This Unit introduces us to the interrelatedness of the basic concepts in political science, power and authority. It has been found that these concepts are subjected to certain misinterpretation and abuses, especially, for non-political scientists. This Unit deals essentially with the 2 basic concepts: power and authority. The other 2 concepts: influence and legitimacy will be considered in the preceding section. It is important for you to know the distinction between these concepts.
Political scientists at times attempt to equate politics with power, authority, or conflict. No doubt, power holds a significant place among other concepts of politics. Harold and Margaret Sprout put it “Some concept of power underlies virtually every description of political interaction, domestic as well as international”. If politics has to do with state power then an adequate understanding of the concept of power is also crucial for an understanding of politics. Many argue that power is significant especially in the field of international politics, where moral and consensual factors seem to be much less important than they are in domestic politics. Power has assumed such lofty status in international politics that some writers view it as the field’s central concept (Hans Morgenthau). Power therefore is the sole centralizing and organizing concept in the study of politics.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to: get exposure on the basic concepts of power and authority in political science

· prepare how to apply the concepts of power and authority in analytical and critical writing;


3.1 The Concept of Power The concept of power can be developed based on human behaviour. What is power in behavioural terms? 

From the commonsense core meaning, it has to do with controlling or dominance over others. This is called an intuitive definition. Robert Dahl’s rigorous definition: “A has power over B to the extent that we can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”. Herbert Goldhamer and Edward A. Shills gave a similar definition: “A person may be said to have power to the extent that he influences the behaviour of others in accordance with his own intentions…” Power is a relational concept. In this case, we can say that one nation has power over another at the international level; at the domestic level if Senator A has more control in a committee in the senate, then it has power over its other members.
Power is the ability or capacity to modify the behaviour of a person either at the threat of deprivation or sanction for non-conformist for the policy intended. Dahl succinctly illustrates what power is based on, the old philosophical argument that an act cannot be morally good unless it goes against our inclinations or appetites. The point is that if B does something that A wants him to do, but B does not feel the action is in opposition to its interests, then A does not have power over B.

Generally, it is difficult to apply this analysis to all situations, because without the knowledge of the intentions of the political actors, then it might lead one to overlook manipulation, propaganda, and forms of sublimated aggression as influences. In international politics, a nation may claim that its actions are in accordance with the politics of another nation, are of its own free will, while they may really be the result of one of these less over forms of power.

It is emphasized that in our discussions of the elements of national power, including population, national resources, and military strength; it is not unusual to discover that military strength is power in international politics or that wealth is power in domestic politics. In the light of this,

it becomes clear that the assumption that the elements are significant because they allow a nation or a politician to control or influence others. In as much as one agree that power is not, the military strength; nor is it wealth. The contention is that a nation with great military strength is powerful because it has been discovered that influence and the ability to control are related to the possession of arms and soldiers.

It seems reasonable to develop a sound concept of power by adopting a behavouralistic approach to the study of political power. First, it is often assumed, that power involves control or influence, and that it is an activity. The possession of armed forces by nation A does not necessarily imply that they will be used to control or influence nation B. Although it is not in all cases that this situation can arise. At times the intentions or will of A may be different. To this extent a number of factors are necessary if power is to exist. These include the proper basis of power and the ability to use them (the lack of restraint upon them), which is all altogether might be labeled capability. Second, the powerful actor must have the will or desire to control the actions of others, or so it would seem.
Another situation that might cause us to question the claim that power can only exist if it is exercised is to imagine two contiguous nations, one with a large but inactive army, the other with no army at all. The existence of a nation’s A army may influence the behavior of nation B, even though it is never used. This is similar to the situation in domestic politics where the presidential veto power can have influence on the National Assembly, even though it is not employed or even mentioned. This brings to a clear picture of what can be termed behavioural power and potential power. It might be said that the possession of military forces by a nation and the right to veto to an executive are acts of power. Possession in these instances is behavioural. As Carl Friedrich described this situation as “rule of anticipated reactions”. It presupposes that often times a political actor will adjust its behaviour in light of what he thinks another might do (Friedrich 1963). It does not necessarily mean that mere possession is always power behaviour. It is necessary at this point to distinguish this type of situation from one where a nation has a substantial military force but demonstrates no desire or will to use it. We might therefore say that its force is not credible and has no influence on the behaviour of other nations. In this case, possession does not lead to power.

There is a causal connection in relationship with the acts be performed by both the influence and the influenced, and some contact or communication between them. Consequently, there is a direct correlation between the power of a nation and its contacts with other nations. In Isaak’s summation, “any acts of other states in accordance with nation A’s interests that cannot be traced to an act of A cannot be called manifestations of A’s power”.

In examining the acts of politicians or nations, it boils down to two basic issues whether power is a symmetrical or symmetrical relation. David Hume argued that all relations must be symmetrical; that is, all actions have reactions and thus, there can be no one-way causal connections. Thus, it must be recognized that many power actions generate feed- back. If nation A influences the behaviour of nation B, there is good chance that B will also influence A.

The conclusion therefore is that both capability and will are necessary ingredients of power situations, except in those cases when possession alone leads to influence and even in the latter case, credibility must be ascertainable.

It is instructive at this juncture to avert our minds to the fact that power is immeasurable. The mere understanding of the elements or bases of power do not provide the unit of measurement. Quincy Wright rightly observes that: “it is difficult to find any common measure by which one of these forms for exerting political and social power can be equated with others as is true of the physical concept of power measured in horsepower or watts”. The solution lies in the use of the activity of political actors as the basis of a common measure. Thus, the behavioural consequences of wealth and prestige could be compared using the case of a man with a net worth of $10 million and one with a prestigious family background. But it is difficult to compare a nation’s military force with another’s strategic position.

3.2 Types of Power Force:

 is the only one that involves physical activity, signifying an employment of visible resources.

Domination: is an inexact term, occurs when an actor makes explicit to others what he wants them to do. It can be seen that force and domination will usually occur together, with the former being used to back up the latter. Manipulation: is the attempt to influence behaviour without making explicit what the desired behaviour is. This calls for various actions that are much less easy to find and observe.

Distinction between power and others forms of political control-authority, manipulation, and influence. Power is based on the threat of severe sanctions; sanctions include such things as force,

economic boycotts, and support with or withdrawal of votes. While power often depends upon the threat of force, the two are not the same. When force is applied, power is no longer being exercised. A political leader has authority when others do his bidding because they accept his right to rule – he is, considered legitimate and does not need to employ power. One is manipulated when his behaviour is controlled without his knowledge through such a technique as propaganda. Influence identifies a situation where one person affects the behavior of another because the second respects the first; consider the case of a son whose respect for his father causes him to emulate his father.

3.3 Power in International Relations The assessment of power capabilities in international relations is fundamentally valuable as it would enable us to understand how it is wielded at that level of politics. Okwudibia Nnoli asserts that many attempts to exert power have foundered on the rocks of an incorrect assessment of the necessary capability. There are various elements that are used for the assessment of state power. These are grouped into two broad general types: the tangible resources and intangible resources. The tangible resources are quantifiable or can be assessed in concrete terms, while intangible resources are not quantifiable or made very concrete. In other words, they are essentially qualitative in character.

The tangible resources include the following:

Geography –
this makes reference to those facilities that accrue to a nation by virtue of its geographical location and characteristics. Landlocked states usually suffer severe limitations on their ability to wield power, while very mountainous territory is difficult to conquer and therefore, affects the power of the relevant states.

Territorial – this determines to a large extent the possibility of foreign military occupation; and the possibility of the penetration of state power to all sections of the population. In this sense, the bigger or larger a nation’s territory the more powerful it would be in a situation of foreign invasion, but the less powerful it would be controlling all its population.

National Resources – the natural resource endowment determine the limits of a nation’s power capability. The greater the natural resources at the disposal of a state, the greater its power capacity. This will make others to depend on it and may, therefore, be vulnerable to its influence. Alternatively, it may transform these resources into more potent instruments of force such as weapons of war.

Economic Strength – state power is related to a state’s economic viability. The level of industrialization is a clear indicator of economic viability. Therefore, those factors which contribute to industrialization are usually used for assessing economic strength such as per-capita income, technological advancement, etc. A highly industralised nation has the potential for military capability. This explains why countries of the Europe (Western and Central Europe) North America and Asia (Japan, China) are potential world powers.

Military Might – the exercise of state power is the use of armed forces of the state as instrument of international politics. The strength of a state’s armed forces is the most critical element in the power equation. The bigger and better the size of these forces the greater the power capability. Hence, a common way of assessing state power is to calculate the size of its army, navy and air force. However, the size of the armed forces is not enough indication of state power, the quality of the weapons is also important. The more sophisticated the equipment, the stronger the army and in most cases, it compensate for the size of the state like Israel with sophisticated equipment but very small in size.

Population – the larger the population of a state the greater its capability for state power. It is this fact that explains the importance and status of China in the world. Although, under severe condition of mass poverty, population becomes a constraint on state power.

Intangible resources are also important in determining national power. They include:

  1. The quality of national leadership and government or a ruling class that is riddled with corruption, selfishness, nepotism and indiscipline will be unable to harness the resources to the purposes of state power. 
  2.  The will to commit resources to the achievement of national goals – a government which is more willing to use force to achieve objectives will exert more power than one which is unwilling to do so. 
  3.  The morale, discipline, competence and overall quantity of the armed forces – it is argued that a large army with modern weapons that lacks competence, discipline, and morale will be largely ineffective. 
  4. The alliance potential of a state – the ability to unite one’s power capabilities with those of another state is a great asset to state power. 

The level of political consciousness amongst the citizens – the more politically conscious a society the easier it is for the state to mobilize

resources. A state that the citizens are apathetic finds it difficult to effective in power relation in which to other states. For this reason power is affected by those factors which affect social relations generally, such as interests, resources, perception, expectations, response, irrationality, personality factors, etc.

3.4 Critical Issues of Power a. Can Power be measured?

At times it becomes a controversial issue to talk about how powerful a nation is. A statement such as “The United States has more power than England” raises a question. An actor’s total power may be measured by the ratio of its successful power acts. Often times, the most probably proposition is that A is more powerful than B.

Robert Dahl’s conceptualization of influence and power relate with the ability to use power as action based but does not exist unless it is used. In other words, the elements of power would have no significance if politicians and nations did not act.

b. What are the Dimensions of Power?

Power is that non-divisible unit of energy, which is capable of causing a change in the actions of its victims in spite of the victim’s opposition to the change. The dimensions of power constitute its essential characteristics.

  1. Power has a good dimension when it is exerted with a view to the attainment of an objective and, therefore, exists when an objective has been achieved; 
  2.  It has a relational dimension. In other words, it is a social phenomenon rather than a legal one. There must be at least two individuals for power to occur. The one who exerts power is the subject of power, and the one over whom it is exerted is the victim of power. For instance, the Federal Government use the army to stop violence in Odi in Bayelsa State, air force bombing in the Niger-Delta area following the abduction of foreign oil expatriates. Usually, violence is applied only when other methods of exercising power have failed and the goal of power is so high that the subject does not mind the negative consequences of the use of violence. Like the situation in apartheid South Africa, the Africans can only change their intolerable situation through violence. 
  3.  Power has an Influence Dimension: By this we meant that power can induce a particular behaviour. Influence is that quality of power which has to do with the causation of a certain form of  behaviour by the subject on the victim. A influences B by causing him to change his actions in some ways. 
  4.  Power has a Situational Dimension: This means that power varies from situation to situation depending on the specific features of each, situation. For instance, power will vary depending on whether there are three people or two, whether the victim resists the subject of power or not, and whether the resistance is intense or not. The struggle for political power varies with the number of political parties seeking to form the government, the size of the followers of the political parties, and whether the parties are revolutionary or reformist. 
  5. Power has a Relative Dimension: This explains or depends whether or not a subject is able to wield power over a victim depends on the relative strengths of the subject and the victim in that specific situation. As their relative strengths change, the power equation between them also changes. It is this relativity dimension of power that is responsible for changes in the status of states in the international community. 
  6.  Power has an Instrumental Dimension: Power is not an end in itself although some have argued about the tendency for power to assume a dynamic of its own separate and different from the goal which it is meant to achieve. Power in this case is an instrument for achieving specific goals. Thus, dimension of power is that power as a means to some ends must be governed by those ends. 
  7.  Power as a need dimensions: The greater the need of one state, group or individual, the more likely it is that power will be exerted upon it by those on whom it depends for the satisfaction of the needs. 
  8.  Power as a responsiveness dimension: Power operates most effectively where there is low possibility of resistance by the victim. Thus, where a victim can resist the effort of the subject to wield power over him, it becomes more difficult for power effort to succeed, and consequently the character of power in that situation is affected. 
  9. Power as a capability dimension: This dimension refers to the availability of certain resource capacities for the exertion of power. Often power is equated exclusively with this capacity. This is a mistake because a subject may have overwhelming capacity and still be unable to exert power. A good example is the defeat of the Unites States, a superpower, by North Vietnam, a very minor power in the 1960s. 


Define Power and explain how it works in International Relations


What are the various dimensions of power?

c) How is power Exercised?

There are different ways in which power can be exercised at both domestic and international politics.

  1. Persuasion – the subject initiates or discusses a proposal with a victim with a view to convincing him of the rightness, correctness, or usefulness of his viewpoint. Persuasion has an element of influence, this means that the wielding of power is necessarily against the wishes of others or that the response of the victim must be either favourable or opposed to the subject’s goals. The victim’s mind may not have been made up in the first place and many have needed the initiative and prodding of the subject. 
  2. The Offer of Rewards – the subject promises to reward the victim if the latter agrees with his request. Such rewards may be of almost any type in domestic and international politics. They may vary from cash reward, support in voting situations, promise for a political appointment, or a contract, or promise to remove a previous sanction. 
  3. The Granting of Rewards – the victim may insist that the reward be actually granted before he can comply with the wishes of the subject. 
  4. The Threat of Punishment – the subject threatens to inflict some harm on the victim unless the latter behaves in accordance with his wishes. It could be threats of imprisonment, of sabotage, of withdrawal of funds, boycott of activities or even the use of force. 
  5.  The Infliction of Non-Violent Punishment – the subject actually carries out the threats, which do not involve the use of violent force or economic blockade. 
  6.  Command from a Person in Authority – the next unit will discuss extensively on authority. The commands issued by those in positions of authority lower in the hierarchy of authority in which that position exists. Thus, for example, the president can issue commands to those ministers and expect that they will implement these commands. This means that one way to exercise influence is to struggle to get into an authority position from where one come issue commands. This forms the basis for the struggle for political office. 
  7. The use of Force – the subject applies violence against the victim, a state attacks another militarily. The President elicits support for the application of state power and also to organize and harness the resources necessary to wield state power. 

3.5 The Utility of State Power

Power is very useful at both the domestic and in international politics. Although, we know that power is very useful in all social situations – such as the family, the classroom, etc. Power in politics, which is our major concern, is about state power. Politics is all about exercise, control and use of power. The state power is the most formidable and useful power. This explains why most wealthy people are never satisfied until they can control political power. State power is a very useful instrument to have and control. The desire to control, distribute and direct social, economic and cultural lives of the people testifys to the usefulness of state power. That is why people jostle, scheme and sometimes kill in an attempt to capture state power. One cannot maintain ultimate control without state power. State power is the basis of all security, all rights and privileges in a society, and the maintenance of any mode of livelihood.
In international relations the usefulness of state power is clearly demonstrated. This arises from the following:

  1. Sovereignty of States bestows to them unstrained units of power. Power is seen as an end itself and not a means to an end. This is because each state pursues its own security thereby creating insecurity. 
  2. The absence of international legal code or norms to regulate the behaviour of state in the use of state power leads to a vicious circle situation, since state can wield their power without serious thought to the negative consequences of their actions. 
  3. It is also reinforced by the weakness of world public opinion, which does not sufficiently restrain the state power as an instrument of policy. 
  4. The nature of the international system, which is based on the survival of the fittest, makes states to struggle in an attempt to get a fair share of the world’s resources. It is further reinforced by the conflict of ideologies during the hey days of Communism versus Capitalism. This situation at that time reduced the possibility of evolving understanding on major international issues. 

3.6 Authority Authority may be defined as that power associated with a hierarchy of human relationships, which enables those higher up in the hierarchy to command those lower in the hierarchy, and which compels those lower in the hierarchy to obey the commands of those higher up. Authority is predicated upon consent and not entirely by the use of force. Alan Ball defines Political Authority as the recognition of the right to rule irrespective of the sanctions the ruler may possess. Authority is the ability to compel obedience without necessarily the use of force. At times the exercise of authority could be based on justice. Obedience comes from justice or a combination of justice and force. On the contrary, disobedience may be as a result of what may be considered to be unjust. Authority is the legitimate use of power. It is simply put as the power in the garment of legitimacy – that is, power clothed with legitimacy. This authority is power with legitimacy. It is the power based on consent, voluntary – obedience, and persuasion. Nnoli has argued that it is incorrect to define authority as the right to issue commands and be obeyed. Authority is the power which is vested in a person because of his role and his office within the organization. The basis of the authority relationship lies in the fact that it is legitimate. The subordinate believes that the superior has the right to give such orders. Authority relationship may also be legitimized by certain traditions and customs which allow a person the right to issue authoritative decisions. In this case, the authority relationship may be a product of some body of rules such as the constitution of a country which allocates to the various arms of government certain responsibilities.

There are basic characteristic elements of the relationship of power which defines authority in structure. There are definite roles, responsibilities, privileges and resources which are allocated to those in that relationship. The structure is made up of a number of offices arranged in order of super-ordination and subordination which individuals occupy. The structure of power which characterizes authority is organized in the form of a pyramid of offices with the most powerful office at the apex of the pyramid and the least powerful offices at the base. The higher up the pyramid, the greater the power.

Political authority is that authority whose power derives from state power. Although, not all authority is political. Authority exists in all human organization be it the family, the church, School, etc. In politics, state power is organized as a system of authorities extending from the national level, through the regional level to the local level. Thus, in Nigeria, we have Federal, State and Local Government Authorities.

The constitution in modern government is the main source of state power. The constitution as the fundamental principles establishes what number of these authorities there should be, what the power relationship among them should be, how they are to be arranged hierarchically, what functions of these authorities are, and how conflict among and within them are to be resolved. Thus, it is the constitution that gives structure and permanence to state power.

3.7 Types of Political Authority

Authority essentially can be legitimate or illegitimate. A legitimate authority is that which operates through the prong of justice, and illegitimate authority is power that operates through force, or the threat of it. Nnoli argues that authority is often partly illegitimate: “it can rely on force and partly on justice”. However, Max Weber, a German sociologist provides three main typology of authority. These are: the traditional authority, the legal- rational authority and the charismatic authority.

Traditional Authority – is that hierarchical structure of power whose major claim for existence is that it has come down to the present from the past and, therefore, conforms to the customs and traditions of the people. In other words, the exercise of power is based on a form of rule or custom and tradition which has been in existence for a long time. Such body of rules and customs confer on persons or institutions or families preferences to rule others. Their people repose faith in them because they believe that these authorities possess the prerogative to issue authoritative orders since their customs and tradition, belief system and superstition say so. For instance, the traditional African societies typified this type of authority. A ruler is obeyed because of the belief that such a ruler was chosen by divine authority and that obedience to the ruler is obedience to God or Allah.

Legal – Rational Authority – this is most commonly found today. It is based on the law, the fundamental law of the land or what is commonly called the constitution. In other words, exercise of authority derives its legitimacy from certain body of rules; in this case, persons or offices exercise authority as legitimized by the constitution, statutes, decrees or edicts. It could also be the official position individuals occupy. The individual takes decisions and issue orders without questions. Thus, a policeman at the check point who requests for a vehicle owner to present his particulars, is merely exercising legal authority, because he has the backing of law.

Charismatic Authority – this follows from the personal charisma of a political leader. Charisma is that quality which is so over-whelming in the positive emotion which it evokes that its possess or receives unquestioning and total loyalty. A charismatic leader possesses extra-ordinary qualities which make such leader to influence his followers. The power of command may be exercised by a leader based on his certain attributes such as magical powers, revelations heroism, personal achievements or other extraordinary gifts endowed by nature. In the world history, some charismatic leaders are known such as Hitler of Germany, Mussolini of Italy, Gandhi Nehru of India, Churchill of Britain, Nkrumah of Ghana, Azikiwe and Awolowo of Nigeria, Mandela of South Africa, and so on.

However, these sources of authority are not necessarily exclusive. They could be in various combinations or co-exist in specific political communities.

3.8 Differences between Power and Authority

Although, authority is related to the concept of power, it can be clearly distinguished from it. The exercise of power is based on the possession of means of coercion and, or sanctions by the incumbent who exercises power. The exercise of authority is based on power attached to the office of the incumbent that exercises the power. Obedience to an order in a power relation is based on fear of sanctions. The power may not be legitimate e.g. the power of an armed robber. Obedience to an order in an authority relation derives from legitimacy of the order on the grounds of existing rules or customs or inherent qualities of he who commands it. Authority is thus legitimate power.

Since the exercise of power often results in the use of force, resistance to this power and coercion by citizens are met with force. Confronted with an authority relation, it is the duty of citizens to obey. When the citizens oppose an exercise of power that power lacks authority. Confronted with power, the citizens have a choice to support or to oppose; but with authority they have the duty to obey. In other words, resistance to power is lawful whereas resistance to authority is unlawful.

The continued reliance on sheer force as a means of securing obedience in a power relation signals legitimacy crisis in a political system. Whereas in the authority relation the recourse to sanctions as in the application of force to secure obedience is accepted by citizens as legitimate as does not pose any threat to stability of the political system.


Explain the major features of authority


 Power is the sole centralizing and organizing concept in the study of politics. Political activities revolve essentially around this concept. Authority is the legitimate use of power. It is simply the garment of legitimacy, power clothed with legitimacy.


 In this Unit we have examined the concepts of power and authority. We recognized the fact that scholars have divergent opinions of these concepts. We have carefully delineated the basic elements that constitute power relationships, influence and authority. Power is generally thought to involve the bringing about of an action against the will of another. It involves the use of sanctions. Power derives from established authority that allocates the right to command and the duty to obey. Authority on the other hand, is power clothed with legitimacy. It is an authentic form of power, which is based on consent, voluntary obedience and persuasion. We have been able to distinctively show the differences between power and authority. It has become clearer to us how power is used at the domestic politics and at the international levels. At the international level, we have identified the basic indices of measuring power of a nation.


  1.  Conceptualise power and Authority, and show the distinction between the two. 
  2.  What are the factors that determine the legitimacy of a government? 
  3.  Critically analyse the basic elements of national power in international relations.


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