Power is the ability to get one’s own way. Whether the “one” is an individual, a group, a category, or a nation, when we say one has power, we mean that he can do what he wants and get what he desires, regardless of whether other people agree or disagree. For example, most people are able to cross a room to get a glass of water—they have the power to do so—but a bedridden person in a nursing home cannot. He lacks the capacity to satisfy this simple desire, and some other person must assist. If a country has power vis-à-vis another country, it can go in and take the resources, and the second country will be helpless to prevent it.
Let’s call one unit, anything from an individual to a country, A and a second unit B. Then we can express a series of questions formally: What role, if any, does culture play in the ability of A to dominate B? What role, if any, does culture play in the ability of B to resist being dominated by A? Now let’s introduce a third unit, C, and ask, What role, if any, does culture play in C’s interpretation of and response to what has taken place between A and B?
We may address these questions starting with the social scientific definition of culture set out in the first chapter. Recall Clifford Geertz’s (1973:89) definition of culture: “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” From this definition it follows that people’s culturally instilled knowledge and attitudes would prompt them to accept certain power arrangements and reject others.