Power-Conflict Theory Analysis of Power Essay

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One party may take power away from the other. One party may lose power. This interaction or exchange leads either to equilibrium between the wielders of power, or to disequilibrium and imbalance. One can take Coleman to be saying that power is an element of exchange (or retraction) within the field of conflict. It is like the goal struggled for between two opponents on a sports pitch. It includes also the devices and mechanisms by which that goal-oriented struggle progresses.

How do the dynamics actually play out then? From the beginning, Coleman speaks of "strategies and tactics employed" (p. 121). Power is no static element. It is a force that can be manipulated and wielded as if in contest. The situation of conflict manifests itself as the place where power is used. Those in conflict maneuver their power, whatever it may be, into positions of leverage. These maneuverings of power can be defensive or offensive. They can be cooperative or coercive. A lot is dependent on the availability of power given the social situation.

Here Coleman's description of potential power, or availability of power, is useful. He places the dynamics of power use in the context of resources. He writes frequently of "potential power," "resources for power," "tools available to influence one's environment," or "sources of influence." This calls attention to the situational factors surrounding the use of power. Power can only be used if there are available resources for its exertion. One cannot use a depleted resource. It is the situation, as Coleman sees it, that determines to a large extent what kind of and how many resources are available. For example, wealth is a resource. In a situation, one party may have wealth while the other does not. This may mean that the wealthy party has more resources at hand to influence the power dynamics. Wealth would be the potential pool that only one of the parties can use in conflict in this case.

Coleman's presentation aims at aiding the conceptualization of those who wish for a "constructive resolution" to conflict (p. 121). To this end, he designates a series of "principles of power-conflict dynamics" that are "grounded in the assumption that power differences affect conflict processes, which in turn can affect power differences" (p. 133). That is to say, in the exchange between various powers, changes occur. Yet the interaction itself is fraught with encouragements and constraints on the responses of participants. These encouragements and constraints come from all the factors -- the nature of power, the constituents of power, the personal and environmental influences on orientations toward power -- that he has outlined. His attempt is to synthesize all this information into effective principles. This is the point at which he turns his attention directly onto conflict. This essay will now present an understanding of his six principles through a critical interpretation of their validity.

Critical Analysis of Coleman's Principles

A first scruple has to do with the coherence of his essay, not his actual position, but it is important because it shows how he may not have achieved the aim of integrating power into conflict dynamics. There is what I perceive to be a disconnect between the sections on power and the section on power-conflict dynamics. When he switches to the latter section, some of his principles seem independent of the sections on power and not derived directly from the research he has cited. Take, for instance, his first principle. It is unclear how the relative deprivation theory is linked to the whole previous discussion. He begins the principle by citing a new model (relative deprivation theory) that had not been included in his summary of power views. In fact, the word "power" is not used at all in this section except in the title of the principle. One is left wondering if the principle is connected at all with the formulation of power given previously, and whether that formulation was even necessary for the statement of this principle. In other words, there is discrepancy immediately between the sections on power and the section on conflict. This is surprising given Coleman's insistence that the dynamics of power, which he takes so long to go through, are crucial for understanding the dynamics of conflict. Several other principles fall under the same criticism.

Coleman's first principle appears borne out historically. One can take it to assert that as soon as one underprivileged group gains more power, others will follow suit. The first group's power play ushers in a play by other groups to gain more power (based on the earlier group's lead). For instance, in the U.S., the success of the Civil Rights movement was followed quickly by a push from gay rights activists to achieve the same levels of political recognition and protection. One can add that it is possible to see these dynamics playing out interpersonally as well, although Coleman does not mention anything to this effect. For example, a younger brother who witnesses his older sister winning a more powerful position with respect to a domineering father might follow a similar path. He might study the sister's influence patterns and repeat them in his own efforts to win power with the father. The brother's experience of deprivation in comparison with his sister's (who is seen as similar in group membership, attitude, and values) is heightened, and that new awareness may issue in conflict.

However, a main criticism is that the principle leaves it up to the reader to decide how the environmental factors are related to the personal power orientations of the individual. Coleman does not clarify the complexity of the situation, which is unexpected since this is one of his primary goals. He does not show how the elements of power are related to deprivation theory. As a result, the principle loses explanatory credibility in his model. What would be necessary to elevate its status is a deeper discussion of how his new insertion of power components influences the environmental situation of conflict as described by relative deprivation theory.

The second principle is even less obviously accurate. The principle says: "obvious power asymmetries contain conflict escalation while power ambiguities foster escalation" (p. 134). The evidence for this view is taken from a historical analysis of European wars in the industrial era between powers of almost equal strength. What that research failed to look at were the many instances of populist conflict (e.g., Marxist revolutions) in which power asymmetries did not contain conflict but rather fomented it. This principle does not fit situations in which lower power groups rise up against higher power groups. On the contrary, it expects such uprisings not to occur. Therefore, it is not historically accurate. As a further counter-example, the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. (power ambiguities) led principally to propaganda wars and political posturing (as the principle suggests) but to very little actual conflict. The escalation was in large measure imaginary, not real.

Another troublesome aspect of the second principle is the conclusion drawn by Sidanius and Pratto that asymmetrical group status hierarchies are useful. This would border on masochistic if applied to situations of real oppression. It would seem another way of saying that conflict can and should be alleviated by keeping power differences in place. Based on this view, there should be no impetus for change in the status quo, no matter how oppressive the determining power structure is. For example, during colonialism in Africa, this view might have encouraged the colonized nations to maintain their status as dominated in the hierarchy rather than push for conflict. In fact, that happened among many of the upper class Africans in governing positions who resisted revolt prior to the 1970s, but who ultimately lost out to more revolutionary social elements. The imbalance of power was thought ultimately to be better dealt with through conflict rather than containment. Therefore, the principle fails to reflect historical reality in those conditions, and in fact demonstrates a potential Western bias. Contradicting this principle, many colonized people rose up in armed conflict against their imperial rulers despite the fact of power imbalance. The hierarchy did not act to mitigate conflict.

The third principle -- "sustainable resolutions to conflict require progression from unbalanced power relations between the parties to relatively balanced relations" (p. 134) -- appears to contradict the second. Like the first principle, it has little relation to Coleman's previous discussions of power and presents entirely new research in its support. More importantly, it presents a four-stage progression of conflict relations (conscientization, confrontation, negotiation, sustainable peace) that relies on the presupposition of the imbalance (asymmetry) of power. Conflict stems from this injustice, which the second principle would not predict. Further, it incorporates the notion of relative deprivation. Where the principle falters is in Coleman's failure to link it to his previous discussion of power. He does not make clear how, for example, personal orientations to power influence the outcome of these sorts of conflicts.…[continue]

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