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Power as a Primary Concept in the Study of Minorities

Author(s): R. A. Schermerhorn
Source: Social Forces, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Oct., 1956), pp. 53-56
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2573114 .
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him in acquiring a job and in finding temporary
rooming quarters. It does not appear necessary,
however, for the migrant to have relatives in large
numbers. (2) In determining the nature of the
adjustment of the migrant in his new community,
attention should be paid to both pre-migration as
well as post-migration factors. (3) This study does
not give support to the current theory of migration
by stages, but rather supports the point that, in
terms of subsequent adjustment of migrants, direct
migration is more beneficial. (4) The length of time
the migrant has lived in his new community is the
most important factor in the process of his adjust-
ment to all phases of life in the community.
Under what conditions should one-especially a
southern Negro-migrate? The "mature" Negro
who is married, and who works on a farm or who
intends to migrate directly to a northern city in
which he already has relatives, stands a much
better chance of early adjustment to his new com-
munity. On the other hand, the prospective Negro
migrant who does not possess the above qualifica-
tions also stands a good chance of "making good"
if he acquires a job immediately upon arrival and
lives in the community for some length of time. By
migrating, the southern Negro who acquires a job
in his new community gains everything and loses
nothing. This is not so with southern white mi-
grants who seem to gain mainly in increased income
while often losing considerable prestige.
To aid the migrant in making a successful
attempt at adjusting to his new community, con-
sideration should be given to economic, cultural,
and social factors which often present problems for
him. (1) Acquiring jobs for newly-arrived migrants
or helping them find jobs is a major step in the
direction of their adjustment. Many Negroes do
not undertake to migrate unless there is some
degree of certainty that acquiring jobs after arriv-
ing at their destination is possible and will not be
too difficult. However, for those who are not able
to secure jobs immediately upon arrival, the serv-
ices of both state and private employment agen-
cies are indispensable. (2) A major source of
culture conflict for rural southern Negro migrants
(as well as for southern white migrants) is the dif-
fering racial and social norms of the new com-
munity of the North from that of the southern one.
The Negro who migrated from a rural community
usually has little regard, in the eyes of city dwellers
at least, for property, sanitation, or "peace and
quieteness." It takes some effort on the part of
neighbors to re-orient him to the norms of his new
community if the migrant must know what is ex-
pected of him as a neighbor. (3) To be able to take
active part in the social life of the community, the
migrant needs the confidence of neighbors and
friends. Churches, the lodge, and other formal
social organizations contribute significantly to the
migrant's ultimate adjustment by making con-
scious effort to give him membership and counsel.
Western Reserve University
ARK and Burgess properly insisted upon
the reciprocal character of social inter-
action; from this position it is but a step
to the use of sociological analysis so as to do justice
to both sides of an interaction without sufficient
inquiry into the equivalence or lack of equivalence
on each side of the relation. The quest for ob-
jectivity has been met by focusing equal attention
on each aspect of the reciprocal relation, and thus
to bias sociological theory in favor of balance,
equilibrium, symmetry, and adjustment. By the
very nature of their frame of reference, sociologists
in the Park-Burgess tradition have centered atten-
tion on the regular, constant, and equable features
of society more than on the dynamic, unstable,
irregular or uneven ones.'
A modified version of this paper was read at the
meeting of the American Sociological Society in Wash-
ington, D. C., Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 1955.
Jules Henry emphasizes the difference for conceptu-
alization of a theory that assumes equilibrium or
stability as a datum, as compared with one that begins,
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This may help to explain why power analysis has
been relatively neglected by American sociologists
in the past. There are signs, however, that point to
an increasing awareness of the importance of the
power concept, and, more specifically, to a con-
vergence of agreement on its significance for the
study of minorities. The searching inquiry of
Bierstedt into the theoretical implications of
power realities, and Hunter's research on the
power structure of a southern community are
examples in point. It has been left to the political
scientists, however, to do the most thorough and
comprehensive analysis of power theory, and the
interdisciplinary nature of the task soon becomes
apparent from a perusal of their writings. Of major
significance to the discussion below are the
monumental work of Lasswell and Kaplan, and the
highly original work of H. S. Simon in a shorter,
but more intensive study of the scientific impli-
cations involved in power analysis.2
Simon's contribution is to show that power, by
its very nature is asymmetrical. For example, he
points out that absolute dictatorial power is a kind
of theoretical limit. In such a dictatorial ideal-
typical situation, the decision of A would de-
termine that of B without feedback from B to A
Empirically, of course, some feedback is always
present. But our insistence on interaction must not
blind us to the fact that reciprocity is unequal and
uneven. Action on one side of the equation is ef-
fective and decisive; on the other side it is re-
sistive, perhaps, but it modifies the outcome very
little. At the most it only qualifies the dominant
action of the first party.3 Taking into account these
considerations let us define power as the asym-
metrical relationship between two interacting parties
in which a perceptible probability of decision resides
in one of the two parties, even over the resistance of
the other party.
The terms "party" or "parties" signify either
individuals or groups.4 "Probability" in the
definition reminds the research-oriented scientist
that potential measurability may be included in
the concept of power, though this aspect of the
problem cannot be discussed here.5 Curiously
enough, Bierstedt's descriiption of force could
serve well to exemplify what we have called
"decision" in our definition. He states that it
"means the reduction, or limitation, or closure, or
even the total elimination of alternatives to the
social action of one person or group by another
person or group."6 If our analysis is correct, what
Bierstedt is depicting here is more than mere force
or coercion; it is the whole decision-making process.
on the other hand, with the assumption of instability
and then tries to account for stability. He presents con-
vincing evidence that the latter alternative is closer to
sociological realities, whatever may be said of the
former. Unpublished paper, Homeostasis, Society and
Evolution, Committee on Behavioral Sciences, Univer-
sity of Chicago, 1954. The present writer is indebted to
Professor Marvin Sussman for directing his attention
to this manuscript.
2 H. D. Lasswell and A. Kaplan, Power and Society,
A Framework for Political Inquiry (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1950); H. A. Simon, "Notes on
the Observation and Measurement of Political Power,"
Journal of Politics 15 (Nov. 1953), pp. 500-16. For
references to Bierstedt and Hunter cf. Robert Bierstedt,
"An Analysis of Social Power," American Sociological
Review, 15 (Dec. 1950), pp. 730-38, and Floyd Hunter,
Community Power Structure (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1953). The present writer
suggested a power orientation without elaboration in
Thlese Our People, Minorities in American Culture
(Boston: D. C. Heath, 1949), chap. 1. Cf. also G. E.
Simpson and J. M. Yinger, Racial and Cultu4ral Minor-
ities (New York: Harpers, 1953), chap. 4.
Simon clarifies the point as follows, "We must
specify whether we mean the influence of the element
considered as independent, with all the reverse feed-
back relations ignored, or whether we mean the net
influence of the element, taking into account all the
reciprocal influences of the other elements upon it."
Loc. cit., p. 506.
4This is a deliberate departure from Bierstedt who
declares that "power is a sociological, dominance a
psychological concept. The locus of power is in groups
and it expresses itself in inter-group relations; the locus
of dominance is in the individual and it expresses itself
in inter-personal relations." Op. cit., p. 732. The position
taken here is that sociology is a science of interpersonal
as well as intergroup relations so that it is artificial to
separate the two as Bierstedt does. The asymmetrical
relation of power is basically the same whether it ap-
pears between one individual and another or one group
and another. Power and dominance are closely related
terms denoting the same relationship.
Simon's exposition explores this avenue more
thoroughly in terms of the theory of games. Loc. cit.,
pp. 513-514.
6 Bierstedt, op. cit., p. 743. The reader will note that
in this passage Bierstedt no longer insists on the dis-
tinction between interpersonal and intergroup situa-
tions. If this holds for his definition of force, it would
seem to have equal relevance for the concept of power
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The expression "even over the resistance of the
other party" is one dependent on Max Weber.7
It simply restates the point above that power, as a
constraining pressure, is often sufficient to over-
come the countervailing resistance of any feed-
A major postulate of the theory advanced here is
that when contacts between two groups with dif-
ferent cultural lifelines become regular rather than
occasional or intermittent, the resulting inter-
action crystallizes into a social structure reflecting
the power differentials and the value congruence of
the two social systems in tensional equilibrium. In
this brief analysis, it will be impossible to do more
than indicate a few implications of this postulate.
What is the significance of power relations to the
minority situation? It is a twofold one. First,
power relations furnish the chief agency through
which minorities are differentiated. Second, power
relations enable us to set up a typology of min-
orities in terms of their emergence.
Since power is of many types or dimensions, it
may be suggested that the forms of power form a
continuum with traditional values or norms at one
end of the scale, and coercion at the other. The
power of tradition is cultural, while, in a sense, that
of coercion is extra-cultural, i.e., involving threat
to biological necessities that are subcultural.
Power is regarded as a primary concept because
it begins at the beginning. Power relations set the
basic frame within which acculturation, discrimi-
nation, prejudice, etc. do or do not take place.8
In setting forth a theory of this type, it is neces-
sary to proceed through definite stages. At the
outset it is important to review the contacts of
whole social systems or cultures so as to discover
the major types of power relations within which
the limited forms existing in the United States
may be observed as special cases, not as isolated
types unrelated to other cultures.9 In such a review
it is crucial to realize that equality of power be-
tween two parties is a rare and limiting case. From
a purely formal consideration it may therefore be
expected that one of the two parties will typically
establish forms of superordinance over the other.
A further consequence to be predicted is that
power will tend toward the coercive end of the
scale in these encounters, simply because value
controls do not extend to the out-group.
It is hypothesized that the instability of the
power situation sets in motion a trend toward
equilibrium or resolution of the power clash in one
of three forms: (1) extrusion, where the group with
greater power eliminates the relatively powerless
group from the field either by annihilation or by
driving the group from a specified territory; (2)
noncontiguous control, where the more powerful
group maintains dominance of the other party at a
distance (as in colonialism); or (3) incorporative
control, where the superordinate group brings the
subordinate party within its own geographical
boundaries where day-to-day adjustment and a
more efficient accommodative system are required.
In general, the incorporative mode seems to be the
dominant one in the United States, utilizing the
techniques of conquest, slavery, or selective ad-
mission of immigrants.'0 A testing of these cate-
gories with subsequent modification can then be ob-
tained by the use of a research tool like that of the
Human Relations Area Files.
A more difficult test of the theory will come in
the attempt to outline a set of dominant value-
systems in various cultures and to note the
modifying effect of congruent values on the power
clash. The difficulty is sharpened by the interre-
lationships between power realities and value
systems. In social-psychological terms, value-
system here refers to the cultural preferences,
selections, and emphases in the social system that
serve as the basis of affective identifications for the
members of the society." It has already been noted
From Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, translated
and edited with an introduction by H. H. Gerth and C.
Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press,
1946), p. 180.
8 To begin with prejudice and discrimination may be
a useful pedagogical device, but unsatisfactory from a
theoretical point of view. Cf. this approach in G. E.
Simpson and J. M. Yinger, op. cit., chap. 1.
While both Brewton Berry and Paul A. F. Walter
take this universal approach, both neglect the concept
of power. Cf. Brewton Berry, Race Relations (Boston:
Houghton Miffin, 1951); and Paul A. F. Walter Jr.,
Race and Cultural Relations (New York: McGraw-Hill,
10 The reader will find a first approximation to this
categorization in These Our People, p. 7. The first and
fourth categories in the book (groups forced into sub-
ordination by conquest; groups forced into strong in-
solidarity by a shifting of political boundaries) can then
be regarded as mobile and nonmobile types of incorpora-
tive control.
11 Note Davis' statement that sentiment "implies
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that power at the noncoercive end of the con-
tinuum operates through traditional values. In this
form, power is more massive, diffuse, and common
in a relatively homogeneous society with marked
consensus. Consequently it is stable in character.
As Russell says, it "has on its side the force of
habit; it does not have to justify itself at every
moment, nor to prove continually that no op-
position is strong enough to overthrow it. "12
As yet no adequate typology has been developed
for value-systems although Florence Kluckhohn
has made initial progress in this direction.'3
Certain relationships between the two variables of
power and value factors will appear as in the case
of racist ideas which Robin Williams finds em-
bedded in American values.14 One can note the
greater differentials between American and
African society, or between the Euro-American
culture and that of the American Indian, as com-
pared with the differentials between the "Ameri-
can" society and European society from which the
bulk of immigration has come. The intercon-
nections between the value systems and power
relations are still obscure, however, constituting a
problem for further research. Here again it seems
likely that power is the primary concept, since the
relation of two social systems is so definitely a
function of the power realities involved, with the
value variable accounting for variations in ac-
culturative forms within the power framework.
In closing, it is important to note that the
present analysis is related to traditional sociological
theory organically. The older view regarded the
elements of social process subsumed under conflict
distributively and reciprocally in balanced fashion
after the manner of the Park-Burgess model. In
the present frame of reference we treat the same
elements convergently, i.e., as shaping an outcome or
focalizing many items into determinate decisions.'5
There is no contradiction here but simply an
alternate set of conceptualizations. One is the
obverse of the other. It is simply that power in the
present theory emphasizes the asymmetrical,
dynamic, or energistic aspects of the social process;
in this way it may be possible to deduce more
fruitful hypotheses for testing so as to enlarge
scientific prediction and control. This in turn will
have an increased pertinence for programs of
social action.
the general background of feeling out of which more
specific values emerge. Value, in turn, is more general
than end. The series sentiment-value-end, is thus
characterized by increasing specificity." Kingsley
Davis, "A Conceptual Analysis of Stratification,"
American Sociological Review, 7 (June, 1942), p. 213.
Likewise Lasswell and Kaplan assert, "The culture
traits not only determine whether a given object is a
value, but also how much of a value it is, that is, how it
compares in value with other values.... Identifica-
tions, expectations, and demands render power authori-
tative, and this constitutes consent to the power struc-
ture and practices." Op. cit., pp. 98 and 99.
12 Bertrand, Russell, Power, A New Social Analysis
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1938), p. 38.
13 Florence R. Kluckhohn, "Dominant and Variant
Value Orientations," in Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry
A. Murray (eds.), Personality in Nature, Society and
Culture (2nd ed. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1953), pp.
342-357. An elaborated form of this essay is soon to
appear as a monograph published by Row, Peterson,
Evanston, Ill. late in 1955.
14Robin Williams, Jr., American Society, A Socio-
logical Interpretation (New York, A. A. Knopf, 1951),
pp. 438-440.
In Grafton's words, "Without power of some sort,
there is no struggle, and the strength of the power will
determine the effectiveness of the struggle." T. H.
Grafton in J. H. S. Bossard et al. (eds.) Introduction
to Sociology (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1952),
p. 285. Power is therefore a sine qua non of conflict, a
necessary, though not necessarily a sufficient, basis of
its operation.
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