Poor Richard’s Theory of Power

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A post on the  blog “Understanding Society” titled “Lukes on Power” got me to thinking.

The article and comments about theories of power in society were interesting but unsatisfying, and prompted me to formulate “Poor Richard’s Theory of Power”:

Dimension 1, Quality: I’m inclined to break power down into four categories: coercive,  manipulative, cooperative, or altruistic–with each of those categories having various tactical subdivisions.

Dimension 2, Quantity: In most cases the effective amplitude of power (or capability) is a function of physical and intellectual resources vs constraints.

Dimension 3, Configuration: Since there can be many actors in a “situation” or scenario, power can be exerted from multiple sources towards multiple targets, creating networks and “field effects”. You can get power “oscillations” and binary “trigger” effects that work like analog radio signals and/or computer logic circuits.

I think this gives a fairly rich framework for modeling power. At least, that’s the way 30 years of systems analysis practice leads me to think about it.

Poor Richard

“A dollar is nothing more than a claim to a unit of authority, and one which has been cleverly dissociated from the concept of power.”Alerik Hoeh

“Freedom is [qualified] participation in [qualified] power.” Cicero (slightly updated).  Qualifiers = just, humane, democratic, etc. Unqualified power is corrupt, abusive, addictive, seductive, etc.


2 Responses to “Poor Richard’s Theory of Power”

  1. Lori Says:

    In French, puissance is “that which is measured in watts,” while pouvoir is “that which corrupts.” In English, we have one word (“power”) for both these things, just like we have one word (“free”) for “gratuit” (free as in beer) and “libre” (free as in speech). I’ve always thought it fortuitous, and not unfortunate (or even ironic) that “free” has those dual meanings, which are not so dual after all–“freedom from want” encapsulates both freedoms. Your third dimension of power sounds almost like something that could be measured in watts, or perhaps metered out in kilowatt-hours.

    I hope you’re well.

    • Poor Richard Says:


      As usual, good food for thought. Of course, a schematic wiring diagram (if one existed) of the actual socio-economic “power grid” would be a closely guarded secret.

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