English Department

Literary Criticism: notions of power

Sociologists, researchers who study the behaviour of humans in groups (societies),  and, more specifically, those who study leadership and the dynamics of group behaviour, suggest that we have two basic ways of perceiving how much power someone has.  Power, in this context, means the ability to command the respect or admiration of others who are willing to follow our leadership.



One type of power is called positional power.  That means the power that comes from a person’s formal title, role, or position.  For example, “the boss” in the workplace has more power than the workers through his/her formal position of being a manager or administrator or business owner.  In the classroom, a teacher has more positional power than students.  In a military unit, greater positional power is attributed to those with a higher military rank. 


Personal power is attributed to someone who has character traits admired by people in a group.  For example, a group might admire honesty, charisma, eloquence, and trustworthiness; therefore, the person with most or all of those traits would have the greatest personal power.  If the group of people who admired those traits were voters, and the person who had those traits was running for election, this personal power might lead to the voters electing that person.  The voters would be choosing the person with the most personal power. 


In the best of all possible worlds, the person who has the most positional power will also have the greatest personal power.  This is not always the case, and when it is not so, conflict arises.


What does this have to do with literature?


These sociological ideas can be use to understand character.