Power In Society Research Paper

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Power has been seen as an ‘essentially contested’ concept (Lukes 1974). Some of the major recent contours of this contestation will be addressed in this entry.

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1. Weber: Ideal Types Of Rule And Power

At the core of modernism, according to Weber, lies the rationalization of various institutional arenas such as the market, technology, law, state, the growing pervasiveness of rational calculation in all spheres of life, and the disenchantment of more spiritual or superstitious forms of calculation. Disenchantment means exposure to a world in which meaningfulness is never ‘given.’ Instead, meanings clash, struggle against the resistance of others and are never wholly secure. Rational action consists precisely in the capacity to respond to the uncertainties of a world without meaning. Analytically, he conceived of three main types of rule around which rational action might revolve: principles of charisma, tradition, or rational legality. Each of these three types is a source of a particular type of Herrschaft (authority, or in better translation, domination).

In Weber’s view, rationality had only a limited number of sources. It might derive from those few individuals who choose to impose value and meaning upon the world by confronting the world as something other than resolutely unyieldingly, absolutely and unbreakably cast in a mold. There were precious few such people in Weber’s vision, other than charismatic leaders. Charisma is often identified with historical figures regarded as ordained with exceptional grace and a sense of calling that they were able to transmit and project to others, such as Jesus. Charisma is not a purely historical category, however, but it is only the rare charismatic leader, whose personal grace, sense of calling, duty, and devotion to some ultimate ideal is unshakeable, who would be able to impose such meaning on life. Hence, charisma was one of the key bases of authority that Weber identified. Charisma is typically something above the grubby theater of mundane political wheeling and dealing. In terms of modern life we might think of celebrities such as Princess Diana who were able to parlay their celebrity into a passionate social advocacy on behalf of the victims of landmines and in so doing, effect substantial changes in government policies. Here was a charismatic celebrity for the modern age—especially in her death. Clearly, in modern times, celebrity and charisma are closely related but by no means the same. Often they become confused: the cult of the personality that modern leaders like Mao, Stalin, and Hitler cultivated were deliberate attempts to use tight control of the state to fashion and stage-manage a celebrity that transcended the political sphere and which sought to invest them with charisma.

Tradition functions as another ideal type, best seen in claims to authority based on lineage or dynasty, in principles of ‘blood and breeding’ or exclusion from opportunities to claim authority because of the lack of such blood and breeding. The succession principles of monarchy, or inheritance rights attached to property, are prime examples of rule by tradition. Most pervasive, however, as a form of authority, was what Weber took as the quintessential modality of modern rule: rational-legal bureaucracy, where rule is conducted according to abstract principles. The dominance of what Weber referred to as the rational-legal does not overwhelm all other bases for rule and authority. However, its pervasiveness is often summed up today in a popular fear of ‘economic rationalism,’ referring to those situations where only a legally mandated economic calculus is applied to policy formulation (such as competition policy), without regard for other ways of accounting for the impact of such policies on the human spirit, communities, and the fabric of society.

Each principle of rule posits a particular type of authority and it is a simple matter to construct a matrix of these relations in order to generate some idea of what power might be. Weber defined power in terms of social action that is goal-oriented, even against the resistance of others. An evident example of power thus arises when there are cases of conflict between principles of rule (see Table 1). Here, power is seen in terms of the opposed principles or ultimate values.

Power In Society Research Paper Table 1

2. Power As A Generic Concept

While Weber’s definition of power is quite generic, the concept need not be premised on the conflict of rival, ultimate values, as per the examples of Table 1. Steven Lukes (1974), for instance, in one of the most influential books on the subject, regarded Weber’s definition as essentially similar to the generic definition of power contained in the work of Robert Dahl (1957). Here power is defined as the situation that prevails when A gets a B to do something that they would not otherwise do. This sounds a methodologically sparse and modern behavioral definition but it is one that reaches back into the earliest development of the modern era—to Thomas Hobbes’s conception of power in a causal, mechanical world.

The Community Power Debate that formed around Dahl’s (1961) work concerned the distribution of power in postwar USA. Dahl (1961) insisted that such questions could only be answered empirically, rather than through a broad ranging essaying of concepts that were then current, such as their being a ‘militaryindustrial complex.’ Additionally, he thought them better answered at the local, community level rather than at the national level. To determine the distribution of power required an operational definition for empirical investigation. For Dahl, power was indissoluble from its exercise: Someone had to be seen doing something to another for us to say that power had been exerted. Unlike Weber, he was not concerned with ultimate values but he did think it important that the exercise of power should be determined by competition over issues that people thought important. Basically, he sought to determine what the key issues were in a community and then establish the outcome of the politics surrounding these decisions, to see who gained or yielded power.

3. Power, Real Interests And Hegemony

By the time that Lukes (1974) published his book on Power: A Radical View, Dahl’s approach had already been criticized by Bachrach and Baratz (1970) for leaving out of consideration ‘what does not happen.’ Nonissues, nondecision making, the construction of agendas, and the mobilization of bias through everyday routines, had all been introduced to show how power is accomplished through covert means, through inaction, rather than through overt exercise of causal power.

Lukes took the critique one step further. He argued that the critics had only sought to qualify Dahl’s behaviorism rather than transcend it through radical critique. What was required, he argued, was a conception of how power worked not only against people’s expressed and implicit preferences but also their ‘real interests.’

The notion of real interests came from Marxist discourse—originally designed to address situations of ‘false consciousness’—where a class of people were unable to recognize that the system within which they were embedded was the source of their entrapment. Lukes followed the Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, in introducing a ‘cultural spin’ with the notion of hegemony. Where people were deluded about what they wanted and what they might authentically be, because of their inability to think in concepts other than those of domination and the dominated, then they suffered from hegemony. The basic idea was that they were subject to a ‘ruling culture’ disseminated through the media, the state, education, and other institutional arenas.

Theories of hegemony became variations upon the theme of working-class acquiescence secured through normative incorporation by dominant ideology (Abercrombie et al. 1980). The narrative was one of concealment: Marxist theory, in theory, should have provided revelation—but it did not. Only the theorist could see the truth of the mechanisms that, despite and even through resistance, secured and reproduced consent. The subjects of analysis had the nature of their real interests concealed from them. Western Marxism, the source of these insights, was impotent at best and at worst irrelevant, in lifting the veils of occlusion (Anderson 1976). In the West socialism became increasingly utopian (Bauman 1977); in the East increasingly dystopian (Feher et al. 1983), as the collapse of ‘dictatorship over needs’ produced its implosion.

4. The Discursive Turn

The ideological arguments, with their fundamental denial of consumer sovereignty, receded in importance in the 1980s. One response to this situation within the Marxist camp came from Laclau and Mouffe 1985, who instead of thinking of hegemony as a state of mind regarded it as a set of practices. These practices were primarily discursive. Hegemony thus came to be seen not in terms of its substantive content but its form. Hegemony existed when the indefinite possibilities of signifying elements and their relations were strategically foreclosed (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Again, the emphasis is on things that do not happen. Any stable set of articulations is thus hegemonic: Only permanent Cultural Revolution would not be— although the implications are not spelled out.

Real interests are what radical politics and theories claim to uncover and reveal. One way of doing this, suggested Haugaard (1998), might be to explain to actors the way in which their structured practices feed into the reinforcement of a regime of domination contrary to interests already known to them. What may be at issue are structural and institutional relations of domination rather than real but unknown interests. Once actors reflect upon their practical consciousness then they enjoy relative autonomy. Power thus consists not so much in the suppression of real interests but the denial of the relative autonomy required for reflection (Haugaard 1998, p. 141).

Huagaard (1998) notes that conceptions of interests form discursively, even to the extent that one can persuade some people that they have real but unrealized interests blocked by their present conditions of existence. Such discursive realities help shape them to resist the sources of domination identified. Politics mobilize power and resistance through discursive expression of existing, past, or future conditions of existence. Thus, resistance is not endemic but depends on the practical consciousness of people and the categorical devices through which they lead their everyday lives in relation with the discursive consciousness proffered by various media of representation—parties, press, radio, television, the Internet, public intellectuals. Only in rare moments is such diversity represented or resisted in the name of some great unifying narrative or theme. Most probably these will be those relatively rare moments where a privileged identity is posited as a historical subject: the subject people, the subject party, the subject race, the subject nation, the subject church, the subject gender, the subject sexuality, the subject ecology, and so on.

A plurality of life-worlds, with interpretative resources, and translation devices for switching between them, minimizes the chances of hegemony. People from sophisticated cultures routinely have a multiplicity of interpretative horizons available to them, as a result of exposure to different life-worlds through various media, educational experiences, travel or migration, or interpersonal relations. Of course, to the extent that these experiences are compartmentalized, one way or another, then the ability to achieve critical distance from any posited identity is diminished.

The theorization of autonomy in terms of moves between interpretative horizons means that the ability of actors to transcend their social environments and structured context does not presuppose an ability to ‘escape’ the processes of socialization by adopting a neutral, culturally unbiased, position. Autonomy does not involve a flight into any transcendental realism of absolute Truth, nor does it involve the transcending of false consciousness. Critical faculty does not imply the objectivity of truth, nor does it entail an undersocialized concept of agency whereby autonomy is gained by transcending the basis of social culture. It requires only relative reflexivity on the part of subjects. Such a conception of the relation of power and knowledge, with its emphasis on conditions of relative autonomy, turns out to be a way of re-approaching the classical questions about power and community that were at the center of Dahl’s work. The difference is that, this time, the approach has been through Foucault rather than Dahl.

5. Foucault And Power

Foucault provides a detailed history of some power practices and techniques that have characterized modernity in a way that is nonreductive and complements Weber (Dandekker 1991), although he understates the importance of Max Weber’s (1978) argument concerning discipline. Nonetheless, there are common themes (see Szakolczai 1998). Different emphases on power occur through the course of Foucault’s work. First, there is his work on genealogy as the natural history of specific practices. Second, the work on the ‘care of the self,’ where histories are used to critique the present, by uncovering the constituted nature of what have been taken as the here-and-now; third, the discussion of government or ‘governmentality.’

In Foucault’s (1979) most influential genealogical model of ‘surveillance and discipline,’ power is constituted in an intimate relationship with liberty. Because the exercise of power presumes a free subject, in a well-known formula, there will always be resistance. Where liberty is extremely limited, because power is stable and hierarchical, then Foucault terms it domination. (The parallelism of this account with that of Weber’s 1978 discussion of Herrschaft, is evident.) Two models of power are compared and contrasted: the repressive and the positive. (Foucault’s 1979 concern with the facilitative and productive aspects of power relates to the kind of arguments made most clearly by Parsons 1963.) In general Foucault does not offer a critique of power: It would be impossible to do so because, to coin a phrase, power has no other: It is inescapable. Liberation from power is only a dream (or a nightmare). However, specific forms of power may and do change. The ‘punitive’ power of corporal excess may be contrasted with the ‘positive’ power of bureaucracy. However, there is no space outside of power, no knowledge that is pure truth. (In this way are utopia and dystopia avoided.) In reading Foucault it is necessary to uncouple a sociological from a philosophical question concerning truth. The former deals with what passes for truth rather than asking what is truth—with how truth-effects are produced, in the Foucauldian vernacular. It is the latter that concerns Foucault, rather than the former.

In Foucault’s model of power relationships through government—the structuring of action through conduct—which he defines as the capacity of people to regulate their own behavior through various rationalities, his treatment of liberalism suggests that it is conditions of relative autonomy that define the nature of political community.

6. Community Politics After Foucault

Foucault suggests that democracy is neither an ideal with which to measure actual practice nor a method for producing utopias. It is the messy and politically expeditious ways of making sense of politics its participants routinely use. It is this fundamental approach that Flyvberg (1998) takes from Foucault. He provides a deeply documented, rich narrative of one complex set of issues and processes associated with the many ways in which political communities were constructed and deconstructed in the laborious pursuit of local interests and issues surrounding a proposed traffic-plan for the city of Aalborg in Denmark.

Aalborg was not unusual in respect of its power relations: They were sufficiently asymmetric as to verge on domination. Here, the authority of technical rationality was a weapon of the politically weak— those without other resources at their disposal. Hence, not surprisingly, technically rational plans were constantly undercut and attempts at democracy secured on that technically rational basis proved weak. Neither a normative emphasis on democracy nor rationality proved sufficient to avoid domination by superior power. Such power defined reality and, not surprisingly, the rationality it accepted depended on power rather than legality. One of the main strategies of the dominant group was to use techniques of rationalization as power: Indeed, the greater the power the lesser the rationality. Thus, we might conclude that power is more ordinarily stable than conflictual and that its relations are constantly being produced and reproduced in process. Where power is stable then power relations are more characteristically rational.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, we may note that in the genealogy of power that has been constructed here, power is not defined as only one thing, or in one set of terms. The terms shift with debate but there is a family resemblance among them. The emphases have changed with the values underlying scholarship. Lukes’ importation of the Gramscian notion of hegemony seemed to take us a long way from the political communities that Dahl studied with such methodological scruples. Laclau and Mouffe’s introduction of Foucault to the debate, somewhat surprisingly, brings debate back full circle to issues of political community because of the centrality, their conception of power placed on discourse and identity. The theme of the relative autonomy of political processes dominated the late work of Foucault and was taken up empirically by Flyvberg. Thus, nearly 50 years after the Community Power Debate first kicked off contemporary sociological interest in the conceptual relation of power and society, the concepts have come back to their empirical point of departure—but much richer and more sophisticated than when they first embarked on that journey.


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