Equal power relationship

Equal power relationship

Peacemaking and feminist theory coined the term equal power relationship to describe a situation in which neither partner had a clear power over the other. It has since come into more general use.

Perception and reinforcement of an equal power relationship is fundamental to any system of peer communications or ethical decisions undertaken by a group of peers and imposed on all by the group. Whether such relationships ever exist is a matter of definition but there are many theories and models that define, impose or assume them at least temporarily, e.g. for dispute resolution.


The ultimate model of equal power relationships is the game, in which each player has limited and carefully defined powers over the other, typically executed in sequence. In such a game, the faster player does not have an advantage, and may even be at a disadvantage.

Elaborate rules are imposed in games that involve physical skills, for instance, the Olympic Games. Though the games certainly exalt and reward excellence, they also emphasize sportsmanship and the quiet acceptance of referees and judges' rulings. These are equal power relations between athletes, though not between athletes and athletic officials.


The ultimate example of exalting at least temporarily equal powers is democracy, the process by which the group acquires an identity and all express their power in the same way, e.g. by secret ballot, and then by acting on the outcomes. The political privacy of the secret ballot is a means to equalize power, since the less powerful members of the group who support the less popular position cannot thereafter be targeted for social exclusion or bodily harm. When forming power networks, such as a political party, such methods increase the likelihood of ethical relationships and reciprocal altruism.

The best known feminist theory of how to ensure equal power relations is the democratic structuring theory originated by Jo Freeman. Carol Gilligan notably advocated these relationships as one of the pre-requisites to advanced moral reasoning. Carol Moore identified the underlying relationships as being of equal power in Gandhi's methods: since his form of pacifism required the weak to band together and stand fast, it was capacity to absorb pain and terror calmly, as opposed to the power to inflict it on others, that was the mark of courage in his actions. Since the weak had the power to absorb more pain and terror (they did it every day), this was a way to equalize the power that was available to the unethically strong. Any empathy with the weak whatsoever would further disempower the weak, sometimes causing guards to vomit or break down and be unable to continue dishing out punishment to innocent people who were not fighting back.


Equal power relationships as defined by R.J. Coombe, 1998, emphasized the requirement for labor specialization as one means to achieve them. "Social actors obviously have diverse capabilities and means to fix and to challenge meaning;" For instance, "intellectual property protections are only one form of power in a larger field, for instance. A democratization process of access to this practice would give all people more equal opportunities to engage in expressive activity rather than granting already powerful actors even further resources and capacities to dominate cultural arenas than they already possess."

The argument for this democratization is similar to the arguments as above in political contexts: the overall system works more smoothly because the powerful are not able to manage resources as effectively as the less powerful (who are used to being frugal and optimizing to make more use of less resources). The extreme version of this view is workplace democracy in which workers elect their own manager.


Computer-mediated communication theories have also been strongly influenced by equal power relationship thinking. A major challenge in these fields is avoiding those who have more skill with technology engaging in technological escalation against those with less such skill. A balance must be discovered between social and technological controls. In wikis for instance this is referred to as "soft security", which attempts to remove the technological skills from the power structure so that those who have them only serve the larger group, rather than taking it over entirely using technological domination. Larry Lessig has argued that there is a danger that Internet experts will overcontrol the political discourse of the future, for instance, by creating surveillance and censorship possibilities using their capacity to control routing. This has been raised as a concern especially with the rise of blogs and the use of the Great Firewall of China to block them, and willingness of google and yahoo and Microsoft to assist governments in applying such methods. The Citizen Lab and OpenNet Initiative are two efforts to study these phenemona on the very largest scales.

On small scales, the more advanced computer-supported collaboration methods use similar techniques to those known in politics, for instance, making use of anonymity to voice controversial opinions, allocation voting to distribute resources including attention of the group, and sometimes issue-based argument to reduce the effects of reputation and of eloquence: metaphor and rhetoric. Marshall McLuhan argued in "Understanding Media" that power structures would always reliably be dominated by those who had the superior rhetorical skills suitable for the media in which the most important decisions were made. To some degree the computer-supported collaboration methods can be seen as an attempt to equalize that power relationship.

Of these rulesets, one of the most carefully justified is "open politics in force" which arose from several successful efforts to define political platforms via wiki. These rules emphasize the power of new participants over older ones as a means of equalizing the technical and social familiarities of all. They are also relatively welcoming of Internet trolls on the grounds that such people are simply less familiar and likely trying to express a legitimate political view, though perhaps in some rude ways. They discourage in particular reactive actions and impose Crocker's Rules on systems administrators whether they like this or not. They also forbid the use of administrative privilege for purposes of outing.

Economics and weaponry

Other political theories require further measures such as the regular breakup and reformation of the entire group, as a means to ensure that power relationships do not become permanent like a class structure. Many variants of anarchism and feminism emphasize the dangers of relying on any persistent group entity or reliance on permanent control of capital (economics) even by a responsible group of people, due to groupthink and infrastructural biases associated with believing one's own control of the resource is good, and that no one else could possibly make more effective use of it. A key aspect of all such theories is the emphasis of use-value over exchange or commodification.

In the variant of John McMurtry the emphasis is on life-value instead: the ability to preserve life. Thus the use-value of a weapon is very low, a dwelling very high, despite the usefulness of a weapon to destroy a dwelling, and so on. In this way equal power relationships would be reinforced in the basic valuation relationships, which would match ideas of goodness and value theory familiar to living things with economic ideas of value. Marilyn Waring similarly argued that female notions of value were different from male, and more based on equal power relationships and the usefulness of shared items held in common, not unique items traded or created or destroyed. Jo Freeman's defined equal power largely in terms of equal access to resources needed by the group to pursue group goals, and was concerned to prevent monopoly over resources. This included instructional capital: Members' skills and information can be equally available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

All these views strongly influenced value of life theories that have influenced green economics and welfare economics. The most celebrated of these theorists, Amartya Sen, based his model of "Development as Freedom" on the principle that freedom was the ultimate economic good, and that it arose only from the equal power of all individuals to choose their own path.

Religion and morality

Religions and ethical traditions tend to assume, similarly, that one's spiritual and moral destiny is separate from one's power on the physical or material plane, and that ultimately relationships are equalized in power by death. There are few who doubt this reality - the ability to reduce someone else's lifespan, well-being, freedom or happiness remains the key marker of what we call power. Phenomena such as torture, brainwashing or imprisonment are controversial because they deny these powers to the individual, and include fear of deprivation and death.


Law is sometimes seen as a process of imposing equal power relations on people who have proven unwilling to limit their actions to some agreed norms. The equity-restorative justice theory of criminal justice assumes that equal power relationships existed before the event - thus "equity" - and must be restored afterward.

It thus resembles civil law, an adversarial process in which two people are specifically forced into an equal power relationship to resolve a dispute between themselves - a lawsuit - that is not seen as essential to society except insofar as it is important for society that these people are not in conflict in other ways that are in general likely to disrupt the power balances that exist in society.

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