Monday, April 19, 2010

Power Within Situations: Warning - This Post May Make You Think!!!!

Another person and I are leading a class in a 45 minutes structured discussion tomorrow. Her topic is violence against women and I am analyzing power through the theoretical framework of Symbolic Interactionism (SI). This is my opening statement, I'm opening with the question for them to lightly discuss and then I'm diving into the theory. I thought some of you might enjoy reading and thinking about this and I would love to hear your reactions/thoughts. My big question, though, is does this all make sense? Am I explaining it in a way that is understandable?

How would you define power, either institutionally or interpersonally? What causes someone to have power?

According to Symbolic Interactionism power is the ability to define the situation, define others' roles within a situation, or to reject the definitions imposed upon oneself. SI looks at all social structures and social actions as interactions between individuals in which all parties involved play the part of an actor and an observer. In other words a person does something, as an actor, and then they observe the situation, their own actions as well as the actions and reactions of others, this then leads into their next social action. The observations and actions that people make are in the context of the definition of the situation and the understanding of one's role within that situation, and these definitions and roles can change at any point throughout the interaction.

A perfect example of these things is a classroom. You walk in and there is a framework that you act within. This is a classroom, you are to sit down, at a certain point a professor will walk in and start to teach the class. Now imagine that you enter a class midway through the semester and all of the students are sitting at their desks. Your definition of the situation from previous experience causes you to expect that your professor will walk in about 3 minutes before class, get ready, and then lecture. Your role, and the role of your fellow classmates, is to sit and wait. Now imagine that 3 minutes till the start of class your professor isn't there. You may start to wonder why and perhaps come to the conclusion that they got stuck in traffic on the way, or maybe they had a meeting that ran late. Your definition of the situation has just changed, and your actions within that definition may change as well. You may pull out a book to read until the professor gets there, or you may get frustrated that class will start late, or you may lean over to the person next to you and see if they know what's going on. After 3 minutes class should now be starting. At this point, one of the students in the front of the classroom gets up and says that your professor will not be coming to class today because something came up and that they, this student, will be teaching the class instead. You now have an alternate definition of the situation presented to you, as well as an alternate role for someone in that situation. You have a choice now, will you accept their definition and role or will you reject it? If you sit and listen, then that person has now exerted power over you by forcing their definitions onto you, but if you get up and walk out because you don't want to hear a lecture from a fellow student, then you have exerted power by rejecting these definitions.

Now, obviously this example is made to starkly display the concepts, but if you start to see life in this way you realize that there is something to it. Many people have criticized SI because they say that it can only handle concepts related to everday interaction, such as the above example, but this can also help us to understand institutional power. Consider laws, they are nothing more than definitions of situations and of roles within those situations. But you see, power is not just forcing definitions onto others, it is the ABILITY to do so. So one is in power when they have some advantage that others do not that allows them to change others definitions, and even enforce those definitions. This leads us back to the topic of violence, because it can be seen that often violence is an attempt to get someone to do something that they don't want, or to maintain one's own definitions when others have rejected them. Violence is a form of power, an ability to project one's own definitions of the situation and other's roles within the situation, used in every day interaction.

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