Power Distance

Power Distance

the extent to which members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally

The way in which power is distributed varies from culture to culture, with some cultures exhibiting a much greater separation between those with power and those without. To quote George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Some cultures lean toward egalitarianism and equality (what Hofstede called a small power distance), while other cultures lean toward elitism, where a few members of society control the subordinate masses (a large power distance).

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in cultures with small versus large power distances:

Small Power Distance

  1. Inequality is wrong and should be reduced if possible
  2. Hierarchy is needed to maintain order, but not permanent
  3. Power should be used legitimately and everyone is under the same rules of law
  4. Independence (from parents)
  5. Decentralization
  6. Subordinate workers expect to be consulted

Large Power Distance

  1. Inequality is considered a normal part of society
  2. Superiors are a different (superior) kind of people
  3. Power comes first, good/evil comes after
  4. Respect (for parents)
  5. Centralization
  6. Subordinate workers expect to be told what to do

Hofstede measured Power Distance on what he called the Power Distance Index (PDI), which ranged from 1-100, 1 representing cultures with small power distances and 100 representing cultures with large power distances. He observed that cultures with small power distances tended to be more democratic, had less income inequality, a larger middle class, those in power tended to be younger, and innovations were more frequently proposed by subordinate members. Conversely, cultures with large power distances tended by be more oligarchical, had greater income inequality, a small middle class, those in power tended to be older, and innovations necessitated support by the hierarchy.

Disrupt This!

Power has become an incredibly central consideration in anthropology. The acceptance of Foucault’s philosophy and a notion of power as a diffuse force infusing all encounters and ways of thinking themselves is a key consideration. Some important questions to consider:

  • What institutions (particularly those that are not state sanctioned) hold/wield power in different contexts? How so?
  • What power differentials exist and how do they manifest?
  • How does power (or lack thereof) influence, reinforce, or create norms and ideas surrounding gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age?
  • How do differentials of power impact collaborations or the generation of research?

It is important for designers to familiarize themselves with the power structures in play within a culture so they can better understand the regulating bodies which drive cultural norms and the ways people react to this regulation. It also helps to know the proper channels through which design must be filtered.

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