Community Power Structure Research Paper

Academic Writing Service

Sample Community Power Structure Research Paper. Browse other research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. iResearchNet offers academic assignment help for students all over the world: writing from scratch, editing, proofreading, problem solving, from essays to dissertations, from humanities to STEM. We offer full confidentiality, safe payment, originality, and money-back guarantee. Secure your academic success with our risk-free services.

Two issues have been central to the study of urban politics and policymaking in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe: Who holds power within the community? And how much autonomy do urban policy makers have to make meaningful decisions within national and global systems. Al-though the phrase ‘community power structure’ is commonly used to describe these discussions, the use of the term ‘community’ is somewhat misleading, since the jurisdictional level analyzed is usually that of the city.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

1. Origins Of The Debate

Consideration of the question of who has power within cities began with the debate between elitists and pluralists that developed after the publication of Robert Dahl’s Who Governs? in 1961. Dahl examined the question of power in New Haven, Connecticut, by counting the participants in a series of important decisions. He focused on the issue areas of urban redevelopment, education, and political nominations and found that, while elites dominated in each area, only public officials subject to electoral sanctions had influence in all three. The system was therefore one of ‘dispersed inequalities.’ He further concluded that all social groupings had the potential to mobilize power resources. This finding was further elaborated by Nelson Polsby, who argued that urban society was ‘fractured into congeries of hundreds of small special interest groups, with incompletely overlapping memberships, widely diffused power bases, and a multitude of techniques for exercising influence on decisions salient to them’ (Polsby 1970, p. 118).

Polsby, in particular, contrasted the pluralist interpretation of urban power structure with elite theory, which contended that business leaders controlled public decision making. Hunter’s (1953) study of Atlanta, Georgia, was seen to epitomize the elitist viewpoint. Hunter had asked informants who they thought made the important decisions in Atlanta. Each person interviewed was required to name those with power and to provide the names of additional informants. Hunter found that a small group of people was named in relation to a number of decisional areas and that the nominal participants in decision making were only the agents of those holding real power. According to Polsby , Hunter’s use of this reputational method inevitably led to the result he found. Thus, the allegedly powerful had a reputation for power but did not necessarily really exercise power. In contrast, he claimed that the pluralists recorded actual behavior.

The pluralist contention of superior methodology, however, was challenged by Bachrach and Baratz (1970), who asserted that observing manifest behavior failed to capture ‘the hidden face of power.’ By exerting their authority behind the scenes or simply by shaping a set of expectations, truly powerful people structured the decisional agenda, insuring the exclusion of issues that could undermine their position. Community power, in this formulation, shifted from a set of overt actions involving the costly exercise of control to a more subtle manipulation of the context in which decision making took place.

2. Shifting Terms Of The Debate

During the 1970s the analysis of community power evolved in two directions, both in response to events ‘on the ground.’ The initial community power debate took place against the backdrop of quiescent cities seemingly governed by a broad consensus over the contours of policy. Then suddenly cities in both the United States and Europe became arenas of social conflict. Within the United States divisions occurred primarily along racial and ethnic lines, with minority groups protesting their disadvantaged status as bureaucratic clients, as losers under urban renewal programs, and as the objects of discrimination (Fainstein and Fainstein 1974). In Europe urban social movements, based in both working class and student-radical strata, rebelled against sclerotic bureaucracies and rule by notables. They aimed at increasing collective consumption—that is, at improving the level and quality of state-sponsored benefits, especially housing. On both sides of the Atlantic demands for greater citizen participation challenged pluralist conclusions that, within democratic polities, previous low levels of mobilization indicated broad satisfaction with governance.

Within the USA, heightened demands for state services, mobilizations around symbolic issues, and blocking of public programs by negatively affected groups led some observers to ask whether cities could be governed at all. Whereas earlier pluralists had regarded competition among groups as a benign exercise, this later group of ‘hyperpluralists’ regarded group conflict as counterproductive (Yates 1977, Wirt 1974, Judge 1995).

In contrast, many other urbanists responded to urban unrest by sympathizing with the protestors. In Europe, the rise of urban social movements stimulated the application of Marxist theory to urban spaces, as part of a more general incorporation of spatial relations into Marxist structuralism (see Harvey 1973, Castells 1977). As a consequence, the question of power in cities shifted from the issue of who makes decisions to what were the forces that determined who benefited from urban change (Harloe 1977, Pickvance 1976). Pluralists and elitists had debated over who had power within cities. Now the question became whether local policy makers could actually control the destiny of a place. Instead cities were seen as the outcome of the impersonal operations of capital using space to maximize profits. Thus, cities experienced the benefits of capital investment or the depredations of capital withdrawal depending on factors mainly beyond the control of local decision makers (Harvey 1985). Moreover, capitalists benefited from the very volatility and competitiveness that jeopardized the wellbeing of urban residents.

Within the Marxist framework, the structural dependence of the local state on capital meant that politicians had little choice but to defer to the wishes of capitalists in making policy decisions (Foglesong 1986). In other words, the reliance by public officials on private investors for jobs for their constituents and, especially in America, for support of their tax base meant they had to conform to the wishes of capitalists. Only if they insured a ‘good business climate’ could they entice business leaders to invest in their locality.

The Marxist critique prompted the rise of the political economy approach to studying community power; within the US this mode of analysis branched into right and left forks. On the right, Paul Peterson (1981) argued that city governments needed to compete for business investment and were powerless to carry out redistributional policies, since the latter would create a intolerable burden on business. Unlike those on the left who considered cities as hostage to capital, however, Peterson regarded the pursuit of economic development as in the interest of all city residents. Thus, like the pluralists he maintained that public policy was made within a general agreement on the merits of economic development programs.

On the left, political economists ran a spectrum from neo-Marxist to neo-Weberian to eclectic. The neo-Marxists were particularly concerned with the contradictory demands on the local state to, on the one hand, provide the basis for capital accumulation through construction of infrastructure and subsidies to business, and on the other, to legitimate capitalist domination through social welfare expenditures. The outcome of this balancing act was a fiscal crisis of the state (Alcaly and Mermelstein 1977, Tabb and Sawers 1984). Capitalist domination of local decision making also manifested itself in land use planning, where urban redevelopment programs provided the basis for land grabs and gentrification (Dear and Scott 1981, Smith 1991).

Other critical approaches to urban political economy focused on local decision makers rather than the more abstract logic of capital. While partly Marxist-inspired, these works resembled the earlier pluralist and elite analyses in using case studies to locate the actors and processes that produced unequal results within particular cities. Influential works identified urban ‘growth machines’ or ‘pro-growth coalitions’ as the dominant agent in urban decision making (Logan and Molotch 1987, Mollenkopf 1983); property developers were central figures in these groupings. Comparative analysis of American cities indicated that the character of urban regimes changed historically and that the period of urban conflict in the 1960s and 1970s was marked in many cities by ‘concessionary regimes’ that responded to previously excluded population groups. With the decline of overt protest, however, ‘conserving regimes,’ while not totally eliminating redistributional programs from the earlier period, increasingly responded to business interests (Fainstein et al. 1986). Thus, the nature of community power did not remain stable and could not be captured in an ahistorical analysis.

Attempts to apply the growth machine analysis to European cities found the concept less useful there (Harding 1994, 1995, Molotch and Vicari 1988). Because localities depended less on their own resources and government was considerably more centralized, the stakes of local politics were lower than in the United States. Nevertheless, some convergence toward the US model was found by Saunders (1979) in his study of development in Croydon (an outer borough of London).

As the US federal government withdrew from urban programs, city governments redefined their mission as promoting economic development rather than ad-dressing social problems (Judd and Swanstrom 1998). The competition for footloose capital intensified, and public officials devised a variety of programmatic mechanisms to assist business development, primarily relying on off-budget tax subsidies. A number of analyses examined the ‘public-private partnerships’ supporting economic development efforts and concluded that the private side dominated the partner-ships (Squires 1989, Beauregard 1989). Ultimately, however, the theoretical issue switched almost entirely from the question of who governed to the extent of local agency (Harloe et al. 1990)—that is, what difference could local actors make, especially those who were not members of the business elite.

3. Urban Regimes And Local Autonomy

Political economic analysis seemed to make moot the issue of community power by attributing urban transformations to the effects of global economic restructuring. The implication was that human agency could not affect the most important factors deter-mining people’s lives (Goldsmith 1995). Critics, how-ever, attacked the political economy approach as overly deterministic and pessimistic (Swanstrom 1993). They argued that local politics remained a meaningful endeavor and, like the early pluralists, that resources were available to be mobilized even by marginal groups. At the same time, however, analyses of the effects of African–American mayors on public policy indicated that changes in elected administrations did not change the basic contours of policy (Reed 1988). In particular, Clarence Stone’s (1989) study of Atlanta demonstrated the persistence of a stable regime favoring business interests even as control of city hall passed from the white elite to rhetorically militant African Americans.

Stone (1993) laid out a theory of urban regimes that became the prevalent approach to urban power structure at the end of the century. According to regime theory, local politics mattered, and who dominated at the local level affected the welfare of urban citizens. Stone outlined a typology of possible regimes that included low-income opportunity regimes as well as business-dominated and progressive middle class ones. A regime consisted of both public and private actors, and it cut across a broad range of issues rather than, as the pluralists argued, being an issue-specific coalition. Although regime theory shared with pluralist theory a focus on the interaction of local political groupings, it differed in that Stone attributed a ‘systemic bias’ to urban power networks. Business interests, because of their control over investment allocations, usually dominated, and it took extra-ordinary effort on the part of other groups to overcome this natural tendency.

Regime theory thus fused political economy and pluralism. Like political economy it did not separate politics and economics, and it was concerned with who benefited from policy decisions, not simply who made them. Like pluralist theory it stressed the importance of building political coalitions and assumed that local decision-making could change people’s lives. Stone (1993) also stressed that regime theory differed from pluralist theory in that it had a social production model of power—that is, power had to be created, was not simply a matter of control, and consisted of the ability to get things done. A careful reading of Who Governs? however, indicates that Dahl likewise emphasized the importance of coalition building; the mayor of New Haven was only able to achieve his urban renewal program through a process of social production similar to that described by Stone.

To date the application of regime theory has largely been restricted to American cities. Increasingly, how-ever, the study of urban politics has taken on a comparative dimension, and analysis of local regimes offers a promising framework for comparison (Stoker 1995). Rational choice theory is its principal competitor as a theoretical basis for urban analysis. But while rational choice offers a method of analyzing the content and effects of public policy decisions, it does not lend itself to the scrutiny of power relationships.

The evolution of theory always reflects the development of an initial set of ideas and then a response. At the same time, it responds to actual events and real political conflicts. Perhaps in no area of political science has the social basis of different theoretical formulations been more apparent. The political quietude of the 1950s and the hegemony of anti-communism within the West underlay the pluralist rejoinder to the radical implications of elite theory. The social movements of the sixties and seventies stimulated both the neo-Marxist argument and the hyper-pluralists’ fears. The economic restructuring of the 1980s and the subsequent prevalence of neo-liberal ideology have framed the turn-of-the-century division of labor between political economists, who continue to focus on issues of class, race, and power in cities, and rational choice theorists, who focus on questions of strategies and their results.


  1. Alcaly R E, Mermelstein D (eds.) 1977 The Fiscal Crisis of American Cities. Vintage, New York
  2. Bachrach P, Baratz M S 1970 Power and Poverty. Oxford University Press, New York
  3. Beauregard R A (ed.) 1989 Atop the Urban Hierarchy. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ
  4. Castells M 1977 The Urban Question. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. Castells M 1983 The City and the Grassroots. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  6. Dahl, R 1961 Who Governs? Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  7. Dear M, Scott A J (eds.) 1981 Urbanization and Urban Planning in Capitalist Society. Methuen, New York
  8. Fainstein S S, Fainstein N I 1974 Urban Political Movements. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  9. Fainstein S S, Fainstein N, Hill R C, Judd D R, Smith M P 1986 Restructuring the City, (rev. edn.) Longman, New York
  10. Foglesong R 1986 Planning the Capitalist City. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  11. Goldsmith M 1995 Autonomy and city limits. In: Judge D, Stoker G, Wolman H (eds.) Theories of Urban Politics. Sage, London
  12. Harding A 1994 Urban regimes and growth machines: Towards a cross-national research agenda. Urban Affairs Quarterly 29: 356–82
  13. Harding A 1995 Elite theory and growth machines. In: Judge D, Stoker G, Wolman H (eds.) Theories of Urban Politics. Sage, London
  14. Harloe M (ed.) 1977 Captive Cities. Wiley, London
  15. Harloe M, Pickvance C G, Urry J (eds.) 1990 Place, Policy, and Politics: Do Localities Matter? Unwin Hyman, Boston
  16. Harvey D 1973 Social Justice and the City. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  17. Harvey D 1985 The Urbanization of Capital. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  18. Hunter F 1953 Community Power Structure. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
  19. Judd D, Swanstrom T 1998 City Politics, 2nd edn. Longman, New York
  20. Judge D 1995 Pluralism. In: Judge D, Stoker G, Wolman H (eds.) Theories of Urban Politics. Sage, London
  21. Logan J, Molotch H 1987 Urban Fortunes. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  22. Mollenkopf J 1983 The Contested City. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  23. Molotch H, Vicari S 1988 Three ways to build: The development process in Japan and Italy. Urban Affairs Quarterly 24: 188–214
  24. Peterson P 1981 City Limits. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  25. Pickvance C G 1976 Urban Sociology. St Martin’s, New York
  26. Polsby N W 1970 Community Power and Political Theory. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  27. Reed A 1988 The black urban regime. In: Smith M P (ed.) Power, Community and the City. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ
  28. Saunders P 1979 Urban Politics. Hutchinson, London
  29. Smith N 1991 Uneven Development, 2nd edn. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  30. Squires G 1989 Unequal Partnerships. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
  31. Stoker G 1995 Regime theory and urban politics. In: Judge D, Stoker G, Wolman H (eds.) Theories of Urban Politics. Sage, London
  32. Stone C N 1989 Regime Politics. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS
  33. Stone C N 1993 Urban regimes and the capacity to govern: A political economy approach. Journal of Urban Affairs 15: 1–28
  34. Swanstrom T 1993 Beyond economism: Urban political economy and the postmodern challenge. Journal of Urban Affairs 15: 55–78
  35. Tabb W, Sawers L 1984 Marxism and the Metropolis. Oxford University Press, New York
  36. Wirt F M 1974 Power in the City. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  37. Yates D 1977 The Ungovernable City. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Conflict and Consensus Research Paper
Communitarianism Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get 10% off with the 24START discount code!