The Nature of Power

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The Nature of Power

A central concern of sociology is that of power - how individuals and groups secure their goals through interaction with others. Relationships of power can be organized around a variety of institutions, but in Britain, two seem of major importance:

  1. The economy (market power) - the ability to use property or labour - is crucial in determining access to many of society's material resources.
  2. The state (political power) - the right to enforce commands with the backing of the law - has become increasingly pervasive through many different areas of social life.

Political power

Thus a study of this area of the syllabus requires a good grasp of three key debates:

  1. The nature of power.
  2. The role and extent of the state.
  3. Conflicting accounts of the distribution of power in British society.

In any social system, it is a fact that some give orders whist others obey. The ability to command obedience is defined as power.

Power generally stems from three sources:

  1. Physical sanction.
  2. Material power, based on control over resources such as wages or services.
  3. Symbolic or normative power based on the allocation and withholding of socially desired rewards such as esteem or status.

While power ultimately rests on the threat of coercion, in most political systems some people develop the right to give orders, which they generally expect to be obeyed. Power thus becomes authority when it is recognised as legitimate - the right to give the order is accepted usually because those obeying the order believe there is some common good to be served by obedience.

Weber distinguishes three types of authority:

1. Traditional authority: This depends upon the acceptance of the sanctity of immemorial traditions. Those who exercise power are obeyed because they continue tradition. Monarchies are classic examples of this type of authority.

The Queen

2. Rational - legal authority: Obedience is given to the impersonal order of norms and regulations, which define the status of the person issuing the command. Subordinates obey commands because they accept that the orders are legitimate by virtue of the position held by the person giving the orders.

3. Charismatic authority: In extra-ordinary situations a new form of authority - charismatic authority may emerge, based on the personal characteristics of an individual who is regarded as having exceptional personal qualities.

While this typology is a vital contribution to distinguishing different types of authority and the basis on which that authority is turned into power, it is of limited use in analysing power in contemporary society, precisely because it is based on the grounds on which decisions are obeyed.

To fully understand the nature of power in a society, and certainly to appreciate the complexities of the argument concerning theories of the distribution of power in society, we need to move beyond a surface account of the basis of decision taking, and the justifications for obedience. To do this, we need first to look at two competing models of power in society.

Functionalist writers use a consensus model of society. The norms and values of society are generally agreed. Value consensus ensures shared values and collective goals; consequently, the more a society is able to meet collective goals, the more power it has. Thus, a variable-sum model of power is proposed. In the functionalist model, power is held by society as a whole. It is a social resource.

Marxists believe that particular groups for their own benefit, and at the expense of others - hold power in society a zero-sum model of power. The dominant group uses power to further its own interests, which conflict with the rest of society. In the Marxist model, power lies in the economic infrastructure, which is owned and controlled by a minority for its own interests. This minority constitutes a ruling class. The acceptance of ruling class dominance is an aspect of false consciousness and ideological hegemony. The inequalities that stem from the relation to the means of production extend into other areas of social life - this unequal relationship is reflected in the legal system, the medical system and education, for example.

  1. From Weber: The idea that there are different types of political power, and a typology of the basis on which decisions are obeyed.
  2. From functionalists: The idea that power is a system resource and the assumption that decisions are obeyed because the members of a society recognise them as being in the collective good.
  3. From Marxists: The assertion that people who have economic power use power in an exploitative manner, and that people are somehow unaware that they are being exploited. The beginning of the idea that power can be exercised without people knowing that it is being used, and moreover often used to obtain ends that do not accord with their best interests. The idea, then, is that some forms of power are hidden.

Weber's contribution - a surface consideration of power - was to make a distinction between power (the ability of an actor to gain his or her will even against the resistance of others) and domination (the probability that a particular command will be obeyed). Domination is a power relationship that has become regularized. It involves sets of social relations in which one party has established routine command over another such that he or she is rarely challenged. Orders are obeyed as a matter of course.

Once it becomes clear that we need to move beyond an analysis of which individuals have, or do not have power, then we can utilise domination as a way of describing the way that power can be exercised through social systems. It is clear that power cannot be adequately theorised at the individual level. Steven Lukes brought some of these theoretical issues together.

In his book Power: A Radical Approach (1974), Lukes criticises the pluralist conception of power because it is one-dimensional - it looks only at observable behaviour. He also criticises the approach of Bachrach and Baratz (1962), which he calls 'two-dimensional'. That is this approach considers both decisions (one dimension) and non-decisions (second dimension).

Lukes develops a third dimension. This approach focuses not only on what people do or do not do, but also on the systems of domination in which they exercise their power. An important aspect of this third dimension is that power may be exercised unintentionally.

It is clear that recent debates over the sociology of the state basically revolve around the relationship between economic power and political power - that is systems of power. It is also evident that both types have become extended, centralised and consolidated over the last century.

A relatively few large banks and multinational companies now dominate the economy.

The state has expanded its scope and scale of its interventions in our lives, through its control of large sections of the economy, its responsibility for welfare provision, its control of information and its use of the military and the police.


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