Different theories of the nature and distribution of power

Flash cards on the whole of the AQA A2 sociology power and politics; part 1 of the specificication - Different theories of the nature and distribution of power.

  • Created by: Amy Leech
  • Created on: 12-04-13 15:39

Introduction to power and politics

  • Politics is about how we are governed.
  • It concerns the ways in which decisions are made about government, state and public affairs: where the power lies, how governments and states work, and different theories and practicies such as democracy, equality, tyranny and violence.
  • In society, people have different values and different ideas about what goals should be pursued and about the best means of achieving those goals.
  • When making decisions, conflict will always arise.
  • Process of resolving conflicts about the way we organise society and priorities we establish is a political process.
  • Those charged with making decisions exercise power and authority over us. 
  • They have ability to influence the way we live.
  • Concept of power is central to any study of politics, which is why some people define politics as the 'struggle for power and influence' or as 'the authority to govern'.
  • Power is the key in political sociology, which is concerned with viewing politics in a social context and examining the relationship between the social structure and political behaviour.
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What is politics all about?

  • Power is the ability to demand that people do something and to say how it should be done or organised.
  • Dictators and unpopular governments can maintain themselves in power by the use of force, if required, but in democracies the power of governments is justified by consent, which means that people have given their agreement to what is being done. 
  • Where power is granted by consent, the term 'authority' is used.
  • Abraham Lincoln said democracy is 'governement of the people by the people and for the people'. 
  • Ancient Greeks were the first to develop democratic ideas, democracy in Athens was practised in a small city state. In Ancient Athens, every qualified citizen had the opportunity to gather together and vote directly on issues of current interest and concern.
  • This was a direct democracy in action.
  • The use of referendums and initiatives helps to keep the flame of direct popular involvement in decision making alive.
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What is politics all about?

  • In todays society people elect representatives to act on their behalf to discuss and vote on issues.
  • This is a representative democracy.
  • Some key elements of a modern democracy are popular control of policymakers, the existence of opposition, political equality (one person, one vote), political freedoms and majority rule.
  • Elections are central to representative democracy, the people are consigned to the role 'of deciding who will decide'.
  • In democracy, a few govern and the mass follows.
  • The electors cast votes every few years at election time, but in between they have little say.
  • This is obviously a form of people power, but a limited one, for the voters are giving away they rights of decision making to a small number of elected representatives who make decisions on their behalf.
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What is politics all about?

  • Britain and other Western democracies are often called liberal democracies.
  • Liberal democracies already have features of a representative democracy and they have a committment to the ideas of pluralism, limited government, civil liberties and civil rights, open government, an independant judiciary, and free and open media.
  • Power can depend on naked force or coercion.
  • It is used in many authoritarian regimes to maintain leaders in office; often the rule of dictators ultimately relies on intimidation and physical threat.
  • In democracy, those who govern have the authority to govern. They derive their legitimate authority from the consent of those they govern, as determined in periodic, free and meaningful elections in which there is a genuine choice of candidates with a range of viewpoints. 
  • In democracy there is free competition between parties and participation by the mass of voters in elections. 
  • Power enables the collective decisions of government ministers to be made and enforced.
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What is politics all about?

  • Power affects many relationships in everyday life.
  • In UK politics it is often used for the formal political battle at Westminister, but it affects many other political interactions that happen in government departments.
  • It also features in schools, prisons, or families whether it may concern the relationship of parent and child or husband and wife.
  • People often use the phrase 'office politics' to describe a workplace struggle for power and recognition.
  • The exercise of power takes different forms.
  • The distribution of power can be different to locate.
  • Its expression is sometimes brutually evident in authoritarian countries, but less obvious in democracies where there is no single focus of decison making.
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What is politics all about?

The importance of power in sociology

  • Power is a concept which was hotly debated and contested by sociologists throughtout the 20th century.
  • Classic writing on topic was by Weber.
  • He distinguished power from authority.
  • He thought that power ultimately depends on force to achieve its ends, and he distinguished three main forms of authority; traditional, charismatic and legal-rational.
  • Sociologists have debated Weber's view which is concentrated on the exercise of power in the decision making process.
  • Amoung other therorists, Stephen Lukes distinguished between three 'faces of power': the focus on decision making power, non-decision making power and ideological power.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Three types of authority:

  • The traditional distinction made between power and authority owes much to the pioneering approach of Max Weber. He portrayed power as 'the chance of a man to realise their own will in a communal action, even against the resistance of others'.
  • In effect this is coercive power - it depends on the force or repression - as opposed to authority.
  • When it is legitimately exercised, power became authority, which Weber saw as more effective precisely because it was based on legitimacy. 
  • He distinguished 3 means by which political power was legitimised, although they are not exclusive, the same person may carry authority because of a combination of them.

1) Traditional authority

2) Charismatic authority

3) Legal- Rational authority

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Theories on power in the modern state

1) Traditional authority

-People give their consent because they always have. Established customs and practices are seen as 'right' because they've always been that way. For example, A traditional society might accept their elders as rulers becasue the elders have always been the rulers of the society.

2) Charismatic authority

-People give their consent to a charismatic leader because of the leader's exceptional qualities. The leader inspires great loyalty and devotion. Religious leaders are often charismatic. Examples of charismatic leaders might inlude Jesus, Barack Obama.

3) Legal- Rational authority

-People give their consent to an impersonal legal framework (a set of rules). The rules are rational because they make sense and have a particular and obvious aim. A modern example would be stopping at a red light to avoid vehicle crashes.

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Theories on power in the modern state

The Marxist Approach:

  • Marxist theories are based on the ideas of Karl Marx. Unlike Weber, who later advanced his views in response to Marxist thinking, Marx was less interested in the characteristics and whims of the individuals and more interested in the structural relationships within society.
  • They have traditionally portrayed the state as the instrument of the ruling capitalist class. 
  • Marx and Engels describe the state as 'a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'.
  • They see it as an enitity designed to further the interests of those who own the means of production, distribution and exchange, maintaining and preserving their position.
  • This leads them to believe that elections are without real meaning, for although they convey the impression that everyone can express a preference at the polling station, the contest will ultimately change nothing.
  • The choice will be between people committed to preserving the existing form of society.
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Theories on power in the modern state

  • Marx argued that for much of human history, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few poeple in the ruling class, who control the economic system by virtue of their ownership of land, equipment and wealth. 
  • He used the terms 'class conflict' and 'class struggle' to refer to the antagonism that arose between social classes over the distribution of wealth and power in society.
  • Marx saw society in terms of social classes competing for power. Under capitalism, the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) hold all the power and use it to their advantage and to the detriment of the working class (proletariat).
  • They reject the idea of authority as legitimate power, suggesting that the working class are falsely persuaded to consent to the rule of the capitalist class. They saw authority as just disguised power.
  • Marx believed power in society is finite, and that it can only be held by one person or group at a time. This view of power is called the Zero Sum Model.
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Theories on power in the modern state


-Claimed the state would always operate to the advantage of the ruling economic class, the owners of capital.

-Although it comprises many differing elements - parliaments, local councils, courts and a wide range of pressure gorups - all of which provide checks and balances, governments usually ensure there is no threat to the interests of those who own capital.

-The Labour Party, traditionally regarded as a socialist party hasn't challenged big business, according to critics on the political left. 

-Often it seems to be in the business of showing that it can operate a capitalist system more efficiently and effectively, because it does so in a more humane and socially conscious way.

  • Miliband basically suggests that political power is held by the same class who hold economic power.
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Theories on power in the modern state


-Less interested in the background and behaviour  of state functionaries.

-He drew attention to the way the operation of the state supports the capitalist mode of production.

-He distinguished the state as narrowly conceived, with its repressive state apparatus - the army, the police and the judiciary - and the wider view of an ideological apparatus - the church, education, the family and the media - which helps to maintain the dominance of the ruling class by legitimation.

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Theories on power in the modern state


-Early exponent of the notion of hegemony in society. Hegemony is the idea that the ruling class achieved dominance because their values were accepted as the norm.

-Unlike, Marx, he did not accept that the domination of the capitalist class could be explained by economic forces only, and was wary of reliance on material or economic factors as a determinant of historical change. 

-It required political force, essentially matter of state power, and some means of ensuring the consent of the classes who were subordinate.

-Like Althusser, Gramsci claimed that the ideological apparatus through which this support could be achieved included institutions of civil society such as churches, the family, the educational system and trade unions. 

-He saw mass media in having a key role. Believed media was a powerful means of retaining class dominance, as media proprietors could convery their message across the nation and into every home.

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Theories on power in the modern state


-Also concerned with the repressive apparatus of the state - the armed forces and the police- as well as its 'manipulative' ideological apparatus, such as churches, schools and the media.

-He recognised that some state agencies could be relatively free to operate as they wished, rather than as capitalist wished them to do.Yet ultimately the needs of those who owned capital would prevail.

-He was less interested in the people who achieve the 'top' position in society, for he argued that the state operates in the same way whoever holds the key offices and whether or not they possess a similar background.

-Like Miliband, he drew attention to the failure of Labour governments to acieve the social change and wealth redistribution they espoused. This happened because their leading figures were unable or unwillinging to take on the businessmen and financiers who benefited from the prevailing social and economic system. Those who owned the industry and controlled production of goods would always ensure thaty their interests prevailed.

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Theories on power in the modern state

The Pluralist Approach

  • Unlike Marxists, pluralists do not accept that power generally resides in one class. 
  • They believe it is dispersed among many competed groups. such as cultural, economic, educational, professional and religious groups.
  • Wealth is a factor. The result is that some power is available to almost everyone.
  • No person can expect to achieve all the outcomes they want, but by a process of negotiation most can realise some of their goals and prevent the introduction of policies they regard as detrimental.
  • In the world of industry, pluralists believe that power is distributed between owners the management and workers.
  • In more recent decades, consumers may be added to the mix.
  • Pluralist theorists portray the state as neutral party that represents the interests of every group within society. 
  • The state is a neutral arena for debate allowing all viewpoints to be expressed and so the voice of the disadvantaged does not go unnoticed. 
  • Over time there will be a balancing out of a group influence.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Robert Dahl:

  • Found that instead of one elite group dominating society and hogging all the power, there were actually 'multiple centres of power' - lots of small groups competing for power.
  • Pluralists believe that all sorts of political parties and interest groups can have power over political decision-making.
  • Dahl accepted that in modern representative democracies, there are few direct opportunities for the mass of people to become actively involved in maing decisions.
  • But he felt that those who were reponsible for decision-making derived their support from the wishes of the electorate as expressed through the ballox box.
  • In between elections, they may choose to join political parties or be active in pressure groups and through these outliets express their viewpoints.
  • Critics claim that it is an inadequate or inaccurate description of the exercise of political power in most democracies, including the US and Britain. 
  • Far from being model democracies in which power is dispersed, they concentrate power in the hands of a relatively small number of people and groups.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Power Elite Theory:

  • According to power elite theory, in almost all societies be they communist or liberal democratic, it seems inevitable that politics is conducted by a small minority of individuals.
  • They may be the super rich or perhaps people endowed with particular personal gifts that equip them for leadership.
  • Given the narrowness of this elite, there is no real choice for the voters at election time. Moreover, there exists an inequality of group influence, so it is impossible to have meaningful competition in the market for ideas and influence.
  • The opinions and demands of some groups remain unnoticed and the views of the elite go unchallenged.
  • The big difference between elite theorists and Marxists is that the elite theorists though elite domination was desirable, inevitable and natural. They said the elite become the elite because they are better than the rest of us. They saw the rest of society as a disorganised and apathetic rabble. This is very different to Marxists who thought that elite domination was unfair and exploitative.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Pareto and Mosca:

  • Classical elite theorists saw society as divided between the rulers (the elite) and the ruled.
  • The elite take all the important decisions in society and these decisions are almost always in their own interest. 
  • To this extent they agree with the Marxist viewpoint.

C Wright Mills:

  • Studied 3 important institutions in Americal society - the business community, the military and the government.
  • Claimed that the elite in all 3 institutions formed a single ruling elite, which he called the power elite. Military, industrial and poltical power were all intertwined in the power.
  • Concluded that unelected elites sharing the same social background dominate American society and run economic and foreign policy in their own interests.
  • Argued that the power elite were not accountable to the people. He saw little difference between Americal political parties, so no chance to vote for alternative policies.
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Theories on power in the modern state

  • Statistics show the majority of British MP's high ranking civil servants and business leaders come from the same social and educational background - this phenomenon has been referred to as the 'establishment'.

Lupton and Wilson:

  • Study on top-decision makers.
  • Found connections between them were strengthened by close maritial and kinship ties.
  • Strong internal ties with the elite group make it harder for outsiders to break in.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Talcott Parsons - Functionalist:

  • Believed power was a collective resource for promoting the general good rather than a possession of individuals.
  • He viewed power of the governments as the capacity to achieve beneficial purposes such as maintaining law and order and protecting its environment.
  • He was not afraid of power or its exercise.

Hannah Arendt - German political theorist:

  • Echoed Parsons thinking in her emphasis on power as the ability to act and 'to act in concert'.
  • She recognised that by uniting and cooperating, people can achieve mosre than by acting alone.
  • She rejected the notion of power by coercion.
  • She saw power and violence as antagonistic.
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Theories on power in the modern state

Stephen Lukes:

  • 'Three faces of power'.
  • States that A exerts power over B when A affects B in a matter contrary to B's interests, even if B is unaware of the damage caused.
  • Claimed governments have 3 ways of controlling people:

1) Decision making: The power to make and implement decisions which affect other people.

2)Non decision making: The power to set agendas - limit whats being discussed.

3)Shaping desires: The power to manipulate what people think they want -powerful groups can make people think they want or consent to something which actually harms their interests.

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The distribution of power in modern Britain

  • Political power is greatly concerned with the ability to make decisions that affect the way society is organised and the goals it chooses to pursue - Lukes' first face of power. 
  • Yet it is no longer possible to speak of political power in isolation from other types of power.
  • Economic power, military power and media power all influence the political system and the effectiveness of political leaders.
  • Power can be influenced by problems that suddenly erupt onto the political scene and cause huge headaches for government ministers.
  • A crisis abroad, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a run on a bank in difficulty can appear to arise out of nowhere.
  • They can throw a government off course and make ministers look ineffectual - in office but not in power.
  • Britains political power rests with the excutive, in particular the political executive, better known as the elected government. 
  • Members of the government, especially the PM and the cabinet, develop policies and bring bills to Parliament.
  • Most bills become laws that govern the whole population.
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The distribution of power in modern Britain

  • Governments therefore have the power to change the way we live, such as where we can use mobile phones, when we can drink in pubs and whether a pregnant women can have an abortion.
  • Some say the civil service is the seat of power.
  • Its responsible for administering the laws that Parliament has passed. 
  • It carries key functions out such as advising ministers, preparing and drafting discussion documents and legislation, and implementing government decisions. 
  • Some argue power resides more with the legislature, or Parliament. 
  • Parliament comprises of the HoL and the HoC.
  • The doctrine of Parliamentary Supremecy gives Parliament supreme and unique legislative authority with the power to make, amend or unmake laws.
  • Some say power resides with the judiciary.
  • Other people believe that in a democracy, power ultimately resides with the people.
  • However people can only vote every 5 years so its difficult to argue the individual has much power.
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The distribution of power in modern Britain

Who exercises social and political power?

  • People who are influential in Britain tend to share a similar background and sometimes similar attitudes.Most have excellent upbringing, attended public school and Oxbridge.


  • studied leadership groups in Britain and drew attention to the relatively small size of the ruling clique. 
  • he concluded that in Britain today exists a ruling class, if we mean by it a group which provides the majority of those who occupy positions of power and who in their turn materially assist their sons to reach similar positions.
  • Pointed out that effective power is concentrated in a relatively small grou of people of the same social class and characteristics. 
  • but it doesn't follow that people who have the same backgrounds have the same or similar beliefs. 
  • Hard to demonstrate that people belonging to similar social groups always act in their own groups interest.
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