Theories of Power & the State

Some revision cards on the AQA Power and Politics 'Theories of Power & the State'.

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  • Created by: Lizzie M
  • Created on: 04-06-14 16:21

Weber's Theory

Defined power as 'the chance of a man/men to realise their will'.

Power is coercive, when it is legitmately exercised power becomes authority. There are three ways power can be legitimised: 

  • Traditional Authority - Power legitimised because based on custom e.g. monarchys. Legitimised because 'its always been that way'. Tends to be patriarchal (male dominated) e.g. Kings-Princes.
  • Charismatic Authority- Power legitimised because the followers are inspired by the message the ruler conveys/their personality/special qualities e.g. MLK. Times of conflict.
  • Legal-Rational Authority- Authority based on legal framework of principles. This type places limits on leaders power (e.g. parliament), the main type in liberal democracies. WEBER this type of authority will become dominant.

A criticism of Weber is that he ignores the more subtle ways power may be legitimised e.g. media i.e. 'propaganda'. 

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  • State is instrument of capitalists 'committee for managing affairs of bourgeosie'.
  • Because state just furthers interests of elite, elections have no real meaning - won't change anything - elites will all aim to continue their dominance (by numbing radical instincts)
  • There is 'class conflict' because of the unequal distribution of power i.e. elite have a lot, proletariat have none --> Gradually 'withering of the state' = proletariat set up communism.


  • State always operate to advantage ruling class, and ensure no threats to capitalism (even labour! :o) 
  • Those in senior positions all have same priviledged backgrounds - predisposed to accept ideals of the wealthy/vested interest in continuing the elite dominance -->elections no meaning.
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Marxism Continued...


  • State=narrowly conceived.
  • State has repressive state apparatus e.g. police, and a ideological state apparatus e.g. church/media - the ISA maintains dominance by legitimising the elites power e.g. school teach us 'meritocracy' to make us think they deserve to be there.


  • Dominance because elite values (e.g. profit) accepted as norm, hegemony. ISA ensures this - mass media key role, allows elites to project vaues nationally, deny access to challenging ideas and keeps proletariat in 'bemused state of satisfaction' with entertainment - keeps us 'happy' and distracts us from inequalities. + Elite families often dominate several 'ISA' institutions e.g. Murdochs in media.

Evaluation of the Marxist theory... +Power Elite Theorists, inevitable that politics done by a minority. 

-Marx's predicted 'withering of the state' has not yet happened = question validity of rest of theory.

-Pluarlists - power more dispersed than Marxists say. Power isn't 'zero-sum' (limited amount) as marxists think, 'variable sum'. -Ignore other inequalities e.g. gender - feminism.

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  • Power dispersed through many groups. Some power is available to everyone. Cant all get what want but negotiation can a little. 
  • Industry power distributed: owners, managers, workers & consumers (?)
  • State = neutral party where the views of every group can be heard (inc. disadvantaged). 'Honest Broker'.
  • Dahl - USA influential people not always get way, mechanisms to protect disadvantaged. Over time power=more dispersed 'no one is entirely lacking in power'.
  • Elections do have meaning, because it is source of power.


+NSMs, Pressure Groups, Interest Groups, political parties & ELECTIONS --> allow views to be heard. 

-Dahl changed his thoughts, said there are few direct chances for masses to be involved in decision-making, and no equality of influence in US became 'elite pluralist'.

-Marxists/power elites - power not dispersed concentrated in elites. There is only a limited amount of power 'zero-sum' NOT 'variable sum' as pluarlists sugggest.

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Power Elite

In all societies inevitable politics conducted by minority (might be rich/qualities that make them good for leadership) --> narrowness of elite = elections no real choice. 

There is an inequality in group influence and so ideas in the market are limited --> no election choice AND means that the demands of disadvantaged may go unnoticed/elites go unchallenged.

  • Mosca - all societies are run by a numerical minority - superior organisation skills allow them to gain power. Elites NOT HEREDITARY, so ANYONE can become the elite. Constant competion in politics = one elite replaces another = CIRCULATION OF ELITES.
  • Pareto - foxes/lions. Lions-at ease using force to gain power e.g. dictatorships. Foxes - western democracies, use cunning to gain power e.g. propaganda media. Most of popuation doesnt fit into either, so he had doubts about ability to choose decision-makers.
  • Mills - there are elites who dominate the three 'sectors' of US public life (gov, military,business) the families perpetuate this with marriages/deals e.g. MURDOCHS.

-Not all elites share the views of their upbringing. 

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  • power='positive social capacity for achieving communal ends'. 
  • power=collective resource to promote general good rather than a possession of an individual. 
  • the greater the power the better life is :)


  • violence & power are antagonistic, cant exist together. 


  • Government have three types of power 'three faces of power': decision-making power gov's like to be judged by this. non-decision-making power control of debate agendas (usually 'consensus' topics so dont provoke difficulties) ideological power.

- Marxism, power is unequal and used to exploit prolatariat that means power is NOT a positive thing as suggested by functionalists.

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