In most treatments of power, this chapter would form the entire discussion. Coercion and force are often used as synonyms of power, and all too often are seen as the only type of power.

Hans Morgenthau offers a definition that is representative of the literature:

Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships, which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another. Power covers the domination of man by man, both when it is disciplined by moral ends and controlled by constitutional safeguards, as in Western democracies, and when it is that untamed and barbaric force which finds its laws in nothing but its own strength and its sole justification in its aggrandizement.[1]

Power tends to be defined as force, regardless of whether the one wielding power is the initiator or the responder. No less an authority than John Locke, the 17th century enlightenment philosopher whose treatises on government provided inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, defined coercive power as the only appropriate response to the illegitimate use of coercive power: "In all states and conditions, the true remedy of force without authority is to oppose force to it."[2]

The equation of force with power is not limited to theorists. Kriesberg points out that parties in social conflict, "cognizant of inequalities in resources and what that means for domination and resistance...often think of one side imposing its will on another."[3]

Even those wishing to resolve conflict are affected by this way of conceptualizing power. For example, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg define power as "the ability to coerce someone to do something he would not otherwise do."[4] While they acknowledge that they have defined the concept "somewhat narrowly," such a narrow definition cannot help but affect the way in which we design resolution and peace building processes. At the same time, it is important to understand coercive power and to develop processes accordingly when it is operative, as it usually is in intractable conflict.

Robert L. Kahn provides an additional reason to be concerned about coercive power in intractable conflict:

To say that A has the power to change B's behavior necessarily implies that A exerts some force in opposition to some or all of the previously existing forces [including B's own needs and values] on B. This is conflict....The exercise of [coercive] power, thus, necessarily creates conflict..."[5]

Nor is the impact of power limited to the initiation of conflict. As Terrell A. Northrup points out, "[t]he distribution of power between or among parties has a significant impact on the course and conduct of a conflict....[When parties] differ greatly in relative power...settlements may be imposed by the high-power group."[6]

Forms of Coercive Power

Coercion can take many forms. I may prevent you from doing something you wish to do, by withholding some resources or by physically constraining you. For example, the modern state imprisons those who do not act in accordance with its legal mandates. In other cases, I may push you into a behavior in which you would otherwise not engage. For example, parents may use a variety of strategies for getting a resistant child to go to school, including physically taking the child to the school building. As another example, the majority of nations of the world joined in a boycott of Iraqi oil, in the hope of forcing the Iraqi government to honor the peace agreement that ended the 1991 Gulf War.

While not all of these forms are typically categorized as violent, coercion is usually associated with physical violence. As C. Wright Mills says, "All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence."[7] Violence can produce changes in the target. The slave who is whipped may return to work, at least make the attempt to show compliance while the overseer is watching, and try to avoid additional lashes. A prisoner who is tortured may divulge sought-after information in order to end the torture. The warring enemy may sign a truce, because it no longer has resources to continue the fighting.

Coercive power is most effective, however, when the threat of violence or other punishment is sufficient in itself to get the target to accede to the demand.

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By Máire A. Dugan 


[1] Morgenthau, Hans J. 1985. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 6th Ed. p.1. 2005 edition of this book available at

[2] Locke, John. 1952. The Second Treatise on Government. New York: Macmillan. p. 88. 2011 edition of this book available at

[3] Kriesberg, Louis. 1998. Constructive Conflicts from Escalation to Resolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p.16. 2012 edition available at

[4] Ury, William L., Jeanne M. Brett, and Stephen B. Goldberg, 1988. Getting Disputes Resolved Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict.San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers. p.7

[5] Kahn, Robert L. 1964. "Introduction" to Power and Conflicts in Organizations. Robert L. Kahn and Elise Boulding, eds. New York: Basic Books, Inc. pp. 1-2

[6] Northrup, Terrell A. 1989. "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict," in Intractable Conflicts and their Transformation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p.61.

[7] Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University. p.171. 2000 edition of this book available at

Máire Dugan is currently directing Race Relations 2020, which she founded. She also developed the Masters in Conflict Resolution curriculum at Columbia College. Dr. Dugan is a member of the Board of Directors for the SCCCR. She developed the "nested theory" to delineate how a given interpersonal, familial, or organizational conflict is symptomatic of over-arching societal systems and structures. Dr. Dugan suggests an intermediate level, which she calls the sub-system, as an arena that practitioners can use to simultaneously address the conflict at hand, the relationship, and the larger system.