The theory of Social Power rests on a simple foundation: humans have needs and are driven to fulfill those needs. The amount of control that a person (A) has over another person’s (B) needs divided by the amount of control that person (B) has over person (A)’s needs is how much Social Power person A has over person B. As you add more people into the equation it gets much more complex and may be very difficult to express.

Needs form the basis of the theory of Social Power. A complete understanding of the types and characteristics of human needs are necessary to extrapolate how this translates into Social Power.

Humans have many needs and people have studied and theorized about this for centuries. Needs fall into two basic categories: needs that are required for a person to survive (basic needs) and keep living and needs that drive us but that we can live without (non-basic needs). Basic needs also have an order to them in that they have to be satisfied within differing amounts of time. The less time within which they have to be satisfied, the more basic the need (and the greater the power if another person has control of that need).

Need Time until death
Air ~1 minute
Water ~3 days
Food ~20 days
Warmth varies based on climate
Dryness varies based on climate
Sanitation varies based on conditions

Beyond basic needs we could use person x’s catalog of human needs. How important these needs are to each person may vary over a wide distance. Some people may have a very strong need for companionships, while others for a sense of belonging in society, and yet others with a strong need for purpose in life.

All needs are mediated through feelings. We know about our various needs through the feelings we have about them, both positive and negative. For example, we have the feeling of hunger when we need food, and the feeling of satisfaction when we are eating.

One aspect that is very important, but often overlooked, is on the influence and thus the power of ideas. Ideas have power in people because ideas are integrated as parts of people’s egos. The more deeply that they are integrated, the more effect that they can have on that person if those ideas are supported or attacked by another person. Ideas act like magnets in that encourage idea alignment between people. When people agree on an idea, they reinforce each others attachment to an idea. The both get a good feeling. When people disagree on ideas, feelings get hurt and it makes it harder for people to get along. Over time, people will either tend to agree, or some topics will not be talked about or people will go their own ways.

Another important aspect has to do with planning how we meet our needs. When we plan on how we are going to meet our needs we have a hierarchy of plans. At the first level are plans to meet our most basic needs. Once we are satisfied that our basic needs will be met, then we can think about how our less basic needs can be met. In both cases, however, we are reliant on information about world around us to make these plans.

All of us have a conceptual world view of how the world functions. This involves an understanding of what events cause certain outcomes. From a young age this world view is built up as well as our ability to make plans inside that world view to get our needs met. We change or stick to our plans based on information that we first get from our own senses, secondly from our immediate circle of people that with live with, work with and interact with daily, and then lastly from information we obtain from media that we consume such as newspapers, radio, TV and the internet. Information that conflicts with our world view is often discarded and information that is aligned with our world view is often readily accepted.

The plans we make and the actions we take are very much informed by what we did in the past. If it worked in the past, then we are apt to believe it will work in the future. It is when our plans stop working (at meeting our needs) that our world views are more open to change. This is not to say that even in the face of failing plans, that people’s world views easily changed. Our world views are just sets of ideas about the world and how it works and thus they form a part of our identity. Giving up a part of our identity is hard to do and causes negative feelings. Those negative feelings fight against negative feelings of not getting other (possibly more basic) needs met.

In a rapidly changing complex environment involving millions of people, humans have a need for information to keep meeting their needs. Control over what information is available to what people can be a great source of social power.

Control of Information

When people lived in small groups who hunted and gathered, most everyone is a tribe had roughtly equal access to information on which survival depended. Though due to ritual and social roles, some sub groups of people (women, children, men, warriors), may be denied information available to others. As long as there are common ideas (norms) within that society about this, then this information can be kept successfully separate from the groups of people that aren’t supposed to know about these.

As societies moved on to more centralized societies with more people in one place and with  a hierarchy in place to coordinate the actions of people, information flow became more segmented. The hierarchy of course had an interest in controlling the flow of information in a way that would perpetuate their power but still allow the crops to grow and surpluses to accrue since their power depended upon that. Information flowed by the use of official scribes, public monuments and ceremonies where officials of the hierarchy could address many people at once with their view of the world.

The heart of this idea is that there is an ideal view of our maturation process from being born until we are adults. As we age, we are more and more responsible for our actions. If we perform actions that are good in the eyes of society, then we are rewarded. If we perform actions that are bad, then we are punished.

It seems like a fairly simple concept that most people would agree with: If it do something good, then reward me. If I do something bad, then punish me. None of us like to be punished, but we are apt to accept it as how things need to be if we are to live together in a society. What really makes people angry is to see that some actions for some people are treated differently than for other people. Unequal treatment is often treated as unfairness. However, society often creates roles that justify unequal treatment so that unequal treatment becomes the norm and even those being treated poorly accept it.

Beyond unequal treatment for similar acts, there is the glaring exception to treatment for acts which is inheritance. This involves many aspects, some of which are quite familiar. The receipt of an inheritance of wealth when an ancestor to someone dies is a very common example that everyone is familiar with. None the less it is still reward for being born as a descendant of that person and nothing else.

Less common aspects of inheritance involve having dedicated and loving parents as opposed to mean and neglectful or absent parents. We all wish that every child could have the first type and not the second, but that is often not how it works out.

Societal inheritances can span many different areas like agreements between groups of people that are long dead and perpetuate power differences that were in place at the times of the agreements. When war and conquest allow the capture of land and the signing of treaties ceding that land, then the decedents of the warring parties are bound to live by these terms (even though they may not have even been born at the signing of the treaty).

Colonialism is a great example of inheritance of a complex set of rules and relationships between two sets of people that even persist beyond the end of the colonial era. Countries were created during the colonial era that had little to do with ethnic boundaries at the time of their creation and more to do with the jockeying of imperial powers. Traditional economies were totally destroyed and the colonized population’s economies were integrated into the colonial power’s economies. Even after independence, the formerly colonized population’s economies were still dependent on their former colonizers. Much of Africa today is still organized around cash crops and resource extraction just like they were during colonial days. These patterns still prioritize the needs of outsiders over the needs of local people.

During the colonization process, some groups of people were made to be elites by the colonizers to do their biding which set up either continued dominance by those groups or resentments that could during into wars or even genocide. The Rawandan genocides roots go back to the elevation of the Tutsi’s over the Hutu’s when it was a Belgian colony. These “ethic” differences persist long past when these distinctions were first made.

So as you can see inheritance covers a lot of topics. Some of us in life are privileged by our inheritances and some of us are drowned by them. If you are an orphan in a poor area of a poor country, you are literally drowned by it. If you are born the child of Bill Gates, you have privilege beyond reason. Each child enters this world as a wonder of possibility and beauty. Each one everywhere deserves as much of an equal chance at life as any other and there is no moral argument that I can think of to justify anything else.

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