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Sociology Power
by
Stewart Clegg

Introduction

The concept of power is absolutely central to any understanding of society. The ubiquity of the concept can be seen by a comparative Google search. The score for “social power” is 376 million hits, for “political power” 194 million, which compares with 334 million for “society,” 253 million for “politics,” 52 million for “sociology,” “social class” at 280 million, and “political class” at 111 million. Of course, such measures are crude, but the fact that the combined 470 million social and political power hits outstrip any of the other categories, including the combined hits for “social” and “political class,” indicates the absolute centrality of the concept. However, despite this ubiquity, it is arguably one of the most difficult concepts to make sense of within the social sciences. Nonetheless, power has been a core concept for as long as there has been speculation about the nature of social order. The ancient Greek philosophers of Athens pondered about it, usually in constitutional terms; Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine moralized about it, as Wolin 2004 discusses (see Classic Works); however, it was not until the epochal ideation of the Florentine Machiavelli, in the 16th century, and the Englishman, Hobbes, in 1651, that the foundations for an empirical analysis were established. Machiavelli, the Florentine diplomat and author who lived from 1469 to 1527, writing in his book The Prince (composed around 1513), had little time for noble and normative theories and was strongly empirical and antimoral, reflecting on how power was and should be deployed in statecraft. Hobbes was more concerned with laying foundations for causal analysis. The Hobbesian view proved to be the most influential in mainstream social science, especially as the mid-20th-century Community Power Debate developed. Machiavelli’s work took on renewed interest, however, as the influence of Foucault’s work played out and emphasis shifted from causality to strategy.

Textbooks

For beginning students, several texts provide a more basic entrée to the field. While covering much of the same ground, these also vary somewhat in topics emphasized or covered. The best short introduction remains Lukes 2005 (originally published in 1974). Clegg 1989 is widely recognized as a sound introduction to the field; Haugaard 1997 and Haugaard 2002 are excellent sources for contemporary debates as well. Clegg, et al. 2006 covers all of the aforementioned books in its discussion, plus substantial discussions of Weber, Foucault, Bauman, Goffman, Luhmann, Mann, Flyvbjerg, and others.

Handbooks

There is one handbook, Clegg and Haugaard 2009, that provides thorough scholarly introductions to the main subfields of power analysis. It contains a broad cross-disciplinary collection of contributions from all of the social sciences, addressing most of the issues current in the literature. Scott 2002 is a sound introduction in the Key Concepts series. In addition, there are a number of edited texts that collect essential papers. Haugaard 2002 is the most current and social theory–oriented; Scott 1994 is the broadest based in scope but now somewhat dated, and Lukes 1986 was a good guide to debates that were current in the 1970s and early 1980s, especially about power and the state, but these are somewhat dated now.

Empirical Resources

John Gaventa (see Gaventa 1980 in Central Questions) has developed Power Cube, together with colleagues at Just Associates, as a practical tool for power analysis.

Journals

There is one outstanding journal in the field: Journal of Political Power. Founded by Mark Haugaard as the official journal of the International Political Science Association’s Research Group on Political Power (RC 36), it has been in existence since 2008. Articles on power are published in many other journals with a specific substantive or theoretical focus, but to list all these is impossible. Any literature review should best start from the Journal of Political Power (formerly titled the Journal of Power).

Classic Works

The best secondary text for coverage of classic works is Wolin 2004, whose discussion of the significance of Hobbes 2010 and Machiavelli 1961 is first-rate. While Hobbes sought to found a science of power premised on a conception of it as essentially causal, which has been a remarkably influential account, his understanding of power remained essentially legislative: he sought to provide secure foundations for order in society at large. Machiavelli remains the theorist who best enables us to interpret modern power relations. Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat and author who lived from 1469 to 1527 and his book The Prince (written around 1513) describes the forms and practices of governing a state. The Prince describes how government actually works, not how it should work (as many authors before him did). Machiavelli had little time for noble and normative theories. Implicitly he criticizes theories based on contracts, laws, and notions of virtue. Machiavelli pointed to a series of paradoxes around virtue. For instance, he points out the difficulties of a ruler being generous: “There is nothing that is so self-consuming as generosity: the more you practise it, the less you will be able to continue to practise it. You will either become poor and despised or your efforts to avoid poverty will make you rapacious and hated; and being generous will lead to both” (Machiavelli 1961:57). He concludes that a ruler “cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exists” (Machiavelli 1961:100). Think of modern politicians—how true Machiavelli’s description is! For Machiavelli the ruler must not let good qualities hinder successful rule. In fact, being ethical can be harmful. A prince should appear to have good qualities, however: “men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are” (Machiavelli 1961: 101). Hence representation of what a ruler is doing (in modern terms, press coverage, strategic plans, annual reports, mission statements, spin doctoring, etc.) is more important than reality. Rhetoric creates reality; appearance is more important than action.

  • Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Leviathan: Or the matter, forme, and power of a common-wealth ecclesiasticall and civill. Edited by Ian Shapiro. Rethinking the Western Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    The foundational work in the causal analysis of power, whose echoes down the centuries remain strong; many of Hobbes’s essential precepts were restated as foundations of behavioral analysis by mid-20th-century writers such as Robert Dahl and Herbert Simon.

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  • Machiavelli, N. 1961. The prince. Translated by G. Bull. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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    Best read as an informed anthropology of power. Imagine Machiavelli as an ethnographer observing scenes of power from the margins, the cloisters, the shadows, and using these observations to frame realist precepts for those who would use power effectively.

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  • Wolin, Sheldon S. 2004. Politics and vision: Continuity and innovation in Western political thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    The definitive foundational text, tracing analysis of power from the pre-Socratics to the advent of the foundations of administrative theory. Beautifully written and largely correct on many points, especially the treatment of power by Machiavelli.

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Marx and Weber

For Marx (Marx 1974, Marx 1971), power was distributed in terms of relations of production that rendered capitalists (those who owned and controlled capital) more powerful than those without capital who had to survive by selling their labor on the market. Marx reasoned that laborers would become increasingly alienated from the totality of production relations over which they had little control. In his earlier work, Marx believed that this would build a collective radical consciousness concerning their lot among proletarians—those who sold their labor would forge a new collective power with other proletarians in the same position. Marx’s early writings (Marx 1974) expected that this would lead to socialist revolution: nowhere did it do so. The 20th-century revolutions occurred in underdeveloped capitalist societies rather than in the fully developed ones that Marx anticipated. Weber 1978, published posthumously, refined the basic elements of Marx’s thesis. While not rejecting the basic dichotomous model of class that Marx and the Marxists had advocated, Weber realized that the empirical particulars were somewhat more complicated. Status differentia generated by organizational positions and professional skills needed consideration: these made the relations of production a lot less binary and more stratified. While Weber’s became the predominant approach in sociology, there was a lively Marxist-inspired discussion late in the century about the “new middle class,” related to the labor-process debate initiated by Braverman 1974. Were managers more likely to side with capital or with labor, was the central question, raised in the context of a widespread discussion of “de-skilling.” Another aspect of Marx’s account that flourished in the late 20th century was the idea of a dominant class culture that Marx raised in his work with Engels (Marx and Engels 1970). This gave rise to the Dominant Ideology Thesis (DIT), addressed critically in Abercrombie, et al. 1980, which argued that the reason why radical consciousness had not emerged from the experience of industrial capitalism was that the effects of dominant ideology articulated through a “ruling culture.” The highly concentrated capitalist ownership of the mass media ensured that mostly cultural messages reproductive of capitalist hegemony, to use a term introduced by Gramsci 1971, were received and interpreted within a frame already predisposed to capitalist hegemony. Connell 1977 extended the concept of ruling culture to a generalized discussion of contemporary forms of culture.

  • Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill, and Bryan S. Turner. 1980. The dominant ideology thesis. London: Allen & Unwin.

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    Traces the evolution of the dominant ideology thesis from Marx and Engels into contemporary scholarship: concludes that the dominant ideology is more effective at organizing the interests of the ruling class than at disorganizing them.

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  • Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review.

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    A once very influential book that is basically a Marxist critique of contemporary capitalism advancing a thesis of “de-skilling” and “proletarianization.” Cast as a reflection largely on the contemporary United States, its thesis needs to be rethought in the era of contemporary globalization in world rather than national terms.

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  • Connell, R. W. 1977. Ruling class, ruling culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A strong statement of the dominant ideology thesis by a writer who was to go on to explore hegemony not only in class but also in gender terms.

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  • Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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    For Gramsci power was less a coercive relation and more a normative and moral one, articulated through dominant ideas and institutions for their transmission.

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  • Marx, K. 1971. Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. 1. London: National Library Board.

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    Marx’s classical contribution to political economy in which he explores power in terms of the relations of production that define the classes of “capital” and “labor.” An introduction to his mature theory of capitalism, founded on the theory of surplus value.

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  • Marx, Karl. 1974. The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress.

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    Contains the early theory of Marx on how alienation will build collectively under capitalist relations of production, leading to revolution through a growth of radical and estranged consciousness. First published in 1959.

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  • Marx, K., and F. Engels. 1970. The German ideology. Edited by C. J. Arthur. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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    In this work, unpublished in his lifetime (Marx left it to the “gnawing criticism of the mice”), the idea that the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class was advanced.

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  • Weber, M. 1978. Economy and society. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Here Weber elaborated the foundations of what became the sociology of organizations, in the course of which he argued that it was not merely relations of production that were significant, but within these, relations of skill. He also presented a more variegated analysis of different types of capital than did Marx.

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Central Questions

The central questions revolve around problems of power and causality. Dahl 2005 criticizes power elite theorists for their lack of empirical specificity and the looseness of their causal analysis. Dahl argues that analysis of power should be confined to those situations where an A got a B to do something that B otherwise would not do with respect to a specific issue. Bachrach and Baratz 1970 argues that confining analysis to specific issues, especially those formally on the agenda, is too restrictive. Inspired in part by the way issues of black civil rights had been kept off the agenda in the mid-20th-century United Sates, Bachrach and Baratz argue for the importance of analyzing non-decision making. They write about the “two faces of power”: that which was exercised in Dahlian-type action and that which confined issues to a certain agenda, in a “mobilization of bias.” Lukes 2005 (originally published in 1974) translates these two faces of power into two dimensions of power and adds a third dimension, one that draws on debates in Marxist analysis around notions of hegemony. The major developments since Lukes have been the empirical specification of his three-dimensional analysis in the work of Gaventa (Gaventa 1980), who has developed the “power cube” as an empirical tool, and the development of Michael Mann’s multivolume history of power (Mann 1986, Mann 1993), using an essentially Parsonian functionalist framework to document the evolution of power across ideological, economic, military, and political realms. Clegg 1989 and others found it easy to draw a line from Hobbes through to the debates covered by Lukes, as variants on how causal analysis should be conducted, but when Foucault 1980 was translated into English, it became evident that there were important currents that did not fit into this genealogy, but rather seemed to reach back to another stream of thought rooted in theorists such as Nietzsche and, even further back, in Machiavelli. The writings on power in Foucault 1980 provide a necessary backdrop for current debates; Clegg 1989 and Haugaard 1997 provide useful overviews and summaries of the ongoing debates on power.

  • Bachrach, P., and M. Baratz. 1970. Power and poverty: Theory and practice. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A strong and controversial critique of the behaviorist limits that Dahl sought to prescribe for analysis. Bachrach and Baratz extend analysis from issues to non-issues, from decision making to non-decision making.

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  • Clegg, Stewart. 1989. Frameworks of power. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A well-regarded textbook: it approaches power from an organizational angle, situating the problem of power in organizational contexts, with a concluding chapter on power and the state. Includes detailed discussions of the major classic and contemporary theorists of power and develops a framework known as “circuits of power,” which has been widely used in subsequent empirical analysis.

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  • Dahl, Robert. 2005. Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Dahl provides the classical statement of the pluralist model of government, with empirical application drawn from a study of local political conflict in New Haven, Connecticut. Originally published in 1961.

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  • Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972–1977. New York: Pantheon.

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    The French social theorist Michel Foucault’s classic writings on power have been widely influential across the social sciences and are a necessary starting point for work in this area. This 1980 volume is a collection of essays and lectures that provide a good sense of Foucault’s thinking about power.

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  • Gaventa, John P. 1980. Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    Gaventa uses Lukes’s three-dimensional frame and provides empirical specification of its mechanism: fatalism, in the face of an inability to make a difference on the part of subordinated power subjects; the importance of participation in political process rather than exclusion or withdrawal from them; the disorganization of subordinated actors’ consciousness.

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  • Haugaard, Mark. 1997. The constitution of power: A theoretical analysis of power, knowledge and structure. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

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    An excellent account of contemporary and classic debates in power, which develops a structurational account strongly influenced by the work of Anthony Giddens, but which is, at the same time, critical of Giddens.

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  • Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A radical view. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

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    Influential essays on the “three faces” of power: visible and overt struggles, power to set the agenda, and power to influence other actors. Lukes’s original essay on power, published in 1974, has become a classic in the field and constitutes the first half of the book. The second half of the book is a selective reflection on some of his critics and a restatement of his views. E-book.

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  • Mann, Michael. 1986. The sources of social power. Vol 1, A history of power from the beginning to AD 1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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    A sweeping historical study, positing four distinct types of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. Varying across time and space, social power arises and evolves across each of these four domains. Mann plays particular attention to “extensive” power (the ability to project power across space), and “intensive” power (the ability to control citizens within a given territory).

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  • Mann, Michael. 1993. The sources of social power. Vol. 2, The rise of classes and nation states, 1760–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The second volume of Mann’s monumental study, which covers the period from the American Revolution to the collapse of the European and Turkish Imperial systems, which was sparked by the assassination in Sarajevo, precipitating World War I as European alliances were militarily mobilized and enacted.

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Community Power Debate

When Hobbes discussed power, he introduced causal metaphors that were picked up by subsequent philosophers such as Locke and Hume. They did not end there: they resurfaced in 20th-century behavioral science. Ball 1995 pulls together the threads of earlier inquiries into the links between political philosophy and contemporary social science. Ball notes how, while the vocabulary of the modern approaches differs from that introduced by Hobbes, the metaphors have remained remarkably constant, that is, focused on causal power relations. Debates about the causal nature of power relations were at the root of the famed Community Power Debate in political science. The debate was kicked off by Robert Dahl’s criticisms of Mills 1956. Mills used a “reputational” methodology; “wrong,” said Dahl 1957—we should not research people who are reputed to be powerful but instead focus on actual episodes of power that occur over key areas of decision making. Dahl’s points were well made, but in a context in which he argued that key decision-making areas should be specified in advance. As Bachrach and Baratz 1970 were quick to point out, in US communities (see Central Questions), where “donut” cities are common, with a black center affording a low-tax base because of low property taxes and incomes, and extended white suburbs surrounding the city but not raising taxes for it, the key issues for each would be very different. If your kids were not educated in the public system but privately, if your residence was not in the city but the suburbs, if your concerns about security did not extend past your leafy neighborhood and into the cityscape, then you hardly shared common interests with city dwellers nor would the decision areas that you regarded as key be shared either. Newton 1969 brilliantly exposes all of this in a contribution titled “A Critique of the Pluralist Model.” The title is ironic, as Dahl had previously published “A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model.”

  • Ball, Terence. 1995. Reappraising political theory: Revisionist studies in the history of political thought. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    Collects Ball’s “revisionist studies” in political theory, which are an excellent extension of the approach taken by Wolin in his Politics and Vision (see Classic Works): comprehensive, philosophically informed, and with a keen eye on the genealogies of current conceptions.

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  • Dahl, Robert A. 1957. The concept of power. Behavioral Science 2:201–205.

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    A small article with a big impact: established the ground rules for empirical enquiry into power in US political science in the mid-20th century. It is fair to say that this article set the grounds for debate that stretched right down to Lukes’s radical view in 1974.

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  • Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The power elite. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The classic analysis of President Eisenhower’s United States of America as governed by a narrow power elite drawn from the ruling military-industrial complex—a term that Eisenhower coined but that Mills made his own through this analysis.

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  • Newton, Kenneth. 1969. A critique of the pluralist model. Acta Sociologica 12.4: 209–223.

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    A devastating critique of Dahl’s assumptions: the key issue is that a set of competing oligarchies does not make a pluralist system and that power relations are not distributed in a random or equal manner—some sections of the community and their interests are systematically excluded or marginalized.

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Dimensions

Much of the debate about power was encapsulated in Lukes 2005. Conventionally in political science, says Lukes, power has been conceived as one dimensional: A getting B to do what B would not otherwise do, conceived in terms that were behavioral, focused on concrete decision-incidents, specific issues, and overt conflict that revealed policy preferences. Too limited a view, according to Bachrach and Baratz 1970 (see Central Questions), who developed what Lukes calls a two-dimensional view of power: here the focus is on interpretive understanding of intentional action, on those things that are maintained as nondecisions and nonissues, and on covert conflict revealed through grievances that have not been explicitly articulated as a part of the formal political agenda. Lukes develops a three-dimensional view of power in which interests rather than preferences are central. Interests are interpreted theoretically and normatively. Different political agendas are the focus of analysis, which seeks both concrete and potential issues, where conflict will often be latent because real interests are not articulated as a result of hegemonic consciousness that disables people from realizing what their interests are—or should be, according to normative theory. Some theorists have suggested a fourth dimension of system power, such as Hardy 1996, in an attempt to meld Foucault 1980 (see Central Questions) with Lukes. The result is somewhat totalizing and does a particular disservice to Foucault while adding little to Lukes.

  • Hardy, Cynthia. 1996. Understanding power: Bringing about strategic change. British Journal of Management. 7:S3–S16.

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    An attempt to theorize a fourth dimension to power as the power of the system, by dealing Foucault into Lukes’s dimensions. The frame ends up being improbably totalizing and determining, a kind of super-structuralism. Supplementary issue of the British Journal of Management.

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  • Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A radical view. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    If you only ever read one book on power this should be the one because of its economy and skill in tracing some of the more important and central debates and offering a resolution of them. E-book.

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Interests

The link between power and interests as a criterion distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate power is central to the analysis in Lukes 2005. The notion of “real interests” that people may have, even where they are not aware of them, has been one of the strongest legacies of Marxist analyses of power. The drawback of any account of real interests is that they are a theoretical imposition. Whatever theory holds as real for agents, which remains unrecognized by these ordinary subjects, is used as a measure to suggest their subordination to power because they are unable to recognize these interests. However, for this reason the interests have no purchase in reality, only in theory. Elsewhere the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas published Knowledge and Human Interests (Habermas 1972), a book in which he advanced the idea that there were three knowledge constitutive interests. These were embedded in three different approaches to knowledge: empirical-analytic natural sciences with their emphasis on causality and prediction, historical and hermeneutic interpretive sciences with their emphasis on understanding concrete phenomena, and the critical reflective social sciences with their interest in facilitating social change. It is surprising that Lukes did not align his discussion of interests with that of Habermas, with which he was evidently familiar, given his references to Connolly 1972, which was built on this framework. Had he done so, he would have had a stronger framework for differentiating his account of three-dimensional interests from the one- and two-dimensional views. Perhaps the need to preserve the vocabulary of interests for the third-dimensional view accounts for this decision; if each dimension had a different knowledge constitutive interest, then the notion of interests per se could hardly be distinctive. Additionally, there was the question of Habermas’s “ideal speech situation”: Habermas argued that the critical reflective sciences should drive social organization toward an “ideal speech situation”—one without barriers to entry, where all could meet on an equal footing. Some critics have likened this to the kind of utopia that only a German philosopher could come up with: a never-ending seminar.

  • Connolly, William E. 1972. On “interests” in politics. Politics and Society 2:459–477.

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    Cited by Lukes 2005, but not discussed in detail. Interests can be seen, Connolly writes, in the choices that individuals would make if they could first experience the consequences of these choices.

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  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1972. Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann.

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    Habermas’s classic statement of the limitations of adopting a scientistic model for social analysis that builds on the work of an earlier generation of Critical Theory

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  • Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A radical view. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    The original 1974 edition of this work forms the first half of the book with the second half consisting of commentary material longer than the original book. Advances the theory that power is at its most subtle and profound when people are unable to recognize their real interests. However, makes the definition of “real interests” a normative element of the political theory one uses, giving rise to frequent accusations of advancing relativism. E-book.

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Total Institutions

One writer overlooked by the vast number of power theorists has been Erving Goffman, the Canadian sociologist from Toronto University, who died in 1982. His most explicit work on power is Goffman 1962. Here he coins the analysis of “total institutions,” organizations in which the person is contained 24/7 for long durations of time: boarding schools, barracks, nuclear submarines, prisons, and mental hospitals, for instance. In such total institutions, as he observes, the person can be shaped more easily than in situations that afford release from the constraints of organization into everyday life on a routine basis. Nonetheless, he celebrates the importance of resistance in such total institutions, which was a theme that became popular in analysis after the publication of Foucault 1977. Many of Foucault’s themes were, in fact, anticipated in Goffman’s much earlier and more empirical work. Clegg, et al. 2006 restores Goffman and total institutions to a central place in power analysis. The important point about total institutions is that they demonstrate in a highly concentrated and condensed form many of the characteristics of power in “normal” organizations.

  • Clegg, Stewart, David Courpasson, and Nelson Phillips. 2006. Power and organizations. Foundations for Organizational Science. London: SAGE.

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    Power shifts from focusing on a political economy of the body, as in the work of early management theorists such as F. W. Taylor, to a concern that is far less corporeal and more oriented to subtle attempts at normative control. Includes extended analysis of power in the “heart of darkness”: the Holocaust, Magdalene Laundries, the Stolen Generation, the former East Germany, and Abu Ghraib, as well as an account of how to make contemporary analysis of power elites.

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  • Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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    One of the most arresting opening sequences of any book juxtaposes the rituals surrounding the execution of a regicide in 18th-century France with the bureaucratic rules of a prison from 19th century. Foucault demonstrates how juridical power moved from working on the body to working on the soul, shifting its mark from corporeality to mentality.

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  • Goffman, Erving. 1962. Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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    A masterful empirical study of power and resistance in a major psychiatric hospital and a classic for the import of its organizational, power-relevant, and medical-sociological insights.

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The Foucault Effect

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (see Total Institutions) had a pervasive impact on the world of power analysis, as demonstrated by the editorial material and chapters selected as instances of the Foucault effect by Burchell, et al. 1991. No longer did the shifting dimensions of Lukes’s analysis seem adequate to the phenomena of power relations. Power need not just be constraining and negative, prohibitory in its scope: it could be positive, shaping people and social relations through forming proclivities and dispositions. Foucault’s work on power is scattered: following convention, his work is usually divided into three distinct preoccupations: with archaeology, with genealogy, and with the care of the self. Rather than being three distinct approaches, these represent different emphases that are more or less predominant at different stages in Foucault’s work. Foucault teaches us that, rather than being a resource that can be held or exercised—a capacity inanimate but potential—power is inseparable from its effects, and these can be produced through mundane apparatuses, such as systems of surveillance, examination, and other forms of audit. Power is nothing if it is not relational: it is not something that one has or does not have. Clare O’Farrell’s site Michel-Foucault.com maintains a very good Foucault site, and there are other resources as well. Ben Attias’s site Welcome to the World of Michel Foucault is worth consulting, as is C. John Holcombe’s site Michel-Foucault, which has a good directory of other sites.

Power Positive and Negative

The distinction between “power to” and “power over” is a debate that has its roots in Aristotle’s distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power. Power, argued Lukes in 1974 (see Lukes 2005 at Textbooks), was a concept with an essence that was highly contested; liberal, reformist, and radical approaches to the concept had been identified. “Power over” has been the central question in much recent debate: the crucial problematic for Lukes’s radical view of power, for instance, as for Gramsci 1971, an account of hegemony, is why do subordinated agents frequently appear to consent to their own domination? Theorists have typically addressed the issue by claiming that in some way they can better know the interest of the subordinate agents than the subordinate agents can themselves, largely because the conditions of existence of their subordination do not allow these agents to know their real interests. Feminists and Marxists have been adept at deploying these arguments. In addition to views of power conceived as something held over others who are subordinate to it, is the view that power is less an ability for domination and more a capacity: “power to.” Giddens views power both as “power to” and as “power over” (Giddens 1976: 111–112). Agents derive the power to do things, in Giddens’s formulation, from what social structures enable them to do. For some agents, social structures enable them to exercise power over some other agents. When routinized and regularized, this equates with domination; thus, “power over” is a subset of “power to.” Domination is not a total and asymmetrical zero-sum phenomenon but implies a social relation. Giddens sees the consensual basis of conformance with power to reside in general, tacit, social knowledge lodged in practical consciousness, which is itself an effect of power—what Foucault called power/knowledge. He advocates a positive view of power—one that, in some respects, resembles that of Talcott Parsons, whose view of power he had earlier critiqued in Giddens 1968. For Foucault, truth was historically contingent rather than a transcendent category and plays a key role in the dynamics of power, by reifying regimes of power/knowledge—fixing them, one might say, as hegemonic. Subject to surveillance, socialization, and systemic pressures, spaces for resistance are whittled down, if never entirely eliminated.

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1968. “Power” in the recent writings of Talcott Parsons. Sociology 2:257–272.

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    A critical analysis of Parsons’s functionalist account of power conceived as a positive phenomenon in the polity in an analogy with the role of money in the economy. Giddens is critical of the lack of attention to conflict in Parsons’s account.

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  • Giddens, Anthony. 1976. New rules of sociological method: A positive critique of interpretative sociologies. London: Hutchinson.

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    Giddens’s syncretism, on good display here, was once highly influential but has declined as his interest shifted to more policy-related questions in recent years, seemingly uninfluenced by the explicit theoretical positions he began to develop from this book onward.

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  • Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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    For Gramsci power is less a coercive relation and more a normative and moral one, articulated through dominant ideas and institutions for their transmission. Composed under the watchful eye of prison authorities when he was imprisoned in the 1930s in an Italian jail during Fascism; later edited under the auspices of the Stalinist-leaning Togliatti, secretary of the Italian Communist Party.

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Power to and Power Over

Power as domination, which is linked to (the capacity for) violent agency, is the dominant perception of power; indeed, much of the work reviewed thus far stresses “power over”: the limiting or framing of actions that the other might take. A contrasting view, of power as consensual, as a capacity for action, as “power to,” came to the fore through the work of Talcott Parsons and Barry Barnes (Parsons 1986, originally published 1963, and Barnes 1988). For these thinkers, power constitutes the opposite of coercion and violence and is thus a prerequisite for agency. More recently, Göhler 2009 has sought to use the “power to”/“power over” distinction to impose an analytic frame to power studies that Göhler argues improve on the ordinary language distinctions. This entails the development of notions of transitive and intransitive power.

  • Barnes, Barry. 1988. The nature of power. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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    Barnes suggests seeing power in terms of discursively available ways of doing things that are publicly known and intelligible. Hence, actors can be calculative power agents: they act calculatingly in terms of the calculations that they attribute to other agents, while these agents have a reasonable knowledge of their calculations and differential access to, utilization of, and effectiveness in sanctioning resources.

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  • Göhler, Gerhard. 2009. “Power to” and “power over.” In The SAGE handbook of power. Edited by Stewart Clegg and Mark Haugaard, 27–39. London: SAGE.

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    Gerhard Göhler introduces the distinction between “power to” and “power over” and finds it inconsistent with ordinary language usage and therefore seeks to replace it with the concepts of “transitive” and “intransitive” power. Using this opposition, he develops a fourfold typology of power.

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  • Parsons, Talcott. 1986. On the concept of political power. In Power: Readings in social and political theory. Edited by S. Lukes, 94–143. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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    In relationships of reciprocal interaction, the power of A can be strengthened by the power of B, and vice-versa. The increases in power on both sides of the relationship are mutually dependent on one another. For Parsons, power, like money, is a circulating medium by which obligations are exchanged within the political system. First published in 1963 in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107:232–262.

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Circuits

One book tries to pull several of the most significant currents in power analysis into a coherent framework and that is Clegg 1989, which develops the “circuits of power” model. The model proposes three distinct “circuits” through which power moves: those of agency, those of social integration, and those of system integration. These circuits should not be thought of as “levels,” as in structural models such as Lukes 2005 (see Textbooks); rather, they are tangled up together and need not necessarily all be activated. There are many examples of power that only needs to move through the most economical and efficient circuit—that of agency, for instance. The framework has been influential—used to address work on organizational change, as in Gordon 2007, as well as used to address national research funding systems, and their reform, by Davenport and Leitch 2005. Clegg, et al. 2006 also uses the framework to reanalyze the highly significant study by Flyvbjerg 1998 of power relations in a complex case of urban planning in Aalborg, Denmark, over a ten-year period. While the book contains a final chapter that discusses this author’s theoretical resources elliptically, there is a more expanded discussion in Flyvbjerg 2001.

  • Clegg, Stewart. 1989. Frameworks of power. London: SAGE.

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    The relevant chapter of this book for the circuits of power framework is chapter eight. The model is explained by means of a “circuit diagram” on page 214.

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  • Clegg, Stewart, David Coupasson, and Nelson Phillips. 2006. Power and organizations. Foundations for Organizational Science. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    The discussion of Flyvbjerg’s case takes place in chapter eight. This analysis is useful in that it takes a complex case and shows how it can be reworked through use of the analytic frame of the circuits model. Those interested should read the book on Aalborg by Flyvbjerg published in 1998—it is probably the finest empirical analysis of power yet published.

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  • Davenport, Sally, and Shirley Leitch. 2005. Circuits of power in practice: Strategic ambiguity as delegation of authority. Organization Studies 26.11: 1603–1623.

    DOI: 10.1177/0170840605054627Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Power relationships where high amounts of discretion are delegated can result in innovation by stakeholders. In this paper, a facilitative circuit of power is explored through use of a case study of a public-sector research funding organization that employed strategic ambiguity to delegate considerable authority to stakeholders, stimulating a variety of creative responses during a period of major system restructuring.

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  • Flyvbjerg, Bent. 1998. Rationality and power: Democracy in practice. Morality and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A detailed power analysis of urban planning and its attendant disputes, interests, and rationalities in the Danish city of Aalborg. The use of various empirical materials—press accounts, archival documents, observations, and interviews—is exemplary. The theoretical and methodological sections of the PhD dissertation from which it was drawn were expanded on and published separately as Flyvbjerg 2001.

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  • Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2001. Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    In this book Flyvbjerg seeks to resurrect the approach that Aristotle introduced as phronesis. Phronesis seeks neither technical nor theoretical knowledge as sufficient: it strives for practical wisdom based on intimate knowledge of specific cases. The book outlines Flyvbjerg’s approach and commitment to phronesis in social science research, illustrated with case examples from his work in Africa.

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  • Gordon, Raymond D. 2007. Power, knowledge and domination. Advances in Organization Studies 21. Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press.

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    A fascinating case study of major organizational change in the New South Wales Police Service, which had been exposed as a highly corrupt organization. The central concepts used are differentiation and domination: these are ingeniously traced empirically through a well-documented set of discursive materials collected through detailed ethnography.

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Gender

If power is a matter of social relations, then evident gender relations must be at their core. Feminist theory, in its early stages, was committed to the idea that there are some essential structures of patriarchal dominancy at work in gender relations (see, for example, Hekman 1996, which collects much of the critical commentary). Formulations that saw women’s real interests being suppressed by patriarchal relations that privileged “malestream” views had little doubt that men and women had real opposed interests, and that men’s interests, represented in the patriarchy, dominated those of women. Domination is inescapably a part of what it means to be human; through the normal forms of domination, we learn to assert our powers as historically constituted subjects having the capacity to act on the limits of our freedom. What truths maintain domination will vary from era to era and will be a result of the dominant power practices defining that era, producing its objects, its rituals, and its truths as well as those that contest them. The power of feminist critique produces the conditions both of its liberation and of that domination that it will liberate. Inspired by Foucault, there have been several developments of nonessentialist feminism. Butler 1990 uses the distinction between “power to” and “power over” to demonstrate how each conception hinges on a different conception of the human subject. The theorists who stress “power over” assume that subjectivity is already there in a pregiven form, while the theorists who stress “power to” see it as producing subjectivity. The former corresponds to notions of patriarchal power subjecting gendered relations to its pattern, while the latter indexes a notion of subjection as subject making embedded in discourse. These discourses institutionally produce—legally, nationally, and culturally—what is contested as normalcy. Gender relations are always situationally accomplished in the gestures, glances, talk, and embodiment of everyday situations. One writer who is sensitive to these microsociological auspices of gendered power relations is Amy Allen in her contribution to the SAGE Handbook of Power (Allen 2009). She sees Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as the first significant feminist intervention linking power and gender relations. She next charts the contributions that poststructuralist analysis and ethnomethodology can make to analysis of these relations—the latter through close observation of how gender is actually done, drawing on West and Zimmerman 2002.

  • Allen, Amy. 2009. Gender and power. In The SAGE handbook of power. Edited by Stewart Clegg and Mark Haugaard, 293–309. London: SAGE.

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    An excellent introduction to the areas of power and gender relations, which concludes with a discussion of “intersectionality”—how gender relations intersect and overlap with other significant forms of identity and how the sense of identity is constituted, sustained, and changed.

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  • Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Thinking Gender. New York: Routledge.

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    Butler’s specific concepts, such as performativity, iteration, and foreclosure, have been very influential in power debates. She draws on a classical phenomenological perspective in her contributions to the development of a poststructuralist analysis.

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  • Hekman, Susan. 1996. Feminist interpretations of Michel Foucault. Re-Reading the Canon. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

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    A definitive collection of debates within feminist analysis concerning the impact of Foucault’s ideas on power for these theories.

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  • West, Candace, and Donald Zimmerman. 2002. Doing gender. In Doing gender, doing difference: Inequality, power, and institutional change. Edited by Sarah Fenstermaker and Candace West, 3–24. New York: Routledge.

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    The classical ethnomethodological account of gender as a practical accomplishment, greatly influenced by Garfinkel’s account of how a transgendered person managed her social relations in public, from his 1967 Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall).

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LAST MODIFIED: 07/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0068

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