Why don't we live in a world where all human beings are equally
powerful, individuals cannot control the actions of one another,
and no nation can dominate any other? We all know that the
President of the United States is much more powerful than
individual citizens, heads of corporations are more powerful
than employees, and the members of public school boards are
more powerful than teachers. Differences in power are present
at many different levels of human society: between individuals,
between states, between social classes. Indeed, power is all
Changing power relations have been one of the central themes
of world history. Think how much of the history you have read
is about monarchs and peasants, owners and slaves, empires
and colonies, one race dominating another, or men dominating
women. Teachers and their students may ask many critical questions
Was power always present in human society? If so, why?
If not, how was power created?
Why are differences in power so enormous in the modern
How do the powerful hold on to their power?
Could inequalities of power be eliminated? Should they
Do the weak always have to tolerate the power of the strong?
Could the weak survive without the strong, or the other
Are people bound to abuse power? (The English historian
Lord Acton wrote: "All power corrupts and absolute
power corrupts absolutely.")
Power relationships are present in many animal communities.
For example, the term, 'pecking order' comes from the fact
that a power hierarchy always exists in a flock of chickens.
Observers of chimpanzee communities have found that the members
engage in much political activity. Dominant chimps spend a
lot of time maintaining the support of their allies and disciplining
their opponents. But their power is never secure, and they
are always vulnerable to challenge from below. Is it significant
that among one species of chimpanzees mainly males engage
in such activities? Is the urge for power therefore mainly
a male characteristic? On the other hand, among another chimp
species, females seem to engage in equally complex political
Like chimps, we are social animals. All humans live in communities
of some kind. Perhaps this is enough to explain why power
relations always seem to be part of social life. But how humans
exercise power, and the consequences of doing it, vary greatly
from one community and historical period to another.
For most of history, people lived in tiny, family-like communities
that moved periodically during the year. Power relationships
were probably experienced as personal relationships, as they
still are in families today. Many forms of power were built
into the structure of the family so that as children grew
up, they found themselves fitted into already established
power relationships. Parents normally had power over children,
and older members of the community over younger ones. Some
individuals enjoyed temporary authority because of special
skills. For example, on an expedition to gather a rare food
plant, those who knew most about the plant were likely to
lead the group. Power seems always to have been a natural
part of family and personal relations. That does not mean
that its effects were necessarily benevolent. Power relations
could be extremely violent, as they sometimes are in families
When agriculture began to emerge about 10,000 years ago,
human communities started to grow. In some regions, people
began to live in larger, denser settlements. In these communities--the
earliest villages, towns, and cities--power relationships
were transformed. Why? In large communities new types of problems
appeared, and many occasions arose when people needed to act
collectively. To do that they had to have leaders, managers,
or organizers, which meant that ordinary people had to surrender
some authority to leaders. People needed to act together when
under attack, to worship the gods together to ensure good
harvests, and to labor together to build a city temple or
repair irrigation canals. Organizing and coordinating the
work of hundreds or even thousands of people required political,
religious, and military leaders. If the leaders were honest
and effective, everyone benefited.
But how were leaders selected? Most of the time, they probably
emerged quite naturally. Within families, the older members
normally had more authority. The same principle usually applied
in groups larger than families. Often whole communities thought
of themselves as members of the same ancestral family. And
those claiming descent from the senior lines of the ancestral
families often enjoyed higher status, just as older members
of a living family claim seniority over junior members. In
this way, the community sometimes regarded particular families
as being the "natural" leaders.
Communities have also chosen leaders because of their particular
skills, perhaps as fighters, peace-makers, alliance builders,
or intermediaries between the community and the gods. Anthropologists
have described societies whose leaders are called "big
men" (almost invariably men, not women). These leaders
collect valued goods from their family and friends, and then
give them away in large feasts. Among Indian societies of
northwestern North America they call this process a "potlatch."
In a modern economy this behavior might seem ridiculous,
but its purpose is to create obligations. Eventually, the
big man can call in these debts by demanding support from
those who attended his feasts. By creating alliances in this
way, the big man can sometimes accumulate enough influence
and prestige to acquire special authority. However, in these
communities, as in most small communities, power rests mainly
on the consent of those who are ruled. If leaders fail to
lead effectively or retain their prestige, they can be overthrown.
About 6,000 years ago, the state began to emerge. The state
is a particular form of human organization, distinguishable,
for example, from a hunter-gatherer band, a village community,
or an ethnic group. The concept of the "state" is
closely connected to the concept of "government,"
but the two terms do not mean exactly the same thing.
A population that inhabits a territory and that has a central
governing authority. A state is assumed to possess sovereignty,
which means that it is politically independent of other
states and recognizes no ruling authority above itself.
In world history states have varied greatly in size and
organization. Monarchies, oligarchies, republics, and empires
are important types of states, all meeting the basic definition.
The group of people and system of institutions that
rules, administers, and regulates the state. The elements
of central government typically include a supreme ruler
or ruling group, laws, courts, councils or legislatures,
bureaucracies, police, and armies.
States that emerged in premodern times had two notable characteristics:
They were usually larger than communities held together
by the consent of their members. While some early states
were made up of just one city and surrounding agricultural
land (city-state), much larger states, even giant empires,
eventually appeared. One of the earliest large states arose
more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia in Southwest Asia.
There, a king named Sargon ruled over a number of city-states
that covered a large area of the Tigris-Euphrates valley.
An even more spectacular example of a large state was the
Achaemenid empire centered on Persia. It arose about 2,500
years ago to rule millions of people and incorporate hundreds
of cities and towns stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan.
The governments of states separated themselves out from
the people over whom they ruled, and they acquired the ability
to coerce (force) people to do things they might not otherwise
wish to do. States used the agrarian and other resources
they controlled to pay armed gangs, police, or armies. These
bodies might protect or defend the population but also exercised
coercion to control and manage it. States sometimes used
brutal force against their own subjects or citizens. The
power of coercion was in fact the normal condition of the
large states of Afroeurasia and the Americas.
The state involved a hierarchy of power in which everyone
knew his and her place. From kings, governors, generals, and
tax collectors to local chiefs, peasants, slaves, prisoners,
and beggars, everyone from the top of the pyramid to the bottom
knew who had more power and who had less, who commanded and
who obeyed. People tended to accept their position in the
pyramid partly because they were forced to, but also because
knowing one's place carried certain advantages, even for people
at the bottom levels. Those benefits might include protection
against invaders, access to roads, upkeep of irrigation systems,
or law and order in the market place. In addition, religious
and government authorities were usually closely allied. The
religious leaders typically taught people that they had a
moral duty to obey those above them in the hierarchy.
In the premodern era, states did not have the communications
systems or organizational skills required to interfere much
in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, especially people
who lived far from the capital city. In the provinces and
the countryside, most individuals dealt primarily with local
chiefs, judges, and other power holders, and they rarely encountered
officials from the capital.
The Oba, or
ruler, of the West African kingdom of Benin. In this
bronze plaque from the 16th century, the powerful Oba
is surrounded by attendants. www.thebrithishmuseum.ac.uk
Also, hunter-gatherers or small communities of farmers or
pastoralists still occupied significant areas of the world.
Those societies might only rarely encounter powerful officials
or armies of big states.
In modern times, and especially in the last two centuries,
all this has changed. Modern states now dominate the entire
world. Fewer than 200 formally sovereign states (almost all
of them voting members of the United Nations) have replaced
the hundreds or thousands of different power groups that until
recently shared the planet.
The states of today embrace almost all of the world's inhabitants.
They are also much more powerful than earlier states, intervening
much more readily in the daily aspects of people's lives.
This is partly because modern states have access to sophisticated
technologies of communication, transport, propaganda, and
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many states
have used wealth and technology to benefit their populations
in numerous ways. Others have used their resources mainly
to benefit a small ruling group. Political scientists have
classified as totalitarian
such oppressive authoritarian states as Germany under the
Nazis, Russia under Stalin, and China under Mao Zedong . This
means that these states have aimed to eliminate all levels
of organized power or protection between the central government,
dominated by a few, and everyone else in the society.
The task of organizing and managing states, even small ones,
is extremely complicated. We most respect those states that
govern, keep order, and strive for economic prosperity in
ways that involve the active participation of the population
and that tap its skills, knowledge, and energy. States with
genuine democratic institutions are most likely to make sure
that the interests of the government and the general population
are on the whole in agreement. And because of this, these
states are more likely to survive over the long run than those
that alienate the people they rule.
in Britain The House of Commons in Session
Even in states that appear thoroughly undemocratic, total
coercion is not possible. Wherever we investigate power relations
in world history we find the same paradox: power often seems
to rest on force, but it never rests only on force. Even in
agrarian times, states big or small rested their authority
on varying combinations of consent and coercion. Negotiations,
sometimes hidden from public view, have always gone on between
rulers and ruled.
The most skillful rulers have always understood that it is
easier to rule a contented population than a discontented
one. And the population knows that an authoritarian state
can provide various services, protections, and opportunities.
Notice that even the most ruthless dictators usually call
themselves president, hold presidential elections (just one
candidate!), and rule theoretically under constitutions, all
to make themselves appear legitimate (lawful) in the eyes
of their people and the world.
Why Do We Need to Understand This Key Theme?
In the huge, and complicated societies of the modern world,
every thing we do is affected by powerful individuals and
groups: presidents, politicians, bankers, teachers, pastors,
police, gang leaders, and so on. To deal with power we have
to understand how power evolved in history, and why we live
in the midst of so many powerful institutions and people.
Power is connected closely to our ideas about right and
wrong. Is the government using its powers appropriately?
Is it ever right to overthrow a government that is unjust?
If I am wronged, should I rely on the government to defend
me or try to take justice into my own hands? Many of today's
students will grow up to exercise power as soldiers, executives,
managers, parents, or educators. Learning how power has
been used in the past helps us consider how people today
ought to use power justly and compassionately.
We are all shaped by relationships of power. The freedoms,
obligations, and controls we have in daily life all depend
on our connections to the power of other individuals and
groups. For typical middle or high school students, the
power of parents, friends, teachers, employers, police,
and government officials all affect how we think and act.
Our ethnicity, sex, age, occupation, wealth, education,
and state of health can all affect the degrees of power
we have. In some ways power relationships in today's world
are similar to those found thousands of years ago. In other
ways, they are very different. Investigating the uses, abuses,
and changing forms of power over the millennia can help
us grasp how power may both limit and enrich our lives.
Today, all humans (with tiny exceptions) live within the
frontiers of sovereign states. States have central governments,
which exercise great power over their citizens whether they
are democracies or dictatorships, big countries or small.
In world history governments have exerted power in many
different ways, sometimes benefiting their subjects or citizens,
sometimes restricting or endangering them. We must set the
history of states and their governments in broad historical
perspective to understand how they work in our lives today.
of Microsoft Corporation. He is one of the most powerful
business leaders in the world.
Because we live in the computer age, we understand that
possessing and controlling information is a way of exerting
power. States, corporations, interest groups, universities,
and other holders of power both control and disseminate
floods of valuable information. Governments and other power
groups have always had an interest in managing the flow
of news and knowledge. Understanding the complex relationship
between information and power in history will help citizens
consider more carefully the sources, accuracy, and validity
of information they receive.
Questions for Classrooms
Landscape and Closeup Teaching Units that Emphasize
Key Theme 3: