Dependency Theory

Power is the ability to make others do things they wouldn't otherwise want to do. We tend to think of power as being a property of the person, but this is really shorthand. Power is really a relation between two people.

When we say someone has power, we should really specify over whom. One reason is that power is not necessarily transitive: you can have p(a) > p(b) and p(b) > p(c), yet p(c) > p(a). This can happen, for example, if person c has a powerful friend d who hates a. So when b pushes c around, d does not get involved. But when a tries to do it, d steps in.  Consequently, it is better to think of power as a relation between two people. We can symbolize this by represent the amount of power A has over B by using notation like p(a,b), rather than thinking in terms of p(a)-p(b), as we did above.

What is the basis of power?

According to Emerson (1962), the basis of power is dependency. A depends on B if A has goals and needs that B can fulfill. For example, an employee depends on her company for a paycheck. Similarly, a company depends on its employees for labor, skills and brains.

The dependency of A on B {D(A,B)} is a function of two things: supply and demand.


Defined as the motivational investment by A in goals mediated by B. In other words, how much A needs what B controls.

  1. Doctors supply life-saving functions
  2. Universities provide critical work credentials
  3. Bosses supply raises and promotions
  4. Dogs provide unconditional love.


Defined as the availability, quality and cost of alternative means of satisfying needs. In other words, how easy it is for A to go elsewhere to get what B controls. Supply is inversely related to dependency (A depends more on B if there are few alternatives available to A). Examples:

  1. Phone company used to have a monopoly, and was not customer driven
  2. The only factory in a small town is only source of employment

Importance/prestige of certain professions in society is a function of both values and availability

  1. Doctors do lifesaving work, and they actively limit their numbers
  2. Teachers are critical for society, but their effects are not immediate, and they are plentiful
  3. The post-it company might have a near monopoly on the product, but it's not a crucial product

Balance of Power

Dependency may be mutual:

  1. Married couple may depend on each other for all the same things.
  2. Or, A can depend on B for some things, and B depends on A for others

A has power over B if A is less dependent on B than B is on A. For example, Bill and Sally enjoy going out together. But bill knows a lot of other girls who will go out with him, but Sally really hasn't met a lot of guys that she likes (maybe she's new in town).

  1. Demand side is equal, but supply side is not, so Bill has more power

Exercise of power

Power use tends to provoke two forces in the power system: cost reductions and balancing operations.

Cost reduction

This is where the party on whom power is being used adjusts to make that use bearable

  1. Bill wants sally to sleep with him.
  2. She wants to save herself for marriage. If she sleeps with him, she will feel bad. If she doesn't, she will feel lonely, cuz bill will be out with someone else.
  3. A lot of things could happen, but one of them is that sally redefines the situation so that she won't feel bad. She could change her moral views. She could convince herself that since he's the one she's gonna marry him anyway, its ok.

    Another example, using companies as actors. Suppose you supply hub caps to general motors. They say we have some other suppliers that are cheaper than you. Either you give us a lower price or we walk.

    So you lower the price. To do it, and maintain your comfort level (your profit margin), you must literally reduce costs.

    1. You re-engineer, restructure, downsize, layoffs, job sharing, early retirements, retire the corporate jet, stop subsidizing the company cafeteria
  4. Other examples: victim sees rape as her own fault; POW sees captors as saviors

Note that cost reducing operations do not change balance of dependency -- don't change the power situation

Balancing Operations

Balancing operations are forces that neutralize differences in dependency, reducing power of one over the other. Given the definition of dependency, there are four different kinds of possible balancing operations. Assuming A has power of B, then

  1. B could (not necessarily on purpose) reduce his/her need for what what A provides
    1. When the arab nations put the screws on the West in the oil embargo, the US rationed gas and lowered speed limits, thereby reducing need for oil
    2. Sally could lose interest in dating
    B could find alternative sources for the same services
    1. Sally joins a wine-tasting club, where she meets a lot new guys, or she starts hanging out in bars, or starts dating women
    2. The hub-cap maker makes a trip to japan to see if he can get some japanese companies for clients
    3. Employee keeps his resume circulating
  2. A could increase his/her need for B's services (perhaps not on purpose)
    1. Japanese make an effort to open some markets, to buy some US parts for their cars
    2. B makes his/her services better: US parts manufacturers increase quality control to be more attractive to Japanese
    3. B satisfies additional needs of A's, kind of buy this and get this other thing free
  3. A reduces # of alternative sources for what b provides (not necessarily on purpose)
    1. Coalitions, groups, unions.
    2. Sally makes friends with the other girls bill dates. They start refusing to go out with him out of consideration for her.

A Closer Look at the Supply Issue

Suppose we hold demand constant. Then the only source of variation in dependency, and therefore power, is in supply. But supply is not as straightforward as you might think. Consider, for example, the following network:


Actor B clearly has the advantage in this network, because B has two sources of supply, while A and C each have only one. But now consider this network:


Based on the number of connections, it looks like B and C and D should all have equal, relatively high, power, while A and E should have equal, relatively low power. But that's not the case. In fact, what happens is B and D have all the power, and A, C and E are fairly powerless. We can easily see why A and E are powerless: they face a monopoly situation because they only have one actor to work with. And we can see why B and D have power: they have a monopoly situation going with A and E. But why is C powerless? The reason is that C is connected only to people who are connected to people who are poorly connected. B and D can always trade with A and E instead of C, so C can never drive a hard bargain with them. As a general rule, in these kinds of situations (where demand has been held constant), you can only have power if you are connected to people who have low power, and vice-versa.


Sources of Power


Ability to satisfy needs of others or withhold "hygiene" factors like health, freedom from pain


Ability to forgo own needs

  1. The more needs you have the more vulnerable to power use
  2. Get used to a certain lifestyle, start doing things just to maintain it
  3. Temper need for power, respect, money, etc.: go live with the monks

Ability to find alternatives to the people one depends on

  1. Organization that is too dependent on an individual can hire someone else with similar skills
  2. Example of the advice network with the low stake person who was so central
  3. Networking in the industry
  4. Restructuring so that services filled by a person are now filled another way
  5. Develop one's own skills so that oneself is an alternative source


Ability to reduce the alternatives of others

  1. Kill off rival drug dealers
  2. Develop unique "product line" of products, skills, behaviors that are valued but not generally available


Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: October 02, 2001 Go to Home page