The word power lies at the center of a semantic field that includes authority, influence, coercion, force, violence, manipulation, strength, and so on. We use these terms all the time in everyday talk and generally know what we mean. And yet scholars endlessly debate their definition. Such contests matter because how we think about power can have momentous consequences. For example, voters may choose among candidates on the basis of which one they see as stronger, and what counts as strong will derive from what they think it means to be powerful.
At its most general, power simply means the capacity to bring about outcomes. It is important to avoid two fallacies. The first is the exercise fallacy: this occurs when we equate power with its exercise as when we define power as wining, as achieving success in decision making, or as prevailing over others. The desire to make the concept of power operational can lead to this fallacy, but power is dispositional concept: it names a potentially that may never be actualized.
The second fallacy is the vehicle fallacy which occurs when we equate power with the means or resources of power. Sociologists sometimes identify power with wealth or status, and military analysts sometimes measure it in terms of military forces and weaponry. But as the USA discovered in Vietnam and Iraq, having the means of power is not the same as being powerful.
In social and political contexts, we typically attribute power to agents when we hold them responsible for bringing about significant outcomes. This can be straightforward when both agent and outcome are specified. But we often want to know how to locate power. We also want to assess its impact. Such inquiries attribute causal responsibility to the supposedly powerful when they exercise their power, and also moral, political, legal, or historical responsibility that identifies them as accountable in some way for the consequences of their power. They also attribute...