2020-03-07

A Practitioner's Science of Power

You can’t do good sociology or political theory without reference to power. You probably can’t even do ethics or philosophy without reference to power. Power is a fundamental force of real social science.

The most important feature of a theory is that it be useful, especially for the biggest and most important problems. Physics can build better artillery, atom bombs, and microchip computers. Systems engineering can take us to the moon and build affordable automobiles. A complete theory of power should be able to build the spectacularly impressive social technology of a highly functional society.

What is best and most functional depends on your perspective. If you are oppressed, what is best is making power go away. If you are powerful, what is best is keeping your power and using it to accomplish your goals. If you are stuck under a ruling class that is unwise or badly organized, what is best is being able to help them to wisdom and order.

For the first of these, there is Alinsky, who teaches the oppressed how power works, and how to get it. His work is indispensible for people interested in the theory of power. But for truly useful and important impact, a theory of power needs to be useful to the very powerful, and those who advise them. Just like engineering theory is most useful to people with access to steel, energy, and machine tools, a theory of power is most useful to the powerful. They can do the most with it, because they actually have the power.

A theory of power that is useful to a wielder of power would answer the practical questions. What power is, how to get it, how to keep it and organize it, and how to use it to accomplish goals. That is, we are approaching our study of power primarily from the perspective, and for the benefit, of the owner of that power.

Which is not to say that we should not examine power from the other end as well. Social relations, including power, are two sided or more, and it is best to understand all perspectives.

But ultimately the gains will come from a practitioner’s science of power. I have said previously we need an engineering-grade science of social technology. Power being so central to social technology, this is nearly the same thing.