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Social theory and the problem of power, part 3: Social power as power-over

Published in Theory by Mark Murphy on July 4, 2013

Leviathan (c) House42

One of the most famous definitions of power that exists in social theory is provided by Max Weber, who argued that power is

the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will (sic) despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.

Although this definition incorporates the notion of power-to, in that power is seen as the ability to change something, it is placed within the context of power over some other social actor. Weber’s definition is the first attempt to systematically present a definition of social power, paving the way for a fairly prominent debate in the second half of the 20th Century, a debate triggered by the publication of C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite in 1956. Mills at no stage provides a formalised definition of power, instead loosely referring to the power that elites have in making decisions concerning the arrangements under which people live. It did, however, lead to the development of three major definitions of social power as power-over that have directly or indirectly taken shape within the context of The Power Elite. These three definitions came to be referred to as the one, two and three dimensional views of power. The first, the one-dimensional view of power, was put forward by Robert Dahl in 1957. According to him:

A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.

Here, Dahl is attempting to show that a power relation exists when a social actor can get another social actor to change their behaviour (social actor here meaning not just individuals, but also groups and institutions). This notion of power received a great deal of criticism for being too narrowly defined. Of particular note is the criticism provided by Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz. Although they agreed with Dahl that power can occur in situations where one social actor brings about a change in another social actor’s behaviour, they argue that power can also appear in situations where no observable change in behaviour occurs. According to them, a social actor has power over another social actor by keeping something from happening. Where Dahl focuses on the process of decision-making, Bachrach and Baratz supplement this concern with ‘non-decision’ making. As David West put it, Bachrach and Baratz pose a situation in which

power can be the ability to avoid conflict.

Although Bachrach and Baratz focus on situations in which no change in behaviour occurs, they do at the same time share with Dahl a sole concern with the behaviour of social actors in power reletionships. Thomas Wartenberg clarifies their behaviouralist conception of power relations:

The idea that guides Bachrach and Baratz is that human beings continuing to act as they previously had might itself be the result of powers being exercised over them. When a powerful agent is able to keep a particular issue from being one that will be decided politically, and where such a political decision, were it made, would result in a change in the less powerful agent’s behaviour, the powerful agent would be exercising power over the less formal agent precisely by keeping this behaviour from changing.      

 Bachrach and Baratz call this the ‘second face of power’. Part 4 will discuss the third face of power …

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About the author /


Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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