On the Ambiguities of the Concept of ‘Power to’ in the Contemporary Theory of Power
The distinction between the concepts of ‘power over’ and ‘power to’ is one of the most discussed topics in the recent literature about power. ‘Power to’ is generally intended as a capacity, both potential or actual: it consists in what an actor is able to bring about. If power is the production of certain effects, it is a capacity which lies in the actor himself and does not imply the presence of any social others for its existence. ‘Power over’, instead, implies a definition of power intended as a relation between two or more actors. Many theorists have proposed interpretations of ‘power over’ concerned with the conflict between the actors involved. From Max Weber to the debate about “the three dimensions of power”, power is claimed to be held or exercised against the will of others. In this sense, the concept of ‘power over’ has often been identified as a relation of domination-resistance. In this essay I will propose a conceptual analysis of the difference between ‘power to’ and ‘power over’. I will base my presentation on Peter Morriss’ account of power as ‘power to’, typically regarded as one of the most exhaustive contemporary analytical understanding of the concept. Starting from a criticism to Morriss’ interpretation of power, I will question the appropriateness of the concept of ‘power to’ in the analysis of societies. In order to support a relational concept of power I will present some examples of ‘power to’ – either original ones or ones drawn from Morriss. As a conclusion, I will propose a reconciliation between the concepts of ‘power to’ and ‘power over’, which shall be regarded as complementary and not mutually exclusive parts of the concept of social power.