Chapter 2 - Power Subchapter: Social power

Social power and peer groups

Birthday money! I can buy what I want! 

An elderly illustrated character with a walking stick, grey hair and glasses hands some money to a younger character. The younger character has four thought bubbles containing emojis – a burger, a joystick, a shirt, and a pet cat.

 

Freedom is the ability to do what you want when you want. Freedom is when you can think, feel, act and speak without any external influence or restrictions.

  • you pick any book off the library shelf and start to read it
  • you set your alarm early so you can read before school
  • you write a blog post about the awesome book you just read and how it made you feel.

 

Freedom of thought and expression is a basic human right.

 

Power is the ability to make other people do what you want. When power is exerted, a person behaves differently or does something they would not otherwise choose to do.

  • your mum says ‘no reading at the dinner table’
  • your teacher reminds you about the assignment due tomorrow – no reading the book tonight
  • you have to return the book to the library.

 

A formal power relationship is one a parent has with a child, or a teacher with a student, or a police officer with a member of the community.

One person, because of the nature of the relationship, has authority over the other and can tell them what to do. This authority is not unlimited and is restricted by the rules that apply to that role.

 

We all have some form of power, and power is present in all of our relationships.

We might deliberately use our power to make someone do what we want. Or it might be more subtle, and we may not even be aware we’re exerting power or influence over someone else.

The majority of social relationships are influenced by social power. 

Social power is the ability of a group or person to change the beliefs, attitudes or behaviours of another group or person. Social power is not about laws or formal rules. It relates to the potential for a group or person to be influenced by their social world.

 

Split frame; the left panel shows a character holding money as they notice an advertisement for a pair of sunglasses. The right panel shows them walking out of a sunglasses shop wearing new sunglasses.

 

A person’s social world could be their family, community, school, sporting clubs, special interest groups, friends and peers. Social power can be applied by any of these groups and influence: 

  • your taste in TV, films and music
  • what you like to eat
  • how you express your identity through clothes and fashion
  • how you spend your spare time
  • your hopes and dreams for the future
  • what is acceptable behaviour
  • what is unacceptable behaviour.

 

There is very little that we do that is not influenced by others. Within peer groups, power is used to influence and persuade others.

We use social power to influence and persuade others to modify their opinions and or behaviour. The person with power acts in a way that they believe is correct, right, cool and or appropriate. They use their power to influence others to not behave in the opposite way—incorrect, wrong, uncool and or inappropriate.

 

Split-frame; in the left panel, the character wearing new sunglasses is with two other characters wearing different sunglasses - the initial character points to a fashionable character on a screen who is wearing the new sunglasses. On the right panel, the two characters are now wearing the new sunglasses, and the initial character who persuaded them is now elevated on a podium.

 

Social power is used by individuals to attain personal power and by society to enforce social norms.

 

Social norms and the power to influence

Social norms are the unwritten rules about how to fit into different social groups. Social norms can sometimes be helpful to individuals who want to know how they should behave and be accepted as part of the group. Norms help provide social order by setting group or community expectations.

For example, things we accept to be norms when out in public:

  • shake hands when you meet someone
  • don’t pick your nose
  • don’t cut in front of someone if there is a queue
  • give up your train or bus seat for someone who needs it more.

 

Social norms are enforced by members of the group or society. If you break a norm, you get what’s called a social sanction—which could be anything from a frown all the way through to rejection from the group.

When you follow norms, you get the rewards that come from fitting in. You are accepted. You feel like you belong.

Not all group norms are a positive influence—some social norms can be disrespectful:

  • targeting other students with teasing or bullying
  • refusal to follow accepted codes of conduct
  • discrimination because of gender, ability, religion or race.

 

Using your (social) power for good

Positive peer influence is when your peers influence you to do something positive—for yourself, for the group or outside of the group.

If you are part of a group that has social power, you can:

  • defend others who are targeted by bullying
  • speak up against discrimination, of any sort
  • lead by modelling respectful behaviour
  • lead by showing compassion.

 

Because we all have social power, we are faced with a number of questions - how do you want to be known? What are your hopes and dreams for your future? What sort of society would you be proud to be part of? And what can you do to change society for the better?