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Sociological approaches to power and/or social inequality

An eye-catching definition of power made by Pittacus claimed that a man can only be measured by what he does with the power (Little, 2013, p. 513). Subsequent statement of Lord Acton declares that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Little, 2013, p. 513). Laic version of power is that it is an ability to make people do what you want them to do. However, democratic world we live in proclaims that power lies in the hands of all people, but the truth might lay somewhere further from this ideal. Power might be considered a key to better life, success, freedom, right of choice or a rescue from being taken advantage of.

Moreover, one of the most detailed work and interesting asset was made by French sociologist Michel Foucault. His explanation of power states that it can be easily interchanged with knowledge. Except the unconditional relation of power/knowledge, Foucault introduced characteristics of power, like that it is neither a thing nor a capacity and nobody can own it, because its a reaction, which exists only if it is exercised, hence, put into action (Foucault, 1982). Besides, Foucault adds that this relation can only work if power is exercised over free subjects (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 98). His studies also refer criticism to more traditional models, because of his understanding of power as not an oppressing force used against individuals or social classes, but his definition of power as a productive (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 99). The main principle of not combining power and oppression is built on the belief of the sameness of power and knowledge and its ability to generate cultural order (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 99).

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Foucault research was also targeted on the special type of power, which is disciplinary power, that used to be represented since feudalism times by kings, priests or fathers (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 100). Their power was coming from sacred right, public appearances, ceremonies and traditions (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 100). By Foucault words can be discipline power in modern world referred to technology, which is capable of keeping someone under surveillance, controlling his actions and feats, forming his mind and improving him in a way to become his best version (O’Farrell, 2006, p. 100).

The implementation of discipline power made Foucault to a Panopticon theory, which is based on the principle of central inspection (McMullan, 2015). The usage of it varies from school, factories, hospitals to prisons. The basic structure of the building is constructed as a central tower surrounded by cells (McMullan, 2015). Tower shines bright light so person in tower can see everybody, but people in the cells cannot see anyone in the tower and that gives them a feeling of constant monitoring (McMullan, 2015). Even though Foucault implements panopticon on CCTV (McMullan, 2015), strait connection can be found in relation of panopticon and IT. The Internet is used by masses, which share their data and use social media. Popularity of misused data cases raised the awareness of this danger internationally. Despite the knowledge of the danger of losing own identity, being watched persistently and possible abuse of the personal data, majority of the population does not have lasting fear of such consequences and keep their routine and vulnerable online behaviour. Although, there is the similarity of tower in panopticon and the hackers or state IT workers, the cause of people’s change in behaviour was the direct feeling of being watched. So, as long as it is not a visible threat for users to be constantly watched through the lens on their computers, the expectation, that people will realize the discipline power that somebody, who might be sitting on the other side of their computers has, is naive and starry-eyed.

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Slightly different yet most common definition of the concept of power was made by sociologist Max Weber. He defines power as “an ability to achieve desired ends despite the resistance of others” (Little, 2013, p. 514). This relation between powerful and resistant ones usually leads to the permanent domination (Little, 2013, p. 514). The Weber’s definition might be applied variously causing the political or economical power exercising on any type of community from family to government.

One example of his approach to power was made by Canadian government and other governments of Allied forces, which tried to cease Iranian development of nuclear weapons by imposing sanctions on their government and held NATO mission in order to abolish Taliban regime, entering Afghanistan in 2001 (Little, 2013, p. 514). Fortunately, some leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi proved brighter side of Weber’s approach, by not letting others intimidate their belief and made substantial positive change by using non-violent methods with their movements (Little, 2013, p. 515).

On the other hand, relation of power and worldwide situation of social equality has not made any significant progress. The weak condition of equality situation based on sexual orientation and gender identity is almost everywhere, e.g. in US, Somalia or Tibet, with the giant problematics dealing with serious crimes like culturally and publicly approved rapes or executions (Little, 2013, p. 303). This ignorance of the importance of ratifying the protection of people, who do not conform to traditional gender roles, the cultural and legal approval of such criminal actions against people with various sexual orientation is a clear example of the Weber’s definition of power (Little, 2013, p. 302). The power is visible as an ability of specific group, such as homophobes, which is realizing their own will in a communal action, abuses and harmful treatment of others in this case, even against the resistance of other participants, like the ones who are raped or executed as well as average people, who do not support this action but have no voice in decision making process.

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Both Foucault’s and Weber’s definitions of power are variable for their potentiality to be abused as well as used in a good manner. The biggest difference between concepts is in perceiving possibility of ownership of power and the relation of power with resistance to the others. Concerning a number of diverse approaches to power, it is inevitable to mention that all of them make power just as fire, salvation and fulmination at the same time.


Little, W. (2013). Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition. 1st ed.

McMullan, T. (2015). What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].

O’Farrell, C. (2006). Michel Foucault. London: SAGE. Chapter 8. Power and Culture

Foucault, M. (1982/2014). The Subject and Power, Afterword. In: Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow: Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Page 219.

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