Political power has been described as an “essentially contested concept1” and for good reason. Of all of the concepts in political science, power is probably that which is debated most often. This is perhaps unsurprising due to its importance within the discipline. Heywood suggests that “without doubt, students of politics are students of power2”. The quote in the question refers to Robert Dahl’s “intuitive idea of power3” outlined in his early article ‘The Concept of Power4’.
It is also the most commonly used ‘definition’ of power; however, to what extent does it describe the nature and essence of political power?As the extensive debate suggests, there are many problems when defining power. As the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Politics explains, issues of “Intentionality”, “Comparability and Quantifiability” and “Time and Causation5′” make arriving at a definition very difficult. Without Intentionality, it argues, “we are left with a paradoxical and useless concept of power… the concept of power becomes vague to the point of meaningless”.
Also, for a universal concept of power, it must allow for comparative analyses in the form of “A has more power than C in context x” or “A has more power than anybody else in context x” for example. This quote in the question doesn’t refer to the intention of A in relation to the outcomes of the situation. Neither does it introduce the idea of others possessing power.While the quote makes no reference to the power of others, it does introduce two important elements of any definition of political power; a relationship and the removal of coincidence. In political situations, coincidence is hard to remove because to do this you must ensure that B wouldn’t have acted in the same way regardless of A. With people, accurate ‘control samples’ are hard to create.
A definition of power does not in itself require a relationship.Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island would have power even before the arrival of Man Friday. He would have the power to make a fire or to walk to the sea. He would have the power ‘To do…’.
However, political power requires the aforementioned ‘relationship’. Politics is about people and conflict and cannot happen until Man Friday arrives. The form of power in this instance is different. Robinson Crusoe could not just have the power ‘To do…’, but also power ‘Over.
Goodwin also makes this distinction in the exercise of power between power ‘To do…’ and power ‘Over…’6, however, the ‘essence’ of political power must encompass both forms of its exercise.
Also, although this idea that ‘A gets B ….’ is so widely used, further on in his original article, Dahl describes the ‘power relation’ slightly differently;”It seemed, he writes, ‘to involve a successful attempt by A to get a to do something he would not otherwise do'”.The difference between the two statements is subtle, but nevertheless, important. The first, as Lukes comments, “refers to A’s capacity (‘.
..to the extent that he can get B to do something.
..’) while the second specifies a successful attempt ..
. being the difference between potential and actual power, between its possession and its exercise7″.The distinction suggests that power is a resource, rather than a relational phenomenon. This idea is central to one of the main areas of conflict between pluralists and elitists. For pluralists like Dahl, power is dispersed throughout society and politics is competitive with elites constantly changing.
However, for elite theorists, power is concentrated amongst the elite and those who govern come from a narrow social stratum. In his book, ‘Power: A Radical View’, Stephen Lukes describes three “faces” of power. The so-called “One Dimensional View” is usually associated with pluralists such as Dahl, while the “Two Dimensional View” is generally thought of as being from an elitist viewpoint.The One Dimensional View is often thought of as the Decision-Making Face of Luke’s three “faces” of power. The quote in the title refers to this view of power. Conscious judgements by A, in some way shape actions or influence decisions of B8. In 1989, Boulding identified several methods of influencing decisions. The first was described as ‘the stick’, involving the threat or use of force.
The second was ‘the deal’ whereby exchanges were made to mutual gain, and the last, ‘the kiss’ involved loyalty and commitment9. Dahl’s study of political issues in New Haven focussed on observable decisions, leading him to conclude that power is widely dispersed in decision-making. However, as Lukes comments, due to the nature of his study of important decisions within the community, he was “simply taking over and reproducing the bias of the system [he] was studying10”. This view of power does not show how the pluralist system can be biased towards some groups over others.It is this void that the Two Dimensional View of power attempts to fill, by considering both decision-making and ‘non-decision-making’ within a system.
This ‘face’ is sometimes called the Agenda Setting Face of power. As Schattschneider put it;”All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organised into politics while others are organised out11″.According to the study by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, power is not just about making decisions, it is also about preventing decisions being taken: “When A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore and issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A’s set of preferences12”.The Third Face of Power as described by Lukes, is Power as Thought Control.
It is a critique of both the previous faces of power, involving a “thoroughgoing critique of the behavioural focus of the first two views as too individualistic13”. It finds Dahl’s original view of power, ‘A gets B to do something that he or she would not otherwise do’ too simplistic to cover the wide variety of decisions, non-decisions and external influences involved in the exercise of power in a society. This ‘face’ is sometimes depicted as the “radical” face of power due to its stance on the societal control and manipulation and particularly highlights the importance of ideology. Consequently, it’s often associated with Marxism because it raises the “forms of ideological indoctrination that mask the reality of class rule14”.When discussing A’s power over B in the Two Dimensional View, Bachrach and Baratz suggest that there are 5 methods of successful control by A: Coercion, Influence, Authority, Force and Manipulation15.
Indeed, many commentators have used these different forms of power.Coercion consists of controlling people through threats either of physical force or of deprivation, whereas Force implies control of the body rather than the mind. However, A could Force B’s compliance by “stripping him of the choice between compliance and non-compliance16”. When B’s compliance is achieved through the threat of force, this theoretically becomes Coercion17.
Influence is very similar to persuasion in that it involves changing a decision without threat or force.This form of power is interesting because even the seemingly powerless can persuade the powerful. It is only when those nominally in power become reliant on advice that the ‘powerless’ become able to Manipulate those in power. Manipulation, like Influence is a form of power that can be possessed by a slave or a master. One of the most common types of power is Authority. This is sometimes seen as ‘legitimate power’.
This would involve A getting B to do something he or she would not otherwise have done because B believes that A has the right to tell him or her what to do. Max Weber described three different types of authority: Traditional Authority, entrenched in history, customs and conventions; Charismatic Authority, the power of a personality; and Legal Authority, embedded in a set of rules connected to an office18.The experiments on obedience carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1961-196219 show us, among other things, the complexity of power.
The ‘teachers’ in the experiment had little, if any authority or legitimacy over the students and no threat of force against themselves. There was none of Boulding’s ways of making decisions; ‘the kiss’, ‘the deal’ or ‘the stick’ influencing the decision of the teachers to give the electric shocks. Whether they decided to exercise their power or not, with the threat of force over the students (B), the teachers (A), were in positions of power, able to make B give the correct answer to the questions, something they might not otherwise do.
Marx referred, in the Communist Manifesto, to political power as “merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another20”. Taking A and B to be classes rather than individuals, Marx would presumably have agreed that the deinstitutionalised form of power, in its basic essence would be summed up by the phrase ‘A gets B…’. Mao Zedong declared that “power resides in the barrel of a gun21”.
Talcott Parsons would disagree with this as power, according to him, depends on “the institutionalisation of authority22”. Feminism also raises important questions about the nature of power. For feminists, gender is the main basis of inequality, reflected in the nature and exercise of power. This quote however, could be applied to people of either gender.The “essence of political power” is something that will continue to be debated as long as power is a key concept in politics. Lukes defined power as “one of those concepts which is ineradicably value-dependant23”. Critics are divided as to whether Dahl’s quote in the question sums up political power, however I feel that the majority of alternative definitions, if reduced down to their ‘essence’, would reflect Dahl’s decision-making face of power.Bibliography* Coxall, B.
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