In many ways, a society is shaped by how power is distributed among and used by different social groups. German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) developed definitions of the connected concepts of power and authority. Weber defined power as the ability of individuals or groups to achieve their goals, despite resistance from others. Power is thus the ability of people and groups, including nations, to make their own interests or concerns count above the competing interests of others. It is a major social dynamic that appears in all human societies. People who hold power in a society are more able to make their interests, needs, and values dominant within society. Powerful nations are more able to make their interests count on the world stage. Relationships of power are complex and can shift based on numerous factors. For instance, in the United States, workers in some industries, such as the auto industry, gained power in the early 20th century through labor unions. These labor unions used strategies such as organized strikes to achieve goals related to pay and working conditions, despite resistance from employers. Greater power at their places of employment provided these workers some economic, social, and political power as well. However, the power structure of the auto industry and the power structure of the country at large are both shaped by many forces. The auto industry was also able to exercise power, pushing its goals despite the resistance of workers. By the late 20th century, labor unions in the United States had lost power, although many of the achievements of the labor movement, such as rules relating to the length of the workday, had become norms.
Weber stressed that power involves achieving desired results despite resistance from others. In some cases, power is achieved through violent means. For instance, a nation can use military violence to gain power over another nation. Armed revolutionaries can use violence to take power from a leader or government. However, power does not necessarily include violence or the use of force. While power is strongly associated with governments and government institutions, power is a factor in all human interactions. Parents have power over their children. Nations have power over their citizens. Wealthier nations have power over poorer and weaker nations. Even when people or groups are considered equals, power dynamics are at play. For example, in workplace relationships power exists between managers and lower-level workers. These differences are based on a wide range of factors, including competence and seniority as well as facets of identity including age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability or disability. Institutions and groups that hold power affect people's wealth, opportunities, and access to resources. The distribution of power is a key part of the structure of any society. Social expectations about what it means to hold power and beliefs about the responsible exercise of power help to create and maintain social structure. Within a society, individuals and social groups have different interests—cultural, social, and economic needs, goals, and desires. People and groups work to gain and exercise power in order to advance those interests and to meet needs. Consider the needs and interests of transgender individuals. Prior to the 21st century, transgender people generally were expected to remain invisible in U.S. society. Starting in the late 20th century, individuals and groups began to push for recognition, acceptance, and an end to discrimination. Other groups and individuals resisted this attempt to gain rights for transgender people. In particular, many Christian groups objected to the acceptance of transgender people in society. In a 2017 survey of U.S. adults, 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that Americans had gone too far in accepting transgender people. Resistance to the attempts to gain rights for the transgender community include formal and informal measures. For example, employers have brought court cases arguing for the right to fire transgender employees. Informal means include complaints from some parents about which bathrooms transgender children use at school. While violence occurs against transgender people, much of the struggle for power occurs through legislation and court cases, as well as in the surrounding culture.