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Where and when should social scientists look for power?

Since the 1950s and 1970s there has been an on-going debate on where and when social scientists should look for power. Classical pluralist such as Robert Dahl (1957) argues that power is one-dimensional and is expressed through decision-making processes. Over time, the researchers expanded the concept of power to different places and the concept of invisible power has gained importance. Neo-elitists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz (1962) added a second dimension to Dahl’s (1957) explanation of power and shifted the focus to the question of eligibility of agenda setting. Finally Marxist and radical theorists such as Steven Lukes (1974) added a third dimension to the conception of political power; preference shaping. This essay will discuss these three subjective understandings of power, paying special attention to the arguments on whether power is visible or invisible. Furthermore it will examine the views on visibility of power of different groups. This essay will conclude that Bachrach et al’s (1962) approach to power is the most relevant and applicable to the understanding of power relations in the political system.

The differences between where and when social scientists look for power is the result of their different perceptions of power. Dahl’s (1957, 202) definition of power is positivist as power is the ability of forcing someone to do something that they would not otherwise do. This shows that people who are able to make decisions over others are powerful, which is a realist assumption (Dahl, 1957). According to him some actors posses power and use it over the other actors (Hayward, 2000, 12). Therefore, power relations are a zero-sum game as one side wins and the other one loses. Michael Barnett et al (2005) gave an example of the US led invasion of Iraq. The US used its military and economic resources to persuade other states to follow them (Barnett et al, 2005, 40). Dahl (1957), therefore studied power through looking at the ability of participating in the formal decision-making process. This relates to the idea that governments have power to force citizens to do what they would not otherwise do (Dahl, 1957).

Unlike Dahl (1957), Bachrach and Baratz (1962) focused on the concept of a conflict of interest when examining power relations. They state that power happens when actor A takes part in the decision-making that will affect actor B (Bachrach et al, 1962, 948). Bachrach and Baratz (1962) introduced the non-decision making process as second dimension of power, which is agenda setting. The two dimensional view assumes that individuals are powerful as they make decisions in relation to a problem and those who stay out of the decision-making process are also expressing power (Bachrach et al, 1962). Thus, the second dimension of power focuses on the informal way of expressing a view by not taking part in the decision-making process (Bachrach et al, 1962). In addition, not expressing thoughts in the non-decision making process is maintaining status over others, which is a form of power (Bachrach et al, 1962).

Lukes (1974) added a third dimension to the concept of power, which is the ability to shape the political agenda. He states that B’s will is shaped by A as A influences the actions of B, which affect A (Hay, 2002, 178). Therefore, according to Lukes (1974), the third dimension of power is related to preference formation through socialisation. It seeks to understand how powerful people and their interests can influence the rest of the population (Lukes, 1974). Lukes argues that the third dimension of power is more important than the rest as it gives deeper understanding of the concept of hegemony and domination of the ruling class (Swartz, 2007). Marxist Lukes applied the concept of false consciousness to understand the concept of power, which leads to compliance of the rest (Swartz, 2007). He argues that people are not able to decide what their real intentions are therefore they comply with the existing norms of others (Swartz, 2007).

It has been shown that where social scientists look for power depends on the type of power they wish to understand. Classical pluralist such as Dahl (1957) studied power in the formal political system. He holds a positivist ontological position because he studied the decision-making process in its natural environment. He explored formal power relations through elections in New Haven, in particular the influence groups in political decision-making process (Domhoff, 2014). In his empirical research he concluded that there was no dominant group in New Haven, which is an example of pluralism (Domhoff, 2014). However, studying power relations in New Haven is not enough to understand the power concept. It is therefore, important to examine the informal political arena, which is referred as ‘corridors of power’ (Bachrach et al, 1962).

Bachrach et al (1962) took the new institutionalist approach and stated that analysing agenda setting process, the formality of decision-making process and the informality of the non-decision-making process are important to understand the concept of power. They took a relativist ontological position as they suggested that people do not have equal chance to participate in the decision-making process (Hayward, 2000). In their normative study they expressed the relevance of multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations and trade unions to understand the impact of power relations on the informal processes (Bachrach et al, 1962). Political actors use their community ties or institutions to reinforce the existing rules of the game (Hayward, 2000, 15). It is important for social scientists to examine power informally as well as formally because leaving certain groups out of decision-making process hides those people’s ability of their agenda setting. Thus radical constructivist theorists such as Lukes (1974) argue that power is found within and without the formal political process in the public sphere. Lukes (1974) took a normative methodological approach to examine the civil study to understand how actors act in their own interest. He embraced an objectivist ontological position because he stated that what people want can be the opposite of the interest of the political system (Lukes, 1974).

The above analysis shows that when looking for power social scientists need to focus on formal and informal processes to understand power relations. Dahl’s (1957) behavioural approach solely examines the decision-making processes of the political actors. However, this does not provide sufficient information on the perception of the operation of power. Dahl focused on ‘concrete decisions’ made on ‘key political issues’ (Hayward, 2000, 15). Thus Dahl (1957) takes an empirical approach based on the observations of the political system. Dahl’s one-dimensional approach is simplistic because it looks at the decision-making process after the agenda has already been set (Bachrach et al, 1962).

According to Bachrach et al (1962) pluralists such as Dahl aim to explore how power is exercised rather than studying the resources, which enabled the actors to exercise power. Neo-elitists thus, argue that social scientists need to look for power when the political agendas are set (Bachrach et al, 1962). Bachrach et al (1962) implies that power relations are misunderstood, as the decisions, which are not expressed in the decision-making process, are not considered. Furthermore, an analysis of power in order to prevent potential issues is extremely important (Bachrach et al, 1962). According to Bachrach et al (1962, 948) analysing the eligibility of people to participate in the decision-making process is important to understand the concept the power. Thus businessmen and very wealthy people must be taken into account to study operationalising of power as they can influence the political agenda through preventing discussion of certain issues (Bachrach et al, 1962).

It has been argued that social scientists need to look for power when preferences are shaped. Dahl and Bacharach et al do not take the role of persuasion and the effects of the social class into account (Lukes, 1974). Lukes stressed the relevance of true interests in the power concept (Swartz, 2007). His core argument is that powerful actors use cultural institutions to prevent people from expressing their real interests (Sadan, 1997). Thus not expressing true interests prevent conflict and change the status of the dominant actors (Sadan, 1997). From Lukes (1974) perspective people who are dominated accept this process and their powerlessness as natural. Therefore, people act according to their own interest through decision-making and non-decision-making processes, so it is important to examine how the societies actions are manipulated in order to understand power relations accurately (Lukes, 1974). Studying this kind of power through behavioural analysis is not relevant because it ignores historical and social factors (Sadan, 1997).

Disagreement over understanding of power, where and when it should be studied extends to the argument on the visibility of power. From Dahl’s (1957) point of view, power is visible and overt and it can be measured by observation of behaviour (Hayward, 2000). For instance during the election times some actors have more power than the others and it can easily be seen by the public (Hayward, 2000). It is clear that power is operationalized overtly and the influences of elite groups are understated (Bachrach et al, 1962).  Thus covert power of those groups is left out of the agenda and it is invisible by the public (Bachrach et al, 1962). However, Lukes (1974) took the second dimensional approach further and considered if the actors in the first and second dimension act rationally.

He argues that power is less visible in the ability of influencing agenda setting and these kinds of power prevent conflict (Lukes, 1974). The main criticism of a two-dimensional concept of power according to Lukes (1974) is that, they use behavioural observation, which does not give deeper explanation of the power concept. The drawback of Lukes (1974) three-dimensional power is that it is difficult to understand power relations in societies as the power in this sense is invisible. According to Clarissa Hayward (2000) the third dimension is irrelevant to study power relations in the political system as examining preferences of people are complex.

The visibility and invisibility of power is not same for all members of society. Dahl’s (1957) empirical and positivist approach, assumes that citizens can identify their own interest and can understand whether the politicians act according to their interest. Politicians choose to act according to interest of the public to gain vote from them during the elections (Dahl, 1957). This shows that actors who participate in the decision-making process appreciate expressing their influence and the way the power is operationalised (Hayward, 2000).

However, some people are left out in the decision making process, therefore, Bachrach et al’s (1962) second dimension of power, agenda setting, is the most appropriate to understand the power relations. They state that looking at the influence of non-decision makers and agenda setters establish a clear picture of operationalization of invisible power (Bachrach et al, 1962). They argue that the voters can see whether the decisions express their interests but the decisions that did not reach the agenda, can also be in their interest (Bachrach et al, 1962). The main strength of Bachrach et al’s approach according to Lukes (1974) is the fact that they bring out the mobilization bias. This refers to the systematic operation of a set of beliefs, which benefits certain people in the political system but disadvantages those who stay out of the decision-making process (Lukes, 1974). Thus the voters may not be able to identify whether the decisions made were affected by their opinion and whether they shaped the agenda (Bachrach et al, 1962).

This paper examined the concepts of power through Dahl (1957), Bachrach et al (1962) and Lukes (1974) approaches. They provided different definitions of power by using different methodologies, which led social scientists to change their focus on different actors and the power they exert. This essay argued that studying the power concept has expanded to wider locations and times than Dahl’s one dimensional power approach. Dahl’s (1957) one-dimensional view solely focused on the decision making process. Thus it ignored the facts on how decisions are made. Bachrach et al (1962) provided an explanation to the agenda setting process. Lukes (1974) shifted the focus from influence on agenda setting to the eligibility of agenda shaping. It has been concluded that Bachrach et al’s (1962) approach to power relations is considered more relevant to understand how power is operationalised both formally and informally.



Bachrach, P. & Baratz, M. S. (1962) ‘Two Faces of Power’, The American Political Science Review [Electronic], vol. 56, no. 4, pp. 947-952, Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1952796, [5 December 2014].

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Hayward, C., R. (2000). De-Facing Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lukes, S. (1974). ‘Power: A Radical View’, British Sociological Association [Electronic], pp. 14-39, Available: http://mavdisk.mnsu.edu/parsnk/Archive%202007-8/POL669/articles/lukes14-39.pdf, [5 December 2014]

Sadan, E. (1997). Empowerment and Community Planning. [Online]. Available at: http://www.mpow.org/elisheva_sadan_empowerment_spreads_chapter1.pdf (Accessed: 8 December 2014)

Swartz, D., L. (2007). ‘Recasting power in its third dimension. Review of Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View’, Springer Science [Electronic], vol 36, pp.103-109, Available: http://www.bu.edu/av/core/swartz/recasting-power-in-its-third-dimension.pdf, [5 December 2014]

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