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Concept file

, Grenoble, July 2013

Integrative Power

A useful concept for conflict transformation, developed by Kenneth Boulding.

In 1989, Kenneth Boulding, an economist and one of the founders of the field of peace and conflict research, wrote an important book about the different aspects forms of power people and organisations can exercise. The three “faces of power” according to him are destructive, productive and integrative power. This article is an attempt to sum up some of Boulding’s ideas on integrative power and to explore the use of this idea for conflict transformation.

The table below is an attempt to provide a quick overview of the different forms of power, the behaviour that is typical for each form of power and in what way institutions rely on a combination of different sources of power.

Form of powerBehaviorInstitutional
Destructive power: Power to destroy/hurtThreat power : “You do something I want or I will do something you don’t want”.Political-military institutions are primarily based on threat systems and destructive power. These institutions however also rely on: Exchange to fulfill their material needs (economic); Respect and legitimacy of leaders or institutions (integrative).
Productive or Economic power: Power to createExchange power: “You do something I want and I will do something you want”.Economic institutions such as households, firms, businesses etc. Productive and exchange power is at the core of the power of these institutions. These institutions however also have a: threat component (slavery); are in need of: morale and legitimacy to function properly.
Integrative power: Ability to federatePower of Love: “You do something for me because you love, respect or care for me”.Social Institutions such as families, churches, religions and charitable organisations are primarily based on integrative or social power which is the capacity to make people identify with some organisation to which they give their loyalty. These institutions are supported by grants rather than through direct exchange. They also have a threat component in the form of involuntary grants (tax), the threat of hellfire in religious institutions and the practice of shaming in social interactions.

As indicated in the table, integrative power, the ability to federate, is one of three forms of power over which people and organisations dispose. The other two are destructive and ecconomic power. While destructive power refers to the power to hurt or to destroy and economic power makes reference to the power to create and to exchange, integrative power involves the power to create relationships, to bring people together, to build organisations, inspire loyalty and develop legitimacy. Relationships of love and respect, for example, rest on integrative power and social groups use integrative power to gain members. Aspects of integrative power on a personal level are: reciprocity, respect , love of variety and legitimacy.

Power and Conflict

An in-depth look into the different dimensions of power is very relevent for understanding and transforming conflicts because distribution of power is at the root of most conflicts. Power is understood here, on an individual level, as the ability to get what one wants and on an organisational level as the ability to achieve common ends. Conflicts arise, according to Boulding, when a shift in power takes place at the benefit of one party but at the detriment of the other. It is a situation where at least two parties, A and B, perceive a change, that is in the power of somebody, as benefitting or increasing the welfare of one while injuring or diminishing the welfare of the other.

Conflicts become protracted when A pushes the boundary toward B, B pushes it back toward A and A toward B again. In order to resolve a conflict, parties need to come to an agreement over the limitations of their power. Third parties can be helpful in finding a solution to a conflict by imposing further boundaries, through threat, on any party who trespasses the limits. For example, in a conflict between two States a third State can threaten to suspend its bilateral aid program.

Sources of power of the most influential people

Boulding defends the thesis that leaders that have had the greatest impact on human history are rather those that rely on integrative power than those counting on economic or threat power. To support this argument, he gives as an example the founders of major religions - Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – but in the last century we can think of Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. None of these leaders relied on one form of power only because in reality we draw on a combination of sources (of power) with some more dominant than others.

To test this argument it is useful to have a look at the US magazine Times which made a selection of 100 individuals who, for better or worse, most influenced the the 20th century. These 100 people are are divided over five broad categories: Leaders & Revolutionaries, Scientists & Thinkers, Builders & Titans, Artists & Entertainers, and Heroes & Icons.

10 of the most influential Leaders and Revolutionaries of the 20th century

  • David Ben-Gurion

  • Winston Churchill

  • Mohandas Gandhi

  • Mikhail Gorbachev

  • Adolf Hitler

  • Ho Chi Minh, first President of North Vietnam

  • Pope John Paul II, religious leader

  • Ayatullah R. Khomeini, leader of Iran’s revolution

  • Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader

  • Vadimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union

Albert Einstein was chosen person of the century and the only four people to shape both the 20th and the 21st century according Times magazine are: Bill Gates, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey. We could study for each of them what their power relied on. What mixture between the capacity to create (Bill Gates), to instill fear (Hitler) and/or to federate (Martin Luther King)? Legitimacy is an important aspect of the latter, the power in favour of integration. According to Boulding, “without some sort of legitimacy, neither threat power nor economic power can be realised in any large degree”. Even Hitler, who has come to be associated with the largest destruction of people and communities in the 20th century also had some component of integrative power. Bouldng explains that the integrative power of military culture relies on its assimilation to values such as courage, self-sacrifice, obedience, commitment and a sense of community.

What all of the above mentioned people shared was the ability to communicate, which can be seen as underlying all forms of power. Integrative behavior nevertheless creates linkages and builds up communication networks that extend far and wide over time and space.

Integrative power and identity

Integrative power can play a role between individuals and from there on involve larger groups of people. For Boulding, “the spread of integrative structures is the phenomenon of conversion, which represents, in the first place, a change of identity on the part of the converted, and, second, a new identity that is related to an identification with an already integrative structure or group”.

Important in understanding when people are open for conversion, is the “empty niche” concept, which draws on ecology theory.

Empty niche:

“In any ecological system there are empty niches, that is species that wuld be able to persist and have an equilibrium population if they existed. Where there is a population of human beings that is dissatisfied with their existing niches and questioning the legitimacy of existing identities and institutions, opportunities for conversion may exist if there is a converter or missionary. The slow devay of the legittimacy of the Roman Empire and the Roman gods clearly opened up a niche for Christianity in Europe.”

We can draw a parallel between the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam in Europe in the 21st century. Being Muslim provides a religious identity to a young generation whose parents or grandparents arrived as immigrants in one of the Western- European countries. It is an alternative to a national identity, the latter being closely associated to the societies from which these youths continue to feel excluded. In this example the feeling of alienation is an empty niche for the spead of Islam as in important marker of identity. The source of the integrative power of organisations is based on the degree to which the personal identity of the members involved is bound up with their perception of the identity of the community/organisation as a whole.

Boulding says that the role of integrative power in maintaining structures is both the most important, and the least recognized or understood of hypetheses about what makes these structures last.

A new integrative structure might also arise in the case of two clashing forces. We can see this in the case of civil wars, which typically result in a decline of power of both parties and their replacement by a more unifying power structure.


The concept of integrative power is of great importance for understanding conflict transformation because it teaches us about the dynamics of keeping societies together, about the federation of citizens, but also about how new alternatives may arise in the case of civil wars and empty niches in society, when needs of citizens are not met. Boulding reminds us however that in reality the exercise of power is always a combination between several forms.