Theory on the Concept of Power

Theory on the Concept of Power
November 21, 2012 Idea Guy

The concept of power is a relatively recent concern despite its decisive and ubiquitous role in the relationships among people.  Historians can date the prevalence of power as far back as Ancient times, yet there seemed to be a total lack of any sort of comprehensive study of the concept.  Many rely on intuitive notions of power, leaving the concept often vague and subjective and not substantial enough for a systematic study as Political Scientist Robert Dahl affirms, “scientists have not yet formulated a statement of the concept of power that is rigorous enough to be of use in the systematic study of this important social phenomenon” (201).   Scholars like Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Hobbes bring to light key elements that precede an exhaustive definition of power, but it was not until the twentieth century that scholars began to meticulously examine the concept of power.  One of the first to make the attempt was indeed Robert Dahl in his article “The Concept of Power.”  However, his account falls short from what Peter Bachrachand and Morton Baratz claim is the whole truth on the matter.  In their article, “Two Faces of Power,” they outline the second face of power, which they believe Dahl’s depiction overlooks.  Similarly, Steven Lukes in “Power: A Radical View” believes that both these two faces of power ignores “the crucial point that the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising” (26).  He explicates the third dimension of power to “give a deeper and more satisfactory analysis of power relations than either of the other two” (16).  I will attempt to evaluate each of the three dimensions of power given respectively by Robert Dahl, Peter Bachrachand and Morton Baratz, and Steven Lukes.  There are important aspects to all three dimensions, each face of power building off the foundation of the preceding one.   The three faces are important in their own right; each face with its own contributions in establishing a comprehensive understanding of the concept of power, but the third face of power is most salient because of its clandestine aspects.

Robert Dahl begins to develop the first face of power in his article “The Concept of Power.”  His goal is to outline a rigorous enough definition to use for systematic study and in his case, “to rank members of the United States Senate according to their ‘power’ over legislation on foreign policy and on tax and fiscal policy” (201).  Dahl begins to define power by describing what he can intuit: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (203).  It is obvious from this definition that power is a relation among actors.  Actors in this relationship can be people or objects including “individuals, groups, roles, offices, governments, nation-states, or other human aggregates” (203).  His intuition is not very helpful though in evaluating a power relation, so he adds four more concepts to consider: the source, domain, or base of power which includes the resources and opportunities that can be exploited to affect the behavior of another; the means or instruments used to exert power, otherwise known as mediating activity between A’s base and B’s response; the amount or extent of power; and the range or scope of power which consists of B’s response.  The amount of power an actor has “can be represented by a probability statement” of the likelihood for an actor to affect another (203).  With these in mind, Dahl moves to compare power.

The focus for Dahl is on concrete and observable behavior.  Power can be analyzed only after careful examination of concrete decision-making over matters of conflict.  Those with the most power are those that prevail in the decision-making arena of the political system.  There are three properties that are essential for understanding power.  These are time, connectedness, and ‘M’.  Dahl affirms that time is a necessary condition for the power relation, “that there exists a time lag, however small, from the actions of the actor who is said to exert power to the responses of the respondent” (204).  This is important to show that indeed the response of B came from the action of A.  Similarly, one must be sure of the connectedness between A and B’s response: “If there is not, then one need proceed no further” (204).  Lastly, ‘M’ is a way of stating the third necessary condition of the power relation, which is the amount of power an actor has.  A simple probability statement expresses this.  These mechanisms of power just allow us to understand whether or not power was employed, however, the main problem is “not to determine the existence of power but to make comparisons” (205).  In order for this to occur, we must hold constant the properties of the actors exercising power, including differences in the basis of their power and differences in means of employing the basis.  These will be held constant respectively to the “goals of one’s specific research” (206).  Holding the power properties of A constant in light of the specific study allows the researcher to make a comparison of the differences in the responses of the respondents including differences in the scope of their power, in the number of comparable respondents and in the change in probabilities.  If the basis and means of A’s power are fixed as determined by the particular study and if scope and numbers are identical, then “the actor with the highest probability of securing the response is the more powerful” (207).  It is important that the comparison remain from being arbitrary in light of the dependent variables chosen by the researcher.  The only way to avoid this “is to consider carefully the goals and substances of a particular piece of research in view of the theoretical constructs one has in mind” (209).  Thus, Dahl establishes the concept of power operationally with indeterminate meaning depending on the particular context of the study of power.  In summary, Dahl’s notion of the one face of power focuses on behaviors of decision-making actors on key issues, observable through conflict and expressed through political participation.  Key issues are those in which there is disagreement between two or more parties and we are to observe behavior to understand an actor’s preferences.  Dahl is “opposed to any suggestion that interests might be unarticulated or unobservable, and above all, to the idea that people might actually be mistaken about, or unaware or, their own interests” (Lukes 19).

In response to Dahl and others like-minded, Peter Bachrachand and Morton Baratz in “Two Faces of Power” argue that the one face of power is not the whole story.  There is another face of power that includes objectively unmeasurable elements.  They call this the second face of power, adding in the concepts of non-decision and issue importance.  Bachrachand and Baratz begin outlining the second face of power by drawing attention to two different schools of thought on the matter: the sociologists, or the elitists, and the political scientists, or the pluralists.  “Sociological oriented researchers have consistently found that power is highly centralized, while scholars trained in political science have just as regularly concluded that in their communities power is widely diffused” (947).  They draw attention to several criticisms leveled against the elitist by the pluralist.  First, the elitist affirms, “in every human institution there is an ordered system of power which is an integral part and the mirror image of the organization’s stratification;” to which the pluralist responds, “nothing categorical can be assumed about power” (947).  Secondly, the pluralist holds that power may be tied to issues of particular groups that change over time in contrast to the elitist’s view that “the power structure tends to be stable over time” (947).  Thirdly, the elitist wrongly equates reputed power with actual power.  To do so, the pluralist concentrates on key political decisions, the actors who took an active part in the decision-making process, the actor’s actual behavior, and the specific outcome of the conflict.  The main difference in the first face and the second face of power is that Bachrachand and Baratz include two elements that the first face would consider inconsequential.  It would be so because these elements are considered to be unmeasurable and thus not important.   These are represented as the two fundamental ways in which the pluralists fall short.  The first is on the scope and the second is on the importance of issues.

By confining the issues to ones pluralists perceive as relatively ‘safe’, they fail to recognize the kind of power that prevents certain issues from arising or what they call nondecision-making.  Pluralists wrongly accept reputed issues as the only issues.  This is related to what Professor Schattschneider calls mobilization bias where a group or community participates more in nondecision-making by limiting “decision-making to relatively non-controversial matters, by influencing community values and political procedures and rituals” (949).  Nondecsion-making is a means by which demands for change in the existing social order can be suffocated before they are even voiced or reach the political arena.  To the extent that a group or person, aware of it or not, creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of particular issues, that group or individual not only is preventing issues from entering the arena but is also exercising their power.  The second criticism is that pluralists believe only issues where there is conflict, meaning observable differences in preferences among individuals or groups are important.  In contrast, Bachrachand and Baratz believe that “any challenge to the predominant values or to the established rules of the game would constitute an important issue; all else, unimportant” (950).  So in addition to the first face of power, the second face of power calls for an investigation of the dominant values of the institution and rules of the game so that an understanding of which persons or groups benefit from the status quo and which don’t can be reached.  This will allow an examination of nondecision, the extent to which some issues are kept off the table, and will be used as a foundation for determining important issues.  As Lukes summarizes, “Bachrach and Baratz have a wider conception of interests than the pluralists” (24).  They also include preferences of those that are kept partly or wholly out of the political arena.

The concept of power does not stop with the second face.  Steven Lukes in “Power: A Radical View” evaluates the third dimension of power which he believes “allows one to give a deeper and more satisfactory analysis of power relations than either of the other two” (16).  Lukes offers a critique of the behavioral focus of the other views as too individualistic and allows consideration of the many other ways potential issues are kept out of politics.  Thus, he asserts that the second dimension of power falls short on three accounts.  He believes it is still too committed to actual behavior visible through concrete decisions, which  “gives a misleading picture of the way in which individuals and, above all, groups and institutions succeed in excluding potential issues from the political process” (25).  Second, the association of power with actual, observable conflict is inadequate because it holds that power is only exercised in situations of conflict, which leaves out certain types of power including manipulation and authority that influence a person’s wants.  This is a kind of thought control in which a person’s desires are changed without them being conscious of it.  Thought control can be accomplished through a variety of means including “control of information, through the mass media and the through the processes of socialization” (27).  Thirdly, the two-dimensional view of power incorrectly asserts that if people feel no grievances, then they have no interests harmed by the use of power.  This completely leaves out the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural or unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained or beneficial (28).

This account sheds light on the power of institutions and social constructions.  As J.S. Mill asserts, “society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” (On Liberty).  Society is a systemization of norms and values and the background system that sets the terms for our engagement.  Through social learning and adaptive preferences society can influence and change a person’s actions, a person’s options, but most importantly, a person’s interests or desires.  This is not present oriented as the other two dimensions are but rather focuses on future behavior and how institutions can change the values a person chooses to live by.  As Marx put it, “men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (26).  There is a way in which we internalize the external conditions around us so that our reasons are modified without us being aware.  As Nietzsche held, society imposes on the individual by way of needing a social order.  This is exactly the reason why assuming the absence of grievances equals consensus is precarious because it rules out the possibility of false or manipulated consensus.  It is difficult to blame the individual for doing such a thing in light of our psychology and also what Lukes calls the sheer weight of institutions.  The burden on the individual increases as institutional practices, norms, and values stack up to push the individual to act and believe in accordance with that institution.  On the same note, Lukes asserts, “the radical, however, maintains that people’s wants may themselves be a product of the system which works against their interests, and in such cases, relates the latter to what they would want and prefer, were they able to make the choice” (38).

The study of power is a relatively nascence phenomenon.  Robert Dahl outlines power through a careful examination of decision-making.  Power can be analyzed through direct, observable conflict and actors’ preferences can be understood through their behavior in the political area.  Power can be analyzed only after examination of a series of concrete decisions and compared only with a fixed set of values determined by the researcher.  Power and its preferences are associated only with things that can be measured.  Still focusing on measurable power, Peter Bachrachand and Morton Baratz in “Two Faces of Power find that pluralists like Dahl fall short in their account of power.  They draw our attention to nondecision-making, shedding light to those potential issues that may have not been expressed because of mobilization bias.  The bias of society not only prevents certain issues and peoples from airing their grievances; it also acts as a guideline for deciding important issues, those issues that challenge the norms and values of society.  Bachrachand and Baratz are essentially redefining the boundaries for what is to count as a political issue, adding many potential concerns left out by Dahl’s account.  Lastly, Steven Lukes outlines the third face of power bringing even more aspects of power into focus.  He “incorporates into the analysis of power relations the question of the control over the agenda of politics and of the ways in which potential issues are kept out of the political process” (25).  He examines the ways in which people and institutions can effectively manipulate us by altering our fundamental interests and desires by unconsciously or consciously changing our reasons.  Power is a particularly important concept because of its ubiquitous nature in history and everyday life.  Without a full conception, including all three faces of power, we are left with a somewhat vague and empty picture of what is really going on.  The third face is most important because of the covert manipulation that is ongoing in today’s world.  It’s a fair assumption that most are unaware of how the control of information through education and the media is influencing us.  We must first become aware of how we are influenced in order to stop it from controlling our thoughts and behaviors. As George Orwell famously said, “who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (1984).


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