Sources of Power: a brief note (instead of a long blog)

Earlier this week I wrote a lengthy blog which set out the argument that when analysing and seeking to understand power and power relations (and who has it and why) particularly from the perspective of decision/policy making (i.e. who gets what, when and how – which is what public policy essentially boils down to) we see power operating across three dimensions: decision making, non-decision making (sometimes also referred to as ‘agenda setting’), and as a “deep” structure that conditions decision making through such features as ‘social myths, language, and symbols and how they are manipulated in power processes.’

I also mentioned that various typologies of ‘bases’ or sources of power have been developed over the decades. These have frequently been put together by authors who have a particular interest in power and power relations in organisations, not least because ‘Power and influence make up the fine texture of organisations….’ As Charles Handy succinctly put it in Understanding Organisations way back in 1976.

Handy usefully went on to point out the distinction between power and influence – one worth keeping in mind when discussing the subject: ‘Influence is the process whereby A seeks to modify the attitudes or behaviour of B. Power is that which enables him to do so.’ Or in the language of my earlier blog, power is possession of a capacity to act. That is, a source of power.

No doubt many of us have our own ideas about what constitutes a source or base of power. So, building on from Handy’s work I thought it might be useful to share an example of a typology, also taken from a highly influential book on organisations – Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization (2006). Morgan’s typology is useful because it is immediately obvious that many of these sources of power apply more widely than simply in the context of an organisation. As such this is a list that serves as a useful starting point for any exploration and discussion of power and power relation in pretty much any setting. Note however, that this is a list of sources of what is usually referred to a ‘social’ power. To this we can add sources of economic and military power, and so on.

  • formal authority
  • control of scarce resources
  • use of organisational structure, rules and regulations
  • control of decision processes
  • control of knowledge and information
  • control of boundaries
  • ability to cope with uncertainty
  • control of technology
  • interpersonal alliances, networks, and control of ‘informal organisation’
  • control of counter organisations
  • symbolism and the management of meaning
  • gender and the management of gender relations
  • structural factors that define the stage of action


  1. Peter May -

    I’m struck by how well religion used to have all those covered.
    I’m secondly struck by how the ‘economy’ is now in so many respects its successor.
    To me both things are human constructs and we now need to grasp that power can be bottom up as well…

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    I had to smile at your first remark, Peter. Not for nothing Marx’s comment on the subject.
    On your last point about power being bottom up, yes. But many years ago now when I worked with academics in the Netherlands I came across some work on what were then referred to as ‘political opportunity structures’. In a nutshell, how open a political system was to influence from various actors/stakeholders. You won’t be surprised to learn that the UK was near the bottom. I’d had it in mind to blog on this some while ago. I might now return to it I’ve started on the subject of power.

    1. Geoff Plant -

      I hope you do Ivan. It’s an interesting and elusive subject.

    2. Peter May -

      As you say – but the finance sector manages a lot of undue influence (mind you I suppose they’re hardly at the bottom!) I always think that is as they’ve been doing it since 1694 because the BoE charter was originally granted I think for 3 years and then another 3 then 4 or 5 and so on…

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        Indeed it does, Peter. And in this country more than many others, and not unrelated to the history of the City of London, of course, which bills itself as the ‘oldest continuous municipal democracy in the world.’ – or used to. And the City gained great power and influence from its control of a scarce resources much sought after by monarchs: money, or to be more precise funds to support and pay for their policies at home and overseas. We still live with that legacy today, of course, though now much of the exercise of power by the City is via the third dimension of power.

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