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Power is a central concept in the social and political sciences. It is also commonplace in everyday discussions: We often refer to a political party getting into power, or to the power of governments or individuals to perform a particular action or achieve a certain result, or to someone having power over another, or to a country being a superpower. Power would appear to be self-evident. However, power is an extremely elusive concept, and there are numerous disagreements over its definition, foundation, function, and operation. Power remains, as Steven Lukes says, an “essentially contested” concept (1974, p. 26).
Power is usually associated with the bringing about of consequences. However, what these consequences are, whether or not they are intended, how they are actually brought about, who brings them about and in whose interests—are all a matter of unresolved debate across a number of different disciplines. It is not possible here to give an exhaustive list of these controversies, or to touch on all the many questions regarding the nature and exercise of power. There are, however, several major areas of contention that should be mentioned:
- Should power be seen in terms of the actions or capacities of individual agents, or should it be seen as deriving from broader social structures?
- Is power a resource or capacity that can lie dormant, or does it only exist when it is exercised?
- Does power refer to the ability to achieve certain desired outcomes, or is it a relationship between agents where one exercises power over another?
- Does power necessarily involve domination, coercion, or constraint, or can it be based on consent?
- Is power exercised only where the consequences of a certain action are intended, or do unintended or unforeseen consequences also count as evidence of the exercise of power?
The remainder of the entry will explore a number of key theories and debates about power, which refer to several of the questions outlined above. It will also trace a certain logical development in the theorization of power from pluralist-behavioralism to structuralism to poststructuralism.
The Three Dimensions of Power
The idea that power has three dimensions or “faces” comes from Lukes, who argues that the formula for power—A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do—can be seen as operating in three distinguishable, yet interrelated, ways. The first face of power is usually associated with Robert Dahl who, along with Polsby (1963) and Wolfinger (1971), tried to show that power in the U.S. political system was distributed pluralistically. In doing so, they were opposing the “ruling elite” theorists such as Mills (1956), who believed that power was concentrated in the hands of a dominant group in society. In his study of local politics in the New Haven area of Connecticut— which he took as a microcosm of the broader distribution of power in American society—Dahl argued that there was no empirical evidence to support the idea of a ruling elite, and that, in fact, different groups were influential over different areas of policymaking (1961). Dahl’s analysis contained the implicit idea that there are plural centers of power in a democratic society. More importantly, its central focus was on decision-making behavior in cases where there is an observable conflict of interests. For Dahl, power is the ability to affect another’s decision-making: A exercises power over B when he can get B to make a decision that he would not have otherwise made.
However, this idea of power as decision-making was criticized for being too one-dimensional. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz argued that power also has a hidden or covert dimension—a “second face” (1962). Power involves not only decision-making, but also what they call nondecision-making. This refers to the ability of dominant elites to “set the political agenda” in such a way that certain issues are prevented from being aired, thus precluding the very possibility of a decision being made about them. In situations of conflict, there is often a “mobilization of bias” against certain interests. The mass media would be an example of this: Whether consciously or unconsciously, it reinforces dominant values and practices, thereby delegitimizing or marginalizing opposing viewpoints and preventing potential issues from becoming actual issues. In this paradigm, power operates not necessarily by directly influencing B’s decision-making, but by preventing B from raising concerns that might be detrimental to A’s preferences.
Lukes, however, contends that even this understanding of power was limited, because, like the pluralistbehavioralist view, it assumed that power is only exercised in situations of observable conflict between different interests. But what if it were the case that power functioned in such a way as to prevent conflict from arising in the first place (1974)? Here Lukes points to an even more insidious dimension of power—its “third face”—where power operates not simply by A getting B to do what he does not want to do, but by shaping B’s thoughts and desires in such a way that B does what A wants him to do as if it were a free and autonomous act. In other words, power may operate as a form of subtle thought-control or manipulation, and may cause someone to act, not according to his own interests, but in the interests of those who are exercising this power. What is being suggested here is that what we think we want and is in our best interests may not actually be so—our preferences may be shaped by external influences. Here we might think of the advertising industry, which sells us products that we do not necessarily need or even want, by manipulating our desires. This distinction Lukes draws between subjective interests and real interests is problematic, as discussed below, but his analysis of power is nonetheless interesting for the way it moves away from the domain of individual decisionmaking behavior, toward some notion of an overall structuring of the ideas and values that shape individual behavior.
Structuralism and Marxism
The structuralist argument is that power derives not so much from individual or even collective agents, but from their place in a broader social structure. In other words, it is the structural position of agents that allows them to exercise power over others. Marxists like Nicos Poulantzas argue, for instance, that in a relationship of class conflict, the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie—and its capacity to realize its interests—derives from its structural location within the capitalist system. In his debate with Ralph Miliband—who suggested that the class bias of the state could be explained by the privileged background and class allegiances of those who manned the state apparatus (1969)—Poulantzas argued that Miliband’s view places too much emphasis on individual behavior, and neglects the effects of structural relations in the capitalist system (1973). In Poulantzas’s view, power derives from the ensemble of structures that make up capitalist society, which shapes relations between classes and allows one class to dominate others.
Foucault and Poststructuralism
Michel Foucault further radicalizes the concept of power by taking it beyond questions of both individual behavior and structure. For Foucault, power is a non-derivative concept that cannot be reduced to the preferences of individual agents, economic classes, or even the structural requirements of the capitalist system. Rather, power must be studied in its own right. Here he introduces a number of important methodological innovations. Firstly, the focus must be on the “how” of power—because power only exists when it is being exercised. There is no mysterious substance called power that can lie dormant without being exercised: Indeed, Foucault goes so far as to suggest that power “as such” does not exist (1994, p. 336). Secondly, power is relational, rather than an individual or structural capacity: That is to say, power is a mutual relation between agents—both individual and collective. Power is a way of acting on the actions of others. This implies, thirdly, a certain freedom of action on the part of both agents in a power relationship. The power relationship presupposes that agents are able to act differently, that they have a range of actions open to them, and that power involves constraining or influencing these actions. Foucault argues, for instance, that slavery is not a power relationship because there is no possibility of the slave acting differently. In this sense, power is not a zero-sum game as many suggest: Rather, it involves a dynamic interplay between agents. Fourthly, then, while power is not the same as coercion, neither is it a matter of consent, as Arendt (1969) or Parsons (1969) would claim. While power constrains, there is always the possibility of there being resistance to it, even in situations of domination, where the normally free and reciprocal flow of power becomes congealed.
However, the question of resistance in Foucault’s theory of power is also ambiguous and problematic (see Newman 2001; 2004). This is because Foucault sees power as being not only repressive and prohibitive, but also productive: Power produces and incites (1978). Unlike Lukes, who sees power as distorting the subject’s “real interests,” Foucault believes that this notion of “real interests” is an essentialist illusion manufactured by power itself. Power intersects with discourses and “regimes of truth” to construct the very identity of the subject. While this avoids the dubious notion of “real interests,” it would seem, at the same time, to undermine the idea of a firm ontological and normative foundation for resistance to power: The subject who resists power is at the same time constructed by it. Foucault’s theory of power raises as many questions as it answers, and it should not be thought that he has revealed some elusive “fourth dimension” of power beyond which we cannot proceed any further. However, by focusing on the “how” of power, and by seeing power in terms of relationships rather than as a substance or capacity, Foucault has considerably advanced our understanding of the concept.
- Arendt, H 1969. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- Bachrach, Peter, and Morton Baratz. 1962. Two Faces of Power. American Political Science Review 56: 947–952.
- Dahl, Robert 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Foucault, M 1978. Histoire de la sexualité [The History of Sexuality]. Vol. I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.
- Foucault, M 1994. The Subject and Power. In Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Vol. 3, ed. James Faubion, 326–348. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.
- Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: M
- Miliband, 1969. The State in Capitalist Society. New York: Basic Books.
- Mills, Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Newman, S 2001. From Bakunin to Lacan: AntiAuthoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
- Newman, S 2004. New Reflections on the Theory of Power: A Lacanian Perspective. Contemporary Political Theory 3 (2): 148–167.
- Parsons, T 1969. Politics and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
- Polsby, Nelson W. Community Power and Political Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Poulantzas, N 1973. Pouvoir politique et classes sociales de l’état capitaliste [Political Power and Social Classes]. Trans. Timothy O’Hagan. London: New Left Books, 1973.
- Wolfinger, Raymond 1971. Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics. American Political Science Review 65: 1063–1080.
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