Relational Theories of Power by Maral Cavner

The relational theory of power is used as a way to describe status in one’s interpersonal relationships.  According to the authors of the textbook, Interpersonal Conflict, the theory is not used to characterize power status in situations concerning physical power and/or the use of violence, but instead “power is a property of the social relationship rather than the quality of the individual” (Hocker and Wilmot 116).  In other words, power is not something one owns, but instead is something that develops in the specific relationships that exist with another individual.  As Hocker and Wilmot concisely, but clearly put it, “power is a product of the communication relationship” (Hocker and Wilmot 116).  What contributes to the production of power?  Hocker and Wilmot explain that within the specific relationships qualities such as networking skills, love and affection, and economic resources result in one party “giving” power to the other party engaged in a conflict (Hocker and Wilmot 116).  Given the fluid nature that characterizes most instances of conflict, power dynamics respond accordingly and are equally as fluid and changing, both within that specific conflict in that specific relationship and in other relationships as well.  In other words, the power I start with in a conflict with my best friend Lauren can very easily (and very likely) change by the end of the conflict and has no reflection on my status or holding of power in my conflict with with either of my parents, or anyone else for that matter.  Further, Hocker and Wilmot go on to explain that “power is based on one’s dependence on resources or currencies that another person controls, or seems to ““possess”” (Hocker and Wilmot 116).

Individual power currencies are determined by “how much your particular resources are valued by the other persons in a relationship context” (Hocker and Wilmot 119).  For example, I was recently in Brasil with my family, a country where the English was not commonly spoken (at least in my own experience).


I have taken four years of Spanish classes, but because Portuguese is the dominant language of the country and because Spanish is not the currency that my family needed, my currency to speak Spanish was not as valuable as it would have been had we traveled to a Spanish speaking country, such as Spain.  In other words, your power currencies are only as valuable as the demand for them around you.  A lovely man who was with us in our travel group to Brasil, Frank, who spoke a great amount of conversational Portuguese, thus potentially maintained some level of power over me in my relationship with him because of his ability to speak the country’s dominant language.


Had we been traveling around Spain or any other Spanish country, the statuses would have been reversed.  To apply the power currencies concept to an article by renowned scholar Greta Foff Paules, when examining the power currencies in the restaurant one can identify that the managers have resource control over the waitresses because they are responsible for providing them with their wages earned, number of hours assigned to work, and whether or not they keep their jobs.  Customers also have the power currency of resource control in that they control whether or not they pay and tip the waitresses which also could impact the salary that the managers make (thus indicating that the customers potentially have a power currency over the managers as well).  However, the waitresses and the managers have a resource control power currency over the customer by the decision of whether or not to serve them well or at all.  The power currency of interpersonal linkages exists in the form of liaison exchanges in that the waitress can serve as a facilitator to connect the customers with the manager.  Many of the waitresses have the power currency of communication skills, which can be seen when they talk about the extensive lengths they will go to in order to make their customer feel like they are the center of the world with kind remarks, extreme politeness, and eagerness to please (all things that increase the likelihood of a larger tip).  A fourth example of a type of power currency is expertise.  “Expertise currencies are special skills or knowledge someone else values” (Hocker and Wilmot 121).  Waitresses and managers hold this power currency through their knowledge of how to work within and run a restaurant which is a valuable skill to the customers who dine there.  Additionally, the expertise of the waitresses is beneficial to the manager and ownership of the restaurant in that good service will likely bring more customers to eat there.

Hocker and Wilmot define three distinctive types of power, all of which can be seen through the Paules article: designated, distributive, and integrative.  Designated power “comes from your position, such as being a manager, the mother or father of a family, or the leader of team” (Hocker and Wilmot 105).  In other words, your power is granted to you based upon the position to which you are assigned or hold.  The waitresses hold designated power in that their job is to attend to the customers while they dine at the restaurant.  Likewise, the customers at the restaurant have designated power in that they are the ones paying (and tipping) to be served.  When the waitresses sign up for the most lucrative shifts or for the busiest stations or pre-bus their tables, their designated power as waitresses does not change, as they are still waitresses, but they do place themselves in a position with more opportunity for larger tips.  The article references that previous studies have analyzed the past efforts of waitresses to, although these efforts ended up being mostly fruitless, “con, coerce, compel, or otherwise manipulate a customer into relinquishing a bigger tip” which would be indicative of another type of power: distributive (Paules 193).

Distributive power, “focuses on power over or against the other party.  For example, if you see dominance as the key to power, you see power as distributive” (Hocker and Wilmot 105).  This type of power is characterized in a very Party A versus Party B type of scenario, where you either allow yourself to be manipulated or forced into a lower power position or you dominate the other party involved in the relationship.  From the work of previous studies that Paules references early on, the waitresses attempt to manipulate the dynamics so that they might receive a higher tip which is characteristic of distributive power.

The third type of power defined by Hocker and Wilmot, integrative power, exists within the understanding that “all parties in a dispute have power” (Hocker and Wilmot 105).  This integrative type of power, in contrast with the “versus” type mentality of distributive power, “focus on ““both/and””–each party has to achieve something in the relationship” (Hocker and Wilmot 105).  Integrative power can be seen in the restaurant by the power that customer has over giving a tip to the waitress, the waitresses having power over whether or not to serve or provide good service to the customer (based off of their previous interactions with this individual thus showing a balance of power over the customer), the managers can refuse to serve customers in their show of a balance of power over the customer, and/or the waitresses can quit thus showing their balance of power over management (perhaps the managers serving individuals that the waitressing staff has had problems with in the past could cause this).  Expanding on this definition of power, the authors explain that they call this view the “relational view” of power, “which accounts for how all conflict parties see power” (Hocker and Wilmot 105).

The article and situations described by Paules support the relational theory of power and are examples of relational power between the waitresses, their managers, and the customers which come to be attended to by these employees.  This is demonstrated throughout the article, but specifically through the pre-dynamics which determine who gets what shift and where and by how the more experienced waitresses influence the newer waitresses in order to gain the advantage.  Once the customer arrives the waitress and the customer are both dependent on each other, which might go against the common assumption that customers hold all the power over waitresses.  As discussed by Paules, waitresses can refuse to serve (which is a power currency itself) an individual who has tipped or treated them (or their coworkers) poorly in the past or did not tip at all, or at the very least provide poor service to them (a very fluid way to execute their power).  While this may be the case with some customers, it is not the case with all of them, further indicating the validity of the relational theory of power’s point that each specific relationship is different and does not determine the power distributions in other relationships.  Within each specific relationship a balance of power can (more likely) be achieved through communication.  As the authors of our textbook Interpersonal Conflict describe it, “Communicating about the value you offer another is one way increasing your power; the other becomes more dependent on you, and thus you have more power in that relationship” (Hocker and Wilmot 118).  Applied specifically to the restaurant world, communication could occur between all of the players: the managers could communicate with the waitresses, the waitresses could communicate between themselves, the customers could communicate to the waitresses, and the customers could also communicate to the managers (and of course, vice versa in each scenario).  Towards the end of the article, Paules discusses specific examples of communication being used to balance out power when waitresses call out the customer(s) for their poor behavior towards them and their coworkers.  As one waitress, named Nera, who confronted a customer summed it up, “I don’t need your bullshit.”  That is certainly a direct way to use communication, but honestly, it sounded like those specific customers deserved a wake-up call given how they treated those individuals around them and who were providing them with a service they did not have to.

The author of this article, Greta Foff Paules, warned us that after reading ““Getting” and “Making” a Tip” we would never think of restaurant dynamics the same way again and she was most certainly right.  I really enjoyed this article!

Hocker, Joyce L., and William W. Wilmot. Interpersonal Conflict. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.

Paules, G. F. (2006). “Getting” and “making” a tip. In G. Massey (ed.)., Readings for sociology. pp. 193- 201). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.