Academic journal article Sociological Focus

How Do Elites Define Influence? Personality and Respect as Sources of Social Power

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

How Do Elites Define Influence? Personality and Respect as Sources of Social Power

Article excerpt

How well do theories of elites' sources of social power match the reality as perceived by the elites themselves? Using data from interviews with 312 elites from a large midwestern American city, and employing an inductive coding method situated in grounded theory, we use the constructivist approach in listening to elites' definitions of their sources of social power. Integrating Weber's notion of charisma and the interactionist literature on power, we hypothesize that interpersonal attributes can be crucial in micro-level power negotiations. Our analyses reveal that along with mentioning economic and political resources, institutional and organizational position, and connectedness in influence networks-themes common in elite theory-elites also identify the interpersonal attributes of personality and respect as sources of social power in their own right. Projection of positive personal attributes assists in the exercise of power; exposing traits with negative connotations can be a detriment. Elites display personal attributes while employing impression management, thus developing a social identity used to manipulate interpersonal relations. We conclude by offering a series of sensitizing principles to guide an understanding of how interpersonal sources of social power are used in elite power negotiations.

How well do theories of elites' sources of social power match the reality as perceived by the elites themselves? In the elite theory literature, sources of social power are typically and primarily defined as having access to resources, occupying strategic positions, and operating in networks of influence (Domhoff 2002; Form and Miller 1960; Mills 1956). However, surprisingly few researchers have asked the elites themselves what they consider important sources of social power. As such, some sources may be missing from traditional definitions, waiting to be revealed by the elites themselves.

We use a form of the constructivist approach to understanding power in listening to elites' definitions of their sources of social power (Harris 2006; Schwalbe et al. 2000). Common to the constructivist approach is that people live within socially constructed realities where interactions with friends, strangers, co-workers, and family determine the meaning of social things (Hall 1972, 1995; Lemert 2005). In a reciprocal relationship between methods and theory-building, constructivist methods allow for actor-led improvements to social theory (Charmaz 1983). By listening to actors' definitions of reality, researchers discover how actors create their social world. Some constructivists argue that mainstream sociology's reluctance to explicitly integrate the constructivist program not only perpetuates the misnomer that constructivist-minded theories such as symbolic interactionism have nothing to add to debates on power and social inequality, but that theoretical development in these major subdisciplines can remain stunted as a result (Dennis and Martin 2005; Schwalbe et al. 2000).

As both elites and the researchers who study them work in an environment of imperfect information, the constructivist approach has both advantages and disadvantages. Much like any actor embedded in a social milieu, elites are likely to define reality as they have personally experienced it. In the midst of their power networks, elites may not recognize all potential sources of social power; insider's knowledge can act as blinders to the entirety of the social scene. However, insider's knowledge also enables unique insights that are hidden from outsiders' views. Moreover, analysis of elites entirely guided by researcher's definitions of power sources can serve to reinforce preconceptions that should be redefined (Charmaz 1983:110-111). In this sense, the advantages of the constructivist approach outweigh the disadvantages.

While symbolic interactionists engage in power theory, the extent to which they have done so is unclear: some, like Dennis and Martin (2005), claim that "far from neglecting the phenomena of power, much interactionist work is actually about power relations and their enactment" (197-8), and others, such as Prus (1999), argue that, "interactionists hadn't said much about power in any sustained or systematic fashion" (xiv). …

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