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Social power and social causation

20 January, 2016 - 15:59

Since the actions of others can affect our satisfaction, one thing that we desire may be to get these other people to act in certain ways. Social power is our ability to get another person to act as we desire.

Three kinds of social power can be distinguished. Metaphorically, we can call them the power of the pen, the power of the sword, and the power of the purse.

The power of the pen grows out of our ability to say and to refrain from saying things. Of course "pen" is only a convenient metaphor. Under modern conditions it includes the power of the typewriter, the microphone, and the camera.

We can employ pen-power overtly to persuade others to do what we want. We may try to convince them that they will like the consequences of the action we have prescribed or to convince them to change their values so that consequences already expected will be attractive.

The power of the pen can also be used covertly, although the exact boundary between overt persuasion and covert manipulation is unclear. Manipulation clearly includes cases in which the power of the pen is used negatively. For example, if we delay sending a message to someone until it will be too late for him to react in a way we disfavor, that is manipulation rather than persuasion.

The power of the pen is vitally important in politics. It is not always true that the pen is mightier than the sword, but this old saying still has some validity. The power of the sword may prevail in the short run, but decisions about using it are based on ideas which have been propagated by the pen.

The power of the sword is based on our ability to act so as to reduce the attainments of another person so that they are less than they would have been if we had taken no action at all. Diagramming the other individual's satisfaction with the aid of a "number line", point 0 marks that individual's satisfaction in the absence of any action at all on our part:


Our action reducing his satisfaction down to point L, which we will call a sanction, is social power in the following sense: He may be willing to take an action desired by us, an action which will increase our satisfaction, if we will refrain from the action which would lower his satisfaction down to point L.


As we will see, sanctions, the power of the sword, are the distinctively political form of social power.

The power of the purse, conversely, comes from our ability to refrain from doing something that another person would like us to do. Such actions, which we will call inducements, increase the attainments of another person so that their satisfaction is greater than it would have been in the absence of any action at all on our part:


On the diagram, such an action increases the other person's satisfaction from point 0 to point M.

Social power is exerted by inducements because the other person may be willing to do what we want in order to get us to do what he wants. Inducements, the power of the purse, are the distinctively economic form of social power.

The following table summarizes the three types of social power (as shown in Table 2.1):

Table 2.1 Types of social power





Other terms







Nature of thing

done or not done


destructive action

productive action

Name of action

pure persuasion








It should be noted that it is not meaningful to say that social power causes the actions taken by another person. Rather social power causes possibilities and impossibilities for other people, it manipulates the circumstances within which they are deciding how to act. A drawbridge operator who lowers the bridge into position makes it possible for us to cross that bridge. But lowering the bridge does not cause us to cross it, and indeed we may choose not to do so. If we do drive across the bridge, this actualizes the possibility, but the action, as distinguished from its possibility, is not caused by the bridge operator.