More Notes on Piven and Cloward’s (2005) Discussion of Power Resources

Piven and Cloward (2005) discuss power resources.  “…it is perhaps the most important dispute in the discussion of power.  What are to be regarded as power resources?” (36)

Distributional approaches:
Weber: “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation” (as cited in Wrong 1979:23).

Collins (1975):  “the resources for conflict are complex,” comprising just about everything

Dahl (1961): “anything that can be used to sway the specific choices or strategies of another individual”

Oberschall (1973): “anything from material resources… to nonmaterial resources”

Giddens (1985): allocative vs. authoritative resources

Etzioni (1968): utilitarian/material resources vs. normative/symbolic (see also Gamson 1968)

Tilly (1978): economists’ factors of production

Mills (1956): occupation of key positions/”command posts.”

One kind of resource can be used to gain another.

Piven and Cloward: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (37).

Key resources are not widely distributed, but are concentrated at the top of the social hierarchy (37). 

Yet, those at the lower end do still influence social change.  How?

Interdependent relations, or interdependency approach: 

Piven and Cloward:  “the effective exercise of power in electoral representative institutions… does not result simply from a general currency of things or traits and the pattern of their distribution but rather depends on the specific relationships that make particular things or traits useful and important.”  (38).

“…in addition [to disembodied attributes, resources for power] are derived from the patterns of interdependence that characterize all social life” (39). 

“People have potential power, the ability to make others do what they want, when those others depend on them for the contributions they make to the interdependent relations that are social life” (39).

Power is embedded in interaction.  Power resources – or, rather, what are considered as power resources – are dependent on the interactional context.  “Control over capital is an effective resource for exercising power over others because those others are already entangled in a system of economic relations that makes them dependent on entrepreneurs for the means of production and subsistence” (39).

The exception is force – either the threat or actual physical force.  This is an important and possibly far-reaching exception, as force is embedded in many social interactions. 

The basic assumption is that actors are equal in the power relationship.

Giddens (1984): “much of day-to-day interaction is routine and is subject only to reflexive monitoring and rationalization” (34).  Piven and Cloward: “most of the time, people only try to make their everyday lives.  They do not try to make history” (41).

These interactional contexts in which power arises are in “the systems of interdependence that constitute societies” (40).  Systems are plural: “A web of complex networks of political, economic, and cultural interdependencies has to be analyzed if the actual potential for power by different participants in these networks is to be deciphered” (41).

The interdependency approach shares intellectual terrain with “exchange theorists.”  Power is “an attribute of relationships,” not of social actors.  They criticize Blau’s theory that power imbalances are the result of asymmetrical contributions to needed things:  employers have more power because they supply the jobs and those with less power have less to contribute to whatever is needed.  “Needed services” contributions… but landowners, do they contribute more than the workers who build the estate?  How is this measured?  P&C accuse Blau of justifying—even morally – power imbalance.

But if equality of contributions is inherent in mutual, interdependent relationships, why is the distribution of economic and status resources unequal?  Why don’t people use the potential power embedded in these interactions?

Value of contributions cannot be measured, and is therefore not the answer.  There are seven reasons why participants do not exercise their potential power:

1.  Consciousness: “people must recognize their potential power before they can act on it.”
2.  Coordination: in circumstances of collectivities, action requires coordination across similarly situated actors (as opposed to husband and wife relationships).
3.  Staying power: “power seekers must be able… to tolerate the costs” of acting.
4.  Control over supply of alternatives: “power seekers” must be able to prevent the other parties from going around them, circumnavigating them, to get what they want (via scabs, etc.).
5.  Exit: “contenders do not respond to challenges by simply exiting… or threatening to exit” (43) the relationship.
6.  Third-party leverage: “power seekers must be “free from constraints” from another, third party, that could intervene (e.g. courts intervening in labor disputes, e.g. Reagan firing the air-traffic controllers.
7.  Force:  power seekers must be free from threat or use of physical force.

“Social rules inhibit the activation of interdependencies and hence restrict the wide exercise of power” (43).

“Rules… [specify] the behaviors that are permissible by different parties in interdependent relations” (44).  Only certain rules are of interest: those that have direct bearing on power exercise.  The system of interdependencies, i.e. the context in which power interactions operate, include “rules” which legitimate “the actions available to some contenders while delimiting the actions available to others” (44).

Key to P&C’s theory is the legitimation of power exercise.  Legitimation is institutionalized, embedded in institutions that organize social life, such as law, policy.  Focus of power struggles is over rules—their legitimacy and their enforcement.  Once rules are legitimized, power interactions are characterized as being one-sided because the power seekers who attempt to break the rules no longer have legitimate means of challenging other parties. 

The role of the state is to formulate, impose and enforce the rules.

Agency in P&C’s approach:  They go back and forth on the constraints of social structure and the capacity of people to think and act beyond the constraints of social structure.  Because people are reflexive, they have the capacity to transcend constraints of social structure.  Reflexivity can therefore change the dynamic of power interactions, enabling rule breaking.


Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward.  2005.  “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power” pp. 33 – 53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization edited by Thomas Janoski, Robert Alford, Alexander Hicks, and Mildred A. Schwartz.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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