Sociology Power
Stewart Clegg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0068


The concept of power is absolutely central to any understanding of society. Despite its ubiquity, power 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 nonnormative, 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.


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.

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

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446279267

    Covers a broad-based genealogy of power that starts with Hobbes and Machiavelli and incorporates many of the major debates along the way.

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

    This book is in some respects a follow-up to Clegg 1989. There is much that was not included in the previous volume, in terms of both more recent scholarship and a consideration of major figures omitted from the previous volume, such as Luhmann and Goffman.

  • Dean, Mitchell. 2013. The signature of power. London: SAGE.

    Using the work of Michel Foucault as a fundamental resource with which to engage with various legal/sovereign, disciplinary, and economic concepts of power, especially those related to sovereignty, governmentality, and biopolitics.

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

    Haugaard provides a strong overview of the field from a structurationist perspective.

  • Haugaard, Mark, ed. 2002. Power: A reader. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

    There is an excellent introduction by Haugaard; strong on social theory approaches to power.

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

    The first edition of the definitive book on power was published in 1974: the book is elegant, economical, and focused. The 2005 edition reprises all of the 1974, original volume with an extended commentary by the author selectively addressing some criticisms of the first edition.

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