of resources. Slave-holders, merchants, and others also took the human resources of indentured servants' and enslaved people's time and work to accumulate resources they controlled, using violence and law to control other people and restrict their choices. U.S. Americans also took knowledge (e.g., the cotton gin) and developed knowledge (e.g., for industrial production, high-tech) to amass more wealth, which allowed them to enter World War II, which won them considerable legitimacy in the Western world. This facilitated alliances, treaties and trade (or obligatory relations) with European countries that were also rich because they had colonized much of the rest of the world).

                                                            ...and other parties can have downward power spirals.

Haiti was one of the first colonized nations to throw off slavery and colonization-- expropriation of human and natural resources by violence. Haiti was then delegitimized in the eyes of rich nations, which curtailed Haiti's access to resources. Poverty has been so acute in Haiti that people have cut down massive number of trees, which makes heavy rains wash away much of the top-soil, devastating the natural ecology further, killing and displacing people, thereby disrupting their communities and curtailing their ability to get the material resources they need. Poverty has also made Haitians vulnerable to "sex tourism," which imparted HIV to Haiti. Haiti has among the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, a very serious threat to public health.

Reports from Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003 also suggest how individuals can have downward power spirals. Women were not legitimately allowed to work for pay, so their access to the highly fungible resource of money was constrained to marriage. A woman who was widowed with children because her husband was killed by American soldiers. Not only did he lose his life, but her in-laws decided they had no obligations to her, and they took back her remaining material resources: her dowry and furniture. Wanting to fulfill her obligations to her children, she began working as a prostitute. This is gaining her necessary resources, but if she is caught, it may result in her death because such action is not normatively legitimate and is often punished by violence.