Introduction to Political Science PART 2 – Types of Power

In the previous post, we learned that politics is the process of deciding who gets what, when, and how. Today we’re going to have a look at power – political power. 

When there are conflicts of interest, people use power to get what they want. Political scientist Steven Lukes has identified three dimensions (or parts or facets) of power. In this lesson we will analyze his three dimensions of power and think about how power functions in politics. 

Coercion

The first dimension of power is coercion or coercive power. Coercive power is the most direct form of power. This kind of power uses threat of force. Coercive power may or may not be constitutional and lawful, but coercive power is able to force people to obey. The military or police is an obvious example of coercive power.

For example, we can imagine that Mr. Suzuki is a senior member of the prefectural assembly. He wants to budget 500 million yen to build a trash incinerator in a small town because his friend, Mr. Ono, is the president of a company that makes trash incinerators. (An incinerator, by the way, is a machine that burns garbage. Some of them are not very environmentally friendly.) Ms. Kobayashi is a junior member of the assembly and lives in the small town. She opposes the trash incinerator because it will cause pollution. Mr. Suzuki tells her that if she does not vote for the budget, he will not support her in the next election. If Ms. Kobayashi votes for the trash incinerator because of Mr. Suzuki’s threat, then Mr. Suzuki has coercive power. 

Manipulation

Another dimension of power is called manipulation or manipulative power. This is the most effective form of political power. In fact, political manipulation is so effective because the public doesn’t notice it; people do not realize that they are being manipulated. Propaganda is one of the most effective forms of manipulative power.

For example, King of Country A says to his poor citizens, “Our economy is bad because Country B is attacking us!” The citizens believe that Country B is causing the bad economy. The King says this because he does not want the citizens to know that the real problem is his management, not Country B. 

Persuasion

Political influence or persuasion is a more complex form of political power. Political scientist Richard Perloff defines political persuasion as a process of trying to convince other people to change their attitudes or behavior on political issues. In democracies, the media, the wealthy, interest groups, and the opinions of the electorate all have political influence. Religious groups and important families may also have a key influence on government decisions.

For example, large student demonstrations for gun control sometimes influence presidential campaigns in the U.S. Statements from religious group leaders such as the Pope often have strong political messages to stop human rights violations in the world. 

Because people have different interests, there are conflicts in society. When those conflicts are about who gets what, when, and how, they are political. There are three dimensions of power we learned in this video. The first dimension is coercive power. It is getting people to think or do things that they do not want to do by threatening them. The second dimension is manipulation. It means getting people to do what you want without them necessarily knowing. The third dimension of power is persuasion. This means convincing people to think or do what you want.   

So, which type of power do you think is the best? 

Lukes, S. (2021). Power: A Radical View (3rd ed.). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Perloff, R. (2003). The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century (2nd ed.), Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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