The nature and distribution of political power in society

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  • Created on: 16-01-13 13:13

what is power?

Weber defined power as the chance or probability of an individual or group of people imposing their will on others despite resistance, i.e, where A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something B would not otherwise do.

Parsons (1951) and Mills (1956) disagree about the definition of power. The first uses power in the positive sense of getting things done, whilts the latter uses the term in the more negative sense of power being exercised over others. Parsons considers only the consequence, not the relationship of power.

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Allen (2002)

Allen (2002) points out the power relationships may be based on different things:

  • Authority - expected by those with superior position or knowledge
  • Coercion - force, threat
  • Manipulation - cajoling, concealment, used by the mass media
  • Domination - imposed by restricting choices
  • Persuasion - suggested by arguing the merits of the case

Given the different ways power works in society, says Allen, it is necessary to grasp not just what it is, but also to examine the way it has been used in sociology as a theoretical construction.

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Lukes (1974) Three Faces of Power

Lukes adopts a radical view and argues that power has three faces:

  • The first face sees political power in terms of the decision-making process whereby groups in society with opposing ideas about what they want done argue openly and seek to influence the outcome of any political debate in their favour.
  • The second face sees power in terms of what is removed from the decision-making process - what is excluded from the political arena is just as significant as what is included. Power is involved in blocking off certain issues and debated from discussion and decision-making; limiting the political agenda has the effect of restricting choices and alternatives.
  • The third face sees power in terms of the ability of some to shape the thoughts and desires of others - so power is not about blocking consideration of alternatives, rather it is about creating acceptance in others of what the powerful want for themselves so there is no apparent need for debate.
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Locations of Power

  • The State
  • Gorvernment
  • The Media
  • Transnational Corporations (TNCs)
  • Big Business
  • Individuals
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The State

This has been defined in all ways, but can be thought of as the Legislature (Parliament), Executive (government and Civil Service), and the Judiciary (police, courts, and prisons).

Traditionally, power is seen to be held by the state, the institutions of which has a monopoly of power in making and enforcing laws - using state violence and coercion if necessary. As a 'nation state', the state had sovereign (supreme) power to do so within its own demariated (fixed) borders.

Although, nation-states only came into existance about three centuries ago, their powers are already being challenged by demands for devolution and the growth of globalisation - which is why sociologists now think of them "too large to solve the small problems but too small to solve the big ones."

States retain considerable power but it is increasingly difficult to see them as being monopolistic.

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This is a key institution of the state and as such wields much power, but the development of democracy - has had an effect on the power of government.

For example, Hewitt (1974) researched 24 crisis issues in the UKs Parliament from 1944 to 1964 and discovered that governments responded to a diverse range of views in reaching their decisions. In spite of their powers, governments compromised on most issues: public opinion as measured in polls on eleven issues was only overridden once (on the abolition of capital punishment).

Critics would point to other issues where public opinion has been overridden by government (a promised referendum on the UK's acceptance of the 'EU Treaty' in 2007), although this may serve to illustrate the extent to which national politics in subject to wider pressures.

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The Media

The media has been described as the 'fourth estate', suggesting that it has the power to rival the first three 'estates' (traditionally the church, the nobility and the people). 

Today, a global media market is dominated by ten worldwide corporations that are so huge that Mackay (2000) suggests their influence surpasses that of the nation-state. The best known wxample in the UK is News Corporation - owner of the Sun newspaper - whose head, Rupoert Murdoch, allegedly exercises direct control of much of the business. It operates in nine different media forms accross six continents.

Critics point out how the media in general contributes to hegemony and genda-setting in society, but they tend to underestimate the continuting power of the state to regulate it. In the UK, for example, News Corporation was excluded from the bidding for the Channel 5 licence, and in the USA, Microsoft's activities was curtailed because of its monopolistic power.

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Transnational Corporations (TNCs)

TNCs are regarded by some writers as 'footloose capitalism' because their production is not based on, or subject to, a particular nation-state. TNCs can go where they like in pursuit of profit, with little regard for attempts by states to regulate their activites.

Sklair (2003) argues that those who own and control TNCs wield most of the power in the world today: companies such as coca-cola, pepsi, nestlé, and sony have more economic power then some countries.

The growing power of footloose capital has resulted in a reduction in the power of the state, although some states are more able to resist TNC power than others. Those with higher incomes, such as the USA, Japan, China and the EU, still have the political power to match TNCs, but, smaller, developing states with low incomes are eceonomically vulnerable to footloose capitalism.

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Big Business

Whether they are TNCs or MNCs, big businesses have the economic power to get their own way. Wealth brings power over the lives of others, claim Mackintosh and Mooney (2000). Today, wealthy people in the UK area mix of those who have interited money (land owners like the Duke of Westminister) and those whose wealth is self-made, such as Alan Sugar and Richard Barnson.

What they have in common is the possession of capital to use in any way they wish - and this provides the link between wealth and power. It is true that some wealth redistribution has taken place in the UK: in 1911, 69% of all personal wealth was owned by 1% of the population; in 2002, this was down to 23% owned by 1%.

However, Urry and Wakeford (1973) say that in spite of attempts by successive governments to curb their powers, a small group of wealthy people in the UK are still a part of a dominant powergroup.

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On their own, ordinary people possess little real power, economic or otherwise. Three-quarters of the people in the UK own just one quarter of all the personal wealth in the community. THeir only direct input to the process of government is voting once every five years. Perhaps this is why they sometimes feel the need to take direct political action and exercise some power through social movements.

For example, Allen (2000) describes how self-styled eco-warriers took on the likes of Monsanto, the US multinational corporation experimenting with genetically modified food in the 1990s. Calling it 'Frankenstein Food', they dressed in protective clothing to destroy crops in fields, and then dressed as vegetables to protest outside supermarkets selling GM foods. The House of Commons barred GM foods from from its restautants - a case of power to the people?

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how is power distributed?

The matter of how power Is distributed  across different locations continues to be debated

  • Weberian
  • Fuctionalist
  • Pluralist
  • Elite theory
  • Marxist theory
  • Neo marxism
  • Postmodernism
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