Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

In its social and political manifestation, power refers to the ability to influence, direct or control the behaviour of people.

explanatory context

Power may, for example, be in the hands of an individual in certain settings such as the family, may be exercised by corporations through control of the workforce, or through the state via the legal system. In some cases one country will exert power over another either by dint of economic pressure, colonisation, or the threat or actuality of military intervention.

analytical review

In The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills (1956) described power as follows:

By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. Noone, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he [sic] has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the powerful are, in the first instance, powerful. Higher politicians and key officials of government command such institutional power; so do admirals and generals, and so do the major owners and executives of the larger corporations. (Mills, 1956, p. 9).

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'power' in a very limited way as:

To Emerson, the potential cost that one actor can induce another to accept.

Godesky (2007) wrote:

An individual or group has social or political power when they are able to extract obedience from others. How is this made possible? While a respected elder or skilled rhetorician might be able to exert substantial influence, obedience is always the result of a monopoly on some essential of existence. Such essentials—food, shelter, water, etc.—all come down, in the end, to a question of energy. Ultimately, the root of all social or political power is the control of energy.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Power: The ability to exercise one's will over others.

Power elite: A term used by C. Wright Mills for a small group of military, industrial, and government leaders who control the fate of the United States.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines power as:

The ability to achieve aims or further the interests you hold even when opposed by others.

and defines power elite as:

According to C. Wright Mills the power elite are men in the highest positions of government, corporations and the military who hold enormous power in modern industrial societies

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section for some feminist discussion of power.

Critical Social Research Section 2.4 for an analysis of Mills' (1956) Power Elite.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Godesky, J., 2007, 'Power and energy', 18 January 2007, available at, accessed 15 May 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

Mills, C.W., 1956, The Power Elite, New York, Oxford University Press.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, 'not found' 1 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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