Use of Force & Gaining Power in Society

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
How have groups used force in the past to gain power? This lesson discusses the use of force as a social construct, defines the term, and gives specific examples of how it has been used to gain and hold power.

The Use of Force

The use of force has several different meanings (as a policy guiding law enforcement and military, or as a social construct), but the outcome is the same. The military and law enforcement follow specific criteria before they can use force in a situation. This use of force is not meant to give power to the user, but to quell a disturbance. The military guidelines state that they can only use force when it is used against them. Law enforcement uses force as a last resort when a situation has escalated beyond their use of warnings or other modes of persuasion. In both cases, the use of force is not meant to empower a specific group, but to maintain order.

However, throughout history societies have used force to gain power, which is how it becomes a social construct (a mechanism developed by society). Force can be seen as intimidation, creating a level playing field (as in nuclear détente - a diplomatic agreement between the US and Russia regarding nuclear weapons stockpiles), or as in genocide when the best result is seen as the elimination of opposing parties. Today, force is also a weapon that suits the ideologies of some groups.

Historical Use of Force

Nations have historically used force to get what they want. Greece was one of the earliest societies in which diverse people formed a league to combat other powers. Greek city-states such as Sparta and Athens formed Greece from their many individual states and became an ancient world power under Alexander the Great.

Ancient Roman society provides us an example of their use of force to gain power in two ways. The early Romans conquered land from England to India. They then conscripted natives into their armies to keep the public in line and Rome in power. Later, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the Roman Church used force to grab and maintain power. The Roman Catholic Church was at one time the most powerful religious and political force on the world.

The use of force to gain power could also be seen in early Islamic expansion across Africa and into Europe, and in the establishment of colonies. Muslim armies spread both their religion and their influence through conquest and Europeans found it difficult to oppose them. Across the world, colonization by European nations was secured by either eradicating native people or forcing them into servitude. Wherever it happened, the use of force was always one society pitting itself against another.

Modern Use of Force

In the United States, force has often been used to both maintain order and by groups to gain power. A prime example happened during the Civil Rights movement. Force had been used for decades by those in power, especially in the South, to ensure that the status quo was maintained. To gain power, many leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated peaceful protest (as had been successful in India under Mahatma Gandhi). However, other black leaders, such as Malcolm X, as well as the later Black Panther movement, advocated the use of force to gain power. In the end, peace was more effective in producing change.

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